Does a phrase matter?

Abandoned by the countries where the term was coined, the “war on terror” continues to be the phrase of choice used by officials and many media persons in Pakistan to describe the country’s efforts to counter terrorism and militancy.

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi

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Published: Fri 18 Mar 2011, 10:47 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:51 AM

At a recent conference in Karachi, when a slide was flashed on the screen by one of the presenters, a puzzled participant sitting next to me turned around and asked what Pakistan’s contribution to ‘GWOT’ meant. Global War on Terrorism, I replied, adding that this odd abbreviation for a mistaken phrase seemed to survive in our country long after others have dispensed with it.

Part of the rhetoric of the Bush era that was used to define America’s post-9/11 anti-terror campaign including the military intervention in Afghanistan, the phrase was dropped by the administration of President Barack Obama. Explaining this shift in 2009, his adviser on counterterrorism John Brennan rejected not only the term “war on terror” but also the portrayal of the campaign as “global” and the suggestion of a battle against “jihadists” as a catchall category.

Brennan said that describing the counterterrorism campaign as a global war played “into the misleading and dangerous notion that the US is somehow in conflict with the rest of the world”. Narrowing the US effort to a fight against Al Qaeda was also designed to correct the folly of declaring war on a tactic, which is what terrorism is. .

It took the US seven years and a change in administration to abandon the use of a phrase that had been dropped by Britain even earlier. Several European countries had avoided it altogether preferring to view terrorism as a law-enforcement challenge rather than a war-like enterprise.

In the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy announced in May 2010 the document explicitly stated that the campaign against terrorism “ is not a war against a tactic – terrorism, or a religion – Islam.” It redefined the effort as aimed to defeat Al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates.

Does using and discarding the phrase really matter? Is this just a matter of semantics or does it signify something more substantive and consequential? These are important questions especially as many people in Pakistan continue to use the term and the phrase has yet to be officially retired.

In fact, the catchphrase mischaracterised the challenge and misdirected the response. The phrase was adopted by the Bush Administration mainly because casting counterterrorism as a “war” was deemed useful to emphasise the urgency and gravity of the threat following 9/11, and to mobilise people and the resources needed for the military interventions that followed. It was also used to justify human rights and humanitarian law violations symbolised by Guantanamo Bay as well as interrogation practices that were universally denounced as torture.

The metaphor of war and the accompanying rhetoric of a battle against ‘Islamofascism’ had many unintended consequences. In the Muslim world – as the Obama Administration was to later acknowledge – it led to the widespread impression that the US was engaged in a war on Islam.

The conceptualisation of counterterrorism as ‘war’ also conjured up apocalyptic visions of an epic and open-ended struggle, which had other unintended consequences. It conflated the threat, blurred the distinction between local grievances and global agendas, and ended up treating separate insurgencies and movements with diverse political and social roots as one big, undifferentiated transnational threat. This fanned the flames of radicalism and made enemies for the US where none existed.

It was for good reason that the Obama Administration and other nations discarded this nomenclature and began to rethink their approach to countering terrorism.

In this backdrop the continued use in Pakistan of the lexicon of ‘war’ raises a number of problematic issues. Language becomes important at two levels, perceptional and practical. In the case of the first it provides ammunition to those who seek to undermine Pakistan’s anti-terrorism efforts by depicting these as part of ‘America’s war’ and therefore create a conflict in people’s mind about the legitimacy and ‘ownership’ of these efforts.

The phraseology also has operational consequences. It makes no distinction between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency and militarises the response to terrorism. In both military action has a role but it is the police and intelligence machinery that is central to effective counterterrorism, which is fundamentally about law enforcement.

It is widely acknowledged that even in counter insurgency that relies on the use of force, the effort cannot succeed by bombs and bullets alone. Asymmetrical threats cannot be countered by conventional or exclusively military means. This means that military action has to be accompanied by several non-military dimensions – including effective governance, political and ideological efforts as well as post-conflict rehabilitation – for a comprehensive strategy.

If counterterrorism is seen as a ‘war’ it predisposes the campaign to be pursued primarily even exclusively by military means. This distorts the response and allows the civilian organs of state to wash their hands off their responsibility as seems to have happened.

Central to an effective strategy is engaging in the battle of ideas to counter the narrative used by terrorists to recruit followers and sustain their network.

From this perspective Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy remains inadequate on several counts. The reliance on a ‘kill or capture’ strategy does little to address the flow of recruits into violent networks. Unless this flow is thwarted by counter-radicalisation measures as part of a coherent campaign supported by government leaders, political parties and the media, the effort against violent extremism will not succeed. The ‘war’ prism hobbles the development of the political, ideological and social dimensions of a strategy needed to deal with a multifaceted threat.

Discarding this phraseology will not by itself bring about a more effective approach. But if words have consequences, reframing the effort might oblige all organs of state to own up to their responsibility and urge society to also play its part.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom

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