The war on terror: past, present, future

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
23 August 2006

The United States responded to the attacks of 11 September 2001 by declaring a global "war on terror". More recently, it has redefined the conflict as the "long war". In his 250th global security column, Paul Rogers assesses US strategy in the war's first five years, and looks ahead.

This series of columns started in September 2001, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, and just as the George W Bush administration was launching the global "war on terror" with the termination of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (see "Afghanistan: the problem with military action", 23 September 2001).

Over the past five years the columns have covered many different issues – among them the Israel / Palestine conflict, post-cold-war nuclear developments, the British defence posture, the security impact of climate change, and prospects for improved peacekeeping and conflict resolution. Inevitably, though, their main focus has been on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently the conflict in Lebanon and the possibility of armed confrontation with Iran.

The fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is approaching in a period when the rhetoric of the global war on terror is being reframed as that of a "long war" against "Islamic fascism". At such a moment – which itself coincides with the aftermath of the Lebanon war and the London police's exposure of an alleged plot to bomb transatlantic airliners – it is worth trying to take the measure of the main effects of the United States's post-9/11 global military strategy.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since September 2001
The column began on 26 September 2001 with "Afghanistan: the problem with military action". It advised that the immediate response to the 9/11 attacks should include an effort to "analyse, understand and then seek to reduce the bitter and deep-seated antagonism to the United States in southwest Asia and the middle east from which these actions and groups have arisen"
This is the 250th weekly column in Paul Rogers's series

At certain points – such as the Iraq war of March-April 2003 and the Lebanon war of July-August 2006 – the column has been published daily or twice-weekly

On five occasions so far, the column has featured the "SWISH reports": the latest strategic assessments of the performance of leading players in the war (al-Qaida, the US state department, and the British government) delivered by the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics

From Afghanistan via Iraq to Lebanon

Within four months of the September 2001 attacks, the Taliban regime had been eliminated – or at least had melted away, to rethink and regroup – and George W Bush had scaled a rhetorical peak in meeting the perceived new threats to the United States and to global security.

In his State of the Union address in January 2002, the US president incorporated al-Qaida into the wider concept of an "axis of evil" led by Iraq, Iran and North Korea; in a speech at West Point in June, Bush emphasised the US right to pre-empt perceived threats. Iraq was already in the military sights for regime termination, with Iran not far behind.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities there had been conspicuous European sympathy for the United States, with European newspapers such as Le Monde announcing their solidarity with the phrase: "We are all Americans now". That had already started to dissipate by the early part of 2002, as it became apparent that the war on terror's deeper agenda was largely driven by the desire to facilitate what the more fervent neo-conservative supporters of the Bush administration were calling a "new American century".

The Washington view was that it was essential to maintain control of the world. Its model was impelled by a unilateralist stance owing much to a central tenet of the neocon outlook: what is good for the White House is good for the world.

The US response to 9/11 has been forceful, substantial and global. In the operations in Afghanistan, al-Qaida was disrupted and the Taliban regime was terminated. There have been numerous detentions across the world and many elements of the al-Qaida leadership have been killed or detained.

A second regime, in Iraq, was eliminated – on the questionable grounds of possessing weapons of mass destruction or being linked to terrorist organisations. The US occupiers are currently facing a hugely difficult insurgency involving levels of violence higher than at any time since March 2003. There is now the prospect of a war with Iran.

The human and strategic cost

The human cost of the global war on terror has been immense. In the past five years there have been, at the very least, around 50,000 civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are very conservative estimates; the actually casualty figures are probably very much higher. Among them must also be included at least 100,000 serious injuries, with many thousands of people maimed for life.

Since 9/11, some 100,000 people have been detained without trial, primarily but not exclusively in Iraq and Afghanistan. At any one time, about 15,000 individuals are being held in detention; overall, fewer than a thousand have been brought to any sort of trial and then convicted. Many hundreds have remained in prison for more than four years. Prisoner abuse – including rendition, torture and deaths in custody – has been persistent and extensive.

