These seemingly schizophrenic remarks underscore that the war on terrorism is not well understood. But if understanding is lost on us, what does this mean for the ways we wage the war on terrorism and our prospects for success?
Part of the problem is the name of the campaign: a “war on terrorism.” War implies the use of military force. Yet force will be the exception, rather than the rule, for fighting the war on terrorism. To be sure, military action was needed in Afghanistan to depose the Taliban regime that supported al Qaeda. But al Qaeda operatives are dispersed throughout 60 (or more) countries, and most, if not all, of those countries are not willing hosts — so regime change will not be an appropriate course of action. Instead, intelligence sharing and cooperative law enforcement (perhaps sometimes with the assistance of military or para‐military forces) will be the hallmarks of how a successful drive to round up al Qaeda operatives and dismantle their cells.
Indeed, this is how the Hamburg, Germany, cell — allegedly involved in planning the 9/11 attacks — was discovered, and how Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a mastermind behind 9/11, and Hambali, a key player in the Bali Marriott attack, were captured.
Adding to the confusion of equating military operations with the war on terrorism is the seeming success of regime change in Iraq, which has been erroneously depicted as part of the war on terrorism and bolstered the view that al Qaeda’s leadership can be collapsed as easily as Saddam Hussein’s with the same results. In the State of the Union, President Bush rightly claimed that “nearly two‐thirds of [al Qaeda’s] known leadership have been captured or killed.” But this is a misleading metric for gauging progress or success. After all, al Qaeda is not a centralized network that depends on its leaders. Rather, it is a distributed and cellular organization with complex interconnections. There is no central command and control authority connecting all the cells. The cells can operate independently without the need for direction or a stamp of approval by the al Qaeda leadership. Moreover, al Qaeda is organic, as its leaders have been either killed or captured, new ones have emerged. Thus, it may be more useful to think of al Qaeda as honeycombs of a beehive with multiple paths of connection and the ability to re‐build and re‐connect the structure as it is damaged.
And because Americans believe we are “at war,” the implication is that we are in a conflict between “us” and “them.” According to President Bush, “the terrorists … declared war on the United States,” evoking images of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Thus, the war on terrorism is being viewed through an American prism and winning it can be done “the American way.” According to Bush: “We’ve not come all this way — through tragedy, and trial and war — only to falter and leave our work unfinished.” And it is by “our will and courage” that the terrorists will be defeated.
Of course, al Qaeda is a mortal enemy and threat that the United States must confront. But the real struggle is not between America and al Qaeda. It is between radical Islamists (represented by al Qaeda) and the rest of the Muslim world for the soul and future of Islam. Thus, although the United States may be engaged in what we have come to call a war on terrorism, it is in many ways not a war that can be won by us. But it can be lost — if the United States engages in policies and actions that cause Muslims to believe that the war is against the Muslim world — as bin Laden alleges — and that they have no choice but to side with the radicals to save their religion and culture.
The Chinese strategist Sun Tzu admonished that “one who does not know the enemy … will be in danger in every battle.” As long as the United States continues to misunderstand al Qaeda and the nature of the war on terrorism, we will not only be in danger of losing every battle, but also the war itself.