11/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Future of the War on Terror

Sir Lawrence Freedman, author of "A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East"and professor of war studies and vice-principal at King's College London, responded to questions about where the once-tops-on-the-issues-list War on Terror stands with the presidential debates coming to a close and the economic situation taking the 'important issues" spotlight lately. Professor Freedman will also be headlining a set of panel debates on October 15, 16 and 20 in New York, Boston and Washington D.C., respectively. See this article for details on attending.

1. Since all eyes have been on the global economy recently, what is your position on the impact the financial crisis will have on the future of the War on Terror?

The most obvious impact of the current crisis is that the United States has now not only added economic overstretch to military overstretch but there is probably political overstretch as well. There is only so much a government can cope with at any one time, never mind at such a transitional process as this. By and large this is a time when there is a need to calm the international environment rather than added extra excitement, so this makes it an unlikely time for the US to take any major initiatives, such as an air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. By the same token, of course, this creates temptations for those who might wish to harm America, to catch it while it is distracted. The main problem is that the position in what has always been the main arena in this particular struggle - the fight against the Taliban and associates in Afghanistan and Pakistan - is currently at an extremely difficult phase and is not getting the high-level attention it needs.

2. Will finding Osama bin Laden be the main goal of the War on Terror with a new U.S. commander in chief? How will this focus change, if at all?

In a way Osama bin Laden is yesterday's man and it is probably best to be derisive rather than continue to build him as Enemy Number One. Al Qaeda's ability to mount a global campaign remains limited, though they might still be able to sponsor the occasional outrage. The problem is now the broader Islamist movement of which al Qaeda is just one part. That is far stronger politically than it was seven years ago. This presents itself in a variety of ways in different countries and so will require a diverse set of political responses. I would suspect that whoever is the commander-in-chief is going to have to put their main effort into stabilizing south Asia as much as the Middle East, and that political and economic actions are going to be as important as the military.

3. What is your forecast for the plan of action in the War on Terror with each candidate, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain?

One of the major issues dividing the candidates in the election campaign has been the relative balance between the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Obama argues, with some justice, that Iraq was a dangerous diversion from Afghanistan which must be the main priority. Senator McCain argues that both could be done and criticizes Obama for not supporting the 'surge' which, as part of a number of developments, has helped to stabilize Iraq. Both arguments are historical in nature and not of much help in working out what to do now. In practice the improved situation in Iraq should allow a diversion of military effort to Afghanistan whoever is in charge. The trouble is that the instability has now spread to Pakistan. This has also become an issue in the campaign, except this time Obama appears to be taking the more hawkish stance by arguing for the right of 'hot pursuit' from Afghanistan into Pakistan - although McCain's objection appears to be mainly talking about the prospect rather than doing it. Certainly regular air strikes that have killed civilians as well as militants have done little for American popularity in both countries, while both the Afghan and Pakistan forces are struggling in their own campaigns against radical Islamist movements. In practice this means that while the US will not wish to relax its military stance the emphasis may well start to shift to finding elements within the Taliban, which is no more a coherent force than any other political formation in the region, with whom it is possible to negotiate. The outcome is hardly going to be satisfactory but the main effort must be to contain the impact of local radicalism.

4. Finally, it seems the interest of the American people, and globally, shifts to whatever the most pressing matter is at that moment. If the economy is failing, the major issue is the economy. If the wars are being lost or terrorist attacks are rampant, that is the major issue. Short of a terrorist attack, what is your assessment of when and how the War on Terror will be the most important issue in the face of other issues taking precedence, like the economy?

The current financial crisis and imminent recession will transform all aspects of international politics. Governments will become fragile and some will fall, resources will be tight and nerves frayed. There will be many consequences, some small and others larger, that will interact with each other, so the repercussions will develop and move in unexpected directions. For example it is not only the big economies of the west that will be shaken, and the effects for them may be less profound than elsewhere, for the west probably has a larger capacity to recover. So while Iran and Russia might gloat over American weakness, they too are suffering from the economic gloom, along with the reversal of the upward movement of oil prices. The danger in this situation is that whole countries become vulnerable as people are unable to meet their basic needs and states subsidies have to be curtailed. This puts a number of governments - both pro- and anti- West at risk and creates opportunities for populist movements. The most dangerous scenarios therefore concern countries of some strategic importance imploding (Pakistan comes to mind once again - Egypt is another possibility) and NATO countries, for the moment at least, lacking the focus and capacity to respond.