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Obama's new nuanced counter-terrorism policy

By B Raman
August 07, 2009 19:49 IST
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Obama's detractors describe the new approach to counter-terrorism as the Jesuit approach. Will it succeed? Obama and Brennan want to give the new policy a try, writes security expert B Raman

John O Brennan, a former career intelligence officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, who now functions as President Barack Obama's Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, has in two interactions on August 5 and 6, unveiled the first details of what will be the counter-terrorism doctrine of the Obama Administration.

The first interaction on August 5, was with a select group of Washington-based journalists. The second on August 6 was in the form of a presentation before the Centre For Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC.

The new policy as outlined by him will be a mix of hard and soft power, the professional and political options and treating terrorism as a threat and at the same time as a phenomenon, which requires a multi-dimensional approach. He was critical of attempts to make the entire foreign policy hostage to counter-terrorism. It will no more be a war on terror as projected by the previous administration of George W Bush. Instead, it will be a campaign against terrorism.

The Washington Post on August 6 quoted him as saying during his interaction with the media: "It (counter-terrorism) needs to be much more than a kinetic effort, an intelligence, law enforcement effort. It has to be much more comprehensive. This is not a 'war on terror'. We cannot let the terror prism guide how we're going to interact and be involved in different parts of the world."

The message, which he has sought to convey through his two interactions is: Counterterrorism will continue to be an important priority of the administration, but not an obsessive priority. One cannot ignore other issues requiring attention under the pretext of preoccupation with counter-terrorism.

Speaking on a day when there were unconfirmed reports from Pakistan that Baitullah Mehsud, the chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan might have been killed in a strike by an unmanned aircraft of the CIA in South Waziristan, Brennan has made it clear that the new doctrine will not mean the slowing down of the operations against Al Qaeda and other terrorists operating from the Af-Pak area. What he means is that while continued military operations are necessary, military operations alone cannot eradicate terrorism. There is and there ought to be a role for other components of counter-terrorism.

Comprehensive counter-terrorism combining all facets of national power -- political, economic and military -- will be the policy from now onwards. The Post has quoted him as saying: "We are not saying that poverty causes terrorism, or disenfranchisement causes terrorism, but we can't mistake there are certain phenomena that contribute to it. Terrorism needs to be fought against and certainly delegitimised or attacked, but some of the underlying grievances that might in fact lead individuals astray to terrorism cannot be ignored."

He also reportedly told the journalists: "It's important to maintain the offensive against what are clearly terrorist training facilities and camps, and we're working closely with the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments to root out these facilities. At the same time, the use of lethal force must be very focused, and ensure that we are not incurring any type of collateral damage."

In his presentation at the CSIS, he deplored the use of the expression 'jihadi terrorism' and said: "Describing terrorists in this way -- using a legitimate term, jihad, meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal -- risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself."

However, he did not indicate how else to characterise the terrorism of Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organisations. Just terrorism? Without saying Islamic or jihadi terrorism? He was not clear, but that is probably what he meant.

Obama's detractors describe the new approach to counter-terrorism as the Jesuit approach. Will it succeed? Obama and Brennan want to give the new policy a try.

Ultimately, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

It needs to be noted that the remarks of Brennan and the new policy as outlined by him related to the campaign against Al Qaeda and other pro-Al Qaeda organisations. He avoided any detailed remarks on the campaign against the Taliban.

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B Raman