21st Century Terrorism and Wars Against Terror

Posted on March 14, 2010


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By Mehroz Siraj Sadruddin

Almost Every Widely Held Idea That We Currently Entertain About 21st Century terrorism and its relationship to the wars against terror is wrong and must be thoroughly rethought.

A meticulous study of events that have taken place over the last nine years should prove to everyone that our contemporary approaches towards dealing with terrorism have been fundamentally flawed and they need to be re-structured right from their very basics.

The title of this writing is not only the cover-page sentence of Philip Bobbitt’s best-seller book, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the twenty-first century, but it is also a line that captures this idea very accurately.

In his 674 page book, Mr Bobbitt, who is current director of the Centre for National Security at Columbia University, has argued that our conventional approach towards dealing with terrorism by undertaking intelligence and military operations has limited our understanding about how terrorist outfits and infrastructures operate.

This approach has also narrowed the scope of public debate on how to deal with terrorism. It has also shifted our focus from the proper planning and implementation of human security initiatives such as health care and education in societies where terrorism and internal conflict have grown since 2001.

According to projections made in a US Senate Report in September 2009, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would cumulatively cost the American tax payers more than $1 trillion by the end of 2010. Despite these massive costs and invasions of the two countries, fundamental flaws in America’s social polity and education system remain. These unresolved issues are pushing a section of America’s Muslim youth towards terrorism and ideological brainwashing.

The wars Iraq and Afghanistan have not enabled the average American to develop a better understanding about Muslim societies in general, or Islam in particular. The post 9/11 world order has only made many millions of Muslims worldwide believe that the war on terror is a war on Islam, as what we have seen over the last nine years is that Muslim lands have been invaded and hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been killed.

Americans have largely remained clueless about the factors that have contributed towards the exponential growth of terrorism and trans-national terror networks over the last two decades.

These are not the traditional ideas like the lack of education, unemployment or absence of social welfare, as editorials in conservative newspapers would often try to make you believe, but rather they are more liberal and in-depth by their nature.

They are about building the capacities of the state and the wider civil society in order to deal with contemporary security challenges. These include investments in disaster management programmes, improving the trainings of law enforcement authorities, improving governance at middle and lower levels of authority and enhancing social infrastructure so that it becomes easier for the society to mitigate the after-shocks and impacts generated by acts such as suicide bombings.

In the area of public welfare and education, massive investments need to be made towards better researching and understanding terrorism. The issues and factors that drive many people towards extremism need to be introspected in a broader limelight than they are at the moment. Additionally, governments around the world, especially in developing countries, should make relevant investments in the psychological counselling and treatment of those who have undergone traumatic stress after witnessing or being victimized by acts of terror.

Quite sadly, these essential aspects, which can better empower people and nations to deal with contemporary national, regional and international security threats more efficiently, have been vastly left ignored since 9/11.

The planning before Operation Iraqi Freedom is a good example of this idea. A close study of behind the scenes diplomacy as exposed by journalist Bob Woodward in Plan Of Attack, State of Denial and The War Within suggests that the Bush administration and the US military planners had given most emphasis towards fighting the war and the post-war insurgency with expensive military operations and only negligible importance was initially given to proper post-war reconstruction and re-building of Iraq.

Mr Woodward’s State Of Denial shows how essential elements of human security, such as effective training of a police force capable of undertaking and executing effective counter-terrorism strategies, was generally missing from the post-war planning in post-Saddam Iraq.

Another important factor that was ignored vastly was to improve and empower public institutions such as ministries, judiciary, law-enforcement authorities and educational institutions in ways that would have enabled them to address important public issues.

In his book, Mr Bobbitt argues that despite the news media coverage it generates, terrorism is unlikely to become the number one killer in this century. Natural disasters would kill many more people, and therefore governments need to make more investments in building better infrastructures that may help reduce human casualties when calamities like earthquakes and hurricanes strike a region.

Governments world over seem to have sidelined this idea as they still look to deal with issues of geo-strategic importance using military and diplomatic means.

The Pakistani state, according to media reports has incurred costs up to $40 Billion, for conducting military operations against the terrorists of the Pakistani Taliban over the last year or so. Roughly the same amount has been spent since 2001 in strengthening the nation’s armed forces vis-à-vis India which had itself allocated $25 billion for defence spending in 2009.

A question worth asking here would be that as against these figures, how much have the governments of Presidents Musharraf and Zardari really spent re-building infrastructure in those parts of Kashmir which were flattened by a devastating earthquake in October 2005? How much have their governments really invested in ensuring that the victims and survivors of that earthquake got proper psychological treatment that would have encouraged them to resume life once again?

The reality is that these areas were left totally unattended once the aid missions and humanitarian volunteers left Kashmir, after working there for a few months.

When the people of Kashmir realized that they were left on their own after hollow government promises failed to materialize, they became hostile towards the federal establishment who they feel, has time and again betrayed them. A vast majority of the Kashmiri people living on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LOC) have long held deep feelings of isolation from the country’s mainstream Punjabi homeland because the establishment in Islamabad has never taken their issues seriously as there has never been any substantial investments in critical social sector areas like institution building, education and health care in that region.

However, despite these negative social indicators, terrorism does not exist in that part of Pakistan because of poverty, illiteracy or unemployment. It exists there because there are no established social, political and economic institutions who could address the issues of the people, which include dispensation of speedy justice and more political representation.

In Kashmir, terrorism primarily exists because of the way in which the armed forces and establishments of both India and Pakistan have used that region. In both parts of Kashmir, i.e. Pakistan-Administered Kashmir and Indian-Occupied Kashmir (IOK), there are no independent judiciaries and the political setups are always manipulated by the main federal governments in Islamabad and New Delhi respectively.

In IOK, lack of political, economic and judicial freedom was the key issue that led millions of Kashmiris to launch a massive freedom struggle against Indian occupation of their state. It took the Indian armed forces more than a decade to brutally crush the freedom movement at the cost of more than 70,000 lives.

It was not because of any lack of educational or health care or social sector reforms, poverty or illiteracy, but the unwillingness of the Rajiv Gandhi government to accept the results of the 1987 state elections in IOK which became the launch-pad of the Kashmiri freedom struggle. At that point in time, citizens of IOK also experienced better social indicators than their counterparts across the LOC.

Therefore, in case of Kashmir it was purely because of political and judicial issues and problems regarding Kashmiri representation in Indian politics, because of which those people had resorted to an armed struggle which also included acts of terrorism against the ordinary Indians, which were supported from the early 1990s by the Pakistani military establishment through a network of mainstream organizations.

Another important aspect of dealing with terrorism is to build up a nation’s counter-terrorism capabilities. While this argument incorporates a range of different perspectives, only a few would be considered here. One major approach towards building capacities would be to significantly improve the technical and professional trainings that are given to the police and other local security forces in different countries.

This is necessary because till the time the law enforcement agencies do not become technologically superior to terrorist outfits like AL-Qaeda or its regional subsidiaries, prevention of acts of terror or mitigation of the impact where these acts have happened, would simply be impossible.

The Mumbai attacks are an excellent example of the said point. The terrorists who had held India’s business capital hostage for more than two days, are said to have entered the city via sea. They had also used sophisticated communication systems including GPS navigation, through which they identified their targets, planned their operations and out-smarted the Mumbai police.

Without striving to understand terrorism in a more broader perspective, we will never be able to learn how terror infrastructures operate and what needs to be done in order to finish them from the very roots of modern human society.

The writer is a Melbourne based freelance journalist and International Studies student at RMIT University

Posted in: War on Terror