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Issues Of Definition In The War On Terror

The lack of definition in the war on terror is problematic. While it allows national leaders the flexibility to define and redefine success in ways that suit political purposes, it also has potential drawbacks. From an operational perspective, it potentially leads to lack of clarity and understanding, and thus lack of focused national effort along with its attendant risk of failure. The very phrase “war on terror” lacks definition, and therefore presents the United States with a strategic issue that inhibits its efforts to prosecute the war effectively. As multiple sources have indicated, “terror” is not the enemy. In the “war” on terror, neither terror nor terrorism can be defeated since terror is a method and terrorism is a tactic. From this perspective, neither terror nor terrorism takes on the characteristics of entities that can be defeated in the traditional sense.

The 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, released by the White House, defined America’s enemy as “terrorism” in general. (1) The 9/11 Commission, perhaps recognizing the difficulty posed by the White House definition, provided a more precise description when it declared that “the enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil,” but must be the “threat posed by Islamist terrorism – especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology.”(2) However, even this clarification by the 9/11 Commission does not resolve the issue. As Jason Burke further notes, definitions are important. In Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, he points out that current definitions are subjective and, since terrorism is a tactic, the adoption by the United States of the phrase “war on terrorism” is nonsensical.(3) From an operational perspective, it does not allow a precise description of the problem confronting the nation. Earl Tilford goes even further in The War on Terror: World War IV and establishes a link between definitions and strategy when he declares that, in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, when the Bush Administration labeled its efforts the “war” on terror, it made a basic and fundamental strategic error.(4) From Tilford’s perspective, the error is so grave that it places the United States in the position of fighting a war that it could lose, similar to Vietnam, because it has misjudged the nature of its opponent.

It is notable that the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism and the 2006 National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism use identical wording in defining the enemy as “a transnational movement of extremist organizations, networks, and individuals – and their state and non-state supporters – which have in common that they exploit Islam and use terrorism for ideological ends.”(5) This definition continues to restrict the definition of the enemy by assigning it a connection to Islam. It also applies a mixed metaphor by establishing a connection between radical Islam – which is essentially a religion – and political ideological philosophies (rather than religious philosophies, which are cultural). Neither the White House, the Department of Defense, nor the 9/11 Commission adequately address non-state entities (whether domestic or transnational in origin) which are not connected to Islam. In the information age these networks represent a potential threat to the nation as great as that currently posed by al Qaeda.

Lack of definition further complicates United States efforts in coming to grips with the entity known as “al Qaeda.” If al Qaeda represents the primary, or at least the most visible, opponent of the United States in the war on terror its precise nature remains unclear. From differing sources, it can be ascertained that al Qaeda is, variously, either a terrorist group,(6) a stateless network of terrorists that represents a radical movement in the Islamic world,(7) a venture capitalist firm that sponsors a terror network of networks,(8) or not a terrorist group at all but a worldwide insurgency.(9) Understanding the nature of al Qaeda is critical if the United States is to develop a clear strategy against it. Conventional strategic thinking calls for identifying and attacking an enemy’s centers of gravity. Each of the various definitions of al Qaeda invokes a different strategy; failure on the part of the United States to employ the correct strategic approach invites failure overall. Ultimately, in order to prevail against al Qaeda as a precursor to success in the war on terror, it may be necessary to accept several conditions: that al Qaeda is a non-state entity that possesses elements of each of the definitions above; that it is constantly evolving its methods, tactics, and philosophy, i.e., the very essence of what it is; that it is very successful in attracting adherents; and that it may represent the forerunner of both terrorism and warfare in the information age. In this sense conventional strategic thinking may not be effective in warring against al Qaeda.

The definition of victory, or even success, in the war on terror is also problematic. The 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism establishes this when it states: “The long-term solution for winning the war on terror is the advancement of freedom and human dignity through effective democracy.”(10) The means to be used by the United States to advance democracy are not clear. How will the United States know when it has advanced democracy far enough that it can declare it has won the war on terror? The implication of this definition is that it offers no definable end state, no reasonable expectation that the war on terror can be brought to a conclusion. As a matter of practicality, it may not be possible to defeat or eliminate terrorist groups entirely. The strategic alternatives of rollback or containment of terrorism may be more feasible goals.(11)

A final definition which poses difficulty for the United States in the war on terror is the legal status of its adversaries. Are individuals who carry out terrorist acts against the United States and its interests criminals or are they armed combatants? The difference is critical in crafting a wartime strategy that bridges the foreign-domestic divide defined by the 9/11 Commission.(12) A primary example is the legal status of the al Qaeda detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The 9/11 Commission recommended that the United States should develop a coalition approach for the detention and humane treatment of captured transnational terrorists, possibly structured on Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions on the law of armed conflict. This is at least tacit acknowledgment that the detainees are recognized as armed combatants and should be accorded some of the protections of the Geneva Conventions.(13)

However, in a decision that was issued nearly simultaneously with the release of The 9/11 Commission Report, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that detainees at Guantanamo Bay can take their cases – that they are unlawfully imprisoned – to the American court system.(14) The Court further reinforced its position in 2006 when it ruled against Bush Administration efforts to conduct war crimes trials for some detainees at Guantanamo Bay.(15) The impact of the Court’s rulings is that they call into question whether the United States is legally at war in the war on terror, or whether it is actually pursuing a law enforcement action. By offering the protection of the United States legal system to the detainees, it appears that the Supreme Court does not recognize the war on terror as a war according to legal and historical definitions.

As indicated above, many of the issues that currently affect the war on terror can be traced to lack of definition, lack of clarity, and a diffused rather than focused effort. This has the benefit of allowing policy makers to maintain flexibility in defining and re-defining success in many ways. However, it poses great difficulty in developing effective strategy and conducting focused operations. Lack of definition also affects, for good or bad, the application of doctrine, policy, and transformation concepts to the war on terror.

(1) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, 2003. 1.
(2) 9/11 Commission Report, 362.
(3) Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (New York: I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, 2004), 22.
(4) Earl Tilford, “The War on Terror: World War IV,” A Reserve Officers Association National Security Report, Officer (October 2004), 38.
(5) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, 2006. 5; Department of Defense, National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism (2006), 4.
(6) United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Handbook No.1, A Military Guide to Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century (2005), Appendix A.
(7) The 9/11 Commission Report, 362-363.
(8) Bruce Hoffman, “The Leadership Secrets of Osama Bin Laden: The Terrorist as CEO,” Atlantic Monthly (April 2002).
(9) Anonymous (Michael Scheur), Imperial Hubris, 62.
(10) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,2006. 9.
(11) Stephen D. Biddle, “American Grand Strategy After 9/11: An Assessment,” Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, April 2005, 28.
(12) The 9/11 Commission Report, 399.
(13) Ibid., 379-380.
(14) Rasul et al v. Bush, President of the United States, et al., 542 U.S. 03-334 and 03-343 (2004). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. As the Supreme Court ruled, the Guantanamo Bay detainees: are not nationals of countries at war with the United States; deny they have engaged in or plotted acts of aggression against the United States; have never been afforded access to any tribunal and therefore have never been tried and convicted of wrongdoing; for more than two years have been imprisoned in territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control.
(15) Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et al., 548 U.S. 05-184 (2006). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that it has jurisdiction to hear the case of an accused combatant before his military commission takes place; that the federal government did not have authority to set up these particular special military commissions; and that the special military commissions were illegal under both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention of 1949.


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