The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism
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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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June 26, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq Reconciliation Stillborn

On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki unveiled a 24-point national reconciliation plan. After sifting through various garbled English-language accounts, my initial impression is that it represents the most serious missed opportunity to date in this whole disastrous occupation.

Likely the brainchild of U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, it involved months of careful crafting in consultation with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, members of 7 Sunni insurgent groups, al-Maliki, and others.

Last week, the Times of London and Newsweek reported on an earlier draft of the plan. In addition to language about ensuring genuine reconstruction and provision of services to all of Iraq (who claims to be against that?), and some slightly stronger measures guaranteeing compensation for victims of Saddam’s brutality, terrorist operations by insurgent groups, and U.S. military operations, it had two points of fundamental importance that attempted to address the insurgents’ genuine concerns.

One was an amnesty for acts of resistance against the occupation. Says Newsweek, Principle #19 involved "Recognizing the legitimacy of the national resistance and differentiating or separating it from terrorism," as well as "encouraging the national resistance to enroll in the political process and recognizing the necessity of the participation of the national resistance in the national reconciliation dialogue." There was to be no amnesty for acts of terrorism, and it may have been unclear on attacks against Iraqi security forces.

That was just recognizing reality: Nobody’s going to negotiate or reconcile with you if it means criminalization.

The other principle went significantly beyond that. Again according to Newsweek, the draft mentioned "the necessity of agreeing on a timetable under conditions that take into account the formation of Iraqi armed forces so as to guarantee Iraq's security," and says that this should be confirmed by a U.N. Security Council decree, presumably superseding those that legitimized the occupation. While there was no date for withdrawal on the draft plan, it was recognized by some that negotiation with insurgents might lead to the setting of a date.

In return for these significant concessions (and for talk about demobilizing pro-government militias), the legitimate insurgents would have to forswear violence, enter the political process as established, and recognize the authority of the government as legitimate.

Such an offer during the Vietnam War would have been illegitimate; the National Liberation Front was a more legitimate representative of the people in South Vietnam than was the South Vietnamese government. In Iraq however, the insurgent groups, by their own admission, don’t have a political plan for Iraq’s future and, although the best of them may lay some claim to representing some portion of the Sunni Arab population, the elected politicians have a strong claim as well – especially considering that the Shi’a alliance was elected in the teeth of U.S. attempts to manipulate the elections.

The plan would have been a reasonable basis on which to start dialogue, and some of the insurgent groups, which are becoming increasingly sensitive to public opinion, might just have seen it that way.

Alas, we will never know how they would have reacted. After severe political pressure, possibly from hard-line Shi’a legislators in Maliki’s own party, and most certainly from the Bush administration, this ambitious reconciliation plan has been watered down to a meaningless re-packaging of the existing terms of stalemate.

The language about withdrawal is apparently gone and the amnesty has been watered down to apply only to those “who were not involved in crimes, war crimes and crimes against humanity.” While this theoretically leaves open the possibility that resistance to occupation would not be considered a crime, in practice it has been made clear that it will apply only to those who have done nothing – although one wonders why exactly they will need it.

Of course, full withdrawal in the context of national reconciliation like this would totally destroy U.S. influence over Iraq and obviate the purpose of the invasion. And amnesty – well, that just sticks in the craw of a simple-minded militarist like George W. Bush.

The only people worse than him on this issue are, of course, the Democrats, who spent all of Sunday firmly announcing their plan to outflank the Republicans on the right. Every newspaper quoted liberal Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan saying, "For heaven's sake, we liberated that country,” and thus, any talk of amnesty for insurgents who’ve attacked Americans is “unconscionable."

That makes their position clear: Bush liberated Iraq, but we’re against it anyway. After all, the Iraqi people aren’t going to be voting in November.

Posted at 10:07 am

June 19, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Iraq Amnesty and Political Posturing

The Iraqi government’s recently floated proposal to consider offering insurgents amnesty providse an object lesson in the absurdity of the occupation and of domestic American politics.

The day after President Bush’s surprise visit to Iraq, at a White House press conference, Jake Tapper of ABC News asked him about talk from al-Maliki’s office of a possible amnesty for insurgents, including those who had killed U.S. soldiers. Bush responded, " … if somebody has committed a crime, I don't know whether or not they'll be that lenient, frankly."

