Reading USA Today this morning, though, I was struck by how this attack really undermines a central component of how we've been prosecuting our war on terror.
Though it was unclear exactly who orchestrated the attacks, they appear to provide further evidence that the main battleground for Islamist extremists is shifting from Iraq, where violence has fallen dramatically this year, to the democracies of South Asia. Militants are inflicting heavy casualties on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, seizing control of territory from a fragile government in Pakistan and proving they can strike just about anywhere in India.
Some would look at this and say, "victory in Iraq"! And perhaps it is indicative of the fruits of American blood and iron in that country. But if so, so what? If the tangible impact of the Iraq war is simply to have terrorists shift terrain from Iraq to India, we've spent the last five years going in neutral.
The problem is one I brought forward in the very early days of this blog: the overemphasis on sovereign states as the arena for combating terrorists. This, I held, was misplaced, since the very nature of terrorist groups makes them transnational and relatively untied to traditional geographic borders. If we view al-Qaeda as seeking to disrupt the hegemonic power of the Western world (ideally to bring up a new Islamic counterweight), it can accomplish that through operations nearly anywhere in the world. Al-Qaeda could flee the field entirely in Iraq tomorrow, and it wouldn't accomplish anything if they merely reconstituted themselves in South Asia.
The signal of the Mumbai attacks is that we've been looking at the problem all wrong. Cowboy rhetoric of "force being the only language evildoers understand" notwithstanding, it is becoming more apparent that while force is necessary to react to terrorist violence, it is a relatively ineffective weapon for creating an offensive posture. We need to start looking into alternative strategies for stopping terrorist activity before it starts. That's an intelligence issue, in part, but (as much as conservatives hate to admit it) it also is a question of greater engagement with countries and peoples worldwide, and (perhaps more importantly) a greater commitment to inclusion in the world's bounty.
Iraq was the last gasp of the belief that American muscle, alone, could solve any problem. We went into Iraq with the deliberate view that we didn't have to account for any other place or any other people. This was where the terrorists were, we go in, we take 'em out, mission accomplished, let's go home. That has proven to be a fatal error in judgment. And the longer way take to learn from it, the more Mumbai's the democratic world will have to suffer.