Soon after the 11 September 2001 attacks, Anthony Barnett suggested I contribute a short piece to openDemocracy about the impending war in Afghanistan. In the next few days a great deal more happened, so a second column followed a week later. Now, 200 weeks and nearly four years afterwards, the series continues as does fighting in Afghanistan, and Iraq.
These global security columns have tried to track the developments of President Bush's global war on terror" by recording and assessing its major events: the termination of the Taliban regime; the defining of the "axis of evil" and the requirement for pre-emption; the attacks in Bali, Casablanca, Madrid, London and a score of other places; and, above all, the first two and half years of the Iraq war.
Instead of an overview of the past four years, perhaps it is worth picking out five individual events that cast light on the longer-term trends now unfolding. These incidents, whether noteworthy or neglected at the time, have since proved pivotal in their consequences and implications.
November 2001: the liberation of Kabul
The war to terminate the Taliban regime seemed to be going very slowly after several weeks of fighting, with little sign of a collapse despite heavy bombing and substantial rearmament by the United States of its Northern Alliance allies.
Overnight, however, Kabul fell, and the regime disappeared as if it had never existed. By December 2001, the Taliban seemed already to belong to the past, and George W Bush could make his State of the Union speech a month later on a note of triumph.
The moment was shortlived, as intense fighting in Tora Bora showed a determined guerrilla force that would prove to be a major problem for the United States and its coalition partners. More than three years later, the US leads a force of 20,000 troops in Afghanistan still trying to control a persistent insurgency (see Between Iraq and Afghanistan, 9 June 2005).
This should not have come as a surprise. The liberation of Kabul was not accomplished by a siege or by violent military combat the Taliban simply melted away into Afghan and Pakistani towns and villages, usually with weapons and supplies intact.
In one sense, this was a defeat for the Taliban, but in another it was only a stage in a longer-term confrontation (see Breakthrough to a broader war?, 19 November 2001) .
March 2003: the start of the Iraq war
Many observers saw the destruction of Saddam Hussein's statue on 9 April 2003 as the Iraq wars culminating moment. This was a gross misreading. A few analysts reported that crowds were in the hundreds, not thousands, and that a US military vehicle had actually toppled the statue. The widely ridiculed Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf ("Comical Ali") was disturbingly prescient in warning the newly occupying US forces: "we will bury you".
This was, after all, only the initial three-week phase in the ongoing Iraq war.
A more accurate image from this period was an account by BBC correspondent Adam Mynott as he crossed the border from Kuwait with a US unit on the first morning after the bombardment; he "came on air breathless from having to take cover as the convoy he was with faced up to small arms and rocket attack from Iraqi forces" (see The quicksand of war, 24 March 2003).
George W Bush's "mission accomplished" address on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003 is perhaps the most spectacular misjudgement of this period. It took months before the US-led coalition acknowledged the scale of the insurgency it was facing, and more than a year before the Coalition Provisional Authority stopped describing its enemy as "remnants".
July 2003: the Indian refusal
By July 2003, the Iraqi insurgency was developing in strength, even as the United States was beginning to establish permanent bases in the country. Already, there were problems of overstretch within the US armed forces and it was becoming essential to persuade other countries to share the military costs of occupation.
The US faced a series of obstacles: in Europe, the few countries with the capacity to contribute large numbers of troops were firmly opposed to doing so; the Turkish parliament voted against assisting the US effort; middle-eastern regimes were deeply reluctant to get involved; almost all other potential US allies lacked the numbers of deployable, fully-trained professional troops required.
India was the exception, and the United States exerted heavy pressure to persuade the Delhi government to commit a full division of 17,000 troops (see Far from home, alone, 17 July 2003). Indias then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee may have been willing to do so, but the domestic political environment simply did not allow it. Some opinion polls recorded more than 80% of Indians vehemently against any deployment; this, coupled with impending elections in five Indian states, was enough to kill the idea stone dead.
In retrospect, this was one of the key events of the first thirty months of the Iraq war. No Indian commitment meant that no other major troop offerings were forthcoming. Instead, the last two years have seen a steady haemorrhaging of support as country after country reduces or withdraws its detachments from Iraq.
November 2004: the bin Laden tape
George W Bush's victory in the American presidential election of November 2004, in the midst of great military difficulties in Iraq, was seen as a vindication of his Iraq policy in particular and the conduct of the global war on terror in general. An event that preceded it may, in the longer term, prove to be equally significant: the release of a video message from Osama bin Laden.
The al-Qaida leader appeared on this occasion in almost authoritative pose, delivering from a lectern a wide-ranging address encompassing twenty-five years of history, highlighting Iraq as the global jihads new theatre of operations, and reinforcing perceptions of a "war for Arab oil".
The significance of bin Ladens speech and Bushs electoral success is that (as was suggested at the time see Four more years for al-Qaida, 4 November 2004):"Both sides need to present an image of al-Qaida as a powerful, unified and effective organisation. Osama bin Laden needs it to demonstrate his strength and authority, George W Bush needs it as a focus for his occupation of Iraq. In a sense, each needs the other. President Bush's re-election on 2 November 2004 is undoubtedly important for international relations in the next four years. So, in its own way, is bin Laden's videotaped message."
November 2004: Fallujah
The US election was immediately followed by the assault on Fallujah, born of the US determination to erase what since the intense fighting in April it saw as the most vital single focus of the entire Iraqi insurgency (see Fallujah fallout, 11 November 2004). The city was severely damaged by a devastating attack: more than 1,000 people were killed and around 200,000 were forced to flee. The impact on the insurgency proved minimal, however, with attacks being mounted in Mosul and elsewhere even before the Fallujah operation was completed.
Since then images of the destruction in the "city of mosques" have had a profound resonance across the Islamic world, adding to anti-American sentiments. Furthermore, tight security controls imposed by US and Iraqi forces after its reoccupation have failed to prevent insurgents from reorganising and mounting new operations.
Of all the developments that this global security series has sought to discuss and analyse, the Fallujah assault may well have the most enduring effect in Iraq and the wider region.
A personal note
I hope you will not mind if I end this 200th column on a personal note.
Although I take sole responsibility for these weekly contributions, they would not be possible without the thoughts, comments and ideas of scores of people and the work of countless journalists and analysts that provide such a wide range of material. I would like to thank the many people who have commented on the articles, including the highly critical and even the abusive at least they are stimulated to respond!
Friends at the Oxford Research Group have been a continual source of ideas and information, as have staff and students at Bradford University's department of peace studies well over 400 people from over forty countries with a quite extraordinary wealth of experience.
Most of all, I must thank the staff at openDemocracy, including editor Isabel Hilton, editor-in-chief Anthony Barnett (who started all this in the first place), and especially deputy editor David Hayes. David usually gets my "raw" contribution some time late on a Wednesday yet manages, with all the other pressures, to edit it so that it appears on the web by Thursday afternoon, much improved and with numerous added links as well. Thank you, David.
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