We must focus on ideology, not tactics. Look at Nazism, which was certainly defeated.
April 1, 2010 - by Ryan Mauro
Can the “war on terror” be won? That’s the crux of the entire national security debate today. Terrorism is a vague tactic, and declaring war on it is as akin to the colonists declaring war on bows and arrows when they fought Native American tribes.
The mantra that this is a “war without end” drives the debate over whether the U.S. should devote so many resources to extinguishing terrorism, or whether we should, as Fareed Zakaria has said, “learn to live with radical Islam.” If it’s a never-ending conflict, then temporary powers given to the executive branch and national security apparatus are now permanent. If this war cannot be won, then a law enforcement approach is more suitable.
I chose to tackle this debate because it dominates every call-in radio show and every lecture I give. The most heated arguments, such as over the war in Iraq or over imprisoning suspected terrorists indefinitely, are subsets of this overarching question.
Unfortunately, the term “war on terror” gives the impression that terrorists are an inevitable fraction of a large population — no different than the nutcases that exist in any large setting. The term “homegrown terrorism” further indicates that this phenomenon can be combated, but not stopped. In reality, homegrown jihad is an outgrowth of a foreign ideology that survives because of state support. If state sponsors of this political-religious ideology are removed, it cannot flourish and will whither away.
The debate about prosecuting the war must focus on ideology, not tactics, because ideology can be defeated.
There will always be anti-democratic fanatics, but that doesn’t mean an ideology cannot be discredited. If someone calls World War Two the “war against Nazism,” no one doubts that victory has been achieved — even though neo-Nazi gangs still remain. It is with this goal in mind that the war can indeed be won.
The ideology must be discredited and its lifelines abolished. Luckily, radical Islamists are helping take care of the former — al-Qaeda kills eight times as many Muslims as non-Muslims. As we’ve seen in Iran, to know theocratic governance is to hate theocratic governance and to embrace its democratic alternative. Through their brutality and failures, a movement against radical Islam and in favor of more secularism is spreading in the Islamic world.
This can be seen most recently in Iraq, with the election success of the cross-sectarian party led by former Prime Minister Allawi, a secular Shiite. The pro-Iran religious bloc is getting thrashed politically.
Battlefield victories are vital to the ideology’s survival. When the extremists claim they are acting in accordance with Allah’s will, victory is their vindication. It is for this reason that they cannot be allowed to win on any battlefield. When they lose, what does that say about whose side Allah is on?
The former mentor of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Dr. Al-Fadl, has become a prominent critic of al-Qaeda precisely because of this: he says that when Muslims lose, it is a judgment from Allah. If extremists preach that the sorry state of the Islamic world is because they are not following Islam correctly, then their current defeats indicate the same thing.
The second part to victory is ending state support for radical Islam. Terrorists following this ideology rely upon an international network and need geographic locations to train and assemble. They need host governments and lawless areas that permit them to operate. They cannot be stopped unless these support lines are severed. Liberating France in World War Two and expecting to stabilize Europe with the Nazis still controlling Germany is a fair comparison. Containment is an outdated policy, because asymmetrical warfare and intelligence operations allow war to be waged without the military ever being ordered to cross a border. A pristine example can be found in Iran’s proxy war in the Arabian Peninsula.
Ideologies, even radical Islam, are crippled when the leadership is destroyed. Nazism died with Hitler. Communism largely died when the Soviet Union collapsed. Shiite extremism will die when the Iranian regime falls. Sunni extremism is suffering from its own failures, and killing or apprehending Bin Laden will cause a major reevaluation of the philosophy’s credibility among its followers.
A key part of this is creating a contrast between the failures of rule based on religious extremism and the success of rule based on secularism, democracy, and freedom. The Iranian regime understands this all too well, hence their drive to destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan to make sure Muslims do not look upon those countries’ changes with awe.
This is why we must support democratic movements in the Middle East through creative strategies tailored for each environment. In countries like Iran, the opposition is a much more favorable alternative, and regime change is a worthy endeavor. In countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, democracy promotion is more dangerous because of the possibility that Islamist movements will come to power as the government’s grip weakens. This does not mean that the process shouldn’t be started.
The strength of the Islamist opposition can only be weakened if the freedoms of press, religion, and assembly are established so that their ideas may be combated. The status quo means that the only voices heard are those of the oppressive governments and the Islamists, who are fueled by the rule of the former. The situation favors the Islamists because they are seen as the only opposition force, and permitted assembly is mostly limited to places of worship. Incremental change allowing more openness will initially help the Islamists, but their ideology will not survive the intellectual debate that follows and the reaction of the citizenry when they are exposed to the implementation of their ideas.
The war on radical Islam can be won, and one day, can be declared over. It is an open question whether it will be, though. It will take a remarkably brave president to declare the war over, even if the threat has subsided to minimal levels and everyone recognizes it. Like the war on drugs, the war on terror may never officially be declared over, but that doesn’t mean that victory cannot be achieved over radical Islam.
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