The war for understanding

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
15 May 2008

A tendency shared by government policy and establishment media coverage in regard to major issues is that it becomes so routine as to lose an important component of any responsible behaviour: self-awareness. The point is highlighted by the way that the western states in the vanguard of the "war on terror", the United States and the United Kingdom, are focusing more and more resources on internal security (especially counter-terrorism) even as they and the countries' leading media organisations portray their actions in Afghanistan and Iraq as in essence benign and inconsequential. The result is that so much of the reality they are dealing with remains beyond their grasp.

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 26 September 2001

An important illustration is the British government's determined expansion of the country's domestic anti-terrorism forces, which has received far less publicity example than (for example) its attempt to extend the detention without charge of suspects in such cases to forty-two days. There will soon be 7,000 police and support-staff in England and Wales alone working exclusively on counter-terrorism activities, in addition to those among the staff of the security service (MI5), which has near-doubled in size.

The central component of these police activities is the London-based Counter Terrorism Command (launched in October 2006), for which the lead force is the Metropolitan Police. This much-expanded command is being supplemented by eight new centres across the country: three Counter Terrorism Units (with a total of 2,000 staff) based in Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, sharing headquarters with MI5's new regional offices; and five new Counter Terrorism Intelligence Units based in the east Midlands, east, southeast, southwest, and Wales, with a sixth reported to be in train that would cover the Thames valley area west of London.There is, too, an increase of such forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

These plans build on the establishment (in 2003) of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre and (in 2007) of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism. They are also part of the overall national-security strategy announced by Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown in March 2008, whose other components include greater surveillance of cyberspace and more resources for the state's monitoring agency, GCHQ.

It is expensive work. The government's spending on counter-terrorism and intelligence rose from £1 billion in 2001 to £2.5 billion in 2008, and will rise to £3.5 billion by 2010-11. By contrast, educational and other programmes to combat domestic political radicalisation and extremism, though also increasing, will cost about £24 million a year in 2008-10 - around 1% of the counter-terrorism and intelligence budget. True, more money is going into what is termed "tackling violent extremism and promoting greater understanding" abroad, mainly involving (again) educational projects in the middle east and southwest Asia (especially Pakistan), but even this amounts to barely 5% of spending on domestic counter-terrorism.

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

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed

The problem here, however, is not a deficit of resources but of understanding. What still appears almost entirely lacking in government circles is awareness and acknowledgment of the impact of Britain's role in the "war on terror" on opinion among young Muslims in Britain. This was typified by Tony Blair, who remained committed to the war and to the idea of victory in Iraq to the end of his term as prime minister on 27 June 2007; but the connection is still not being made almost a year later.

The Fallujah echo

Many examples of how this deficiency of understanding deforms public policy and discussion could be made. Two, one each from Iraq and Afghanistan, offer different kinds of lesson.

The Iraqi example is the enduring impact of the United States assault on the western Iraqi city of Fallujah in November 2004. This was part of a cycle of tensions in the city rooted in the killing of civilians by US forces in the early stages of the war in 2003; these reached a gruesome point in April 2004, when US marines tried to take control of the city after an angry crowd had killed four American security contractors, then mutilated and burned their bodies. The intense effort failed; within a few months Fallujah was seen as the epicentre of the entire Iraq insurgency, and the Americans were determined to try again (see "Fallujah fallout", 11 November 2004).

A force of over 10,000 US army and marine-corps personnel was assembled, and an intensive two-week assault cleared the city was of insurgent elements. But the apparent success was short-lived, as many of the insurgents simply relocated elsewhere (including to Mosul, scene of an almost instantaneous surprise attack). More seriously, the impact of the Fallujah operation in the United States and across the middle east differed greatly (see "Victory in Iraq", 15 December 2005).

