Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker:
Today, few consider the global war on terror to have been a success, either as a conceptual framing device or as an operation. President Obama has pointedly avoided stringing those fateful words together in public. His foreign-policy speech in Cairo, last June, makes an apt bookend with Bush’s war-on-terror speech in Washington, on September 20, 2001. Obama not only didn’t talk about a war; he carefully avoided using the word “terrorism,” preferring “violent extremism.”
But if “global war” isn’t the right approach to terror what is? Experts on terrorism have produced shelves’ worth of new works on this question. For outsiders, reading this material can be a jarring experience. In the world of terrorism studies, the rhetoric of righteousness gives way to equilibrium equations. Nobody is good and nobody is evil. Terrorists, even suicide bombers, are not psychotics or fanatics; they’re rational actors—that is, what they do is explicable in terms of their beliefs and desires—who respond to the set of incentives that they find before them. The tools of analysis are realism, rational choice, game theory, decision theory: clinical and bloodless modes of thinking.
That approach, along with these scholars’ long immersion in the subject, can produce some surprising observations. In “A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq” (Yale; $30), Mark Moyar, who holds the Kim T. Adamson Chair of Insurgency and Terrorism at the Marine Corps University, tells us that, in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s pay scale (financed by the protection payments demanded from opium farmers) is calibrated to be a generous multiple of the pay received by military and police personnel (financed by U.S. aid); no wonder official Afghan forces are no match for the insurgents.