The “war on terror”: two years on

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 September 2003

When this series of columns on openDemocracy started, less than one month after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the George W. Bush administration was already responding by announcing a “war on terror”, with every expectation that there would be vigorous military action against al-Qaida and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even at that stage there was also talk of an attack on Iraq to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime.

There was concern over the risk of further attacks on the United States, and an immediate worry over anthrax outbreaks affecting people in several American cities. Yet there was also a confidence that the US, as the world’s sole superpower, would not have too much difficulty in reasserting control over an evidently dangerous security environment.

To celebrate his 100th column, Paul Rogers invites you to talk to him in the discussion forum. Who do you think is winning the "war on terror"? What has Paul's column meant to you?

Two years later, it is an appropriate time to try and take a detached view of the results so far of President Bush’s war on terror. In doing so, it makes sense to go back to the immediate context of the 9/11 atrocities, and to identify three main factors which determined the response of the US government: military capabilities, neo-conservative political strategy, and the traumatic, mediatised impact of the experience itself.

The condition of the US military

The first factor was the nature and capabilities of the US armed forces. In the decade or so after the collapse of the Soviet Union, US military forces had been scaled down substantially, but also relative to what were considered to be the major requirements of the cold war era. While the US navy lost much of its anti-submarine capability, its carrier battle-groups were maintained at close to cold war levels and were enhanced with large numbers of land-attack cruise missiles.

The US Marine Corps, with its global amphibious capabilities, retained almost all of its forces and the US air force – while experiencing considerable personnel cutbacks – developed a much greater ability to project air power at the global level. The army was particularly badly affected through the loss of much of its armoured capabilities from the old central front in Europe, but it retained its rapid reaction forces such as the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and also put much more emphasis on special-forces and counter-insurgency capabilities.

Thus, the US military had adapted overall the fractured world scene of the post-cold war era in which, in the words of former CIA director James Woolsey, the United States had slain the dragon but now lived in a jungle full of poisonous snakes.

At the end of the 20th century, the US military seemed to be overwhelmingly powerful but was also looking to the future, with the probable development of directed energy weapons and a greater emphasis on “network-centric” warfare and the control of space. All this was part of a wider concern with “full spectrum dominance”, the ability to dictate military outcomes on land, sea, in the air or in space.

This article draws on Paul Rogers' new report – “The ‘War on Terror’: Winning or Losing?” – published in September 2003 by the Oxford Research Group.

The ambition of neo-conservatism

The second factor influencing the United States’s response to 9/11 was the state of its domestic politics. The Bush administration which came to office in early 2001 had, contrary to expectations, made no attempt to develop a consensus administration, despite its exceedingly narrow margin of victory (due in no small way to the famous Florida “chads” and the US Supreme Court). In international affairs, a unilateralist streak became evident almost at once, with its opposition to the Kyoto Protocols on climate change, the proposed International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and several other treaties and agreements.

The United States would, it seems, engage with others on a multinational basis only where this was felt to be in its direct national interest, but the global attitudes of the new administration were shaped by its embrace of a neo-conservative vision of the “New American Century”. A form of free market democracy that was modelled on, and also highly advantageous to, the United States was seen as the only legitimate global system – and the world’s only superpower intended to pursue it with vigour.

This was an outlook that went well beyond practical politics to become a matter of intrinsic belief, even faith, and it followed that any alternatives were at the very least misjudged and at most malign.

The political opportunity of trauma

The third factor in helping to shape the US government’s reaction to the events of 9/11 was precisely the way the very trauma induced by the atrocities acted upon – both challenging and reinforcing – this much wider neo-conservative worldview.

The fact that the effects of the attacks were seen live on television across the United States was even more devastating; there was a grim symbolism in the destruction of the twin towers as the very symbols of modern US business success. This helped set the scene for a vigorous response that was to stretch across the world.

9/11 was clearly aimed at the heart of US commercial and political power and it was therefore critically important to regain control. The US had the military capabilities to launch such a response. In such circumstances, the neo-conservative vision required the “war on terror” that was to follow.

From Kabul to Baghdad

The Afghanistan war was fought to terminate the Taliban regime and permanently damage al-Qaida, although it had the wider effect of enabling the United States to develop a military presence across Central Asia. The war itself was fought with sustained air power and small numbers of special-forces. In addition, a key feature was the use of the Northern Alliance forces as ground troops against the Taliban. This process involved a substantial programme of arming these troops, even though the Northern Alliance had a human rights record little better than the Taliban.

Within three months, by the end of 2001, the Taliban had been evicted from power and the Bush administration was able to claim a major victory in its wider war. The military action in Afghanistan had by then cost about as many civilian lives as were killed in the 9/11 attacks.

The Afghan war was followed almost immediately by Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address and other speeches that collectively presented two additional messages. One was that there was an “axis of evil” encompassing Iraq, Iran and North Korea, together with lesser members such as Syria and Libya; the other was that states and peoples were “either with us or against us” in the war on terror.

The early part of 2002 was perhaps the highpoint of the new vision, but the situation in Afghanistan was already problematic, with further fighting involving substantial loss of life. This stemmed partly from the nature of the war itself. While the Taliban regime had been destroyed, most of the militia had simply melted away rather than fight superior forces, the most extraordinary example being the overnight withdrawal from Kabul. Furthermore, while al-Qaida facilities in Afghanistan were certainly disrupted, it was becoming clear that al-Qaida was far from being a rigid hierarchical organisation centred on Afghanistan and had supporters, networks and affiliated groups in countries stretching across the world.

Furthermore, the United States was already losing support among many of its allies, especially in Europe, not least through its refusal to rein in the Israeli government in its wide-ranging destruction across the occupied territories. Furthermore, the broader problems of the diminishing of human rights in the war on terror, especially the detention without trial of hundreds of suspects, were being accompanied by the use by many governments of the “war on terror” as a means of countering legitimate political opposition.

Perhaps the greatest loss of support for the Bush administration resulted from its evident determination to go to war with the regime in Iraq, and as the crisis with Iraq developed towards the end of 2002, so opposition to the more general aspects of US security policy was also heightened, not just in Europe but across much of the world. This culminated in the largest-ever worldwide anti-war demonstrations in February 2003. Yet despite the unprecedented scale of this opposition, the war went ahead in the third week of March 2003 and the regime was terminated within three weeks.

The Iraq war of March-April 2003 initially appeared to be a further major success for the Bush administration. Almost all of the military action was undertaken by US forces, with some 200,000 troops involved; Britain’s overstretched armed forces contributed in a much smaller way and there was minor assistance from other states like Australia and Poland. But this was essentially Washington’s war and it became apparent almost immediately that the US forces were, for the most part, being seen as occupiers rather than liberators.

Within a few weeks, the post-war situation had begun to deteriorate, and this at a time when al-Qaida and its associates remained active, and where Afghanistan was again deeply unstable. On the political front, in a less deadly but still significant manner, the British government was becoming embroiled in political controversy over the motivations for war, given that Iraq’s much-vaunted weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found.

The current status of al-Qaida

Although there has been extensive punitive action against al-Qaida and its associates and supporters, including the destruction of the Taliban regime, the killing or capture of some leaders, the indefinite detention of many others, and the closing down of some financial channels, the level of activity that the network has been able to maintain is remarkable.

The level of organisation that al-Qaida has been able to sustain is indicated not simply by the attacks it has carried out in these two years, but the ones it planned which were intercepted and aborted as a result of intelligence and security work by government authorities.

These planned attacks include:

  • December 2001: the attempted bombing of a US passenger jet;
  • December 2001: a major attack in Singapore, perhaps even on the scale of 9/11, using multiple truck bombs, aimed at embassies, Changi airport and the financial district;
  • February 2002: bombings of United States embassies in Rome and Paris;
  • May 2002: the development of radiological weapons for use in the US;
  • June 2002: an attempt to shoot down a US warplane in Saudi Arabia;
  • June 2002: a plan to attack western naval ships in the Straits of Gibraltar.

While these planned attacks have been prevented, many more have gone ahead. Together they show a capability that, despite two years of a “war on terror”, is greater than in the two years before the 9/11 attacks. They include:

  • March 2002: an attack on worshippers at a church in the diplomatic compound in Islamabad (Pakistan), killing 5 people and injuring 46;
  • May 2002: the killing of 11 French naval technicians and 3 Pakistanis in Karachi, injuring 23 people;
  • April 2002: the bombing of a synagogue in Djerba (Tunisia), killing 14 German tourists and 7 local people and injuring 24;
  • June 2002: a bomb attack on the US consulate in Karachi (Pakistan), killing 11 people and injuring at least 45;
  • October 2002: the killing of a US special forces soldier in the Philippines, and frequent bomb attacks there;
  • October 2002: a bomb attack on the Limburg tanker off Yemen;
  • October 2002: the murder of a US diplomat in Amman (Jordan);
  • October 2002 to January 2003: four attacks on US soldiers in Kuwait;
  • October 2002: a devastating bomb attack on the Sari nightclub in Bali, killing 202 people including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians and injuring 300 people;
  • November 2002: an attack on a US oil company’s helicopter taking off from Sana’a airport in Yemen;
  • November 2002: an attempt to shoot down an Israeli tourist jet taking off from Mombasa airport in Kenya;
  • November 2002: the bombing of the Paradise Hotel at Kikambala (Kenya), killing 11 people and injuring 50;
  • May 2003: the multiple bombing of western targets in Casablanca (Morocco), killing 39 people and injuring 60;
  • May 2003: the multiple bombing of western residential compounds in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), killing 29 people and injuring 200;
  • August 2003: the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Djakarta (Indonesia), killing 13 dead and 149 injured.

It is evident from this list of incidents that it would be quite wrong to see al-Qaida as a single rigid and hierarchical organisation. While there is evidence of connections between a number of groups, including a degree of coordination, what is much more significant is the extent of transnational support and the ability of national and regional groups to generate and undertake attacks.

Afghanistan and Iraq: no victory in sight

More than eighteen months after the supposed end of the war in Afghanistan, there is endemic instability and violence affecting much of the country. Large sectors remain in the hands of warlords and their private armies, opium production has increased and US forces are repeatedly engaged in combat with Taliban and other militia.

Hamid Karzai’s government struggles on, and is aided by relative peace in Kabul and some other centres, but the president has had to survive several assassination attempts. Kabul’s stability is certainly aided by the small International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) but any attempt to expand this to other parts of the country has been blocked by the US.

A pattern of conflict has emerged in which US forces, often using considerable air power, are able to counter-attack guerrilla groups when caught in the open, but are unable to control substantial regions, especially after dark or when guerrillas operate in small units. Meanwhile it is proving far more difficult to develop an Afghan National Army to help ensure security; recruitment is difficult and there are frequent desertions. The army currently numbers little more than 5,000 troops compared with the 70,000 required.

In Iraq, the situation is deeply problematic, as recent columns in this series have detailed. About 140,000 US troops are tied down in an attempt to maintain security, yet scores of Americans and hundreds of Iraqis are dying and thousands are being injured in continuing violence. The US armed forces have already evacuated some 6,000 troops back to the United States, around a quarter of them as a result of combat injuries and accidents, and the rest due to physical or mental illness.

The war itself is now known to have killed over 6,000 civilians and injured around 20,000 in its three-week span, with Iraqi military casualties of course far higher. Even so, many of the elite elements of the Special Republican Guard and other security militia withdrew during the war without engaging American troops, and these may now be forming the core of a well-armed, well-trained and adaptable opposition.

Popular support for the frequent attacks on US forces is limited. The end of the old regime remains intensely popular in the Kurdish north-east of Iraq in particular. But the persistent failure of the US occupying authorities to deliver public services such as electricity supplies and water, combined with a stagnant economy made worse by the disbanding of the Iraqi army, have added to the unpopularity of the American occupying forces.

The predicament of the Bush administration is now considerable, although it continues to insist that Iraq is now a core part of the “war on terror” and that the conflict simply must be won. This has resulted in President Bush’s blunt warning to the American people on 7 September 2003, and the insistence that the wider international community must share the burden, albeit in a context where the United States must be allowed to maintain political, economic and military control.

In making Iraq part of the “war on terror”, a self-fulfilling prophecy is being enacted as militants do now begin to travel to Iraq from elsewhere across the porous borders, and could well link up with dissident elements within the country. Such a presence is probably still minimal but is virtually certain to build. There is now a widespread regional perception that the United States has taken over one of the historic centres of the Arab world and that its governing motives are control of the region’s immensely rich oil reserves and support for the state of Israel.

Whatever the reality, this is the perception, and the United States has essentially provided 140,000 targets in the heart of the Arab world. This is a “gift” to paramilitary groups such as al-Qaida and its many associates; no longer do they have to carry out attacks in the United States, instead the Americans have come to them.

An audit of the “war on terror”

In the past two years, many members of al-Qaida and its associated movements have been killed or detained, the Taliban and Iraqi regimes have been terminated and some paramilitary attacks have been prevented.

Against this, there have been far more attacks on western interests across the world than in the equivalent period before 9/11, killing or injuring over 1,000 people. In fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US forces have killed at least 9,000 civilians and injured tens of thousands more. Afghanistan is deeply unstable with Taliban forces still present, and the security situation in Iraq is frankly dire. There are near-weekly warnings of terror attacks, which heighten the sense of alert symbolised by the London Underground simulation of a gas attack and the warnings of anti-aircraft missile attacks on British Airways planes in the last few days alone.

In this global context, it is very hard to accept any argument suggesting that a successful military campaign is being prosecuted and there is every reason to question what is being done. For the moment, there is a singular unwillingness in Washington to face up to the reality of the American predicament. But given the state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan and the beginnings of serious political questioning in the United States, such a dose of reality might be forced on the Bush administration much sooner than might be expected.

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