Skip to main content
/world
  Edition: U.S. | Arabic | Set Pref

Commentary: How Obama should run war on terror

  • Story Highlights
  • Peter Bergen: Winning the war against al Qaeda requires new rules
  • Bergen: Obama should try to lower the temperature in the Muslim world
  • Bergen: U.S. should adopt a "do no harm" doctrine in its international relations
  • Bergen: U.S. should promote more open and just societies in Muslim world
  • Next Article in World »
By Peter Bergen
CNN National Security Analyst
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington and at New York University's Center on Law and Security. His most recent book is "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader." This is the second of two commentaries on the war on terror. Read the first piece here

Peter Bergen says terror groups like al Qaeda can self-destruct if their enemies don't get in the way.

Peter Bergen says terror groups like al Qaeda can self-destruct if their enemies don't get in the way.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the war against al Qaeda and its allies, Barack Obama should adopt five key principles when he takes office.

First, the United States must lower the temperature in the Muslim world to help win back the "swing voters" in the Islamic world who turned against America and provide passive support to al Qaeda.

The Obama administration can do this by working as an honest broker to resolve conflicts such as those in Kashmir and Israel/Palestine that serve as grievances for Muslims and sometimes training grounds for militants.

In addition, to help regain the moral high ground the United States should promptly close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and announce that it will never engage in coercive interrogations of detainees.

A second strategic doctrine should be: first, do no harm. Its rationale lies in the several major strategic weaknesses from which al Qaeda and its associated groups suffer.

Encoded in the DNA of groups like al Qaeda are the seeds of their own long-term destruction:

Their victims are more often than not Muslim civilians; the organization doesn't offer a positive vision of the future (but rather the prospect of Taliban-style regimes from Morocco to Indonesia); it keeps expanding its list of enemies, including any Muslim who doesn't precisely share its world view; and it seems incapable of becoming a politically successful movement because al Qaeda's ideology prevents it from making the real-world compromises that would allow it to engage in genuine politics.

This is not, however, an argument for doing nothing. It is paradoxically their very weaknesses and lack of return addresses that makes the jihadist terrorists more likely to attack the United States than traditional state antagonists.

The "do no harm" doctrine would have served the Bush administration well before it attacked Iraq, given the more than 4,000 dead and 30,000 wounded American soldiers; the tens of thousands of Iraqis killed; the cost to U.S. taxpayers that could top a trillion dollars, and the fact that jihadist terrorist attacks increased around the world sevenfold in the three years following the 2003 invasion, according to a study by Paul Cruickshank of NYU and myself.

Consideration of the "do no harm" policy should guide future Obama decisions about Pakistan and Iran where the wrong choices will help empower militants.

The third doctrine is to disaggregate our enemies. The United States must not fall into bin Laden's rhetorical trap of believing there is a monolithic global jihadist militant movement united against it. The United States should be splintering, buying off and co-opting its enemies -- the kind of policy that severely damaged al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) unrestrained violence and imposition of Taliban ideology on Iraqis was a self-inflicted wound provoking a countrywide Sunni backlash against AQI in the form of 'Awakening' militias allied with the United States.

The combination of the Sunni militias' on-the-ground intelligence about former AQI allies and American firepower, proved devastating to al Qaeda's Iraqi franchise. The lessons of this model can be applied to the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the usual caveats that Iraq is far from exactly analogous to South Asia.

The fourth doctrine is to approach the war on al Qaeda and allied groups as a global counterinsurgency campaign, something that thoughtful students of the global war on terror like the Australian anthropologist/infantry officer Lt. Col. David Kilcullen and Bruce Hoffman, the dean of terrorism studies, have advocated for years.

Successful counterinsurgency solutions are generally 80 percent political and only 20 percent military. The by now well-known statistic that there are more musicians in U.S. military bands than American Foreign Service Officers speaks volumes about the disproportionate government funding of a U.S. military still overly oriented to superpower warfare.

Winning wars politically requires not additional billion-dollar aircraft carriers but more relatively inexpensive diplomats, trainers who can build up local police forces and embedded Special Forces soldiers who specialize in training indigenous armies.

Finally, promoting more open societies in the Muslim world will undermine the jihadist terrorists. It is no accident that so many members of jihadist terror organizations come from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and Egypt -- countries ruled by authoritarian regimes.

The Bush administration tended to put its faith in elections as a synonym for "democracy." A more effective approach is to emphasize the larger concepts that underpin democracy such as rule of law -- "justice" is a particularly resonant concept in the Muslim world -- and a free press.

And that's what Muslims want for themselves, according to Pew polls taken since 9/11 in 17 countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Pew found that Muslim publics attach considerable importance to "freedom to criticize the government. Honest multi-party elections, a fair-handed judiciary and a press free to report without government censorship."

That sounds a lot like the values that Americans also hold dear. The Obama administration will come into office with a great deal of work to do from Kabul to Kashmir and from Iraq to Indonesia. But it can do so secure in the knowledge that Muslims embrace many of the same political values that Americans do.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen.

All About George W. BushHamasAl Qaeda

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print
Home  |  Asia  |  Europe  |  U.S.  |  World  |  World Business  |  Technology  |  Entertainment  |  World Sport  |  Travel
Podcasts  |  Blogs  |  CNN Mobile  |  RSS Feeds  |  Email Alerts  |  CNN Radio  |  Site Map
© 2009 Cable News Network. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.