In other words, he didn’t want to openly contradict the possible line of the Iraqi government, but simultaneously made it clear that he would not accept any such policy. The next day, Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, the aide of al-Maliki’s who had initially broached the amnesty idea, resigned.

Borzou Daragahi at the LA Times reports that the amnesty plan is still likely to move forward, but it’s doubtful that Bush or military hardliners will accept it -- indeed, there’s some reason to believe that this has been the sticking point in all previous attempts by the U.S. military to negotiate with insurgents.

So over there we have a sovereign nation that doesn’t get warned when another head of state visits and is not allowed to formulate policy to deal with internal security situations.

Back here, we have a bunch of idiot politicians mindlessly posturing. One minute, they vote for phenomenally corrupt deals because they’re swimming in money from pharmaceutical or telecom companies (sadly, even the Congressional Black Caucus), the next they’re inventing absurd high-minded principles to defend.

Apparently some Senate Republicans missed the memo that the White House opposes the amnesty plan and, assuming that the Iraqi government was simply doing Bush’s bidding, rushed to support it. According to a press release put out by Democratic Party hack Phil Singer, the execrable Ted Stevens of Alaska compared amnesty for insurgents to forgiving the Confederates after the Civil War. Lamar Alexander compared it with Nelson Mandela’s efforts to achieve national reconciliation in South Africa. Mitch McConnell suggested that the Senate pass a resolution commending the Iraqi government for the idea.

Wise and statesmanlike views. Too bad they were expressing them out of stupidity.

Singer also put together a bunch of quotes from Democratic Senators and senatorial candidates decrying this outbreak of sense among Republicans. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, ordinarily a good progressive, called on Bush to denounce the amnesty proposal and got in a cheap shot at his Republican opponent in the upcoming elections. Jim Pederson of Arizona also called on Bush to repudiate the proposal and said “granting amnesty to terrorists that attack our soldiers will put them in greater danger.”

This is actually pretty straightforward. The United States is having trouble beating the insurgents and is also finding the fight utterly pointless, since it simply makes the Shi’a government more independent of U.S. control. So it wants to stop fighting them. So it has to negotiate with them. When you negotiate, you make concessions and your opponent makes concessions. You don’t get to impose your moral construction of the situation.

The Iraqi government won’t offer amnesty to terrorists who attacked Iraqi civilians, just to groups that have attacked U.S. soldiers, an act of resistance legitimate under international law. Those groups will negotiate neither on the basis of being criminals nor on the basis of being beaten, because they haven’t been. Amnesty is the very least you can offer them if you want to deal – although the word itself might be a sticking point, since they likely see themselves as heroes not as people in need of amnesty.

The U.S. refusal to consider even this most minimal precondition will doom any attempt to end this senseless war early. During most of the Vietnam War, the negotiating position of the United States was essentially that North Vietnam and the United States would pull out, the National Liberation Front would disarm and demobilize, and the U.S.-supported and supplied South Vietnamese government would then resume killing the NLF in large numbers without opposition, as they had been doing in the late 1950’s when the war broke out. The position was senseless then and it’s senseless now.

Maliki may well be more sensible than the various South Vietnamese strongmen we supported, but unfortunately American politicians on both sides of the aisle seem even dumber than the ones we had then. The Iraqi people will pay the price for it – but so will we.

Posted at 5:47 am

June 16, 2006

A Good Idea

Some interesting news from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The First United Methodist Church in Tacoma has declared that it is a sanctuary for soldiers who don't want to go to Iraq.

They were prompted by the example of Lt. Ehren Watada, who has refused to go because he says Iraq is an illegal war (he would go to Afghanistan).

No one has taken them up on their offer, and it's not clear whether there is a horde of people just waiting for sanctuary. Still, it's something more churches should consider. It makes a lot more of a statement than just signing on to yet another open letter against the war.

Posted at 6:20 pm.

June 12, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The enigma that was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was ended last week by a pair of 500-pound bombs that, in the words of George W. Bush, “delivered justice.” Though the words, redolent with an air of fundamentalist Christian eschatology, should provoke discomfort – Bush has, indeed, done his best to usher in a world order where the only recognized instruments of “justice” are 500-pound bombs – something about Zarqawi does make one think of the lake of fire, even if one isn’t a believer.

