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War on Terrorism Over?

Last week, shortly after being inaugurated, President Barack Obama ended the "global war on terror" (GWOT). Or so The Washington Post reported. The new president countermanded the Bush administration's extralegal approaches by mandating the closure of Guantánamo within a year, outlawing the use of torture in interrogations, and putting the CIA out of the secret prisons business. Obama announced that he wanted to "send an unmistakable signal that our actions in defense of liberty will be as just as our cause."

Sounds good. But the Post's declaration might be just as premature as President George W. Bush's infamous "mission accomplished" speech on the USS Lincoln that signaled the "end" of the Iraq War. On the civil liberties front, for instance, the administration retains the right to use renditions, by which the CIA secretly abducted suspects and transferred them to third countries without trial. "I think it's a glaring hole," Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights said last week on Democracy Now! "I think that one way that the Obama administration could have dealt a more decisive blow to the illegal Bush policies and even the rendition policy, which originated under Bill Clinton, is to specifically reference this and to say that we are going to disavow this."

Also, the inmates at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, which holds more prisoners than Gitmo, and the thousands held in Iraq won't get the case-by-case review accorded to their counterparts in Cuba. Non-military agencies like the CIA, after a six-month review, might get "additional or different guidance" on interrogations -- and who knows what that means. And, as Politico points out, the guy in charge of the 30-day review of Gitmo is the same fellow who was in charge for the last two years -- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. That's not exactly a recipe for reform.

But even if Obama holds to his word on torture, closes Guantánamo within the year, applies the same yardstick to detainees at Bagram and in Iraq, and eliminates the Clinton-era policy on extraordinary rendition, the death of the "global war on terror," as Mark Twain once said of his own prematurely published obituary, is greatly exaggerated. Indeed, on the day after it published GWOT's obituary, The Washington Post reported on two U.S. unilateral air strikes in Pakistan that killed 20 suspected terrorists. Although it observed an uncharacteristic silence over these strikes, the Pakistani government has previously expressed outrage at these violations of its sovereignty.


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Then there's Afghanistan, which will be the new epicenter of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Here's the relevant excerpt from the official White House statement on foreign policy: "Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security -- the resurgence of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan's economic development." Why does Obama believe that he can escape the same outcome in Afghanistan that Bush faced in Iraq? As former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern argued in a recent appeal for a five-year "time-out" on war, "In 2003, the Bush administration ordered an invasion of Iraq, supposedly to reduce terrorism. But six years later, there is more terrorism and civil strife in Iraq, not less. The same outcome may occur in Afghanistan if we make it the next American military conflict."

So, is this a kinder, gentler GWOT? Certainly the new Obama administration is more concerned about observing international law. It's more prudent in its willingness to use diplomacy over force. But so far at least, the new president still treats terrorism as a war to be won rather than an endemic problem to be dealt with patiently and largely by law enforcement agencies. We're still at war in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and for the time being in Iraq. We're still selling arms to Indonesia, Israel, and Colombia as part of an overall counterterrorism approach. The Pentagon's new Africa Command (AFRICOM) still looks at counter-terrorism through a military lens.

Sounds to me like we haven't seen the last of GWOT quite yet.

John Feffer

John Feffer

John Feffer is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His new novel, Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series, has just been published. His podcast is available here.

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