“We are not waging a war against terrorism because terrorism is but a tactic that will never be defeated, any more than a tactics of war will. Rather, such thinking is a recipe for endless conflict. ... We are at war with Al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and any comment to the contrary is just inaccurate."
John Brennan, Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism
Both arguments were of course proven wrong, because you can defeat an "Ism" by bringing down the system and country that most exemplifies it, thereby devaluing it as a political or ideological strategy at least for some time to come. That in turn is exactly why Muslim terrorism is targeting America, because we exemplify a society that blends human freedoms, popular representation and free enterprise. If they can corrupt, destroy or bring down America, they will have come one step closer to demonstrating that there is no alternative to accepting Islam.
Brennan argues that terrorism is just another tactic of war, and that therefore it cannot be defeated. This is wrong on both counts, as a man who spent so much time in the intelligence and counterterrorism world should know.
First of all a tactic of war can indeed be defeated by demonstrating that its use is either futile or self-destructive. The reason we have never had a nuclear war, is because any strategy that depended on winning a nuclear war was eliminated by demonstrating that it was far more likely to lead to self-destruction, than to victory.
Secondly terrorism is not a tactic of war, it is a political tactic. Terrorists don't employ terrorism in order to defeat armies, but to show that the army and security forces are unable to defeat them or stop their attacks. Their real target is the political apparatus of the enemy which is forced to make concessions to the political goals of the terrorists in order to end the attacks. These concessions can be direct or indirect. An example of direct concessions would occur at a peace conference, such as the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and Arafat. While an indirect example would be the American and European attempt to appease "moderate" Muslims who have the same goals as the "extremist" Muslims . While the terrorists will usually denounce such appeasement, this is only done in order to stake out their position on the left or the right, and thereby achieve even more far ranging concessions.
If terrorists had the courage to make war, they would make war. They don't plant bombs in cafes because they believe they can actually defeat their enemies in battle. They plant bombs in cafes because they know that they can't, and that their only hope is to spread terror through public acts of terror and highly visible atrocities in order to make it easier for weak politicians to make a fitful effort to stop them, and then pull back when they realize that their half-hearted measures alone won't carry the day.
That is why it is impossible to defeat terrorists, without defeating terrorism. Because the two are the same. Terrorists depend on the success of their core tactic, that of terrorizing the enemy. You cannot defeat them without discrediting this tactic, without demonstrating that it is futile and self-destructive. And you do that in two ways, first by never bowing to terrorism or its demands in any way shape or form. And secondly by going on the offensive against terrorists, by targeting their allies and their affiliated political movements, and any groups, ethnic, religious or political that support them.
The terrorists' tactic is to turn up the heat on their enemies. The best counter is to turn up the heat on them. The terrorists gain their strength by being on the offensive and forcing their enemies to take reactive stances, always waiting to defend against every possible attack. The best counter is to force the terrorists to go on the defensive, to hit them and keep hitting them so that they are forced to be reactive, anticipating the next attack.
A major terrorist organization requires a core of professionals to train new recruits and run operations. It requires a constant flow of money to fund terrorist activities. It needs a political arm or sympathizers and fellow travelers who will conduct their propaganda for them, and make their aims and goals clear. And finally it needs warm bodies to throw into the fray and transform into martyrs. Critics usually harp on the last of these as demonstrating that you cannot simply kill terrorists because they will just recruit more. Which is true. But such recruits are generally worthless. Suicide bombings alone demonstrate how worthless even the terrorist leaders themselves think their recruits are.
But if you can destroy or severely damage the first three, then you have destroyed or severely crippled the ability of the terrorist group to operate. If you destroy its core personnel, you can eliminate the entire group as a threat. If you can humiliate them by forcing confessions out of them, you can even discredit the group's "brand" and impede other terrorists from trying to form the group again in the future.
If you can stop or black the majority of operations, and discredit or destroy some of the core personnel, you will discourage the flow of donations to the group from its backers. Furthermore if you can destroy the political arms and terrify or take down the fellow travelers, you can essentially isolate the terrorist group both from its financial backers and its political goals. The group becomes a dead end, with no real way left to achieve its objectives. Because terrorism is a political strategy, and if the group cannot have any way left to effect political change, it becomes worthless.
It sounds easy, but it's not. The key is to understand that doing these without any real commitment is almost as bad as not doing anything at all. Because the terrorists depend on a certain amount of engagement in order to be able to carry on a running battle that will bring them attention and money, and that will make the people feel that further fighting is futile. The terrorists count on being able to survive repeated engagements by a government too afraid to fight them with the gloves off... so that they can then claim that force will not stop them, only concessions and appeasement will end the violence.
To defeat both terrorists and terrorism, you must be ruthless. You must destroy them by destroying whatever cover they depend on. You must cut off their outside aid and political camouflage, put them on the run and keep them on the run, until they are isolated and immobile, at which point they can be destroyed. This will require tactics that often seem ugly to the postmodern mentality that believes that force is only moral, when it is practiced with perfect purity. But the only thing uglier than what it will take to defeat terrorists, is their victory.
(Spanish Language Translation at REFLEXIONES SOBRE MEDIO ORIENTE Y EL MUNDO)