Professor Asad's article was published in ABC Opinion
One view is that war is a mechanism for dispute resolution, a quarrel between sovereigns that cannot be resolved other than violently by victory and defeat.
But what if the antagonists are not both sovereigns? What if there is no dispute between sovereign antagonists, no defined claim to be vindicated? What if the antagonists are simply moved to exchange punishments (as in a feud)? Is this still "war"?
What if each side sees itself as engaged in the defence of non-negotiable values, in what former Secretary of Defence William Cohen called "holy war"? How should one see violent conflict when it is difficult to envisage what victory would look like?
If the violence aims at extirpating the enemy, if the victor acquires no new rights from the vanquished, perhaps the "war" (a term invoking moral resolve) is exactly what today the United States claims it to be: an attempt at exterminating "evil" - a theological concept denoting something with which one cannot under any circumstances come to terms, something that should be eliminated.
Since at least the nineteenth century, Euro-American imperial policies have tended to envisage humanity as divided into two: the one occupying a space of "peace" and the other a space of "war."
In spite of two devastating world wars, genocides and colonial repression, there remains an older imaginary division between the Law-bound West and the Lawless Rest.
In this context, the violence of the Taliban in Afghanisatn is seen as intrinsically expressive, its vision as confined to a "medieval" past, whereas NATO's military action is seen as an act of stabilization, and its violence as aiming at defending and extending basic human rights.
This is what President Bush meant when, shortly after the invasion had begun, he said: "I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace." Some critics have described these words as "Orwellian double-speak," as a reflection of Bush's character, but this interpretation is facile.
To begin with, President Obama has himself used similar language, albeit in a more elaborate way. Thus in his speech three months after he came to office, he warned: "the return in force of al-Qaeda terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence." His duty as President was to forestall this violence by using war to impose peace.
In contrast to the Taliban who were committed to violence for its own sake, who offered "a future without hope or opportunity; a future without justice or peace," the United States government had a "responsibility to act."
In so acting the United States wasn't concerned only with itself but with maintaining a peaceful order in the world, "Because the United States of America stands for peace and security, justice and opportunity. That is who we are, and that is what history calls on us to do once more."
What Obama's language implies (like Bush's) is that the perpetual peace of the sole superpower requires perpetual armed conflict because the task of fighting evil is never ended. Its sovereignty gives it the responsibility to fight what used to be called "small wars" against non-sovereign opponents, those that lie beyond legality, and against whom, therefore, an open declaration of war is not required, nor a formal declaration of the end of hostilities.
Obama is more articulate than Bush, but they both talk of war not as a way of settling a particular dispute (of war as its resolution) but of maintaining sovereign peace through a continuing process of extermination.
In this respect both administrations are similar, and their similarity derives from the fact that they are both embedded in the same political-financial-military system. Their ability to move independently is therefore limited - but by no means absent.
Three months after his inauguration Obama touched on some aspects of his "Afghan War" strategy:
"to advance security, opportunity and justice - not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces - we need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers. That's how we can help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs. And that's why I'm ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground ... And [why] we will continue to support the basic human rights of all Afghans - including women and girls."
Obama's words reflect the concept of counterinsurgency as expounded by General Petraeus to which I'll return in a moment: a failed state must be rebuilt, a medieval society re-formed in accordance with universal human rights, so that the evil of terrorism can be eliminated, or at least mitigated.
Hence Obama's approval of the Pentagon's recruitment of social scientists - including anthropologists - to help bring development and human rights together through armed hostilities. This is not very different from the way Bush conceived his moral War against Iraq.
But Obama's inspiration goes back further. Like previous presidents, Obama regards America as an example to humanity, as, in John Winthrop's Biblical phrase, "the city upon a hill." Woodrow Wilson, of course, belongs to this tradition.
But there is another political tradition that can be linked to it, one that grows out of the writings of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Together, these two make it possible to advocate universal human rights while accepting the necessity of little - and sometimes large - atrocities as the price to be paid for realistic policies in a wicked world.
Niebuhr has long been and remains today a strong influence on the makers of United States foreign policy - from George Kennan through to Barack Obama who has declared his great enthusiasm for Niebuhr.
Central to Niebuhr's theology is the doctrine of sin. Yet sin for him is not simply the propensity to do evil; paradoxically, in the form of institutionalized killing and destruction, sin can become a means of combating evil.
For Niebuhr this is tragic because in using power sinfully one sacrifices the most valuable thing one has - one's virtue - and yet one does so because one must defend one's righteous community against evil. In this view, when the political agents of one's community perpetrate cruel and deceptive acts they do so reluctantly, and with the ultimate aim of ending greater suffering.
Obama puts his endorsement of Niebuhr this way:
"there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things [entirely]. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction."
The evil that Obama speaks of moralizes the problem of violence in the domain occupied by international law. The evil that Obama speaks of is also referred to by the secular figure of cancer: "al Qaeda and its extremist allies," he declared some months after his inauguration as President, "are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within. It's important for the American people to understand that Pakistan needs our help in going after al Qaeda."
