Did the 'war on terror' end?

As President Obama orders the closure of the Guantanamo detention facility and nullifies the legal underpinnings of the war that former President Bush declared in 2001, US missile attacks kill civilians and threaten Pakistan's stability. Israel's war on Gaza lifts Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu Party on a wave of Jewish hostility towards Arabs. Yet for one commentator this was 'the cruelest and most brutal war in Israel's history, and one of the most unnecessary.'

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On Friday, The Washington Post reported that with a stroke of his pen, President Obama "effectively declared an end to the 'war on terror,' as President George W Bush had defined it, signaling to the world that the reach of the US government in battling its enemies will not be limitless." In an executive order Mr Obama swept away the key components of the secret structure that had been put into place by his predecessor in The White House: "The military's Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where the rights of habeas corpus and due process had been denied detainees, will close, and the CIA is now prohibited from maintaining its own overseas prisons. And in a broad swipe at the Bush administration's lawyers, Obama nullified every legal order and opinion on interrogations issued by any lawyer in the executive branch after Sept 11, 2001." But even if the new administration is making sweeping legal changes in its approach to counterterrorism there are fewer indications that it will adopt a different military approach, particularly when it comes to confronting al Qa'eda suspects based in north western Pakistan. Indeed, in his inauguration speech Mr Obama, using language reminiscent of his predecessor said: "Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." The same day that Mr Obama signaled the end of practices and policies that in recent years faced repeated legal challenges, military forces under his command engaged in attacks that breach Pakistan's sovereignty. In two attacks, missiles fired from US drone aircraft killed 22 people including several civilians. While the first of the attacks was reported to claim the life of a senior al Qa'eda operative, the second attack aimed at the house of a Taliban commander actually hit the house of a pro-government tribal leader, killing him and four members of his family, including a five-year-old child, Pakistani officials told the BBC. Only days before these latest attacks occurred, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari urged the United States to halt drone attacks in his country's tribal areas saying they were destabilising the government, AKI reported. On Wednesday, Mr Zardari said the people of Pakistan welcomed Mr Obama's emphasis on seeking a "new way forward" with the Muslim world "based on mutual interest and mutual respect", said a statement from the presidency, AFP said. At the US State Department on Thursday, while announcing the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as a special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mr Obama described the region as "the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism." On Saturday, after Friday's deadly US missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas, Mr Zardari reiterated his call for the United States to desist in such attacks. Pakistan's foreign ministry issued a statement saying: "With the advent of the new US administration, it is Pakistan's sincere hope that the United States will review its policy and adopt a more holistic and integrated approach toward dealing with the issue of terrorism and extremism. We maintain that these attacks are counterproductive and should be discontinued." While Pakistan's entreaties appear to be falling on deaf ears in Washington, Islamabad's neighbour to the east appears to be having more success in influencing the US approach to the region. According to Laura Rozen at Foreign Policy, "India vigorously - and successfully - lobbied the Obama transition team to make sure that neither India nor Kashmir was included in Holbrooke's official brief. " 'When the Indian government learned Holbrooke was going to do [Pakistan]-India, they swung into action and lobbied to have India excluded from his purview,' relayed one source. 'And they succeeded. Holbrooke's account officially does not include India.' "To many Washington South Asia experts, the decision to not include India or Kashmir in the official Terms of Reference of Holbrooke's mandate was not just appropriate, but absolutely necessary. Given India's fierce, decades-long resistance to any internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute, to have done so would have been a non-starter for India, and guaranteed failure before the envoy mission had begun, several suggested."

The Jerusalem Post reports that inside Israel the big political winner from a war that had overwhelming national support has been Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu Party. Mr Lieberman's party has been able to capitalise on Jewish hostility towards Arabs by running television, radio and Internet ads that highlight statements made by Arab members of the Knesset who criticised Israel's assault on Gaza. Polls placed the Israel Beiteinu Party in third place, ahead of Ehud Barak's Labor party, but behind Tzipi Livni's Kadima and with Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party showing a strong lead. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, told The Washington Post that if Israel's next government is led by Mr Netanyahu, this might make it easier for the Obama administration to get tough on the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. "A left-center government claiming to be eager to make peace usually wins a pass from US presidents on settlements, while right-wing governments resistant to negotiations do not, he said." Commenting on the appointment of George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, "Diana Bhutto, a former Palestinian Authority adviser, was pleased by the Mitchell appointment but said she found Obama's comments on the Palestinians wanting. "Obama said that 'a future without hope for the Palestinians' is 'intolerable'. Bhutto said she was disappointed that he spoke of 'hope' rather than 'freedom', which she said would have made it clear the Palestinians are under occupation. Other oppressed peoples are always promised freedom by American officials, she said, 'but Palestinians only get "hope".' " Yousef Munayyer suggest: "Rather than seeking to bolster the moderates in this conflict, the Obama administration should focus on moderating the extremists. The idea of eliminating Hamas could not be seriously proposed by anyone with any knowledge of domestic Palestinian politics. The notion that Hamas is a primarily militant organisation based in Gaza ignores the movement's vast support in the West Bank and elsewhere. "Dealing with Hamas and groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad in arenas of legitimacy, such as elections, negates the possibility that outside parties will spoil peace negotiations. "Those who would resolve the conflict must understand that such parties and groups, often labeled rejectionist, are not primarily ideologically based and are not monolithic. They, like most political parties, are beholden to a constituency." In Haaretz, the commentator, Gideon Levy, lamented the war's popularity among Israelis. "The vast majority cheered loudly, the negligible minority shouted in silence, like a whistler in the dark. The overwhelming majority only wanted more and more, the inconsequential minority wanted only to stop. The absolute majority gorged, ordering pizzas and scenes of the bombing by video-on-demand, and some stood on the rooftops opposite Gaza with their children to watch the massacre with their own eyes. The trifling minority tried to protest, cringing with shame and feelings of guilt at every image that arrived from Gaza. "Not since the summer of 1967 have we had such a uniform, brainwashed chorus - and back then it was not so nationalist and bestial, insensitive and blind. But now, as the dust clears over the ruins and there are not enough bandages to cover all the wounds; with the cemeteries full and the hospitals bursting; as the cripples, the incapacitated, the amputees, the traumatized and the bereaved, the thousands of wounded and tens of thousands of newly homeless try helplessly to rehabilitate whatever they can, the time has come to respond and say what can be done. Now it is time to elaborate on the alternative to the cruelest and most brutal war in Israel's history, and one of the most unnecessary."

pwoodward@thenational.ae