Nobody did more than Zarqawi to tarnish not only the reputation but the practice of the Iraqi insurgency, and nobody did more to turn Iraq into the cesspit of sectarian warfare that it is today. He attained the dubious distinction of having a darker and more repellent vision for the Middle East than even Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda. That there are people who viewed him as a mujahid before and now as a martyr does not augur well for the future.

It’s not clear what there is to say about the killing. His organization, which was renamed al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia in late 2004, may split apart or dissolve into internecine warfare. Or it may not. The damage to the organization may weaken the overall insurgency. Or it may strengthen it, depriving it of a huge political liability and of a competitor for new recruits. Or things may chug along very much as they are – the big story in Iraq these days is the silent death squads, many but not all of them linked to the government, slitting throats and sticking electric drills into heads in the middle of the night, more than the spectacular car bombings of last year.

His life and death does, however, offer an object lesson in the futility and stupidity of the “war on terrorism” paradigm foisted on us these past five years. I never gave any credence to the reams of silly speculation that attended all his acts – was he an American agent, did he really exist, were the Americans or the British or the Mossad actually carrying out the sectarian killings he was accused of, etc. Ahmed Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalayleh existed, he had a family, he had a vicious takfiri ideology, which saw Shiites and even those Sunnis who disagreed with him as unbelievers subject to violent removal, and he had an organization that carried out the kinds of acts attributed to it.

But there was a way in which Zarqawi, who took the name Abu Musab after a 7th-century Islamic warrior said to have kept the banner of the Prophet flying at the battle of Yathrib even after he lost both arms, was indeed made in the USA.

He had spent years in the wilderness, trying to become an amir, but without the background, the charisma, or the anti-Soviet record of bin Laden. None of it was working particularly well before a day in February 2003 when then Secretary of State Colin Powell brought him to the attention of the world. Although Powell thought he was Palestinian and had only one leg (he was Bedouin and had two), he was firm in his characterization of Zarqawi as the missing link between al-Qaeda and Saddam – notwithstanding the fact that there was at that time little or no evidence to connect him either to al-Qaeda or to Saddam.

They might as well have stuck recruiting posters for Zarqawi up all over the Middle East. Anyone mentioned so prominently by the Americans had to be a great mujahid, someone to join – or so many surely thought.

As we learned from a Washington Post article published a couple of months ago, as events began to pick up speed in Iraq, the Pentagon chose to act as his publicist – “For the past two years, U.S. military leaders have been using Iraqi media and other outlets in Baghdad to publicize Zarqawi's role in the insurgency.” The basic idea was simple – Zarqawi was awful and repellent and the U.S. military wanted to brand his face across the entire Iraqi insurgency to make it appear equally awful and repellent. One Pentagon “things to do” list includes the cryptic notation, “Villainize Zarqawi/leverage xenophobia response,” while another quotes Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military’s chief spokesman in 2004, as concluding that “The Zarqawi PSYOP program is the most successful information campaign to date."

They didn’t carry out Zarqawi’s acts for him, but they helped to publicize his role, not only in the acts his organization committed but also in the ones it claimed credit for. They even leaked a document said to be a letter from Zarqawi to New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins in 2004. It’s not clear whether the letter was genuine or not – its tone, especially with regard to Shiites, is consistent with other Zarqawi proclamations and with his actions – but it is clear that the U.S. military wanted it to run on the front page of the Times.

Although the internal debate in the military seems to center on whether the effect on the American public – which has consistently equated Zarqawi with the Iraqi insurgency – is illegitimate domestic propaganda, the more important point that is missed is that the U.S. publicity campaign undoubtedly drew many new recruits to Zarqawi and his organization.

In this way, the stupid, opportunistic policies of the United States on Zarqawi mirror those on bin Laden. At the time of the embassy bombings in August 1998, bin Laden was toiling in obscurity, known to veterans of the Afghan jihad of the 1980’s but to very few others. The United States plastered wanted posters across the Middle East and swathes of Africa, instantly making him the most notorious anti-American warrior in the world. After 9/11, their rhetoric and actions made him and his ideology a magnet for large numbers of Islamists and disaffected young men who had never previously considered a terror campaign against the West.

