Nine days after the fall of the World Trade Center, President Bush declared war on global terrorism. It has been more than seven years since, and as the nation's attention focuses on the 2008 presidential campaign and slogans of "hope" and "change," few ideas have been driven further from our contemporary political consciousness than the War on Terror.
Why is this? Bush swore never to stop "until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." After five years in Iraq, the front-running presidential candidates all say the invasion took the nation's resources away from fighting al-Qaeda--but none of them address the issue of fighting al-Qaeda itself.
The main reason is the obvious one: terrorism really doesn't matter to America anymore. When the administration conflated "terrorism" with "Islamo-fascism" and with "al-Qaeda," it created a diffuse family of synonyms for "enemy of the state." With the passage of the Patriot Act, the beginning of illegal wiretaps on American citizens and the opening of Guantanamo Bay as well as dozens of secret prisons worldwide, the country began a rapid descent toward becoming the world's freest police state.
America's current malaise is a symptom of an auto-immune disease, an allergic reaction to 9/11 sparked by a neoconservative military still primed against the threats of the Cold War. By treating Terrorism as monolithically as the Red Menace, the White House birthed a bastard foreign policy. Put simply, the Bush Doctrine might read like this: America will protect the free world from global terror, even if this means violating another state's sovereignty if it aids and abets terrorists; America will strike first to prevent the terrorists from winning. Seven years of hindsight have shown the real worth of these policies. Still, clarifying the confusion clouding the word "terrorist" is necessary. Who are these phantoms pursued in the wilds of Wazirstan by NATO soldiers?
Think globally, bomb locally
The mountains surrounding the fabled Khyber Pass are dotted with dusty villages and bunkers. For hundreds of years, the indigenous Pashtun tribes have resisted foreign domination and occupation. In 1842, the British sent a 14,000-man army to quell the tribesmen at the frontier of their dominion. Only one man returned, part of his skull shorn off by an Afghan sword. The British never forgot their humiliation; the one survivor later inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson, disabled veteran of the Afghan wars. The British never took full control and left the independent tribesmen to their own devices. After the birth of Pakistan, the tribal fringe joined as an autonomous region. Although ruled in name by a faraway bureaucrat, here, the elders hold more sway over local affairs than the law.
In this land, AK-47s are known as "Pashtun jewelry," fitting for the rugged warriors who defeated the Soviets in the '80s with covert aid from both the CIA and Pakistan's secret service, the ISI. It is right that the warrior is tolerated, even glorified, by a society under attack. But now that those times are gone, these warriors need a cause to justify their existence. Radical Islam has filled this void.
Islam is the warp and weft of Pashtun culture; it broadly defines their civilization. In this part of the world, Islam binds together Arabs and Persians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who otherwise despise each other as high-handed or ignorant. For these tribesmen, ideology is irrelevant because it does not motivate their political cause; rather, it justifies it. Their Islamist ideology is the banner waved by their movement, not its impetus. The same forces that bound the West into NATO and unified the fringes of the global socialist revolution during the 20th century are at work.
As with communism, the ideology is more viable than the movement. The newly proclaimed Islamic Emirate of Wazirstan is doomed to die among a people who don't want to give up their independence to a capricious military regime. In Pakistan's January election, the moderate Awami party swept the polls at the frontier, not the religious parties. Last week, 42 were killed when militants bombed a meeting of tribal elders in the frontier town of Peshawar. By targeting the institutions of tribal society, the militants are attacking the very culture that tolerated its existence in the first place.
The war of ideas
Just as the majority of communist revolutions were spurred by the local desires of oppressed peoples--and not the invisible hand of global revolution or the Soviet Empire--jihadist movements are splintered across the globe, responding to statist oppression through gangland violence. The White House acted blindly after 9/11. A military bred to defeat the invisible threat of global revolution could not understand contemporary geopolitics through any lens but that of a clash of civilizations. Global terrorism is invisible because it shares the same existence as the bogeyman: both are fictions powerful enough to cow those without inside intelligence into obedience. In 2004, talking heads debated the worth of re-electing a "wartime president," and "staying the course." Now, by publicly ignoring the war on terror, the presidential front-runners are giving the people who harbored the terrorists what they want: to be left alone.