Since 9/11/2001 “The War on Terror” has been engraved into stone and has been since the defining epigraph of a global contest largely pursued by the United States with substantive help coming from a handful of countries only.
The rest of the world has been divided over the issue, to say the least. Many countries in the developing world suspect that the war on terror is yet another avenue of great power intervention into their affairs. European states remain of divergent views, most of which are lukewarm to the idea of a relentless pursuit of shadowy enemies. And emerging giants, like India and China, do perceive a distinct danger but are ambivalent vis-à-vis Western, and particularly American, demands for concerted action.
The attacks in Mumbai, and the disproportionate carnage a small number of terrorist operatives was able to inflict, demonstrated glaringly that the war on terror does have relevance contrary to many detractor opinions. At the same time though the Mumbai operation also underscored how difficult it is to pinpoint responsibility and trace the exact path of the murderous plan, from conception and preparation to final execution.
So, how do we achieve “victory” in this war of fleeting opponents and enemy ghosts? Already, rivers of ink, and billions of keystrokes, have been expended in explaining the differences between victory in a traditional sense (conquest of enemy territory, destruction of armies, hanging of defeated war criminals) and “victory” in an age of a fluid world environment exposed to the vagaries of “globalization,” easy communications, a mind-boggling array of “oppressed” minorities seeking liberty and independence, not to mention the collapse of all rules of “civilized warfare” and the threat from terrorist-controlled weapons of mass destruction. Increasingly, it sounds wiser to give up talking of “victory” and, instead, busy ourselves with reaching “relative stability” ensuring that the terrorist threat becomes statistically insignificant.
It is practically impossible to all-round defeat terrorist tactics as they have evolved out of the Middle East since the 1970s. And it is a tragically ironic fact of our modern world that death sub-cultures, suicide ideologies fed by theocratic lunacies, and unquenchable religious-racial hate have all found ways of exploiting the Western pursuit of human rights, freedom, democracy, and an open culture to the very detriment of democratic societies themselves. Dead and buried, for example, is the one in the West who might choose to publicly call for treating the death sub-cultures as they roundly deserve – without mercy. He (or she) will be hoisted from the yardarm for advocating “totalitarian strategies” and ignoring “human rights.”
The keenest undoing of the “war on terror” is the lack of clear, shared focus on the task at hand and the failure of “multilateral” or, even, “coalition” approaches. Democracies are inherently unprepared to wage a hot pursuit against those who recognize no rules and no sanctity of life. The thin, treacherous line separating the rule of law and the need to crush those who threaten tens of millions across continents with apocalyptic attacks is indeed an impossible electrified fence the good guys cannot afford to ignore.
And terror practitioners know it full well.