Defeat Al Qaeda by Bringing the Battle Back Down to Earth

How in heaven's name does the U.S. win a war of the imagination? By not fighting one, says Reza Aslan.

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The Bush administration's reaction to 9/11 gave al Qaeda and its allies sustenance by giving them undue credibility, Reza Aslan argues in How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. Aslan, author of the critically acclaimed No god but God, writes a column for the Daily Beast and is a professor of creative writing at the University of California-Riverside. He recently chatted with U.S. News about how, by changing its approach to dealing with global jihadists, the United States can extricate itself from an unwinnable struggle. Excerpts:

What is a "cosmic war"?

A cosmic war is a war of the imagination. It's a war in which participants believe that they're acting out on this Earth the battle that's actually taking place in heaven between the cosmic forces of good and evil. This is the fight that al Qaeda is engaged in: a war whose goals and agendas can't be achieved in any real or measurable terms, a war that, while the violence is real, while the bloodshed is real, the battle itself is taking place on another plane. We're just the physical manifestation of a war in heaven?

Exactly. What that does is, first of all, it creates soldiers out of what are essentially brutes and butchers. But more importantly, it does away with any kind of ethical restraints. One of the arguments you hear a lot, particularly from Muslims, about al Qaeda is that they're un-Islamic, they're not acting according to Islamic values and laws. And while that's true, it sort of misses the point, because for these groups who believe that they're engaged in apocalyptic battles—in which what's at stake is the triumph of good over evil and in which they are not themselves responsible for their actions, that their actions are actually being in some way controlled by a heavenly force—ethics, laws, the traditional barriers between combatants and noncombatants, human conceptions of morality are irrelevant. So how does one win a cosmic war?

To put it in the simplest way possible, the way that you win a cosmic war is by not fighting a cosmic war. This is the principal lesson that the book talks about. The United States, in launching the war on terror under the previous administration, blatantly adopted the exact same religiously polarizing rhetoric, the same cosmic worldview as the jihadists. For example?

For example, by considering this conflict against what is clearly a criminal conspiracy [to be] a global conflict between good and evil for the future of civilization as we know it. Those were the terms that were used in describing the battle against al Qaeda. These kinds of cosmic terms not only just validate the viewpoint of the jihadists; it made their conflict that much more real, because they found an enemy that is willing to fight on their terms. Worse, it helped them spread this overwhelming propaganda, which has seized much of the Muslim world, that the war on terror is in fact a war against Islam. It always seemed odd when President Bush would note that al Qaeda wanted to have a new global caliphate. One thought, "So what?"

The agenda, the goals of the jihadists are so insane, so mind-bogglingly impossible, that to take them seriously is to legitimize them. The mistake that I think the Defense Department made is that for about six weeks or so until someone told them to knock it off, Donald Rumsfeld kept saying that his greatest fear is that al Qaeda will be able to use Iraq as a base to be able to launch a global caliphate. If you [had] asked 10 random Arabs on the street whether they would like to re-create the caliphate, five of them would say, "What's a caliphate?" When the most powerful force on Earth—the United States military—declares that its greatest fear is that [Osama] bin Laden is going to re-create the caliphate, it suddenly makes this absurd ideology somewhat real. You say, though, that going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11 was correct.

There is a very real war taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it requires a military response. The problem is when you conflate the military actions against these al Qaeda militants with these larger ideological conflicts. There are a whole host of organizations and movements and nonstate entities and state actors with vastly different goals, vastly different ideologies, some of whom hate each other much more than they hate us. What we have done is we've lumped all of these groups into a single category—enemy—we've given them a single label—terrorist—and we've responded with a single reaction—war. One thing I will say that the Obama administration has gotten right is that they seem to be at the beginning stages of disaggregating these groups.