The Obama administration’s evident dismissal of the terminology of the “global war on terrorism” has led to rumors that “the war” itself is over. In a sense, it is certainly true; Obama is clearly not peering through the that the defining foreign policy lens of the Bush years: state sponsors, terrorist groups, and an ever widening class of fuzzily defined "Islamofascists" are not lumped together, nor even referenced.
But it would not be correct either, to assume, as Roger Cohen did in the International Herald Tribune that what remains in the wake of Obama's overtures on Al Arabiya last month is the "strategic challenge" of "defeating terrorist organizations." That would fairly describe counterterrorism as a job for law enforcement.
Theorizing the War
But that is not what has happened. Instead, the "war on terror" has slowly been transformed into a more elaborate theory positing the existence of a "global Islamic insurgency."
Much as it was ridiculed or dismissed as a duplicitous political instrument, the "war on terror" was also taken seriously as a theoretical construct by academics, policy experts, and military and intelligence theorists in the years following its declaration. They asked questions about the global, or globalized, quality of violent Islamist actors; expanded theories about bin Laden's political intentions; asked whether they should be characterized as terrorists; and whether military war was a proper way to defeat them.
Ex-CIA analyst Michael Scheuer is a good example of someone who asked these questions in his field; his book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror gave implicit credence to the fact of the war, but argued that it was not being interpreted correctly. Using sweeping (and often inaccurate) claims about what Islam is or all Muslims believe, Scheuer argued that rather than terrorist groups, in the mold of ETA or the IRA, Al Qaeda represented a worldwide "insurgency" against the established order and that an even wider and more aggressive military effort in which tens of thousands might be killed would be required. His book, however, represented an effort to revise the understanding of the "war on terror" from within its own intellectual parameters.
Iraq Raises the Idea of War as Insurgency
The Iraq War provided another opportunity to elaborate insurgency theory. The multi-pronged resistance to U.S. occupation following the fall of the Hussein regime was not what Americans expected in 2003. In the next several years, it grew to include a range of militants fighting on sectarian or jihadist grounds. In order to quell them, the U.S. military began applying counterinsurgency tactics of the sort used against guerrilla fighters in long term, small wars.
The premise of insurgency, very broadly speaking, is that armed groups seeking to overthrow an existing government can do so over the long term, using a variety of violent and non-violent tactics that include terrorism. Insurgents embed themselves among and draw support from the general population. Counterinsurgency's task, then, is to sort out who's who, and separate insurgents from civilians, either by killing them or winning the "hearts and minds" of the civilians.
These tactics have not been much taught or practiced in the U.S. military, which has until recently been trained for conventional war, and with the expectation that new technologies would make war a less, rather than more, hands-on affair.Iraq undid that expectation. The new Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, became a defender of the idea that in the future, war would be much more like insurgency than it would like a series of tank battles.
Iraq insurgency meets globalized jihad theory
The growing influence of counterinsurgency melded nicely with evolving theory of Al Qaeda as a globalized network of disparate groups. Different theories about how this actually works exist. One of the most elaborate is David Kilcullen's in a 2005 article called "Countering Global Insurgency."
Kilcullen defended the idea that there is one set of actors who take the entire world, rather than one country, as the field for insurgency, and who seek--in the name of global jihad--to overthrow the existing international order. There are also longstanding, unrelated, insurgencies or small wars throughout the world with deep roots in territorial, ethnic, religious, and resource disputes. Kilkullen argues that there is a middle layer of actors, global insurgents, who glom onto local insurgencies and globalize them. Kilkullen argues that these middlemen should be 'disaggregated' from local insurgencies, so that each local insurgency can be dealt with on its own.
The idea of global Islamist insurgency has become the dominant theory in the military today. Gates, writing in Foreign Affairs in the beginning of 2009, wrote that, , “What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign -- a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and those of moderation. Direct military force will continue to play a role in the long-term effort against terrorists and other extremists. But over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory.”
This premise has led to what is often called a "whole of government" approach to victory, in which all of the mechanisms of state power, such as diplomacy, economic aid, intelligence and military action become carrots and sticks in insurgencies that engage Muslim populations.
The war on terror may have been abolished by linguistic fiat. But what appears in its stead is not necessarily a more accurate reading of the global socio-political landscape, nor reduced in scope. Indeed, the concept of global insurgency opens the door for wider involvement, intelligence and information collection, increased military training of local forces and military action to stabilize any arena believed to be susceptible to falling to the global insurgents. Much good could come out of stabilizing efforts in Asia and Africa, but that is by no means a predetermined outcome of such a breathtaking endeavor.