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Obama redefines war on terror

The president focuses on Al Qaeda and on repairing America’s image in the Muslim world.

By Howard LaFranchi and Gordon LuboldStaff writers / January 29, 2009

Change of command: President Obama met members of the US Armed Forces on a visit to the Pentagon Wednesday. Obama is shifting the focus of the war on terror to Afghanistan.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP



President Obama’s executive orders closing the Guantánamo detention facility and outlawing torture were interpreted in some circles as closing the door on the Bush administration’s global war on terror.

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But Mr. Obama – who used the word “war” in his inaugural address to describe the fight with Islamic extremists who would do America harm – is not so much ending the war on terror as he is redefining it and narrowing its focus.

The president is signaling a desire to home in on the Al Qaeda organization and its leadership, as well as on those Taliban leaders who have created a haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan from which to plot against US interests, say counterterrorism experts.

At the same time, Obama aims to cleave Muslim populations from extremist forces by emphasizing his and America’s common interests with the Muslim people, and by acting fast on issues that matter to them.

Within his first week in office, Obama named a special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian peace, spoke passionately about the suffering of civilians in Gaza, and gave his first television interview as president to the Al-Arabiya satellite network – pointing out that he, too, has Muslims in his family.

But just a day after Obama also named a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Jan 22, the US launched two missile attacks from CIA-operated unmanned drone aircraft at targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas where Al Qaeda’s top leaders are thought to enjoy refuge.

The strikes reportedly killed at least 20 people, including foreign fighters and a high-level militant.

Obama “is already making it clear he is focusing on a war on Al Qaeda instead of a broad war on terrorism,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in terrorism and South Asia studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former CIA analyst and adviser to three US administrations.

“He’s going after the organization that attacked the US on 9/11, and before and since, rather than pursuing a vague and murky war on terrorism everywhere.”

As part of that narrowing of focus, Obama is signaling that the strategy for Afghanistan – which he considers the “central front” in the war on terror – will be scaled back from the Bush administration’s aim of building a democracy to a more realistic goal of denying sanctuary to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in congressional testimony this week.

A significant semantic shift

As Obama adjusts the battle with Islamic extremists to his vision, expect to see two other modifications from the Bush approach, counterterrorism experts say. One will be a conscious semantic shift to deny Al Qaeda and other groups fodder to paint America as waging war on Islam. The second change will be a dethroning of military power as the preeminent response to terrorism, in favor of employing the full panoply of tools from law enforcement and the justice system to international intelligence networks and diplomacy.