Posted by: Randy Allgaier | November 30, 2008

Lessons from Mumbai – reassess our response to terrorism

I’ve been watching the Mumbai attacks with great sadness and anger and now that the horrifying, 60 hour long siege on Mumbai has ended we need to redirect that anger and grief and revisit our nation’s response to terrorism. The election of Barack Obama as President gives us a mandate to revise our response.

The New York Times reported- “Bodies were extracted from the ruins of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel in the hours after the standoff with militants there ended on Saturday in a gunfight fire. At the main city hospital morgue, relatives came, clutching one another in grief, to identify their dead. By midafternoon, the morgue was running out of body bags, and by evening the death toll had risen to at least 172. Funerals, among them ceremonies for two policemen and a lawyer, went on throughout the day.”

Recent U.S. State Department report indicates terrorist attacks have been increasing every year, 25% in 2006 alone. By any objective measure, the “war on terror” has been an abject failure.

A new report from Center for American Progress — whose president, John Podesta, is heading the Obama transition team — argues for a fundamental restructuring of U.S.-Pakistani ties. “U.S. policy must recognize that the military component alone is insufficient to build stability and security in Pakistan,” the report states. It calls for “a diverse approach, including strengthening governance and rule of law, creating economic opportunities and exploring political negotiations” with militant groups.

While it’s by no means clear whether this week’s multiphased attacks in Mumbai involved Pakistani militant organizations, the attacks underscored the rising tide of militancy that threatens Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as India. On Friday, the Zardari government offered to dispatch Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of its powerful intelligence service, to assist India in investigating the attacks — a tacit recognition that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence was a natural suspect, given its long history of anti-India subterfuge.

To combat the rising instability, the still-coalescing Obama administration will have to make a number of hard choices in a rapidly changing environment. It’s possible that South Asia will be the first major foreign crisis the new administration confronts.

“The war on terror” is unwinnable. Terrorism is not an enemy. It is a tactic as old as humanity, and until the lion lies down with the lamb, it will continue to exist. Waging a war on terror is a category violation, like waging a war on violence. Second, it is self-defeating. By invading Iraq to preempt an alleged terrorist threat, the U.S. greatly increased that threat. And by elevating terrorist groups, which pose no existential threat to America, to the status of state actors, the Bush administration enhanced their prestige. The number of terror attacks around the world has risen greatly since Bush started his “war,” and hatred of the U.S. in the Arab-Muslim world has metastasized.

In a subtler way, the “war on terror” has degraded our national psyche. It encourages the U.S. to remain in a psychological state that is simultaneously fearful and aggressive — an infantile state, one that prevents us from thinking clearly about how to address our real foreign policy challenges. The U.S. is too powerful and self-confident to act like a three-year-old having a permanent tantrum. One successful terrorist attack, no matter how horrific, should never have led to a fundamental change in America’s geopolitical strategy.

Of course, Obama should not abandon the fight against international terrorism, but adopt more effective tactics. He should treat al-Qeda and its ilk as criminals rather than armies. Quiet intelligence work, coordination with allies and law enforcement should be used as much as possible. There may be times when military action is needed, but it should be minimized because of its negative effects. Obama should make it a top priority to address the conditions that fuel anti-American hatred. In Afghanistan, this means rebuilding the country; in Pakistan, not propping up unpopular despots like Musharraf; in Israel and the Palestinian territories, throwing the full weight of American diplomacy behind a two-state solution. When it comes to fighting terrorism, America’s most powerful weapon is not its army, it is its brain.

In all endeavors, results matter. Good intentions and big efforts are just great, but at the end of the day it’s the score that determines the winner. An objective look at the quantifiable metrics clearly indicate we are falling way behind here, and any reasonable cost vs. benefit analysis of the current war on terror strategy would dictate new thinking is in order.

The real shame here is that even calling for a objective look at the policy’s effectiveness will be considered by some as raising the white flag, or soft on terrorism, or anti-military or even unpatriotic. How dumb is that?


  1. The recent terrorist attacks at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai showed how difficult the fight against terrorism is for any government. Many questions are still unanswered about how a small group of well-trained foreign terrorists were able to kill so many people without help within India. India has been battling terrorism for a while on its soil. The largest bombings of recent months have been carried out by Indian Muslims who called themselves the Indian Mujahideen. As usual, when bad things happen, people have a tendency to blame their own government for “not doing enough” to prevent the tragedy. Time will tell if this spectacular attack was carried out without “cooperation” of the Indian Mujahideen. As the Mossi of Burkina Faso say, ” When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”

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