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Tufts Conference Scrutinizes the War on Terror

By Pierre Atlas

MEDFORD, Mass.-- Participants at a two-day conference on terrorism at Tufts University were in broad agreement that the "War on Terror" has been misconceived conceptually and, for the most part, poorly implemented operationally. In the process, we've lost sight of the real terrorist threat to America--Al-Qaeda.

The general consensus on Iraq was that the war has been misguided and bungled from the beginning. President Bush's "troop surge" was viewed with skepticism at best. None of the speakers believed there will be a "good" outcome for Iraq, only a series of negative possibilities ranging from "bad" to "worse."

The question is, "Do we get an F or a D- in Iraq?" asked Peter Bergen, the former CNN reporter who interviewed Osama bin Laden and has written extensively about Al-Qaeda. "We can't create democracy or prevent civil war in Iraq. Sending additional US military forces to Afghanistan would make a difference. But not in Iraq."

Bergen joined about 25 scholars, journalists and terrorism experts for "The 'War on Terrorism': Where Do We Stand?" Hosted by Tufts' Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies, the conference attracted an audience of over 400 professors, students, State and Defense Department officials and members of the general public.

The distinguished roster of speakers included suicide terrorism expert Robert Pape of the University of Chicago; Fawaz Gerges and John Esposito, well-known scholars of Islam and radical Islamist movements; Cofer Black, former counter-terrorism director at the CIA and State Department and current vice chairman of Blackwater USA; and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker.

Several common themes emerged over the two days of presentations and discussion. The US response to terrorism has been overly militarized, without serious public diplomacy, economic assistance, or efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few panelists commented that the US military, although superb in combat, is not the most effective tool for counter-terrorism. One terrorism expert lamented that, in the Bush administration, "the DOD is the 800 pound gorilla and everyone else is teeny mice."

All the panelists were in agreement that the invasion of Iraq has been a boon to the radical jihadist cause. Richard Shultz, director of the Security Studies program at Tufts noted that the Iraq war "has given Al-Qaeda an opportunity to engage the 'far enemy' [the US] up close, and an opportunity to spawn the next generation of warriors." As Fawaz Gerges put it, "The same jihadists who denounced Al-Qaeda after 9/11 are now looking for ways to join the fight against the US in Iraq."

Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, has created a data set of every known instance of suicide terrorism anywhere in the world since 1980. His research suggests that the tactic of suicide bombing has a specific secular and strategic goal: to coerce a democratic state to withdraw its forces from territory prized by the perpetrator. Pape, who taught at the Air University for three years and is in regular contact with the defense and intelligence community in Washington, asserted that "military conquest to transform Muslim societies is likely to increase suicide terrorism. Democracy is not a panacea in Iraq so long as US combat forces remain there."

The panelists made two other important points to which the White House seems oblivious. First, the very concept of a "War on Terror" is highly problematic. Terrorism is a tactic that is available to all groups in conflict, and always will be. How can you wage a war--let alone "win" one--against a type of behavior?

Second, not all terrorists are alike. Most groups that employ terrorist tactics (the deliberate targeting of civilians) are deeply embedded in their societies and have nationalist grievances that are rational and can often be addressed by political means. Hamas, Hezbollah, Kashmiri and Chechen groups, the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers and most of the Sunni insurgents in Iraq fit this type. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, has a nihilistic, apocalyptic agenda that cannot be negotiated.

Reflecting the sentiments of many at the conference, MIT political scientist Stephen Van Evra observed that the US response to terrorism "has been an unfocused shotgun approach to all groups in the Middle East, rather than a rifle aimed at Al-Qaeda." John Esposito of Georgetown University argued that "we need to be able to distinguish between moderate and extremist Islamists," especially as more Islamist groups will be running for elections in the Muslim world.

Perhaps the most sobering theme that emerged from the conference is that US policy is unlikely to change under the current administration. Conferences like the one at Tufts, with well-respected experts on the Middle East, Islam, and terrorism from inside and outside academia--many of whom are in regular contact with the intelligence and defense communities--will likely have little to no influence on what the administration actually does in Iraq or in the "War on Terror." Nor will the views of Congress, our allies, or the American electorate.

Seymour Hersh put it most bluntly: "For the next two years, we have a government that will do what it wants to do. The president and vice president are immune and inured to criticism."

Pierre M. Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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