Obama's style is not belligerent as Bush's was - although sometimes it is more equivocal. However, his military interventionism, his authorization of targeted killings and torture centres, his conviction that civil rights at home should not impede the military's performance overseas - these things are similar in both administrations.
The central question is how world governance is to be attained by the United States and what shape the United States itself must take in order to ensure it. Niebuhr's theology does not counsel non-interference; it simply urges prudence.
The Obama administration thus differs from Bush's not on the use of terror to exterminate terrorism; it differs on how strategic priorities are to be defined and the style in which they are to be pursued.
Even if large numbers of people are exterminated, and violations of existing international law committed, these are necessary moral compromises. The will to extirpate evil is combined with a humanist desire to establish universal peace. In Obama's words: "That is what history calls on us to do once more."
I shall call this political theology, not because it is an example of politics in a religious idiom, but because its discourse rests on the vision of an imperfect humanity that must be governed and saved, and of human evil that must be eliminated or warded off.
Theology and politics are not two distinct discourses but one. The medieval theology of sin explained the ways of God to man, justified worldly suffering due to war, plague and famine as expressions of divine punishment for sin.
This was recycled in twentieth-century America by an influential Protestant theologian, but what had begun as a Christian theology of sin and submission is now made to work in a new way within an entirely new problematic: the project of global governance through selective retribution and the dissemination of liberal democratic values.
The vision does not articulate a belief that simply justifies military intervention. What it articulates are attitudes that constitute intervention aimed at rescuing humanity and extirpating evil in the world: the political and the theological work together.
But although some of its elements derive from the Christian tradition, the vision itself no longer depends on that tradition but on modern sensibilities and predispositions that have an adventitious fit. When its theological past is repressed (because we live in liberal democratic states) parts of it can be appropriated as "secular," as an enterprise that is apparently no longer burdened by the intrusive demand of the gods.
Nevertheless, seeing the vision as political theology allows one to understand how human atrocity (the work of evil) is distinguished from transcendental force (the demand of history). Like the secular language of international law, the language of that political theology is not equally - nor equally plausibly - available to all.
So how precisely is this political theology present in Obama's War? By articulating the idea of necessary violence, of combat that aims not at resolving disputes but at destroying the evil that produced 9/11. Evil can be dealt with only by excising it - like cancer.
General Petraeus produced The U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual in Iraq in 2007, where its strategy has been acclaimed by the American media as a triumph, and it has now been adopted as the defining text for the Afghan military effort. But it also belongs to a long line of military manuals produced by imperial officers that deal with what were called "small wars."
One of the earliest of these was Sir Charles Edward Callwell's Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, published in 1906. Much of course has changed in the century between the two, including the language in which insurgency is portrayed. Callwell knows that his is an imperial world, he does not pretend that it is otherwise.
Unlike the present "War on Terror," Callwell's small wars were part of the unending task of policing an empire against internal and external disrupters of order. For him the success of small wars, or at least retaining the upper hand against insurgents and troublesome primitive neighbours, is dependent on a general recognition that European presence in the colony must continue indefinitely.
More important, Callwell's small wars are unlike America's counterinsurgency effort because (a) they do not depend on the duty of using violence for the sake of redeeming sin, and (b) they do not think they are involved in exterminating "evil." Small wars seek only to secure colonial power.
The Petraeus Manual is far more systematic than Callwell's Small Wars, and it seeks to project beneficence rather than power. Where Callwell writes of "guerrillas, civilized and savage," Petraeus prefers the phrase "terrorist and guerrilla tactics common to insurgency."
The occupying army's project is the restoration of stability and legitimacy in what the Manual always calls "Host Nation." "Military action can address the symptoms of a loss of legitimacy," the Manual states.
"In some cases it can eliminate substantial numbers of insurgents. However, success in the form of a durable peace requires restoring legitimacy, which, in turn, requires the use of all instruments of national power. A COIN [counterinsurgency] effort cannot achieve lasting success without the HN [Host Nation] government achieving legitimacy."
In other words, reform of an entire society is the means of achieving legitimacy, whose loss is signalled not by the American invasion but by the resistance to it. The paradox is that for a government to "host" a foreign army it must already be legitimate and sovereign, and yet that army's mandate is to restore the government's legitimacy and sovereignty.
The reform needed for this endeavour requires that the army use civilized violence against both a reprehensible past and a dangerous present. By pre-empting the sovereignty of a failed state, the United States can distinguish its military violence from the violence of insurgents. Building up and destroying are necessary to this counterinsurgency.
In Callwell's time there were no International Aid Agencies. Why have such agencies multiplied even as formal imperialism has retreated? Today's Aid Agencies have often argued that political stability is the single most important factor in promoting economic development as well as human rights.
The securing of stability in the troubled world by any means therefore becomes a priority - even if it necessitates initiating instability. Projects that describe themselves as humanitarian are consequently entangled with military projects that aim at "political stability."
