Saturday, 1 December 2012

Jeh Johnson and the Fight against Al-Qaeda

Jeh Johnson, General Counsel for the US Department of Defense, has announced that the end of the armed conflict against al-Qaeda is fast approaching. He foresees how responsibility for engaging with terrorism will pass to 'the police and other law enforcement agencies.' Johnson has said: "... we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an armed conflict against al-Qaida and its associated forces, rather a counter-terrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remains of al-Qaida … for which the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible." (See The Guardian's report  US heading for point when 'military pursuit of al-Qaida should end')

There are several points to challenge in Jeh Johnson's assessment. The first is his optimism about the trajectory of the conflict with al-Qaeda, and draws attention yet again to the inadvisability of using the term 'War on Terror' to describe the response to 9/11. On this point, Johnson says:

"I do believe that on the present course there will come a tipping point, a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaida and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al-Qaida as we know it, the organisation that our Congress authorised the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed."

I do not need to repeat here the criticisms of claiming to launch a war on anything so ephemeral as a kind of terrorism whose perpetrators live and operate within decentralised networks. The organisation that carried out the atrocities on 9/11 may no longer be as much of a threat as it was in 2001, but this does not mean that the kind of terrorist activity undertaken by al-Qaeda and affiliated or sympathetic organisations/individuals do not remain a distinct possibility. You can't win a war on terror by simply killing terrorists, especially when you also kill civilians while hunting your quarry. Destroying homes, schools and devastating the land in executing 'war' is not only morally reprehensible, but also counter-productive: What feeds terrorist organisations and mobilises sympathy and recruitment more than the actions of their enemies against civilians? The actions taken in the name of the 'War on Terror' have merely reinforced al-Qaeda discourses that emphasise the crusader objectives of the US and its allies.  These issues have been discussed fully in the literature, and particularly useful is Steven R. Corman, Angela Trethewey and H.L Goodall (eds.), Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Strategic Communications to Combat Violent Extremism (Peter Lang: 2008).

The concern about the discourses and the very labels used to explain and justify the use of military action leads to the next problem in Jeh's assessment, namely the absence of any mention of public diplomacy. The so-called war against terror is really an information war or competition of narratives. Joseph Nye (The Future of Power, 2011: 19) makes this point very clearly:

'In an information age ... outcomes are shaped not merely by whose army wins but also by whose story wins. In the fight against terrorism, for example, it is essential to have a narrative that appeals to the mainstream and prevents its recruitment by radicals.'

Passing responsibility to law enforcement agencies and intelligence organisations is an insufficient strategy in this environment. If the US is serious about defeating terrorism, Mr Jeh should be making room for the role of information, communications and public diplomacy. There should be an explicit recognition that dialogue is essential with communities in the affected areas, but also in the principal recruiting grounds of the terrorist networks - and especially the US and UK. There needs to be greater attention to addressing the issues that push young Muslims into believing that there is no solution to their problems other than violence, and this means coming to terms with the poverty, unemployment, alienation and general dissatisfaction that many feel with their lives. Bringing the Muslim youth into a conversation about problems and solutions would be a step forwards. I wrote about some of these issues in my 23 March 2011 blog post, A Marked Man in America. It is disappointing that, eighteen months on and at a time when senior members of the US administration are seriously discussing the end of the military phase of the battle with al-Qaeda, apparently there is still no room for understanding the role that public diplomacy and genuine dialogue and discussion can play.           

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