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Are we winning or losing the war on terror?

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 3 October 2014


The so-called "war on terror" began on September 11 2001 ("9/11") as a response to the four attacks on the United States. 13 years later no allied victory is in sight – indeed the "war" is only getting bigger.

Outcomes of wars are usually difficult to predict while the war is underway. Right up until the northern autumn of 1918 (four years into World War I), for example, it would have been difficult to predict the war's outcome, with both sides attacking and counter-attacking. Suddenly Germany surrendered, even though it had lost none of its metropolitan territory.

Similarly, we have no way of predicting the outcome of the current "war on terror".

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First, it is not clear just who is the enemy. The enemies in the two world wars, for example, were obvious and the allies were able to declare victory when the enemies had formally surrendered and their capital cities overrun.

The allies in 2001 failed to identify the enemy. Sometimes it was the Arabian expat Osama bin Laden, sometimes it was the ethnic Afghan force the Taliban, sometimes it was the foreign legion of expat warriors in Al Qaida ("Afghan Arabs").

A lot has changed since 2001, not least with death of bin Laden and the destruction of his al Qaida network in Afghanistan. But we are still at war. Indeed the "war" is getting bigger.

I am still not clear on our war aims. Just who is the "enemy"? What are we seeking to achieve?

Second, the geographical area of operations has expanded. Violence derived from groups operating with a particular interpretation of Islam has now swept through the Middle East and south Asia and is now flourishing in northern Africa and western Africa (such as Boko Harem in Nigeria) and across to eastern Africa. The violence is also attracting impressionable young people from developed western countries, including Australia.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader ("caliph") of the Islamic State, is the new idol for many Islamicist warriors. In only a few years he has achieved far more than bin Laden ever managed to do in terms of claiming territory and wealth.

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He has clearer war aims than does the west. He is seeking to redraw the boundaries created by the UK and France at the end of World War I. These two countries broke up the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and took the land for themselves. They invented the modern states of Iraq, Syria etc. He does not accept that division and is seeking to unite the Sunni Arabs.

History suggests that excessively violent regimes eventually fall prey to their own violence, such as the French Revolution and Pol Pot in Cambodia. Eventually the violent people turn the violence on themselves and kill each other off or the threat is so large that other countries eventually intervene, Either way, I cannot see the Islamic State being around for many years.

But would its eventual demise (after a lot more suffering) mean the end of the "war on terror"? Probably not. There will be other people of violence with a similar religiously-inspired political agenda. This is going to be a "long war".

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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