The Pentagon has announced a rebranding exercise. The War formerly known as the War against Terror" will now be known as "The Long War".
Usually in a war it is helpful to know three things: who you are fighting, what you are fighting for and when you know whether you have won or lost.
We are given to understand that our enemy, the shadowy and evil people associated with Al-Q'aida could appear in any place and commit any crime up to and including using nuclear weapons against population centres. The definition of success is that such crimes do not take place. Repeatedly those authority figures with access to the highest grade of intelligence tell us that many attacks have been thwarted, but "if you knew what we knew" then we would be pretty scared, indeed terrified out of our wits.
In the name of the War on Terror, the US-led coalition have gone to war in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime that undoubtedly sponsored Bin Laden and his close personal maniacs in Al Q'aida. Subsequently the US and its allies have undertaken a far bigger operation in Iraq. The justification for going to war in Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed "weapons of mass destruction"- hinted at being nuclear- that would be handed to Al Q'aida for use against the West. In the event, after the Coalition occupation of the country it was discovered that Saddam did not have a nuclear capability and that the WMDs that he had previously possessed- gas weapons- had been destroyed. Thus the ostensible reason for the Iraq war was invalid.
Since 2001 no further attacks have taken place on US soil, although disorganized attacks have taken place in Istanbul, Israel, Bali, Jakarta, Morocco, Egypt, Madrid and London which have all been said to be Al Q'aida inspired. The police investigations have not revealed a single controlling force behind these attacks, but rather that each attack was specific and largely local. The largest single area of operation for Al Q'aida inspired violence is of course post-Saddam Iraq.
In the United Kingdom, we have had prolonged experience of terrorist attacks- largely from the Provisional IRA- the largest of the terrorist movements of the 1960s-1970s. The PIRA was heavily armed and generally considered ruthless, with 10 PIRA/INLA operatives starving themselves to death in the hunger strikes of 1981. However suicide attacks were not part of the PIRA's modus operandi. Other terrorist movements, such as the German Red Brigades and Baader Meinhof Gang and the Italian Red Brigades were also inspired by Marxism-Leninism and it is widely believed that all of the Western European terrorist groups of the 1970s received support and money from the Soviet Union.
Al Q'aida does not have a sustaining power behind it, and if it exists in a formal sense, then it is a highly diffuse and non-hierarchical organization. As a result to fight such a group or groups is more like a police operation- dealing with an infection within- rather than fighting an external enemy.
We know that we want the Al Q'aida attacks to stop, but how can we make this happen when we know so little about what inspires and motivates the small and closed groups that inflict the violence? With the PIRA, the generation of leaders under McGuinness and Adams recognized that the violence was futile and that they recognized that they could conduct a political struggle for the same aims. The ending of financial and military support from such sources as Libya and the USSR and more successful MI5 penetration may also have concentrated their minds. The RAF or Red Brigades - perhaps closer to Al Q'aida than the PIRA in numbers and organization- either ceased operations or were caught in a series of police operations.
So, compared to the PIRA, we are not entirely sure who we are fighting and we will not be sure when or if we have won. As far as what we are fighting for, I would make the following observations. Most liberal societies have faced terrorist attacks. Sometimes these have been defeated. Sometimes, however, attacks have led to something of a much bigger scale: the assassination at Sarajevo on June 28th 1914, for example. Thus, it seems to me that the risks of over reaction are more dangerous than the risks of the attacks themselves.
I oppose the "Long War", because the methods being used to prosecute it may or may not have any effect on terrorism, but they definitely have an effect on Liberty. In the name of protecting us from the terrorists, our leaders have imposed open ended restrictions upon our society- costs of money transmission, travel, investment, business, or dealing with the state at any level have all increased. The state has taken upon itself the right to know previously private information and to use it in any way that it sees fit. The state requires citizens to prove their innocence- a negation of a basic principle of the Common Law. If the War on Terror is being fought internally, it is a cure worse than the disease.
The Long War is a chimera- there is no way of knowing who we are fighting, there is no way of knowing if we have won or lost. If we are fighting to protect our freedom though, we are in danger of destroying ourselves. Once again it comes back to the need to define what the state may or may not do. Clear rules that define and limit the activities of the state are the central root of a liberal constitution- the War on Terror has eroded these rules. We must turn back. We must end this "war focused" mindset and remember that this is a police operation, not a war necessarily against an external enemy. The alternative is that "The Long War" will become as permanent as the war of Orwell's "1984"- with Bin Laden as our own Goldstein- and just as damaging to the individual liberties that we prize and that terrorists despise.