Various aid organizations in Afghanistan, including Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres, have criticized what they say is a blurring of military stabilization strategies and humanitarian assistance. But what is going on here is not a confusion of two distinct projects.
Counterinsurgency is a unique kind of violence in which reaching out to a hostile population in friendship is essential to undermining the "evil" that is in them. The term "evil" has many uses, but its theological meaning implies that it is something with which negotiation is impossible.
On 27 May 2010, I saw a segment on television about the effort of United States Marines in Marjah. The military was concerned not only to kill Taliban but also to win hearts and minds by building schools and promoting human rights.
On this occasion Lt. Col. Brian Christmas had gathered the villagers to celebrate the signing of a contract to construct a school, and he spoke (through an interpreter) of the children as Afghanistan's bright future and of their human right to education. The colonel and his soldiers were reaching out to the Afghan adults and children - while expressing open contempt for the Taliban fighters before an audience containing many Taliban sympathizers.
The problem on this occasion, so the embedded journalist told viewers, was that the village headman was afraid to appear at the ceremony beside the Marines, and refused to come out. (The Taliban assassinate those who collaborate with the occupation.)
The camera followed the colonel into a darkened, unfinished schoolroom where the reluctant headman was hiding, and after the colonel's talking to him he was eventually brought out triumphantly to join the waiting assembly.
So there he finally stood at the ceremonial spot - clearly uncomfortable, flanked by two elders, facing the earnest colonel - together with the crowd in the open space surrounded by American armoured vehicles.
I wondered what was going on in the headman's mind? What did that moral exhortation coming from a heavily guarded foreign soldier mean to him? Was he reluctant to stand together with the Marines for fear of the Taliban, as the television story had it? Or did he resent the American presence in Marjah? Or was there some other reason?
What persuaded him to come out - a sense of gratitude for the colonel's investment in the children's future, or the thought that fellow villagers might suspect him of colluding in private with the occupier? And what, for that matter, were the colonel's motives: a counterinsurgency tactic, or a humanitarian project, or both? It was impossible to tell.
Motives are not always easy to decipher, as any ethnographer who is sensitive to such matters knows. In the context of counterinsurgency, where motives are cloaked in secrecy and people are surrounded by threats from every direction, they are particularly difficult to discern, and yet knowledge of them is necessary for counterinsurgency. Who should one trust? How far?
All this is a long way from Manhattan and 11 September 2001 - or is it? The terror attack on that day is connected through the idea of "necessity" to the terror of a sovereign seeking to defend itself abroad. Atrocity and deception are inevitable in addressing a danger to the sovereign state.
Counterinsurgency is, of course, unlike war between nation-states, and yet, like total war, it drags the everyday life of entire communities into a web of violence - in this case for the sake of American ideals and the good life they offer. It disrupts the taken-for-granted-ness of mundane existence.
Counterinsurgency does this in a more insidious way than war between states, by trying to capture the motives and feelings of individuals, by seducing villagers into acting as secret informers against their friends and relatives.
The Petraeus Manual presents this work (correctly) as counterintelligence - the secret gathering of private information from intimates and fellow-villagers:
"Counter-intelligence includes all actions taken to detect, identify, exploit, and neutralize the multidiscipline intelligence activities of friends, competitors, opponents, adversaries, and enemies."
That, and not just the killing of innocent civilians, is the distinctive violence of counterinsurgency. For this kind of violation stretches back from the zones of military conflict to include the United States homeland where the fear of treason, and of what state and society might do to individual citizens who have the "wrong" connections or beliefs, is more pervasive than the fear of terrorist attacks happening today.
The "War against Terror" has many sites in each of which sovereignty, with its threat of violence against possible terror, is central.
So here is a final thought about the violence we have been discussing: Many find "the Afghan war" a continuing disaster. What is most striking about it? Certainly not the numbers of civilians killed. That is an old story and numerous civilian deaths will continue, and continue to be explained away, as long as the modern sovereign state exists and can use violence to promote its interests abroad.
11 September 2001 was neither the first nor the last atrocity since the Second World War in which the United States has been involved either as victim or (more often) as perpetrator. There is no sign that the human rights regime (including "humanitarian intervention") can stop such atrocities; for although it can sometimes punish perpetrators of atrocities, it can do so only if they do not belong to powerful states and their friends.
Of course the ruthlessness of militants in general is evident as is the horror of modern war. But what I find particularly striking is something else: the inextricable combination of compassion and ruthlessness that is articulated in civilized war and absent in terrorism.
Modern sovereignty, whether expressed through killing in battle or the torture of suspects, brings together the desire to build up and the desire to destroy, to let Aid Agencies offer charity (in its original meaning of "love") while the military offers death. The two are intrinsically connected.
On the one hand there is the satisfaction that many agents of sovereignty seem to obtain from displaying their tenderness towards human suffering; on the other hand there is the readiness, even eagerness, to kill and be killed for the sake of human values.