A decade's war: legacy and lesson

The United States-led "war on terror" has spread not quelled global conflict. The next decade will do the same, unless there is a radical change of direction.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 April 2013

The first article in this series was published on just over a fortnight after the shock of the 9/11 attacks. Since this is the 600th weekly column, there might be a bit of an excuse for being more reflective than usual.

At that moment, the Pentagon and CIA were preparing to move against the Taliban, terminate its regime, and destroy the al-Qaida movement. A few analysts contested this approach, pointing out that the al-Qaida leadership would view as an honour being accorded the status of global threat to the United States and its allies, and of champions of a "true Islam" that was under attack from the perfidious west and its Zionist allies.

That argument got short shrift. Several early columns in this series made a related point, namely that viewing al-Qaida as a vicious international criminal enterprise rather than a righteous religious movement would undercut whatever standing it had acquired. This view counted for nothing. The war went ahead, initially successfully, enabling George W Bush to expand it in his state-of-the-union address on 29 January 2002 into a much wider war against a declared "axis of evil".

Some European governments, and many more European citizens, were already growing uneasy as war with Iraq loomed. But the momentum in Washington was unstoppable. The US moved ahead to destroy a second regime, a war whose tenth anniversary offers cause for reflection (see "Iraq, a war foretold", 22 March 2013).

On 1 May 2003, President Bush delivered his “mission accomplished” speech, but within months it was clear that this was a fantasy. Iraq was descending into a bitter insurgency, Afghanistan was not transitioning to peace, and al-Qaida linked groups were active across the world - not least with the Madrid bombing in March 2004 that killed 191 people and wounded over a thousand.

A decade on from the start of the Iraq war, and weeks before the tenth anniversary of Bush's speech, these trends continue to develop. The conflict in Afghanistan is ongoing, with attacks in the western city of Farah on 3 April killing more than fifty people and wounding nearly a hundred; in a troubled Iraq there are bomb-attacks almost every week, though most US troops have left the country; the al-Qaida movement, though less centralised and potent, has inspired or mutated into like-minded groups now active in north, east and west Africa, the Arabian peninsula, southwest Asia and the north Caucasus. Moreover, Syria is fast becoming a new centre for jihadist paramilitary action as dedicated young men move in and embed themselves in the anti-Assad insurgency.

The slow curve

What conclusions has the military drawn from the course of events, and do they mean anything for how it responds to future security challenges? In one sense the learning-curve has been one of persistent surprise that the much-vaunted “war-lite” ideas of Donald Rumsfeld more than a decade ago turned into “war-heavy”, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. The failures in both countries now militate strongly against further large-scale military expeditions, and the response is a steady move into an updated and upgraded version of “war-lite”. The emphasis here is on below-the-radar special-forces operations, increasing reliance on conveniently unaccountable private military companies, and above all those powerful armed-drones.

At the same time, some thoughtful military analysts in think-tanks in the United States, Britain and elsewhere are looking further ahead, and producing results that would not look out of place if they emerged from environment or development think-tanks. Much of this work even acknowledges what this series of columns has argued: that global challenges will stem less from the likes of al-Qaida and much more from the dangerous combination of a polarised world, with its successful elites protected by force from both the global ghettoes of the marginalised and evolving environmental constraints (of which climate disruption is the worst).

Many thinking mid-career and mid-ranking military officers accept this analys, but while the prognosis is shared the response is not. This is essentially because the job of the career military is to protect the country or alliance to which she or he gives allegiance; and “protect” is almost entirely framed in terms of responding to challenges rather than preventing them arising in the first place.

In its own way the response to the dismal failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their appalling human costs, is not to acknowledge that the very responses were wrong in the first place but that the responses were right but the methods were wrong. Since that is the case, then "boots on the ground" are out and "drones in the skies" are in - and that is the way ahead.

Where it fails is that the control paradigm itself - “liddism” - has not worked and will not work. The signs were there long before 9/11. Eight years earlier, on February 1993, a cell came close to destroying the World Trade Center in an attack which would have killed over 20,000. Nearly two years later, in December 1994, a radical Algerian group failed in an attempt to crash a hijacked Air France passenger-jet on the centre of Paris. Just under three years later, in October 1997, the Tamil Tigers killed over ninety people and wounded hundreds more in a devastating attack on the Colombo World Trade Centre and surrounding buildings.

A more sustained example is the political impact of the Provisional IRA campaign of "economic targeting" in 1992-96, which included bombing the City of London, the Canary Wharf financial district, the nothern English city of Manchester, and London's transport hubs. The campaign did much to prompt successive British governments to seek a non-military solution to thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland, which culminated in the agreement of April 1998.

The blunt reality is that modern urban-industrial societies are vulnerable in an era of asymmetric warfare and all the armed-drones, special forces and private military companies will not alter that.

Indeed, the specific case of the drones is instructive. The view in and around Washington, shared strongly in Jerusalem, is that using armed-drones in targeted assassinations against potential threats is entirely appropriate and fully justified. Fine - but why does that not apply to all states? If the United States uses Predators or Reapers to “take out” threats in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen, and if such systems are not subject to any kind of arms control, why cannot Iran - when it deploys its own armed-drones in the near future - “take out” threats in neighbouring states?

In short, western and other states are still a long way from grasping the real lesson of the past decade. Unless they do, they will respond to future challenges - not least in the form of multiple revolts from the margins - by seeking to maintain control not by addressing the underlying issues. That is the lesson that still has to be learned and time is getting short to learn it.

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