October 12, 2021
On July 8, 2021, in remarks on the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan President Biden said:
“We went for two reasons: one, to bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, as I said at the time. The second reason was to eliminate al Qaeda’s capacity to deal with more attacks on the United States from that territory. We accomplished both of those objectives — period.”
On August 16, in the middle of a chaotic withdrawal he said:
“Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan: al Shabaab in Somalia, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Nusra in Syria, ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia. These threats warrant our attention and our resources.
“We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”
Finally on August 26, upon the terror attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport he declared:
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay…”
Unfortunately, as Mr. Biden’s remarks on bringing of Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell and the metastasizing of the terrorist threat show, “hunting down the terrorist” does not resolve the problem. Moreover, America’s “counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability” has resulted in the loss of thousands of innocent lives, the last case in point being the admission by US Central Command that the killing of an aid worker and nine members of his family, including seven children, in the August 29 drone strike in Kabul was a mistake. Such mistakes usually do not make headlines but during a chaotic withdrawal they did and damaged America’s global image.
In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine in April 2016, President Obama responded to criticism regarding his failure to enforce his “red line” in Syria. He said:
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power. That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.”
President Biden was right to withdraw from Afghanistan. And hopefully, he would not go back to that playbook and replace invasions, military interventions by proxy wars and counterterrorism over-the-horizon capabilities. Because there is a better way to fight terrorism.
The following is among the permanent fixtures of UN Security Council resolutions on terrorism:
“Emphasizing that terrorism and violent extremism conducive to terrorism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, or civilization…”
The reality is different and reflects a multitude of contradictions.
To start with, a universally agreed definition of terrorism does not exist. Groups which designated as “terrorist” by some, are freedom fighters or proxies for others.
UN Security Council resolution 2178(2014) says that terrorism will not be defeated by military force, law enforcement measures, and intelligence operations alone and terrorism can only be defeated by a sustained and comprehensive approach involving the active participation and collaboration of all States and international and regional organizations.
Yet, the global war on terror has not gone beyond military action and security measures.
And all the leaders of Islamic countries have done so far is limited to saying that the perpetrators of acts of terror “do not represent Islam” or “cannot be true Muslims”. As a result of their failure to openly confront ISIS’ ideology, “radical Islamic terrorism” become a permanent fixture of world’s terrorism vocabulary despite UN Security Council resolutions which say that terrorism and violent extremism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, or civilization.
Strategic competition between major powers is understandable. It is a reality of international relations. But terrorist groups becoming tools of this competition is wrong and sure to boomerang. What the world needs is a broad coalition which must include the Islamic countries to start fighting the ideology of ISIS and its likes. The latest talks between senior US officials and their Russian and Chinese counterparts and the virtual Biden-Xi virtual summit to take place before the end of the year offer some hope.
In their Brussels Summit Communiqué of June 14, 2021, NATO allies strongly criticized Russia and China but also said:
“We continue to aspire to a constructive relationship with Russia when its actions make that possible.”
“NATO maintains a constructive dialogue with China where possible. Based on our interests, we welcome opportunities to engage with China on areas of relevance to the Alliance and on common challenges…”
Whatever may be the differences regarding Crimea, Taiwan, and a multitude of other issues, combatting terrorism is more than an area of relevance. Last Friday’s murderous attack on a Shiite Mosque in the Afghan city of Kunduz underlines yet again the formation of such a united front.
Finally, a brief word on Turkey. We remain trapped in our most depressive domestic political agenda. And our definition of terrorism is getting more and more complicated with emphasis on the domestic scene. Until now, we had the PKK, the PYD/YPG. But lately, President Erdogan, referring to the students of Turkey’s Boğaziçi University, asked if they are indeed students or terrorists attempting to break into the office of the Dean. His coalition partner simply declared them terrorists.
In his book “What Went Wrong” on Western impact and Middle East response Bernard Lewis said, “… Westerners have become accustomed to think good and bad government in terms of tyranny versus liberty. In Middle East usage, liberty or freedom was a legal not political term It meant one who was not a slave, and unlike the West, Muslims did not use slavery and freedom as political metaphors. For traditional Muslim, the converse of tyranny was not liberty but justice…”[i]
Knowing how much justice means to Middle East peoples, Morocco’s Islamists changed their party’s name to “Justice and Development Party” (PJD) in 1998. In the September 8, 2021, general election the PJD suffered a shocking defeat.
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has proved more resilient. They have been in power for two decades. And now, we the people of Turkey are beginning to learn that liberty and justice are inseparable. Without one there is no other.
[i] Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.54.