A Proposal To Really Win The War On Terror


The entire strategy of the War on Terror is simply to  ‘exterminate the brutes’ even though it is becoming clearer, particularly in Yemen and in Afghanistan, now Libya, that for every ‘brute’ we exterminate at least one further friend, relative, out-raged passer-by or co-religionist takes his or her place. We and others have been in one form or another fighting a war on terrorism since at least 1968.[1] Yet it seems practically certain that the terrorism side of the war is at least self-sustaining where not  self-expanding.

Is there a non-utopian strategy to bring the essential facts and conditions of the War on Terror under and within sustainable, pacific international legal practices.

A Rag-Tag International Order

I think the following makes sense.  Many non-governmental organizations such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, the Tamil ‘Tigers’,  and the Moslem Brotherhood, yesterday’s the Irish Republican Army and Al Fatah, exert government-like sway over large populations. Some, like Hamas and the Taliban, actually assume most of the conventional functions of a regular government. These non-government organizations actually maintain the sort of political loyalty and political obedience that we normally associate with a ‘legitimate’ government. The ‘terrorism problem’ consists of the fact that these and other quasi-governments can sustain a significant military arm in aid of their grievances.

Note that which gang now happens to be the ‘legitimate’ government, and which other gang is the ‘illegitimate’ terrorist organization is too often a matter of pure historical accident. Unfortunately, it is rare now for either to be distinguished by its ‘better’ or ‘more civilized’ behavior.

Although we one can for the most part readily distinguish criminal gangs, such as the drug rings in northern Mexico, from the quasi-governments earlier cited, the ‘legitimate’ governments don’t and won’t.

Of course, both sides say, They started it! We are just reacting to what they did first! —  torture, assassination, blowing up aircraft, an endless list of horrors – that’s what started it. I suppose there must be some cases where it was one side or another that really “started it all.” But in every current ‘war’, who did what first is not only lost to history but utterly irrelevant. What we have to deal with is the fact that the most barbarous war customs of the past have now become institutionalized in international practice. And foremost among these barbarous practices is that the lives and well-being of third parties are held hostage by each side as a weapon to sway the behavior of the other.

Some argue that the terrors inflicted by the terrorists are far worse than those inflicted in turn by the governments they are at war with. That’s often been true. But the immediate counter is that governments, with their greater wealth, power and stability have more tactical lee-way than the poorer, weaker, often clandestine adversary. Both arguments can be deployed endlessly and, I think, often reasonably, but of course that gets us no closer to ending the carnage.

The Northern Ireland settlement and the end of South African Apartheid point the better way. One has to selectively “forget” yesterday’s crimes if one is to prevent today’s and tomorrow’s. The genuinely moral position is that, because we are appalled by deeds already committed, we are determined to make an end of them, period

A Proposal to Really Win the War on Terror

It makes sense to recognize that these really are quasi-governments. and on that basis to bring them within a stable, pacific international institutional structure. It might thereby be possible to bring them under an expanding rule of international law and humane international practice. Such a strategy cannot guarantee peace but it offers promise to take us back a bit from the current barbarism.

It would be feasible to develop standards – better looser than stricter – to determine whether such and such is a ‘real’ quasi-government or just a gang of brutes. The problem doesn’t lie there; it lies instead in being able to offer enough to those quasi-governments that they would in turn restrict those military operations which victimize innocents, modify those war-aims which make the wars eternal, and change such of those other practices that add to the already excessive  savagery of armed combat. Of course, if we accept that there is a war on between the US and Al Qaeda, it is legitimate for both sides to attack the combatants of the other – but not more. If an Al Qaeda training camp is positively identified, it is as legitimate for ‘us’ to attack it as it is for ‘them’ to attack the Pentagon. Their leaders are combatants and thus legitimate targets for us, as is President Obama for them. But not Michelle Obama and the children and not Union Station and, I think, not an ordinary US or NATO soldier on leave in some Afghan city.

It all sounds hopelessly complicated and seems to offer a wide field for sophistry, day-dreaming and spurious ethics. But the reality is that prior to World War II almost all of the great powers had subscribed to a set of behaviors about how to conduct war ‘humanely’; I know that that sounds utterly insane but not at all so if we change it to “more humanely than otherwise”.