Many countries around the world have introduced tough new anti-terrorism laws; governments consistently point to threats and plots as justification for these harsher measures, many of which are in effect directed at minority Muslim communities.

The Iraq insurgency is proving extremely difficult for the US to contain, far less defeat. In response to their predicament, US forces there tend repeatedly to use their overwhelming advantages in firepower, usually in urban environments, in a way that produces large numbers of civilian casualties. The current strategy in Iraq is to increase the use of helicopter gunships and strike aircraft, with inevitable results in increased collateral damage.

The civilian casualties in Iraq losses are increasing rapidly. The Iraqi ministry of health reported 3,438 deaths in July, nearly double the number for January; this brought the total of violent deaths to well over 17,000 so far this year. While much of this is due to sectarian violence, attacks on US forces and Iraqi security units have also increased substantially (for example, 2,625 roadside bombs were planted in July compared with 1,454 in January).

Across the wider region, the growth of satellite TV news channels such as al-Jazeera is resulting in widespread knowledge of the impact of counterinsurgency operations, far more broadly than is represented in the western media. This is supplemented by skilful use of the web, videos and DVDs by groups linked to the wider al-Qaida movement. Coverage of Iraq, in particular, has greatly added to a bitter mood of anti-Americanism. The recent violence in Lebanon reinforces this trend, as well as confirming the portrayal of Israel as mainly a US surrogate in the region.

In one of the most extraordinary developments, Iraq is now becoming a focus of the global war on terror in that young jihadis from a number of countries (including Afghanistan) are now using it as a combat training-zone. The presence of US troops, with the many connections with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), can be presented powerfully as a neo-Christian / Zionist enterprise to occupy the seat of the historic Abbasid caliphate and control Arab oil. This is an effective recruiting tool for the wider jihadi movement.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is destabilising in the face of renewed Taliban activities. The recently completed 2006 opium harvest was at record levels; it showed an astonishing increase of 40% in the area planted over the previous year, comfortably exceeding the previous record year, 2004. This is despite hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on eradication programmes.

Furthermore, an increasing proportion of the raw opium is now refined into heroin and morphine within Afghanistan, adding hugely to the revenues accruing to the Taliban, warlords and other elements. As the Taliban offensive intensifies, the government across the border in Pakistan remains unable or unwilling to control paramilitary activity in its western districts bordering Afghanistan.

The al-Qaida factor

Some might argue that the disastrous sequence of events in Iraq and Afghanistan might be a price worth paying for the disruption of al-Qaida, especially as the price is being paid by people in the middle east and southwest Asia rather than in the United States and its coalition partners.

It is true that the al-Qaida movement lost some of its leaders and also faced geographical disruption during 2001-02. In practice, though, it has been transformed into a much more diffuse yet still potent entity with a multitude of connections, parallel paths and capabilities.

In addition to revealed or alleged plots in Britain, France, Italy, Singapore and the United States, al-Qaida has maintained a level of activity that has been substantially higher in the past five years than in the five years before 9/11. It or its affiliates have perpetrated at least thirty major attacks in that time: they include Karachi (three times), Islamabad, Bali (twice), Jakarta (twice), Istanbul (twice), London, Madrid, Sinai (three times), Riyadh, Tunis, Casablanca, Mombasa and many others.

Al-Qaida is now best characterised as more of a shared idea or outlook than a defined organisation. The sheer number of attacks across the world suggests that it is a movement which at least is maintaining – if not actually increasing – its level of activity. Its support-base is most certainly growing. Moreover, far from being a nihilistic phenomenon it is better described as an unusual transnational revolutionary movement rooted in a quasi-religious ideology which promotes a number of clear-cut aims.

These are, in the short term:

  • eviction of foreign military forces from the Islamic world
  • termination of the House of Saud as the corrupt and illegitimate Keeper of the two holy places
  • termination of elite pro-western regimes across the middle east
  • establishment of a Palestinian state
  • support for local movements such as the separatists in southern Thailand

These are conceived in terms of a twenty to thirty year strategy whose starting-point is around 1995. The long-term aim, calculated over a timespan of fifty to a hundred years, is the establishment of an Islamist caliphate.

