Friday, August 12, 2022

The only way to “win” the war on terror is to end it

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Shreya Christina
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Over the weekend, a US drone fired a Hellfire missile that killed Ayman al-Zawahiric, the al-Qaeda leader who had served as one of the strategists behind the terrorist group’s attacks on American citizens around the world. The attack, which the US says did not kill any civilians, was months in the planning.

It was the first known US attack in Afghanistan since August 2021, when a drone fired a missile that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker. Zemari Ahmadic and his seven children.

The two strikes cannot be separated. Together they represent the arc of the war on terror and its enduring risks. The US has so exhausted Al-Qaeda’s leadership that the terrorist network is a different and weaker organization than it was two decades ago. But in the process, the US killed more than 900 civilians in 14,040 confirmed drone strikes in the 2010s and estimated 47,245 Afghan citizens were killed in the last two decades of the war.

So the question must be asked: is it worth killing a family every now and then to get a Zawahiri, or an Osama bin Laden, every few years?

In remarks to the nation on Monday, President Joe Biden said: indicated that the war on terrorism will continue. “We’re making it clear again tonight that no matter how long it takes, wherever you hide, if you pose a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out,” he said. said.

The 2001 legal authorization used to justify a generation of deaths in drone strikes remains in effect. And while the Biden administration has significantly reduced the number of drone strikes compared to the terms of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, it continues to launch attacks on Iraq. Somaliaand Syria. The US does not send hundreds of thousands troops to Afghanistan. But it maintains a base in Qatar to conduct “over the horizon” operations in Afghanistan where necessary, and has small presence of troops in a number of other countries.

As a candidate, Biden had promised to end endless wars, and indeed he withdrew the US military from Afghanistan last year. But ending the war on terror would mean stripping away the capabilities of the legal framework and drone warfare architecture to ensure that a returned President Donald Trump, or a future Trump-like leader, does not speed up the program without supervision.

If the war on terror, as Biden suggests, continues, it will not be “won,” just as George W. Bush’s Middle East freedom agenda has never won hearts and minds. The way to win the war on terror is to just end it – and this week is as good a time as any.

Is the war on terrorism over now?

After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, Congress authorized the use of military force (AUMF) which allowed the president to “deploy the armed forces of the United States against those responsible for the recent attacks on the United States.” For national security experts who have argued for the end of authorization, Biden’s assassination of Zawahiri is a natural bookend, even though they had been pushing for a withdrawal of the AUMF long before this strike.

That AUMF has been interpreted broadly, to go after al-Qaeda affiliated forces around the world that may not pose a direct threat to the American homeland. In recent years, it formed the basis for US military activities in 85 countries. Its existence gives the president the power to launch strikes without Congressional approval. With those powers, four successive US presidents have… hollowed out the key players of al-Qaeda and other related groups in targeted killings – and murdered countless civilians.

Zawahiri was a legitimate target under that AUMF, but he was also the last major planner of the September 11 attacks in general, making this a time to end the AUMF. “This is kind of closing the chapter on the relevance of that authority with its own terms,” said Katherine Ebright, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The purpose of that authority is really exhausted.”

Zawahiri’s death in a way suggests that the era of fighting rogue non-state actors has faded with a new focus on US conflicts with superpowers like China and Russia. “The reality is that the United States has decided that terrorism, as many have argued for decades, is a threat that must be managed, not an all-consuming threat as it was in the post-9/11 years,” Karen said. Greenberg, director of the National Security Center at Fordham School of Law, told me. “But that doesn’t answer other questions about using the strike and how we’re going to use it in the future.” According to Greenberg, the use of the AUMF was previously questionable and should be discontinued.

A lot progressive members of Congress have pushed to end the AUMF, and now there is talk of replacing it with something narrower. In the meantime, it can be continued to justify Zawahiri’s murder – or a target that eventually becomes a family with no relevance. The AUMF is the US domestic legal basis for the drone strike, but Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor and author of Humane: How the United States Left Peace and Reinvented Warsaid it may also have violated international law, as experts believe it is unlikely that the Afghan Taliban government would have agreed to the strike.

The retention of these powers has global implications. Moyn is concerned that the Biden administration is reserving the “illegitimately obtained right” to indefinitely hunt terrorists in a manner that is illegal under international law. “The normalization of targeted killing, i.e. killing people on hot battlefields, is the most sinister thing,” he told me. “The US has normalized it and claimed it is legal. That means any other state, like Russia that poisons people, can claim it’s only acting in self-defense.”

It could lead to what the Israeli military has called “mow the lawn”: a tactic of conducting semi-regular attacks on alleged terrorist cells – in their case in Gaza – to incapacitate leaders and new militant groups, killing non-combatants and destroying civilian infrastructure. But mow the lawn almost by definition does not address the root causes of terrorism. The grass grows back endlessly.

The Consequences of an Ongoing War on Terrorism

Al-Qaeda is now a weakened version of itself, but in a disturbing aspect of Biden’s comments, he suggested that the US sees al-Qaeda as a legitimate combatant, on the same level as a superpower in an ongoing war. Biden said he “authorized a precision strike that would remove him from the battlefield once and for all”. By saying that Zawahiri was on the “battlefield,” Biden, perhaps unintentionally, provided al-Qaeda with a symbolic propaganda victory for a group with less and less power to threaten the US.

Not addressed by Biden were political and socioeconomic conditions in Afghanistan and several other countries in the wider region, which have not improved — and in some cases have been worsened by the US’s two-decade war on terror.

Those conditions have consequences. The Guardian has detailed “the torture path to September 11.” Zawahiri grew up in Cairo and joined a terrorist group as a teenager. He became trapped in a dragnet after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, for which a terrorist group affiliated with Zawahiri claimed responsibility. One question that remains is whether his time in an Egyptian prison and the torture Zawahiri reportedly experienced contributed to its further radicalization.

Today there are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egyptian prisons, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood’s political agents and anyone vaguely associated with them, with brutal mass trials, mass executions and allegedly widespread torture in prisons.

These are exactly the circumstances that can help lead to a new generation of Zawahiris.

There are also other conditions that perpetuate the growth of groups like al-Qaeda. Rami Khouri, a former Middle Eastern journalist, says that even without Zawahiri, it is inevitable that terrorist groups will splinter and regroup as a result of deeper social problems that go unaddressed. “The problem is you have millions and millions, tens or hundreds of millions of people living in unacceptable conditions of poverty, poverty and authoritarian governments, and they have no hope,” he said. told Al-Jazeera. “The people who suffer from these groups [like al-Qaeda] are the people of the Middle East, and South Asia and Africa.”

For Arash Azizzada, an Afghan-American filmmaker who co-founded the progressive advocacy group Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, the drone strike is a sign that America is stuck in a cycle of ongoing counterterrorism that ignores the people of Afghanistan.

“Americans need to realize that there is a cost to continuing to participate in the war on terror,” he told me. “After years of heavy-handed US occupation and involvement – it has just invested 20 years in a place like Afghanistan, and the country is worse off than it was in 2001.”

Since the US withdrawal and the rise of the Taliban government, the country has faced famine and a financial crisis exacerbated by the US asset freeze in Afghanistan’s central bank.

As Azizzada told me, “America and the Biden administration can and should do more to alleviate the pain and suffering in a place like Afghanistan.”

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