The fact is that where those standards were upheld in practice in, say, WW II, the human benefit was enormous. The universal bar to the operational use of poisonous gas is perhaps the best known of these. (The Japanese Army, however, may have experimentally used both gas and bacteriological agents in China.) Less known is the recognition of medical personnel and sites by both sides. Where that occurred, the benefit was immense. Unlike, say, our Civil War where the wounded were often left unattended for days on the battlefield, in WW II it was not uncommon for local truces to be adopted so that the medics of both sides could carry our their life-saving, pain-saving tasks, often working together.


First to establish a procedure whereby such a quasi-government can be recognized as such and thereby enabled to participate within the relevant international institutions. Recognition by the UN General Assembly would be good here but, given the military nature of the problems we want to address, some official standing with the Security Council and the various international courts seems necessary. On its part, the international community would offer formal recognition and protection to their diplomatic personnel and sites, extend similar guarantees for their press and media, invitations to relevant international conferences, committees, events and so forth. Going a bit further, something substantively equivalent to prisoner-of-war status for their detainees, perhaps, as in our Civil War, a system of parole so that endless detention would become a thing of the past.

A quasi-government in turn would have to subscribe to an up-dated system of what the military call, ‘Rules of Engagement’, specifying when and what may be a target for military operations, treatment of wounded and of prisoners, etc. It might also be possible to mark out zones, both government and opposition, where a more or less permanent armistice was observed. The barriers to working out this sort of protocol are not technical ones.

More substantive, that in an authoritative,  neutral international setting ‘legitimate government’ and ‘quasi-government’ be required to sit down — probably through third party intermediaries — to simply lay out grievances and to clarify their war aims. That’s all at first but clearly that would set the table for some sort of diplomacy.

I don’t think such a scheme – it needs more development than my competence allows – would be greeted everywhere by ‘the terrorists’. But I think to have that path opened to them, followed by a few substantive political gains would begin to unlock the international ‘terror scene’. At present, we are deadlocked between two sets of terrors, the official and the unofficial kinds. Any easing would be a gain.

Legitimate governments have more to lose and, in my view, are less likely to enter into it. Just to look into why that is so is a lesson in itself. The cruel truth is that just about all ‘legitimate’ — “sovereign” — governments consider it their inalienable right to mistreat at least some of their subjects – sometimes by omission but very often by enthusiastic commission. The pressure on governments to adopt any such scheme as here proposed will have to come from outside their official ranks, come, that is, from the vast ranks of their citizens who are now put at risk by the unabated continuance of terrorism and its paired-practitioners.

I do not wish to be misunderstood on certain  points. Whatever may have been, for example, the sources of the military capacity of the Taliban, we have had enough experience with them to recognize their implacable reactionary qualities with respect to women, with respect to those who simply disagree with them, even against ancient cultural shrines. Yet, as with Al Qaeda vis-à-vis the Saudi princes, there is no use to dwelling on implacableness and related. One wants instead to seize every opportunity to test whether there may be openings, now however small, to wean even the worst fanatics to a lesser degree of fanaticism – if not in their ideology at least in their actual behavior.

Can the scheme really work? It is not a question here of peeling away fanaticism and implacability to get finally to the pit of reasonableness and cooperation. Terrorism may be more like an onion which has no pit – but every layer of violence and unreasonableness that one can peel away is a positive gain and it thus behooves the international community to try to do just that. The US especially, would have to radically change its international – now losing — behavior

I’ve not even mentioned the economic development absolutely necessary to diminishing these symmetrical wars on terror. Currently, such economic schemes seems far too utopian – and with little ‘legitimate’ international support. But, if there really was a political strategy to diminish such terrors, perhaps some of those perfectly obvious, desperately overdue schemes would appear do-able – and be done.

JOHN MCDERMOTT, Professor Emeritus of Social Science at The College of Old Westbury, is the author of a number of books including Corporate Society, The Crisis in the Working Class and Arguments for a New Labor Movement and most recently Restoring Democracy to America.


[1] Such dating is always a bit arbitrary. One can reasonably begin with the hijacking of an El Al flight in July, 1968 or, perhaps, with the anti-Castro bombing of a Cuban airliner in September of that same year. Take your pick!.

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