Obama's strategy won't work; only Muslims can defeat Islamic terrorism

The Obama strategy of drone attacks and assassination of terrorists will not ultimately win in the absence of strong Muslim support in this war. Muslims have to lead the war against Islamic terrorism, not America.

R Jagannathan September 21, 2014 16:02:23 IST
Obama's strategy won't work; only Muslims can defeat Islamic terrorism

The West's war against terrorism—the Islamic State (also referred to as ISIS and ISIL) being the latest designated villain—is likely to end in stalemate or failure. When President Barack Obama said last week that he is going to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State, we have to dismiss it as macho talk. This is pretty much what President George W Bush said after 9/11 about Al Qaeda, but despite killing thousands of alleged terrorists through drone attacks and targeted assassinations, al-Qaeda is very much around and recently even announced the formation of a South Asian branch headquartered in Pakistan.

The terror business is akin to a banyan tree – but without its limitations. Each terror branch is capable of growing its own roots and creating a new tree. But being mobile and flexible, terrorism is more than just a banyan – it is capable of growing roots far from its original place of birth. This is why even as Obama claims al-Qaeda has been degraded, a fiercer version of Al Qaeda (the Islamic State) has emerged in another place, and a more blood-thirsty Taliban is now threatening the Pakistani state itself - the state which nurtured them. And even as Israel degrades some Palestinian groups, another emerges somewhere else. First it was PLA, then al-Fatah, and now Hamas.

Obamas strategy wont work only Muslims can defeat Islamic terrorism

US President Barack Obama. Image courtesy The White House

Defeating terrorism needs more than false bravado. It needs a much better understanding of what needs to be done beyond bombings and assassinations. A few obvious truths are thus worth restating.

One, terrorism can be defeated only if enough people from the community that consistently throws up terrorists decide to take them on. This is not quite the case despite the alleged creation of a coalition of Islamic nation-states against terror. George Bush's anti-terror coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan was largely a Christian coalition - with marginal and (often unwilling) participation by Muslim countries (Pakistan, for example). Now, as Obama prepares to cut his losses is Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is essentially leaving behind big chaos and new terror groups are springing up in both areas.

Only Muslims countries and groups can defeat terror if they combine to eliminate it. Currently, though, most of them are aiding it.

Consider what Obama said the other day. the Islamic State, he claimed, was not “Islamic.” He added: “No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s [another moniker for the Islamic State] victims have been Muslim.” For a man whose middle name is Hussein, this is naïve. Surely Obama knows that all theocratic regimes tend to devour their own more than the enemy. Pakistani hardline groups kill Shias and Ahmaddiyas more than they kill Christians or Sikhs or Hindus.

After the beheading of a British aid worker, British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed those who did the beheading “claim to do this in the name of Islam. That is nonsense. Islam is a religion of peace. They are not Muslims, they are monsters.”

These are pointless statements, for neither Obama nor Cameron is any kind of Islam expert who can pronounce anyone as not "Islamic" or "not Muslim". In fact, Muslims themselves would not be able to tell us what they think is true Islam or fake Islam. There are several versions of it. The fact remains: fundamentalists kill and injure in the name of Islam, and that is what matters. The definition of what is Islam is irrelevant here.

As atheist Sam Harris said in his blog, soon after Obama made his the Islamic State speech, “beliefs guide behaviour and certain religious ideas — jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy — reliably lead to oppression and murder. It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly — but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates ‘innocent’? Blasphemers? Polytheists?”

Ultimately, only Muslims can decide what their faith is really about, and it is ordinary Muslims who have to decide whether to take on the Islamic State or join it. The rest of the world should merely be prepared to ensure that these battles don’t do much damage in their own countries.

Two, unlike a straightforward war where the combatants know who the enemy is, in the case of terrorism one cannot tell who is who. For Muslims, however, it is obvious who is bashing whom: Christians (and Jews) are doing the bashing and Muslims are at the receiving end on the anti-terror war.

This means the west cannot deal with Islamic terrorism and assume there will be no repercussions. As the late Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilisations, explained about the US invasion of Iraq and why the Arabs hated it. “Arabs and other Muslims generally agree that Saddam Hussein might be a bloody tyrant, but, paralleling FDR's thinking, 'he is our bloody tyrant’. In their view, the invasion was a family affair to be settled within the family and those who intervened in the name of some grand theory of international justice were doing so to protect their own selfish interests and to maintain Arab subordination to the West."

Three, a rigid standing army cannot defeat a flexible guerrilla force that does not seem to face any issues of ideological motivation or a shortage of new recruits. As decades of handling insurgency in India have shown, terror is better handled by local action that uses irregular methods to deal with terrorism (KPS Gill’s rough-and-ready methods in Punjab, or the Andhra Greyhounds against Naxals).

To this extent, Obama’s decision to only bomb terrorists from the air or bump them off through targeted killings is better than George Bush’s decision to send troops into what Muslims consider their land, but it creates another frustration among them--a sense of powerlessness against a superpower. Terror is often about the weak trying to get even with the powerful. The more Americans are able to target Islamic terrorists at will, the more ordinary Muslims will think they are at least "our bastards".

Four, terror can only be brought under a degree of control. It cannot be eliminated altogether. Even a wholly peaceful place called Norway saw Anders Behring Breivik bomb government buildings and kill 69 people in mass shootings in 2011, apparently driven by anti-Islam sentiments. The point is terrorists are essentially of two types – the powerless trying to deal with those who have a lot of power, or those who have a sense of grievance, real or imagined. Since neither the nature of global power nor local or regional grievances are going to come down anytime soon, there will always be some amount of people willing to dabble in terrorism. The best one can do is limit the damage by being vigilant and reducing the sense of grievance that people develop.

The US needs to take these factors into account before redrawing its own anti-terror strategy, but its real problem is its own coalition of Islamic allies. Almost all its west Asian allies are promoting some for of radicalism – from Saudi Arabia to Qatar to Iran to Pakistan – and hence can hardly be called allies against terror. (Read this piece by Sreeram Sundar Chaulia in The Times of India to get a flavour of America’s Allied Enemies).

The weakness of the western anti-terror strategy stems from its allies – who are both perpetrators of extremism and/or ambivalent towards one form of terror or the other.

The best US strategy (and for India) should thus be simple: a defensive one based on safeguarding the US and other victim countries from terror attacks at home and abroad. Currently, India’s incompetence and non-strategy of doing nothing about terror is working as well as the aggressive US strategy of bombing and killing terrorists. Terrorists know that India has the ability to roll with the punches and recover repeatedly.

The US is luckier, since it has good neighbours and is protected by vast oceans on both sides. This makes it geographically invulnerable. After 9/11, it has essentially sealed itself off from the world even more by ever-more-intrusive checks, spying and covert action.

But this is the point: it has only made America’s enemies angrier and more anti-American.

In the end, America’s war on terror cannot be won only with force and power. The best anti-terror strategy is intelligence, vigilance, and a defensive stance. Trying to aggressively kill terrorists indiscriminately will only generate more terrorists.

The Islamic State, Boko Haram, Hamas and Al Qaeda — among others — are manifestations of the failure of the American war on terror.

The war on Islamic terror can ultimately be won only by Muslims fighting it on their own - at best with covert support from the rest of the world. The rest of the world should focus on protecting themselves, not aggressive alienation of terrorists. America cannot lead this war on terror.

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