The war on terror: seven years on (part one)

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
28 September 2008

When the first column in this series was published on 26 September 2001, the United States was about to start a military operation to terminate the Taliban regime and disperse the al-Qaida movement, killing or capturing Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri and Mullah Omar. There was already a widespread view in Washington that the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq had also to be terminated, with some sources even linking Iraq to the atrocities of 9/11.

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

Seven years and 370 columns later, the original Taliban regime has long since gone, as has Saddam Hussein, but the war on terror goes on. In Afghanistan, the Taliban movement has staged an extraordinary revival and now threatens the security of much of the country; a devastating attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the capital's most notable elite gathering-point, has been described as "Pakistan's 9/11". In the face of escalating violence the United States is determined to increase its forces in Afghanistan while it extends the war into the west of Pakistan. Military analysts foresee a conflict of at least a decade.

There has been some easing of security in Iraq - after five and a half years of a bitter war that has cost over 100,000 civilians their lives, seriously wounded at least double that number, led to over 100,000 people being detained without trial and 4 million people living as refugees. The moderately increased stability remains fragile, with persistent bombings and a dangerous environment in Mosul in particular. Indeed, the fear of United States military leaders of a new upsurge of violence in Iraq makes them deeply reluctant to withdraw anything more than a fraction of their forces, notwithstanding the urgent need to reinforce the troops in Afghanistan.

A traumatic moment

That first column of 26 September 2001 (which followed a number of shorter contributions to openDemocracy's immediate post-9/11 online discussions) argued -perhaps forlornly - that forceful military action to terminate the Taliban was the wrong approach. The 9/11 atrocities should have been seen as appalling acts of international criminality rather than the trigger of a war; every effort should have been made to bring bin Laden and the others responsible to justice in the international arena. Instead, to deploy United States military power and forces in Afghanistan was probably what they wanted - direct engagement with their "far enemy", evidence of the imperial hegemon's ungodly ambitions in Muslim lands, and opportunity to wear down another superpower in much the same way that their predecessors had humbled the Soviet Union two decades earlier.

For Washington's part, the problem from the start was that its proposed approach took too little account of the circumstances of 9/11. Many commentators at the time compared the attacks to the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, but that was quite wrong (see John W Dower, "Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq", MIT World, 7 April 2008). Pearl Harbour was an attack on a distant military base by another state that was already perceived as hostile to the United States. Furthermore, it took place in the pre-television age. 

By contrast, 9/11 was an bolt from the blue sky which struck at the heart of American economic and military power. The collapse of the twin towers, in particular, was deeply traumatic - seen live on television by tens of millions of Americans who witnessed the destruction of these huge symbols of commercial success and knew that thousands of people were dying inside. The effect was visceral, and its impact was not fully recognised abroad.

Moreover, the political context was crucial. If Al Gore had won (or been recognised as the winner) of the presidential election of 2000, there might well have been some kind of US action in Afghanistan but it is less likely that a more general "war on terror" embracing an "axis of evil" and regime-change in Iraq would have ensued. But George W Bush represented a very specific trend in US politics: the rise of neo-conservatism and assertive realism, and the conviction that a "new American century" was unfolding.

The first few months of his administration in 2001, after all, had already seen a raft of unilateral measures: among them withdrawal from the Kyoto climate-change protocols, the end of any chance of ratifying the comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty, and opposition to the International Criminal Court (see "United States unilateralism: alive and kicking?", 23 January 2002). Charles Krauthammer summarised the attitude admirably in a piece for the Weekly Standard written just three months before the attacks:

"Multipolarity, yes, when there is no alternative. But not when there is. Not when we have the unique imbalance of power that we enjoy today - and that has given the international system a stability and essential tranquillity that it has not known for at least a century.

The international environment is far more likely to enjoy peace under a single hegemon. Moreover, we are not just any hegemon. We run a uniquely benign imperium." (see Charles Krauthammer, "The Bush Doctrine: ABM, Kyoto and the New American Unilateralism”, Weekly Standard, 4 June 2001).

A force under pressure

In looking back over the past seven years, many aspects offer some understanding of what has transpired and why the war on terror has had such unexpected and counterproductive results. Three such aspects stand out: none perhaps the most obvious but each throwing fresh light on the course of events in these years.

The first relates to the behaviour of United States troops in Iraq in the first couple of years of the war - behaviour that  is both fully understandable in the circumstances and does much to explain the level of opposition that the US came to experience across the middle east and southwest Asia.   

In April 2004, a year after the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime, American soldiers were fighting a difficult and evolving insurgency; many of their men (and some women) were being killed and hundreds were being grievously injured. The effectiveness of body-armour and of state-of-the-art battlefield medicine meant that those surviving had often lost limbs or were left with awful face, neck or groin injuries. The US's ability to keep its soldiers alive was matched by its ability to deploy overwhelmingly superior firepower against its chosen targets. Among the consequences of this combination of military capacity and battlefield loss and pressure was that its forces on the ground in Iraq frequently over-reacted with great brutality.

In one incident, a US marines column was ambushed in Fallujah and some troops were injured in a long and costly attempt by a rescue force to extricate them. They all got out alive, with none left behind. The following morning came the reckoning:

"Just before dawn Wednesday... AC-130 Spectre gunships launched a devastating punitive raid over six-block area around the spot where the convoy was attacked, firing dozens of artillery shells that shook the city and lit up the sky. Marine officials said the area was virtually destroyed and that no further insurgent activity has been seen there" (see Pamela Constable, "A Wrong Turn, Chaos and a Rescue", Washington Post, 15 April 2004). 

There was no reference to the fate of the everyday people living in that part of the city, just the demonstration of the ability to respond to what had clearly been a traumatic incident for the marines. Later in 2004, a strong force of US army and marine units stormed Fallujah and overran the resistance. Thousands of people died, many of them civilians, in what was seen in the United States as an important victory in a difficult war. Across much of the Islamic world, it was seen as an assault on "the city of mosques" - on the scale of 9/11 (see "Fallujah fallout" [11 November 2004], and "American dreams, Iraqi realities" [18 November 2004]).

In another incident near the Iraqi city of Baquba, a US infantry unit fought a bitter firefight with insurgents along the banks of the Tigris. The unit had previously taken casualties but succeeded on this occasion in killing some of the insurgents. Such was the feeling of relief coupled with the trauma of earlier fights that the bodies of the insurgents were strapped to the bonnets of the humvees and paraded through the town like trophies from a hunt. The intention was no doubt to prove that the soldiers could triumph against people they viewed as terrorists, but eyewitnesses reported the sullen response of the local Iraqis as the bodies of their young men were treated in this grotesque way.

From the perspective of ordinary US soldiers, the reprisal raid in Fallujah and the response of the unit in Baquba are fully understandable. They had, after all, expected a straightforward victory against an evil but weak regime but were now facing an implacable enemy and taking numerous casualties. The insurgents were terrorists pure and simple, and they were part of a wider movement that was undoubtedly responsible for numerous atrocities in Iraq - as well as in Madrid, Istanbul, Mombasa, Bali, Jakarta and a host of other places across the world. The response to this, as well as to 9/11 itself, was being played out in Iraq using all means available. It was not possible even to begin to see this from any other perspective.

A strategic outreach

The second aspect of these seven years relates to this need to use every means to defeat the terrorists in Iraq, and the consequent turn to the one ally that had decades of experience "fighting Arab terrorists": Israel. Within months of the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, high-level US military delegations were visiting Israel to strengthen the existing links and focus them on specific elements of training (see "Between Fallujah and Palestine", 22 April 2004). Since then, Israeli companies have provided a wide range of specialist equipment for use in Iraq; and the US marine corps has financed the construction of a mock-Arab town in Israel's Negev desert to be used by Israeli and US military forces for urban counter-insurgency training (see "A tale of two towns", 21 June 2007).

There is little if any awareness of these developments among non-specialist western audiences, but it is all familiar and not in the least surprising to military analysts. The United States is fighting bitter wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is quite reasonable from the Pentagon's perspective to look for help and advice from the country's closest ally and one that has precisely the experience that US forces themselves so often lack.

In the wider middle east, though, the picture is very different. In the context of a general opposition to the Zionist project, jihadist propagandists canall too easily erect a narrative of a Christian crusader movement allied to the Zionists that is assaulting Islam. This movement, moreover, is actually occupying the land of the two rivers - the very heart of Islam's greatest caliphate, the Abbasids of 750-1258.

A great refusal

The third aspect of these seven years is again singular, not widely recognised, yet highly significant in the evolution of the war on terror. By July 2003, three months after the end of the Saddam Hussein regime, the United States and its coalition partners were already embroiled in an insurgency. The fact that indeed there a multinational "coalition of the willing" had been assembled to contribute to the war was vital to the United States, as it provided the appearance of legitimacy for the occupation of Iraq; but there remained an urgent need for more troops that the existing partners were unwilling or unable to provide.

There were only one or two key countries that could in principle provide large numbers of troops to the Iraqi project in the time available and in ways acceptable to Washington. Turkey, a traditional US ally (and Nato member) was one, though after intense domestic debate its AKP government and the parliament in Ankara said no (see Murat Belge, "The Turkish refusal", 21 May 2003). This left India, far from a traditional ally but a country that had been moving away from its historic non-aligned position towards greater engagement with the US.

Washington requested that New Delhi send a full division of 17,000 troops to Iraq (see "Far from home, alone", 17 July 2003). The then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee saw several advantages in acceding to the request; not least it both demonstrate India's considerable military capabilities and counter the relationship that India's rival Pakistan was developing with the United States.

Indian domestic opinion, however, was strongly opposed to this proposed military commitment. Vajpayee faced the risk that his party would lose some key state elections in autumn 2003, and the general election due in May 2004; and in the end his government too was obliged to reject the American proposal (see Rajeev Bhargava, "The Indian refusal", 28 July 2003).

The larger problem was that though the US needed a vibrant and confident coalition in Iraq, its demands took little notice of public opinion in the "majority world" away from the north Atlantic community. As such, the Indian refusal was a seminal event: it led both to the eventual decline of any semblance of a broad coalition in Iraq, and foreshadowed current disagreements among Nato members over the alliance's policies in Afghanistan.

These three aspects of the war on terror - the performance of US troops when put in a near-impossible position by their political leaders, the impact of the relationship with Israel, and the progressive decay of the coalition - are all central to what has happened since 9/11. They do much to explain the many current problems in the war.   

A lengthy conflict

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 neededA number of recent events in southwest Asia, in particular Afghanistan and Pakistan, is relevant here. Most evidently, there is the increasing insecurity in much of Afghanistan (see "Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge" [28 August 2008] and "Pakistan: the new frontline" [18 September 2008]). These extend even to a current threat to Kabul. The escalating tensions within Pakistan - especially the Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad on 20 September - are also significant (see Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan on fire", 24 September 2008). But what is even more notable is the candid admission by US military and even political leaders that the war is going very badly and that the response must therefore be a greatly intensified military campaign.

An important expression of such sentiments came from the US secretary of defence, Robert M Gates; he has said that it should be possible to commit an additional three combat-brigades to the war in Afghanistan in 2009 - that is, in addition to the 3,700 soldiers already scheduled to deploy there at the start of the year (see Lolita C Baldor,"Afghan Troop Boost in the Spring, Gates Says", Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 September 2008).

US army brigades typically number around 4,000 troops, but there are usually 1,000 or more support forces involved as well. Thus, up to 15,000 troops could be added to the 31,000 American forces already in the country. With the other Nato forces, including around 9,000 from Britain, Afghanistan may well have over 80,000 foreign troops in the country in a few months' time. From a Taliban/al-Qaida perspective, this really is "sucking in the far enemy", which will most likely guarantee conflict for many years to come.

There is enough evidence here to assess the prospect. Seven years after 9/11, the continuation of a long-term and substantial presence in Iraq is well-nigh certain, not least because of the strategic importance of Gulf oil; and the war in Afghanistan is set to intensify and spread even more corrosively to Pakistan. Robert M Gates even speaks of an existential threat to Pakistan (see David Morgan, "Gates Says Militants Pose ‘Existential Threat' to Pakistan", Boston Globe, 24 September 2008). Even while this is happening, paramilitaries linked to the al-Qaida movement are increasing their influence in Yemen, Somalia and Algeria.

But several questions remain. Is there any possibility of a fundamental review of the military policies of the United States and its remaining coalition partners as they continue to pursue this war on terror?  More generally, what does the bitter experience of the last seven years mean for the response of these states to the wider issues of global security: including the growth in insurgencies and anti-elite unrest, and the potentially devastating security consequences of climate change? Is there any possibility of a changed outlook, and could the results of the forthcoming United States presidential election have any impact?

An attempt to answer these questions may throw light on whether the last seven years will come to be seen as the norm for a deeply troubled 21st century, or an aberration that can yet be decisively overcome.

The second part of this retrospective on the seven years of the war on terror will be published on 2 October 2008

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