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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.

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