Does a phrase matter? - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

Abandoned by the countries where the term was coined, the “war on terror” continues to be the phrase of choice used by officials and many media persons in Pakistan to describe the country’s efforts to counter terrorism and militancy.

At a recent conference in Karachi, when a slide was flashed on the screen by one of the presenters, a puzzled participant sitting next to me turned around and asked what Pakistan’s contribution to ‘GWOT’ meant. Global War on Terrorism, I replied, adding that this odd abbreviation for a mistaken phrase seemed to survive in our country long after others have dispensed with it.

Part of the rhetoric of the Bush era that was used to define America’s post-9/11 anti-terror campaign including the military intervention in Afghanistan, the phrase was dropped by the administration of President Barack Obama. Explaining this shift in 2009, his adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, John Brennan rejected not only the term “war on terror” but also the portrayal of the campaign as “global” and the suggestion of a battle against “jihadists” as a catchall category.

In a speech Brennan said that describing the counterterrorism campaign as a global war played “into the misleading and dangerous notion that the US is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world”. Narrowing the US effort to a fight against al Qaeda was also designed to correct the folly of declaring war on a tactic, which is what terrorism is. As Brennan put it: “By focusing on the tactic, we risk floundering among the terrorist trees while missing the growth of the extremist forest”.

It took the US seven years and a change in administration to abandon the use of a phrase that had been dropped by Britain even earlier. Several European countries had avoided it altogether preferring to view terrorism as a law-enforcement challenge rather than a war-like enterprise.

In the Obama Administration’s National Security Strategy announced in May 2010 the document explicitly stated that the campaign against terrorism “is not a war against a tactic – terrorism, or a religion – Islam.” It redefined the effort as aimed to defeat al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates.

Does using and discarding the phrase really matter? Is this just a matter of semantics or does it signify something more substantive and consequential? These are important questions especially as many people in Pakistan continue to use the term especially in the media and the phrase has yet to be officially retired.

In fact the catchphrase mischaracterised the challenge and misdirected the response. The phrase was adopted by the Bush administration mainly because casting counterterrorism as a “war” was deemed useful to emphasise the urgency and gravity of the threat following 9/11, and to mobilise people and the resources needed for the military interventions that followed. It was also used to justify human rights and humanitarian law violations symbolised by Guantanamo Bay as well as interrogation practices that were universally denounced as torture.

The metaphor of war and the accompanying rhetoric of a battle against ‘Islamofascism’ had many unintended consequences. In the Muslim world – as the Obama Administration was to later acknowledge – it led to the widespread impression, including in Pakistan, that the US was engaged in a war on Islam.

The conceptualisation of counterterrorism as ‘war’ also conjured up apocalyptic visions of an epic, transcendental and open-ended struggle, a war without end, which had other unintended consequences. A “war on terror” conflated the threat, blurred the distinction between local grievances and global agendas, and ended up treating separate insurgencies and movements with diverse political and social roots as one big, undifferentiated transnational threat. This prevented these threats from being disentangled and addressed on the basis of their separate motivations and goals. Instead this fanned the flames of radicalism and made enemies for the US where none existed.

It was for good reason that the Obama Administration and other nations discarded this nomenclature and began to rethink their approach to countering terrorism. Moreover Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy stated that while counterterrorism continued to be a vital goal it would no longer define Washington’s engagement with the world.

In this backdrop the continued use in Pakistan of the lexicon of ‘war’ raises a number of problematic issues. Language becomes important at two levels, perceptional and practical. In the case of the first it provides ammunition to those who seek to undermine Pakistan’s anti-terrorism efforts by depicting these as part of ‘America’s war’ and therefore create a conflict in people’s mind about the legitimacy and ‘ownership’ of these efforts. Rather than criminalise them this language elevates terrorists to warriors and is used to accuse the state of waging war ‘on its own people’.

The phraseology also has operational consequences. It makes no distinction between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency and militarises the response to terrorism. In both military action has a role but it is the police and intelligence machinery that is central to effective counterterrorism, which is fundamentally about law enforcement.

It is widely acknowledged that even in counter insurgency that relies on the use of force, the effort cannot succeed by bombs and bullets alone. Asymmetrical threats cannot be countered by conventional or exclusively military means. Unless the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ is also joined, aimed at separating the population from the insurgent, counterinsurgency cannot succeed. This means that military action has to be accompanied by several critical non-military dimensions – including effective governance, political and ideological efforts as well as post-conflict rehabilitation – in a comprehensive strategy to defeat insurgents and prevent their return.

If counterterrorism is seen as a ‘war’ it predisposes the campaign to be pursued primarily even exclusively by military means. This distorts the response and allows the civilian organs of state to wash their hands off their responsibility as seems to have happened. As last week’s string of bombings and attacks across the country have underscored countering terrorism warrants a multidimensional strategy in which all elements of national power have to be integrated and deployed.

A combination of hard and soft power has to be used to isolate the perpetrators of violence from the general populace. And central to an effective strategy is engaging in the battle of ideas to counter the narrative used by terrorists to recruit followers and sustain their network.

In de-emphasising the diversity of the response, the language of war encourages an approach that relies only on hard power and distracts from the need to address the ideological dimension of the challenge.

From this perspective Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy remains inadequate on several counts. The reliance on a ‘kill or capture’ strategy has reduced the effort to a numbers game that does little to address the flow of recruits into violent networks. Unless this flow is retarded or thwarted by a set of counter-radicalisation measures as part of a coherent campaign supported by government leaders, political parties and the media, the effort against violent extremism will not succeed. Such a campaign must mobilize public support on a consistent and not a fitful or one-off basis.

Effective counterterrorism also rests on strengthening and reforming the police, not just increasing their numbers. It means making the civilian intelligence machinery, especially in the field, more central to the effort.

The ‘war’ prism hobbles the development of the political, ideological and social dimensions of a strategy needed to deal with a multifaceted threat. A comprehensive strategy also has to be anchored in the recognition that when governance fails to provide for the basic needs of citizens or address social marginalisation grievances are nourished and breeding grounds created where people become susceptible to ideologies of violence and hate.

Discarding this phraseology will not by itself bring about a more effective approach. But if words have consequences, reframing the effort might oblige all organs of state to own up to their responsibility and urge society to also play its part rather than shift the entire onus on to the law-enforcement authorities.

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