Many have noted that the United States has spent an inordinate amount of time lately fighting figures it had earlier propped up or cleared the way for – Noriega, Saddam, the Taliban, and more. It’s not an accident. If there’s anything for us to learn from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s malignant life, perhaps it’s that there’s a better way than continually creating enemies and then killing them.

Posted at 10:17 am

June 5, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- Haditha, Part 3: The Iron is Hot

The ice is starting to break. Coverage of the Haditha massacre has really taken off. Reporters have gone back, interviewed family members of victims, interviewed the journalism student who documented the atrocity, and looked seriously at the Marines’ lack of response to the whole thing – Marine officers knew within two days that the victims had died of gunshots, not an explosion, and yet there wasn’t an investigation until March.

Most notably, Evan Thomas and Scott Johnson did a long and excellent piece in Newsweek that went back to the November 2004 assault on Fallujah and looked at what they call the “liberal” rules of engagement there – one commander they quote said (supposedly half-jokingly), “If you see someone with a cell-phone, blow his f-ing head off” – and then connected that with incidents like the Haditha massacre. The piece went so far as to mention the obvious possibility that the massacre was motivated at least in part by the Marines’ desire to put up a signpost for other Iraqis pointing to the consequences of hosting an insurgency.

Charles Hanley of the AP decided to dig further about an incident in the Korean War, at a place called No Gun Ri, where American soldiers massacred up to 400 civilians.

Although the Pentagon concluded that the shootings, which lasted three days, were merely an “unfortunate tragedy” and not “deliberate killing,” a new book out this spring mentions a letter from the U.S. ambassador to Korea to the Secretary of State which details that the killing of civilians in certain situations was an explicitly decided policy. Hanley and others turned up 19 other declassified documents indicating that commanders either ordered or authorized the killing of civilians.

Investigators are starting to take seriously other Iraqi claims of murdering civilians. The possible murder of up to 11 in the town of Ishaqi has, unfortunately, been declared by military investigators to be legitimate even though there is video evidence that contradicts American soldiers’ accounts of what happened, but there are others going on, like that of an incident in Hamdania where U.S. forces, who had repeatedly pressured a lame Iraqi man in his 50’s to become a collaborator and finally, when he refused, dragged him out of his house, murdered him, and planted a shovel and an AK-47 on him, claiming that they caught him trying to plant an improvised explosive device.

It’s increasingly hard or impossible for the right wing to play the Abu Ghraib game, of pretending that this is an isolated incident. Indeed, they’re going the opposite way, admitting that such incidents happen all the time. The strategy there is to dredge up such incidents from the “Good War,” World War 2, and then say World War 2 still should have been fought because it was a good cause and so should Iraq because it is too. Bill O’Reilly went so far that he took an incident at Malmedy, where German forces shot surrendered American prisoners and rewrote it, to make it one of American forces shooting surrendered Germans.

Even the Marines are forced to review their rules of engagement and talk about training in the proper “warrior culture,” with much greater respect for legal and ethical requirements.

In this whole proliferation of talk, the antiwar movement and progressives have been, not absent, but relatively muted. Part of that is beyond our control – we all depend on the mainstream media for news about Iraq. Part of that is not.

On community radio, as you know, we don’t make calls for action. If we did, though, here’s what I would suggest for the antiwar movement:
  • Put out a call for other Iraq veterans and Iraqis who witnessed such war crimes to step forward – and call for the U.S. military to do the same in Iraq.
  • Renew the effort to uncover the rules of engagement in the second assault on Fallujah, where there is evidence to believe that parts of the Geneva Convention were explicitly disavowed. There is one Freedom of Information Act request out there, but otherwise there is little followup.
  • Take action again. Demonstrate at recruiting centers, pressure political representatives, push your newspaper if they haven’t covered the story; don’t wait for the next big demonstration in New York or Washington to do something.
This is a real chance to capitalize on the growing discontent with the war -- 60% believe it was a mistake -- and turn it into an ethical revulsion, a key step toward building effective opposition. Whether that happens is largely up to us.

Posted at 9:00 am
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