Hamid Ansari

The problem essentially is with definitions and the assumptions underlying them; tyranny, freedom, modern, moderate are all interpreted unilaterally and in terms of prescriptive political preferences.

"THE WAR on terrorism," said President George W. Bush in National Security Strategy 2002, is "a struggle of ideas" in which America "must excel." Five years on, an informed analysis by Bruce Riedel in Foreign Affairs concludes, "Al Qaida is a more dangerous enemy today than it has ever been before." It suggests a new narrative, and a re-packaged effort. The admission is damaging, the urge to rethink encouraging.

From the viewpoint of the United States and its allies, the 2003-2007 period has been a humbling one. The euphoria of victory has given way to a "long war." The urge to modernise West Asian societies has all but vanished under the twin imperatives of local resistance and external convenience. The realisation has dawned that an unthinking assault on a faith and its adherents has stiffened the resolve to defy. The `neocon moment' is admitted to be a folly. Altogether, the hegemonic impulse has failed to deliver.

A re-conceptualisation is said to be in progress. It covers military strategy, political approaches, even the ideological thrust. Each of these could be genuine or simulated; analysis therefore necessitates deconstruction in terms of motives and objectives.

Matters military take precedence. The mission in Iraq was not accomplished and boomeranged on domestic opinion. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has publicly accepted that the U.S. is "not winning" the war. A new strategy, including the `surge,' is being tested. Its success would depend on resources and force levels, efficacy of tactics, the time span available, and the results desired. Experts like Anthony Cordesman think the new approach is unlikely to show definitive results before "late spring 2008 at the earliest."

Even then, success at the local level (for example, securing Baghdad) would be meaningless unless the Iraqi government and political factions work out arrangements for political conciliation or some form of peaceful coexistence. Both these would require giving more political power to the Sunnis. The prospect for this, in the short term, is not optimistic. The reason lies in the tactics pursued. "The U.S. repression of Sunnis," writes Professor Juan Cole, "has allowed Shiites and Kurds to avoid compromises" and radicalised Sunnis to the point that 70 per cent of them consider attacks on U.S. troops legitimate. The corresponding figure for 2003 was 14 per cent!

A set of contradictions emerge from the resulting situation: (a) the mismatch between American military thinking and the American domestic timetable for the war effort; (b) the gap between American military effort and the Iraqi ground reality; (c) the chasm between the political perceptions of Iraqi factions. How are these to be resolved?

Negotiate a settlement

The key to prevent an intensified civil war, argues Professor Cole, is "a U.S. withdrawal from the equation to force the parties to an accommodation. Therefore, the United States should announce its intentions to withdraw its military forces from Iraq, which will bring Sunnis to the negotiating table and put pressure on Kurds and Shiites to seek a compromise with them. But a simple U.S. departure would not be enough; the civil war must be negotiated to a settlement, on the model of the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Lebanon."

Regional diplomacy has a role to play in shaping the modalities and content of such negotiations. The idea has been around for over a year but made no progress while the Americans and the Iranians manoeuvred for the high ground. There is some hope now of it being pursued seriously. In such an effort, Saudi Arabia and Iran could be encouraged to emerge as brokers to nudge the principal adversaries to a comprehensive, balanced, compromise package capable of being monitored and one in which the gains of each would be evident. An overarching coordination mechanism of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the U.S. would be a prerequisite, and so would the support of other neighbours of Iraq. A peacekeeping force could supplement the arrangements arrived at; it should avoid the pitfall of peace enforcement.

The `war on terror' did not begin with Iraq and will not end with the restoration of normality there. The foundations of its political agenda lie in the realm of ideas shaping the major premise of the argument. The National Security Strategy 2002 and 2006 spelt these out with sufficient clarity. The problem essentially is with definitions and the assumptions underlying them; tyranny, freedom, modern, moderate are all interpreted unilaterally and in terms of prescriptive political preferences. Thus the National Security Strategy 2006 proclaims that the war on terror "is not a battle of religions" and that "we will continue to support political reforms that empower peaceful Muslims to practice and interpret their faith." This would suggest a categorisation of Muslims: peaceful/not-peaceful, adherents/opponents of political reforms; it insinuates that prior to these political reforms peaceful Muslims cannot or do not practise and interpret their faith.

This propensity to deal with Muslims in generalisations, or to ascribe attributes to a faith (e.g. Islamic extremism, Islamic terrorists, etc), logically and practically led to the situation in which, as Professor Mahmood Mamdani put it, unless proved to be "good," every Muslim was presumed to be "bad" and all Muslims, therefore, "were now under an obligation to prove their credentials by joining in a war against `bad' Muslims." In the same strain, Zayno Baran of the Hudson Institute argues that victory in the war of ideas would be possible only if the nature and the ultimate goal of the "enemy" is correctly diagnosed through the litmus test of "Islamism," violent or otherwise. The Wall Street Journal cites with approval Abdurrahman Wahid's sweeping "Right Islam vs Wrong Islam" thesis.

The interesting aspect about these arguments is an induced timelessness of an apolitical landscape. Is this realistic? Radicalisation of opinion in a society is a function of experience, and the reaction of individuals and groups. The Salafi trends in Islamic thought are not recent. Why then have they become a threat now? What induced the transmutation? What impulses and processes propelled the advent of extremist ideologies and practices in other, non-Muslim, societies in modern times?

In an essay on Islamophobia in the United Kingdom in the wake of 7/11, Rosemary Hollis of Chatham House pointed out that Prime Minister Tony Blair's intention was to "head-off any possibility of a debate between the government and the citizenry over UK policy towards the Muslim world in general and Iraq in particular. This, he implied, was not the issue. Rather, the bombers' interpretation of their religion was the problem." She concluded that "western governments are discovering that moderates cannot assimilate radicals unless and until they acknowledge what those radicals are saying."

This certitude, about the unassailability of the political goals, has been shattered by the turn in domestic opinion in the U.S. Would it bring forth a more forthright appreciation of what the critics of the hegemonic impulse including the Muslims amongst them have been saying for some years?

"Another aspect of the United States' war against Al-Qaida," writes Bruce Riedel, "is the war of ideas. Washington must learn to develop more compelling narratives for its actions. Its calls for bringing democracy to Iraq have not resonated, partly because its actions have not matched its rhetoric. Human rights abuses at Abu Gharaib and Guantanamo Bay have even further sullied the United States' reputation and honour. Washington should emphasise the concrete steps the United States is taking to heal differences between Islam and the West and to bring peace to Palestine and Kashmir, among other areas. Creating a new narrative will probably also require bringing to Washington (and London) new leaders who are untarnished by the events of the last few years."

The diagnosis improves but insufficiently. The narrative needs to mention a war based on falsehoods, an illegal occupation, the destruction of a country, the dissemination of a people and destabilisation of a region. In such a context, "confronting foreign domination" (in this case western) would be seen as the right of any people. The methodology of response may be irrational, excessive, and hurtful but not devoid of justice altogether. The motivational edge may emanate from faith or any other group affiliation.

A more compelling narrative is unavoidable. The call for a New American Century had focussed on the pursuit of "American principles and interests." It had also advocated prudence in the exercise of power. Record shows that both principles and prudence were abandoned in a relentless quest for ill-defined interests.

Terminology is critical to the discourse. The connotations of `war' are deeply engrained in human psyche and thought process. They are suggestive of hostility. Is not a more humane approach feasible? Must one set of ideas prevail over other sets? Does infallibility pertain to any of them? Would not a concord of ideas better serve humanity till such time when it discovers, if ever, the absolute truth?