One of the most important and polarizing debates in Pakistan continues to this day with the most fundamental question still unanswered: Is the war on terror our war or not? The international narrative on war on terror is overwhelmingly geopolitical. The West continually blames Pakistan for providing safe havens to militants in FATA from where they launch offensive against the US in Afghanistan. From US drone attacks to the attacks on Salala and Abbottabad, re-opening of NATO supply line, American financing of war efforts and arrest of American spies in Pakistan everything points to a direct American link to this war within Pakistan so much so that American policy makers consider Pakistan and Afghan territories as a “joint war theatre”. On the physical front, the US has engaged militants with Pakistan security forces whereas on the intellectual front it has pitted “liberals” against the Taliban just to ensure that her strategic objectives are not threatened.
It is, in this backdrop, we should try to assess Obama’s address to the National Defense University on 25th May 2013 in which he tried to redefine the war on terror. US President Barack Obama replaced the phrase “global war on terror” with “overseas contingency operation” after he first assumed office in 2009 but did it change the lawlessness embedded in the actions of his predecessor George W. Bush launched post Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?
The record of the last four years shows that Obama has vigorously embraced and employed every one of his predecessor’s tools and methods that include drone strikes or killing by remote control, one of the most brutal features of the war on terror, which have grown eightfold under a president who is a Nobel Peace laureate. Moreover, Obama has not found anything wrong with continuing extraordinary acts like indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay without charges and the targeting of citizens of other countries.
The most important point in the speech was that he would work with Congress to “refine, and ultimately repeal” the post-9/11 authorization for use of military force. On Guantanamo, he said that he would press Congress anew to lift other restrictions that have made it impossible to close the facility.
In his speech, Obama did not say he would stop drone strikes as he doesn’t want to appear “soft” on the issue of national security. All he said was that drone strikes would henceforth be limited to scenarios in which there was virtually no risk of civilian casualties. Here again we see a reluctance to tackle the moral and legal issues associated with the drone warfare, indefinite detention and other harsh and brutal measures that have become integral parts of the war on terror. According to the New America Foundation, between 1,717 and 2,680 people were killed during 2004-2011 and of them 293 to 471 were “civilians”. The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts the number of civilian deaths during the same period at 391 to 780, including 175 children (out of 2,372 to 2,997 casualties)
In essence, Bush’s war will continue but under a different name. The war on terror has only created more and more enemies in more and more places for America without eliminating the threat of terrorism. Doing the same thing again and again under a different label is not going to produce a different result. (Ahsan Nisar)