In the US, the taking of Fallujah was seen as a great victory in the wider war on terror. Many journalists and film crews were "embedded" with the troops, and they reported and broadcast graphic images of tracer-bullets arcing through the sky and across the river into the city (including spectacular examples of shells hitting mosques). The Pentagon's public-relations teams went into overdrive; at the moment of George W Bush's re-election to a second term as president, it was a timely demonstration that the US's enemies could be faced down in their home territory and defeated. Iraq could be portrayed as a worthwhile and perfectly winnable war.

Most western media reports showed the Fallujah attack almost exclusively from the US military perspective, but Arabic and middle-eastern satellite channels such as al-Jazeera showed another side of reality (see "No direction home", 25 November 2004). This included many bodies lying in the streets, the wreckage of most public buildings and nearly 20,000 houses (half the city's dwellings) destroyed or badly damaged. They also reported that several thousand civilians had been killed and that 200,000 refugees had fled the fighting.

Fallujah was known across Iraq (and even beyond) as the "city of mosques", and the attack was seen straightforwardly as an assault on an Islamic centre by an occupying power engaged in an illegal and atrocious war. Americans saw Fallujah in November 2004 as a great and justified success; many in the region saw it as the Arab equivalent of 9/11 (see "Iraq in the mirror of Fallujah", 21 July 2005).

What happened in Fallujah related mainly to the actions of the United States, but it had a great and enduring impact among Muslims in Europe and elsewhere - young Muslims in Britain among them. In part this was because of the Labour government's strong support for the Bush administration; in part because British troops had been redeployed from southern Iraq to districts around Baghdad in order to free up American troops for the assault.

The prince's finger

The Afghan example is the activities of the third in line to the throne of the United Kingdom, Prince Harry - and how these have been reported.

The young lieutenant's presence in Afghanistan's dangerous Helmand province was reported in the media on 28 February 2008, when he had already been serving in the country for ten weeks. At that point, his reputation was transformed from callow party-lover with a touch of the boor into a courageous and disciplined soldier.

Prince Harry might not have been on the frontline of the anti-Taliban campaign itself, but there is no doubt that he experienced real dangers at firsthand. As a "forward air controller" providing cover for frontline troops, one of his reported tasks was to direct air-strikes onto Taliban positions that were threatening British army patrols, a task which might have contributed to saving the lives of some of his fellow soldiers.

In recognition of his role, the prince received a campaign medal (which television news showed being bestowed by his aunt, Princess Anne, in a formal ceremony). The media reported the event on 5 May 2008 dutifully and with a uniformly positive tone, depicting Harry as having matured into a valued member of the British army engaged in a legitimate war against terrorists who threatened the security of the United Kingdom.

However, many young Muslims in Britain (as well as others) see the soldierly act of directing air-strikes in Afghanistan as entailing the killing of Muslim fighters engaged in legitimate resistance to a foreign occupation of their country. Moreover, the high incidence of civilian casualties in Nato air-strikes means that civilians too might well have been killed. After all, even Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, has been critical of such Nato operations.

Prince Harry belongs to a British army regiment assigned to perform tasks assigned by military and political leaders. As such, he is also one small cog in the wheel of a much larger military operation that has, since October 2001, seen over 100,000 civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; at least that number seriously injured; over 120,000 people detained without trial; and widespread abuse and torture of prisoners.

The point here is the conflict of perspectives: between a justified military operation in which a brave young prince plays a heroic role, and a symbolically charged involvement in an illegal and unjust assault on Islam. Perhaps not all the more astute people in Britain's ministry of defence or the government as a whole would share the first view, and certainly not all Muslims in Britain would share the second. But the dichotomy is there, and it is deep-seated.

There is no prospect either that it will be bridged, in the sixth year of the Iraq war and the seventh year of the Afghan. Yet until it is, the likely consequences will include further insecurity, anger and distrust with possibly dangerous consequences. The governments which devote large forces and sums to domestic counter-terrorism while pursuing military operations abroad - and the media organisations which report these uncritically - might benefit from an educational programme of their own.

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