So are we at “war” with terrorism? If not, then what is it? Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards objects to the term, saying it has been concocted to give rhetorical support to the Bush administration’s foreign adventurism. Congress has stopped referring to the global war on terrorism in legislation for similar reasons. Central Command Combatant Commander Admiral William J. Fallon has deep-sixed the expression “The Long War,” a term of art that emerged from a Pentagon PowerPoint briefing a few years back. And former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld himself tried to replace the expression Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) with the clunkier Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (GSAVE) back in the summer of 2005. The term was concocted to capture every nuance of the challenge we face and the means to combat it. Unfortunately in the Arab-speaking world “struggle” in this context was translated as ”jihad,” which caused some confusion overseas. Is the U.S. pro-jihad or against it? But the White House quickly killed GSAVE for other reasons — arguing that this isn’t a “struggle,” this is war, and we should keep it that way.
There was some sound reasoning behind GSAVE, even if the expression did not resonate. “War” implies a conflict in which the military takes the lead role. Combating terrorism is a much broader endeavor which requires participation from numerous elements of national power. The intelligence community arguably plays a more critical role than the military. Law enforcement also has a major piece of the action, as does the diplomatic community. To the extent the military is involved in this mission it is through inter alia employing special-operations forces, supplying communications and logistics support, training forces from partner nations, and engaging in various ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target acquisition and Reconnaissance) activities. It is worth remembering that the DOD controls half the offices and agencies of the intelligence community and the lion’s share of the budget.
As well, “war” traditionally suggests conflict between sovereign entities that control territories and govern populations. This is the understanding of war that has shaped the international agreements that have sought to limit the outbreak of wars and regulate their conduct. The enemy we face is not a sovereign entity recognized by the international community, which has led to a number of difficult legal issues in the conduct of the war that may not have arisen under more conventional circumstances.
It is true that there are problems associated with using the term “war” to describe this conflict. But we incur substantial risks when we stop thinking about it in those terms. This was evident in the 1990s, when the threat of terrorism was not taken seriously, and the counter-terrorism mission was defined doctrinally by the DOD as one of the 16 Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW). It wasn’t war, it was other-than-war. Like non-dairy creamer, you didn’t know exactly what it is, but you knew for certain what it was not. Because counterterrorism was seen through the lens of law enforcement, emphasis on process came to dominate it, to harmful lengths. The 9/11 Commission report’s critique of the way information was stove-piped in the FBI for example. Or the “firewall” established by then-deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick that prevented intelligence sharing between foreign intelligence and domestic law enforcement agencies. It took the shock of 9/11 to cut through the bureaucracy and short-sighted policies to enable the kind of information sharing vital to defeating the terrorist threat.
As well, the 9/11 Commission said that the greatest failure in the 1990s was a failure of imagination. Our threat perception was inadequate, both in terms of enemy capabilities and intentions. We had constrained our thinking; it was stuck inside the box. Then came 19 hijackers with box cutters.
This points to the most important reason to call this struggle a war — because the enemy does. Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States and its allies twice, in 1996 and 1998. He and others attacked US and allied interests numerous times in the tears leading up to 9/11. We placed ourselves at a clear disadvantage by not accepting that when violent, highly motivated group such as al Qaeda declare war, they really do mean it. If we behave as though they don’t, we do so at our peril.
It would be an act of great hubris to stop referring to the conflict with the terrorists as a war. It would implicitly say that they are not threat enough to warrant that designation. Enough for a struggle, maybe a tussle, but no more. Maybe in some ways they aren’t; we have done a great job in disrupting their networks, capturing or killing their leaders, interdicting their finances, and breaking up their planned attacks. The terrorists are not the threat to our homeland that they were six years ago. But if we give up “war,” what then? Will the public stay focused? Will the bureaucracy stay motivated, to the extent it still is? Will we be able to take the kind of resolute action we need to take as opportunities to take our terrorists abroad present themselves? Or will the calcification return — the old patterns of thinking — less focus on mission effectiveness, more on procedural detail — less innovation, more careerism. Giving up on the notion that we are at war with people who are pledged to our destruction is to invite complacency. Eventually the imagination would again fail. And the consequences next time could be far more deadly.
It’s a war all right. Ask any terrorist.