Al-Qaida's survival and the manifest disasters of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that an objective assessment of the past five years might well conclude that the effects of Bush's global war on terror in relation to its impact on the al-Qaida movement and the wider mood of anti-Americanism, have been deeply and persistently counterproductive.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
(October 2005)

A change of policy?

Does this mean that there is a possibility of a real change in policy? There may now be something of an anti-war mood in the United States, but it is not remotely at the level of the Vietnam era. Instead, the Bush administration now uses the term Islamo-fascism to define the global threat to US security, and also believes more strongly than ever that Iran is the really significant rogue state.

Presidential statements to the effect that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) defeated Hizbollah in the Lebanese war may be far from reality. At the same time, there is a sense in which frequent reversals in the global war on terror only fuel the Bush administration's reliance on its superpower military strength to seek to prevail.

Moreover, three further factors are hugely significant. First, the geopolitical significance of Persian Gulf oil reserves remains a key aspect of US strategy in the middle east. The Persian Gulf simply must be controlled by the United States, and, with the current establishment of permanent US military bases in Iraq, this makes a wholesale withdrawal from Iraq highly improbable in the next few years.

Second, it is entirely unacceptable that Afghanistan should become once more a free zone for al-Qaida and other Islamist paramilitaries to train and conserve their resources. The United States will not withdraw from that country, and the insurgency will most likely grow.

Third, a change in US policy towards Israel is unlikely in the extreme. Even in the past few weeks there has been a further upsurge in the Christian Zionist movement and its systematic and deep support for Israel during the recent conflict, which assists even further the power of the Israel lobby in Washington to make its case.

A major and continuing US presence in the region, coupled with opposition to a just Palestine/Israel settlement, facilitates a growing base for wider al-Qaida operations, whatever the political developments in Iraq. The combined effect is to suggest a long drawn-out war.

The London bombings of July 2005, and possibly the plot said to have been uncovered in August 2006, form one part of that war. More such attacks can be expected, especially in countries forming part of the current coalition.

Whatever the value of all the many counter-terrorism methods and policies, it is going to be necessary to put substantially greater effort into reducing support for the more extensive al-Qaida / jihadi movement.

This will involve an examination of the aims of the movement and an assessment of the most appropriate means of undercutting them. It is not evident that such a project forms any significant part of current policies. Perhaps this is not surprising, as it would require far less emphasis on military operations and a much greater concentration on political and social environments and measures. This is currently unfeasible, not least in the context of a possible military confrontation with Iran.

The long view

In early April 2003, just days before the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime was completed, a column in this series was titled "A thirty-year war" (4 April 2003). In the context of the momentum that was carrying the US forces towards Baghdad, and the iconic destruction of Saddam Hussein's statue, it appeared to go way out on a limb – by arguing that the imminent regime termination would prove to be a hollow victory.

The column suggested that the consequent occupation of Iraq, coupled with the importance of US control of the region's oil reserves, was setting in motion a long-term conflict:

"Across the Arab world as a whole, the picture is of an aggressive superpower, aided and abetted by Britain, invading and occupying one of the major Arab states. Furthermore, Iraq may be a 20th-century construct, but it represents Islamic and predecessor civilisations dating back many thousands of years.

"There remains little affection for Saddam Hussein anywhere in the region, although the Americans are currently achieving the extraordinary feat of making him considerably more popular than he was. Much more significant is the gathering support for Iraq and the Iraqis, based on the firm belief that they are being subjected to a western conquest that will become a long-term subjugation."

In the thirty months since then, little has changed except to further harden that view. A fundamentally changed security paradigm is an urgent necessity. It remains unlikely under the current administration in Washington, or its subordinate ally in London. Unless there is such a change, the world may well indeed be just five years into that thirty-year war.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData