It took several days for the impact of the Abu Ghraib prison photographs to have their, as yet limited, effect within the United States one that includes President Bushs damage-limitation interviews with two Arabic satellite broadcasters. The effect across the Middle East is likely to be cumulative, persistent and far more substantial. Compared with the limited number of censored photographs shown in the western media, large numbers of uncensored and highly explicit pictures are now available on the web, with increasing circulation in the Middle East.
It is not so much that torture and humiliation are rare in many Arab countries. That is clearly not the case. But three factors in particular give these photographs relevance. First, they seem to confirm repeated testimonies of people released from custody in Iraq but not always believed in the past. They thus support a widespread belief that there has been systematic abuse and humiliation of detainees for most of the past year.
Second, the way that the US soldiers who were photographed were so sure of themselves and their own immunity from reproach or punishment is striking. This alone indicates an arrogance that exceeds the expectations of even the most pessimistic analyst of US problems in Iraq. Third, the news that the US army is conducting thirty-five criminal investigations, including into a number of deaths in custody in both Afghanistan and Iraq, is devastating to its reputation.
The overall problem for the US forces is that these revelations deal a severe blow to any residual idea in the Arab world that the United States can be considered a liberating power. Such an idea was already subject to widespread derision across the region; the recent photos, coupled with the extensive reporting of hundreds of civilian casualties in the past month, especially in Fallujah, have now reinforced this scepticism.
A broader canvas of war
It now seems possible, as last weeks column in this series suggested, that the insurgencies in Iraq are capable of coalescing into a general uprising or intifada. But while global attention is focused on Iraq, it is also worth observing developments in some other parts of the world that have been subject to President Bushs war on terror. Recent incidents in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan all cast light on its current direction.
Two recent attacks in Saudi Arabia are significant in different ways. On 21 April, a suicide car-bomb killed nine people and injured over sixty, while severely damaging the Saudi police headquarters in Riyadh. The bombing coincided with the visit of the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, to the kingdom, and was also the first major attack on a Saudi security complex.
More recently, on 1 May, a paramilitary group attacked the offices of the Swedish oil engineering company ABB Lummus in the western port city of Yanbu, killing a number of people, including five western expatriates. The company has since ordered its foreign staff to leave the country, and the attack has resulted in a forceful statement by the US ambassador, James Oberwetter.
During a visit to Yanbu three days after the attack, he urged US citizens to leave the country. Given that 30,000 Americans are current resident in Saudi Arabia, the implication is that the US government now recognises that they are political targets. Thus, in just a few days, a key Saudi security complex has been bombed, and expatriates have been attacked in such a way as to encourage many thousands to consider leaving the country. Furthermore, the ABB Lummus attack follows a recent attempt to attack the Basra oil terminal in Iraq, indicating that paramilitaries in the region are now beginning to target oil exports. Combined with the currently tight oil market, an immediate effect has been a rise in world oil prices.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, problems with resurgent Taliban militia continue, in spite of operations over the past two months by US and Pakistani troops on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
On 11 April, Taliban militia captured a security chief and his two bodyguards in Oruzgan province, subsequently holding them hostage. On 14 April, a bomb attack close to the US base near Kandahar injured a senior police officer, General Salim Khan, and his two bodyguards; two days later, a police chief and nine of his guards were killed in a gun attack in the province of Zabol.
On 27 April, two targets in Kandahar were hit. Two aid workers were killed in one attack; in the other, an Afghan solider was killed and six others wounded. Three days later, five Afghan soldiers were killed near Kandahar and two more people were killed in Oruzgan province. Soon afterwards, the bodies of five Afghan soldiers who had previously been abducted were found following attacks in Zabul province. In Afghanistan as a whole, 650 people have been killed in the past eight months, and close to a third of the country is currently unsafe for aid workers.
What is particularly significant about this is that the recent upsurge in violence comes in the wake of the so-called hammer and anvil operations involving American and Pakistani soldiers in the border region [see, in particular, the earlier columns Into the Afghan fire (11 March 2004) and A war of shadows (18 March 2004)]. These had been expected to do serious damage to Taliban militias and possibly even see the death or capture of Osama bin Laden.
That could still happen, but there is clear unease among US commanders over the Pakistani strategy. This currently involves attempts to persuade militants to give themselves up, on the basis that they can stay in the region if they renounce violence and live peacefully. This overt offer is, however, contradicted by the head of US forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Barno, who told Associated Press: There are foreign fighters in those tribal areas who will have to be killed or captured. He added: Its very important that the Pakistani military continue with their operations to go after the foreign fighters in particular, who in my view will not be reconciled. We have some concerns that [the strategy] could go in the wrong direction.
This testimony, in the wake of the combined US-Pakistani operations, contains unusually frank language and almost certainly hides a considerable frustration with the lack of progress in recent combined military operations. It also coincides with the most recent bomb attack in Pakistan directed against foreign elements.
On 3 May, three Chinese engineers were killed and nine injured when their bus was car-bombed while on its way to the port of Gawadar in south-west Pakistan where they were working on a deep-water port project. Although scarcely reported in the western press, this is reminiscent of an incident in Karachi almost exactly two years ago when eleven French naval technicians were killed in a bomb attack, and is a marked reminder of the manner in which paramilitary actions continue.
Thus, while Iraq may remain the dominant focus of attention, attacks in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan all in the space of barely two weeks demonstrate that President Bushs war on terror involves many fronts and numerous paramilitary groups. The ramifications may not be clear, and the impact on United States policy as yet uncertain, but it makes sense not to be fixated solely on what is happening in Iraq.
Get our weekly email