Defining Victory in the War on Terror

Since President George W. Bush proclaimed a global war on terrorism more than six years ago, there has been a vigorous debate about how to win it. An important part of the discussion, many analysts note, is defining "victory".

Defeating an enemy on the battlefield and forcing it to accept political terms is the traditional way of winning a war. But as most analysts suggest, victory in the war on terrorism won't fit that description. They liken it to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, which lasted for several decades and was played out in various ways, including a military buildup, proxy wars, intensive espionage and propaganda campaigns.

Many experts predict Islamic extremists will lose, the way the U.S.S.R. did with its ideology and tactics discredited. This will occur, they contend, as a result of the Islamic world rejecting the militants' use of violence against other Muslims, the economic failure of extreme Islamic regimes and wariness in some Muslim nations that terrorist groups like al-Qaida could impose their rule.

Some security analysts, including former Associate Counsel to the White House Bradford Berenson, argue that the United States is fighting an even tougher opponent than Soviet communism.

"The ideology that we are struggling against is a form of religiously inspired fascism, extremely intolerant and extremely ambitious about gaining worldly power in the name of religion,” says Berenson adding that the United States, “cannot speak with any authority about the proper interpretation of the Muslim religion and so it makes it much more difficult for us to frontally engage in the debate the way we did during the Cold War, when we could try to discredit communism on its own terms."

Berenson says that the U.S. strategy will continue to be offensive against terrorists across the globe and that at times this struggle may erupt into "hot wars".

Discrediting Religious Extremism

But other analysts caution that the United States has put too much faith in the use of force. They say the war in Iraq has been a recruitment tool for al-Qaida. Others warn that use of interrogation methods widely considered to be torture, indefinite detention of prisoners at U.S. facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and prison abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq have reinforced grievances that inspire people to become terrorists.

Philip Gordon is a foreign policy expert with The Brookings Institution and author of the book: Winning the Right War: The Path to Security for America and the World.

"It would be nice to believe that we can either defend ourselves against any possible terrorist attack or somehow use our military power to kill or capture every possible terrorist. But, I think, that leads us down the wrong path because we can't do either of those things,” says Gordon.

“What we can do is we can over a long period of time undermine and discredit the ideology so that people don't want to fight in that way," adds Gordon. "There is a whole mass [of people in the Muslim world that is] sitting on the fence deciding which side they want to go. I think those people can be influenced."

Gordon argues that the United States can succeed in its anti-terrorist efforts only by maintaining the values and appeal of the American society and with the same patience and resolve that helped it win the Cold War. Ervin Clark with the Aspen Institute, in Washington, agrees. He quotes George Kennan, "the father" of the U.S. policy of containing the Soviet Union.

"Kennan said the ultimate thing that we had to do was not to be like the enemy and that the way ultimately to prevail is by being true to our own civil rights and civil liberties and our own principles of freedom and tolerance. I think that was obviously true with regard to communism and I think it will be true with regard to Islamic fundamentalism as well," says Clark.

Warfare or Law and Order?

Some critics of the war on terrorism, Ohio State University's John Mueller among them, insist that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to the United States and that it is a law and order issue, which like crime will always exist. He adds that terrorism, a familiar phenomenon in history, is for the first time treated as warfare.

"It is a conflict against an incredibly small number of people who have decided to declare war against the United States. The amount of damage they do is pretty limited, even taking 9/11 [the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks] into consideration, according to Mueller. But if you look at what basically al-Qaida has done since 9/11 outside of war zones, the total number of attacks has resulted into deaths of maybe 200-to-300 people per year. That includes London and Bali and all those things. Unless they are massively able to increase their capacity to do damage, it is a limited problem."

But the Aspen Institute's Ervin Clark differs. "Three-thousand people died on 9/11,” he says and as a consequence of that, “there were billions of dollars in economic damage to the United States and probably billions more in collateral economic damage to the entire world economy. So, yes, the chances are small, but the consequences when any attacks occur are huge."

Ken Gude, a national security specialist at the Washington-based Center for American Progress points out that terrorist organizations like "al-Qaida would like to get a hold of nuclear weapon."

"And even though the potential for that actually occurring is very low," says Gude, "the consequences of an actual nuclear attack or radiological attack are very high. And risk is a measurement based on both probability and consequences. Because the consequences would be so severe, we need to take that threat and that risk seriously." 

Bringing down terrorism, most experts agree, is a long-term project. But many of them point out its success largely depends on the Muslim world dealing with radicalism in its midst. The United States and its allies could play a role, they add, in helping Islamic societies develop and strengthen so that violent extremism is discarded as a means of expressing dissent.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs