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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September 25, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- A Spectacular Misconception, Part 4

Last Friday, Howard Dean once again seized the opportunity to demonstrate that the Democrats have absolutely nothing to say about Iraq and the “war on terror.” In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he began by saying “We need a Democratic Congress to fight the war on terror” – and then followed up without making a single substantive point about why, beyond a few anodyne words about a defense policy that’s “tough and smart” and something about a “phased redeployment”. Almost all of his space went to median household income, health insurance costs, pension coverage, and the declining power of unions – things Journal readers don’t give a damn about, unlike Bush’s dragging American power through the mud in Iraq.

Last week also saw a “compromise” between President Bush and a handful of Republican senators who had qualms about his push to legalize torture and discard the Geneva Conventions by Act of Congress. Acts that would fit the extremely narrow definition of torture in the infamous Bybee memo – causing major organ failure or mutilation, for example – would be outlawed but anything short of “severe or serious physical or mental pain or suffering” would be left up to the president to decide. Evidence obtained by torture occurring before December 2005 would be admissible. And the president’s unilaterally arrogated right to declare foreign nationals as “unlawful enemy combatants” would be confirmed by Congress.

Even the dreadfully incompetent and highly politicized American intelligence agencies have finally figured out what everyone else has known for years – the new National Intelligence Estimate concludes that the war on Iraq has harmed anti-terrorist efforts. If only they could conclude that the “war on terror” has harmed anti-terrorist efforts.

Switch gears for a moment and consider the enemy the United States faced on 9/11. Lawrence Wright’s recent book, “The Looming Tower,” a major addition to the literature on al-Qaeda and global jihadism, painstakingly reconstructs the personalities, motivations, and organization of al-Qaeda in the years leading up to the event. Before the 1998 embassy bombings, bin Laden was becoming increasingly marginal. Facing shortfalls in funding and interest, for some years, he had concentrated more on agriculture in the Sudan than on his dreams of a global holy war against the United States. After the bombings, with his face plastered across all of the Middle East and Eastern Africa by the United States, money and new recruits were no longer a problem.

Bin Laden had no long-term plan to fight the United States. Having participated in minor skirmishes with a Russian army in Afghanistan that was already in the process of preparing for withdrawal, when it finally came in 1989, he actually thought that his insignificant fighting had forced a mighty empire to its knees. As he saw the Soviet Union disbanded, with individual republics breaking away, he decided that a sudden, sharp blow would similarly destroy the United States and cause it to break up into its component states. I kid you not.

Although there were brighter lights in al-Qaeda, they were consistently crippled by the fact that bin Laden was the emir. The best that bin Laden had to offer was that somehow drawing the United States into Afghanistan would unleash a global jihad that would finish them off. Of course, he didn’t reckon on the fact that Arabs were not particularly concerned with what happened in Afghanistan. The only reason so many went in the 1980’s was that Saudi Arabia was heavily propagandizing for people to go and bankrolling the process – unlike after 9/11.

It was left to the United States to rescue bin Laden from his own serious strategic deficiencies by constantly hectoring the entire world, declaring the birth of a new empire, and invading and occupying a country very central to Arab Muslims’ history and concerns – Iraq. A policy of isolating al-Qaeda from all other jihadi groups, governments of Muslim countries, etc., would have worked quickly and easily, making not just Americans but others in the world much safer from threats of terror – instead, the United States chose to unify all of its enemies and potential enemies. And thus we were all given the world we’re going to have to live with for the foreseeable future.

Posted at 10:32 am

September 18, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- A Spectacular Misconception, Part 3

Global criticism of the “war on terror” as a concept, rather than simply criticism of specific “war on terror” policies, has often been trivial and narrowly focused on words. It is true that it makes little sense to make war on an abstract entity like “terror,” especially when in doing so that same entity is a fundamental part of your arsenal. But, of course, the “war on terror” has never really been that. It is composed of four parts.

First, it is a war on all groups not closely allied to the United States that subscribe to some version of what is variously called Islamism, political Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism – none of which is truly an adequate term – and that have used or advocated violence in doing so. Although President Bush initially said it was restricted to groups of “global reach,” the recent Israel-Lebanon war suggests otherwise.

Second, it is a war on other organizations, especially states, which might possibly offer aid, comfort, or weaponry to such groups.

Third, it is a transformation of U.S. foreign policy toward a greater degree of influence and control over the Middle East, a region of the world that happens to have two-thirds of the world’s oil, as well as a general militarization of policy, leading to “regime change” against pariah states, lesser military and covert action against lesser enemies, and prioritization of military concerns with new allies of opportunity.

Last, it is an organizing principle for a deep and wide-ranging transformation of the structure of the American state, as well as its role and powers, internally with regard to its population, and externally with regard to the international arena.

Going back to the first point, one need know nothing about Islamist organizations to see it as a major strategic mistake. Just as calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an “axis of evil” lumped them together as enemies even though they had little to nothing in common and could, especially Iran and Iraq, have been played against each other instead, similarly lumping together Hizbullah, Hamas, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the governments of Iran and Syria, and al-Qaeda as enemies could not possibly have been helpful, if the goal was simply to make America safer.

At various times, especially early in the “war on terror,” the United States did have back-channel contacts and cooperation with Iran and Syria, mostly deliberately terminated as it shifted toward a more overtly bellicose stance. There was, however, never any serious thought about instead using the extraordinary leverage afforded by the events of 9/11 – as well as the fact that the US, Syria, and Iran now shared a common enemy (Shiite Iran and the Alawite-dominated Syrian government have in general no love for Wahhabis) – in order to build more genuine cooperation with those governments.

Similarly, lumping in Hizbullah, an organization that few if any Arabs see as terrorist, which has a policy that attacks on civilians are only done as reprisals against Israeli attacks on civilians, which clearly condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center (remaining morally agnostic on the Pentagon attacks, but with the implication that they were a bad idea), and which could be argued to have played a largely responsible and stabilizing role in the area, with groups that commit indiscriminate terrorist acts was foolish.

Lumping in Hamas, an organization that did commit indiscriminate terror attacks, but with a mass base, willingness to cooperate with secular Palestinian groups and to put out temporary peace feelers toward the Israeli government, and also which was reacting against a situation of ongoing illegal military occupation, was equally foolish. Once Hamas imposed on itself a long-lasting unilateral truce, won the Palestinian elections, and gave off definite signs of moderating its views, foolishness became idiocy.

Even the extremist jihadi movement itself was riven by major splits with regard to two issues – the mass targeting of civilians and attacking the United States, a move seen by many as certain to bring extreme retribution. Unfortunately, for all the media coverage over the last five years, little attention has been paid to the actual enemy that the United States was faced with that fateful September day. Any serious analysis of the “war on terror” must delve into that question.

Posted at 10:43 am

September 11, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- A Spectacular Misconception, Part 2

The “war on terror” that began five years ago today was, as I said last week, a spectacular misconception. Five years later, it continues to be misconceived, by the bulk of its critics as well as by its supporters.

What, for example, are we to make of Democratic Party bleatings about how Iraq is a “distraction” from the true “war on terror” – as Howard Dean said on Fox News Sunday, “We have not pursued the war on terror with the vigor that we should have because we got bogged down in this civil war in Iraq?”

Well, it is true that preparations for the war on Iraq involved a massive diversion of resources from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and sundry other leaders of al-Qaeda, resources that have never been put back there, despite President Bush’s election-related request three months ago for CIA operatives and U.S. Special Forces to “flood the zone.” As a result, according to the Washington Post, bin Laden’s trail has grown “stone cold,” with no credible lead in over two years.

But so what? If it is a war, you concentrate resources on the biggest threat. After disrupting al-Qaeda’s geographical base in Afghanistan and making bin Laden a fugitive, the United States has effectively neutralized him as a military commander. Why does mounting his head on a stick, as water-cooler warrior Cofer Black told Bush he would do five years ago, matter except as propaganda?

If you’re fighting a war, you want to fight the enemies that matter and you want to do it on their turf. They come from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not from Afghanistan. In that regard, consider the invasion of Iraq like Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium so as to get at France better in World War I. The U.S. has a great staging area for invading Saudi Arabia, although there are still the small problems of the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina and the global oil supply to deal with.

Conversely, why say that we need to pull out of Iraq in order to prosecute the war on terror better? We’re killing plenty of terrorists in Iraq – along, of course, with many others. And in war when you withdraw from territory, it emboldens your enemies. It’s already clear that the April 2004 assault on Fallujah followed by a withdrawal short of victory was treated by Iraqi insurgents and global jihadis alike as a great victory and a sign from God. Why replicate that on a gigantic scale with a withdrawal from Iraq?

