How to end the war on terror

By: Karen J Greenberg | Published: June 21, 2011
In the seven weeks since the killing of Osama bin Laden, pundits and experts of many stripes have concluded that his death represents a marker of genuine significance in the story of America’s encounter with terrorism. Peter Bergen, a bin Laden expert, was typically blunt the day after the death when he wrote, “Killing bin Laden is the end of the war on terror. We can just sort of announce that right now.”
Yet you wouldn’t know it in Washington where, if anything, the Obama administration and Congress have interpreted the killing of Al-Qaeda’s leader as a virtual license to double down on every “front” in the war on terror. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was no less blunt than Bergen, but with quite a different endpoint in mind. “Even as we mark this milestone,” she said on the day Bergen’s comments were published, “we should not forget that the battle to stop Al-Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden. Indeed, we must take this opportunity to renew our resolve and redouble our efforts.”
National Security Adviser John Brennan concurred. “This is a strategic blow to Al-Qaeda,” he commented in a White House press briefing. “It is a necessary but not necessarily sufficient blow to lead to its demise. But we are determined to destroy it.” Similarly, at his confirmation hearings to become Secretary of Defence, CIA Director Leon Panetta called for Washington to expand its shadow wars. “We’ve got to keep the pressure up,” he told the senators.
As if to underscore the policy implications of this commitment to “redoubling our efforts,” drone aircraft were dispatched on escalating post-bin-Laden assassination runs from Yemen (including a May 6 failed attempt on American Al-Qaeda follower Anwar al-Awlaki) to Pakistan. There, on May 23, a drone failed to take out Taliban leader Mullah Omar, while, on June 2, an attempt to kill Ilyas Kashmiri may (or may not) have failed. And those were only the most publicised of escalating drone attacks, while reports of a major “intensification” of the drone campaign in Yemen are pouring in.
In the meantime, President Obama used the bin Laden moment to push through and sign into law a four-year renewal of the Patriot Act, despite bipartisan resistance in Congress and the reservations of civil liberties groups. They had stalled its passage earlier in the year, hoping to curtail some of its particularly onerous sections, including the “lone wolf” provision that allows surveillance of non-US citizens in America, even if they have no ties to foreign powers, and the notorious Section 215, which grants the FBI authority to obtain library and business records in the name of national security.
One thing could not be doubted. The administration was visibly using the bin Laden moment to renew George W. Bush’s global War on Terror (even if without that moniker). And let’s not forget about the leaders of Congress, who promptly accelerated their efforts to ensure that the apparatus for the war that 9/11 started would never die. Congressman Howard McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was typical. On May 9, he introduced legislation meant to embed in law the principle of indefinite detention without trial for suspected terrorists until “the end of hostilities.” What this would mean, in reality, is the perpetuation ad infinitum of that Bush-era creation, our prison complex at Guantanamo (not to speak of our second Guantanamo at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan).
In other words, Washington now seems to be engaged in a wholesale post-bin Laden ratification of business as usual, but this time on steroids.
Perhaps after all these years the nation’s leadership was simply unprepared for bin Laden’s death and hasn’t been able to imagine switching directions readily, or perhaps the war on terror has simply become a way of life. Certainly, the Obama administration has a record of translating potentially propitious moments for change into strategic paralysis.
Remember, for instance, the president’s day-one-in-the-Oval-Office pledge to close Guantanamo within a year? Six months later, the administration had doubled down on the idea of the indefinite detention of terror suspects and so effectively made Obama’s promise meaningless. It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself when it comes to the Afghan War, the trial in New York City of 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheik, and other crucial matters.