The War on Terror: A more considered view


The death of Osama bin Laden, who had been top of the West’s most-wanted list for more than a decade, has provoked a surprisingly mixed response. On the one hand, it has sparked a rare outbreak of political consensus in America, with even the most outlandish spokesmen of the American Right singing the praises of the President for bringing Bin Laden to justice. On the other hand, those who live or work in the Middle East have been attempting to pour a certain amount of cold water on the US’s triumphalism. The Independent’s man in the Middle East for over a decade, Robert Fisk has described Bin Laden as “irrelevant”. He was an increasingly vain man, whose leadership of Al-Qaeda had become decidedly “hands off” in recent years, says Fisk. What’s more, the millions of Arabs who have taken to the streets in recent months to demand freedom and democracy are testament to the failure of Bin Laden to gain widespread support in the region for his extremist worldview.

But even if his death is widely accepted as more of a symbolic victory in the War on Terror than a real victory, the consensus seems nonetheless to be that this is an important moment. Many of the Bush-era architects of the War on Terror have come crawling out of the woodwork to grudgingly congratulate Obama and to make the case that this development vindicates the hard-line tactics they used in waging it. Donald Rumsfeld was quick to point out that some of the information that led to the eventual discovery of Bin Laden’s whereabouts came from Guantanamo.

Fair enough. They got their man and they’re happy about it. But the question remains: was it really worth it? Almost a decade on from 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror, America and her allies have lost thousands of soldiers and squandered billions of dollars fighting two long drawn-out wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the immeasurable damage that has been done to their reputation in the Arab world. At the end of it all, one “middle-aged non-entity”, albeit an indisputably evil middle-aged nonentity, is dead. Bin Laden’s death seems like a pretty meagre return, given how much has been invested in the War on Terror over the years.

Clearly the death of Bin Laden is not the only positive to have come out of the whole War on Terror. Iraq is no longer ruled by a mass-murdering tyrant, but has rather taken the first baby steps towards becoming a fully-fledged democracy. The Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan has been loosened and the country is no longer the safe haven for terrorists it was a decade ago.

Ultimately, there’s only one meaningful measure of the success or failure of the War on Terror: has it made the world a safer place? Are there fewer terrorists today than there were a decade ago? One can only speculate, but I suspect the answer to both those questions is probably no.

The West has shown a stubborn unwillingness to come to terms with the nature of the enemy it is facing. By relentlessly focusing on the evil and unjustifiable character of terrorist acts, our political leaders have avoided ever asking themselves what causes terrorism.

Luckily, a few social scientists have dared to ask the question that no world leader has, and they have arrived at some surprising conclusions. Ariel Merari, a psychologist who has spent the past three decades studying the attitudes of would-be jihadists and suicide bombers, has come to the conclusion that terrorists are not, in the main, mentally unstable religious fanatics, but rational, desperate figures operating in wrecked countries. Often, Merari and other scholars argue, Islamic terrorist groups survive by providing vital infrastructure and social services in regions of immense poverty and desperation.

These findings suggest that the military strategy that underpins the War on Terror is deeply flawed, because the problem is, at root, a socio-economic one. That is not to say that there is no role for the military in the War on Terror. However, the emphasis has been skewed too much towards punishing people like Bin Laden, rather than preventing the emergence of a new generation of terrorists. In the mid-1990s, Tony Blair promised that New Labour would be tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime. This formulation is a good one: the West has been admirably tough on terrorism since 9/11. It has failed, however, to be anywhere near tough enough on its causes.

Richard Roberts