Clearly, some liberals have recognized that force is not necessarily the best solution for the problem of Islamic extremist terrorism. But they still insist on trying to separate analytically a messy, bloody, and uncivilized counterinsurgency in Iraq, fought largely against jihadi Islamists (in the wake of the 2004 events, the distinction between “nationalist” and “Islamist” insurgents, insofar as it ever existed, has largely been elided) from the “real” war on terror, to be fought where exactly is unclear. I suppose Afghanistan, although the risk of terrorist attacks on the United States coming from Afghanistan is no greater than from scores of other countries and certainly far less than from some.

The United States is riding the tiger. It has absurdly elevated Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, before his recent uneventful death, to the status of co-belligerents. Having done so, it is trapped in its own rhetoric. This is not just a matter of saving face, but of real consequences.

It is true that Dick Cheney and George Bush like to inflate those consequences ridiculously. We are far from the point where a U.S. withdrawal would cause jihadi forces to win political control of Iraq. Fortunately for Bush and Cheney, they are fighting an enemy that is as politically maladroit and unconcerned with legitimacy as they are. Even so, the consequences for U.S. global credibility of a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq are great, even though they are entirely self-created consequences.

What kind of enemy were Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the wider jihadi movement, and how should they have been handled? Tune in next week.

Posted at 10:20 am.

September 4, 2006

Weekly Commentary -- A Spectacular Misconception, Part 1

Five years ago, less one week, 19 fanatical young men hijacked four airplanes, crashing three of them into the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A total of 2986 people were killed, making it by far the largest single act of non-state-sponsored terrorism in history.

As of today, the policies that were implemented afterward by the U.S. government have resulted in the deaths of 333 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, 2647 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, at least 136 American contractors, and several American journalists, for a total of at least 3116. In addition, at least 250 soldiers and over 200 contractors from allied countries have died.

No one will ever count the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Professor Marc Herold, using newspaper accounts alone, at least 3000 civilians were killed during the first phase of the Afghanistan war. Jonathan Steele of the Guardian, trying to estimate the number killed directly by the bombing and indirectly because of the cessation of aid and by being made refugees during the brutal Afghan winter, came up with 20,000 as the most likely estimate. The Afghan death toll continues to mount.

The Iraq Body Count Project, working off of confirmed news reports and sporadic reporting from hospitals and morgues, says 41-46,000 civilians have died by violence in Iraq from the invasion and occupation. Even given its limited purview, this is likely a significant underestimate. In July, at the height of the intersectarian violence, for example, 1800 people came to the morgue in Baghdad alone, over 90% of whom had been killed violently. In the bombing of Fallujah in November 2004, many estimate that several thousand were killed, but those numbers are not reflected. And so on.

In the first 18 months of the conflict, according to a demographic study published in the Lancet in October 2004, the invasion and occupation had caused most likely 100,000 “excess” deaths. The 24 months afterward were significantly more violent, reconstruction has been negligible, and provision of medical care has not substantially improved; a conservative extrapolation of the 100,000 figure would be a quarter of a million.

This quarter million excess deaths cannot be balanced against the number of Saddam’s victims – it represents an excess with regard to a baseline of the twin tyrannies of Saddam and the sanctions.

The hecatombs continue to mount, with no end in sight. Iraq’s very existence as a society, let alone a nation, is at stake. Afghanistan is no worse off, but not substantially better off than it was under the tyrannous Taliban, whose advent itself derived from U.S. policies.

Osama bin Laden, an obscure figure with a handful of followers, has been turned by the U.S. response into a world celebrity, an iconic figure even for Muslims who, like the vast majority, oppose terrorism.

Young men who were barely born at the time of the Gulf War are watching videos of atrocities against Muslims from Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya, and Bosnia, drawn into a war that both sides seem to think will go on forever.

And even the American public, always willing to support a militaristic solution to its perceived problems, is evenly split on whether the United States is safer from a terrorist attack now than it was five years ago – with a significant majority saying the occupation of Iraq has made it less safe.

It’s not hard to see that the so-called “war on terror” is a failure from every standpoint – legal, moral, pragmatic. The truth, however, goes well beyond that.

The “war on terror” has not just failed in implementation; it is a spectacular misconception. It could not be implemented correctly because it was the wrong paradigm, based on a misunderstanding of the enemies faced and of the political situation so gross as to be almost willful – and also on the opportunistic intertwining of policies aimed at aggrandizing U.S. hegemony with those that were supposed to be anti-terror.

Next week, I’ll explain what I mean and what the alternative was.

Posted at 10:57 am
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