Michael Howard: It was a terrible error to declare war

From a lecture given by the military historian at the Royal United Services Institute, in London
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When, in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre, the American Secretary of State Colin Powell declared America was "at war", he made a very natural but terrible and irrevocable error. To declare war on terrorists immediately creates a war psychosis that may be totally counterproductive to the objective.

The qualities needed in a serious campaign against terrorists – secrecy, intelligence, political sagacity, quiet ruthlessness, covert actions that remain covert, above all infinite patience – all these are forgotten or overridden in a media-stoked frenzy for immediate results and nagging complaints if they do not arrive.

The President and his colleagues have done their best to explain that this will be a war unlike any other. But it is still a war. The "W" word has been used and cannot be withdrawn; and its use has brought inevitable and irresistible pressure to use military force as soon, and as decisively, as possible.

A struggle against terrorism, as we have discovered over the past century and not least in Northern Ireland, is unlike a war against drugs or a war against crime in one vital respect. It is fundamentally a "battle for hearts and minds". Without hearts and minds, one cannot obtain intelligence and, without intelligence, terrorists can never be defeated. There is not much of a constituency for criminals or drug-traffickers and, in a campaign against them, the Government can be reasonably certain that the mass of the public will be on its side.

But, as we all know, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Terrorists can be successfully destroyed only if public opinion, both at home and abroad, supports the authorities in regarding them as criminals rather than heroes.

In the intricate game of skill played between terrorists and the authorities, as we discovered in both Palestine and Ireland, the terrorists have already won an important battle if they can provoke the authorities into using overt armed force against them. They will then be in a win-win situation. Either they will escape to fight another day, or they will be defeated and celebrated as martyrs. In the process of fighting them a lot of innocent civilians will certainly be hurt, which will further erode the moral authority of the government. Who here will ever forget Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, when a few bursts of small arms fire by the British Army gave the IRA a propaganda victory from which the British Government was never to recover? And if so much harm can be done by rifles, what about bombing? I can only suggest that it is like trying to eradicate cancer cells with a blowtorch.

There is no reason to suppose Osama bin Laden enjoys any more sympathy in the Islamic world than, say, Ian Paisley does in that of Christendom. He is a phenomenon that has cropped up several times in our history – a charismatic religious leader fanatically hostile to the West leading a cult that sometimes gripped an entire nation.

The difference today is that such leaders can recruit followers from all over the world, and can strike back anywhere in the world. They are neither representative of Islam nor approved by Islam, but the roots of their appeal lie in a peculiarly Islamic predicament that only intensified over the last half of the 20th century: the challenge to Islamic culture and values posed by the secular and materialistic culture of the West, and their inability to come to terms with it.

In retrospect, it is quite astonishing how little we have understood or empathised with the huge crisis that has faced that vast and populous section of the world stretching from the Mahgreb through the Middle East and Central Asia, into South and South-East Asia, and beyond to the Philippines: overpopulated, underdeveloped, being dragged headlong by the West into the postmodern age before they have come to terms with modernity. This is not a problem of poverty as against wealth and I am afraid that it is symptomatic of our western materialism to suppose it is. It is the far more profound and intractable confrontation between a theistic, land-based and traditional culture, in places little different from the Europe of the Middle Ages, and the secular material values of the Enlightenment.

The front line in the struggle is not Afghanistan. It is in the Islamic states where modernising governments are threatened by a traditionalist backlash: Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, to name only the most obvious. For these people, the events of 11 September were terrible, but they happened a long way away and in another world.

Those whose sufferings as a result of western air raids or of Israeli incursions are depicted nightly on television are people, however geographically distant, with whom they can easily identify. That is why prolonging the war is likely to be so disastrous. Even more disastrous would be its extension, as American opinion seems increasingly to demand, in a "Long March" through other "rogue states" beginning with Iraq. I can think of no policy more likely, not only to indefinitely prolong the war, but to ensure we can never win it.