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

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
7 October 2008

The previous column in this series reflected on the first seven years of the post-9/11 conflict, and highlighted three of its significant if less prominent aspects - the performance of United States troops, the impact of Washington's relationship with Israel, and the fate of the US-led coalition (see "The war on terror: seven years on - part one", 25 September 2008). This second part of the retrospective - which takes account of the (now) 371 weekly columns in openDemocracy since 26 September 2001 - also looks ahead, to assess the prospects for the emergence of a different security strategy and way of thinking in the coming years.

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

Such an assessment must begin from an acknowledgment of the current situation. These seven years saw what initially appeared definitive acts of regime-change in Afghanistan (October 2001) and Iraq (March 2003), but which have been followed by two protracted wars. The one in Iraq has diminished in intensity but is still far from over; that in Afghanistan has returned with unexpected ferocity and spread across the border to Pakistan (see "Pakistan: the new frontline", 18 September 2008). The al-Qaida movement that was dispersed and assumed to have been severely weakened by the Afghan overthrow remains active: it is recruiting across the middle east and western Asia, increasing its influence in north Africa and Somalia, and consolidating a leadership that remains secure in supportive communities in western Pakistan (see "Al-Qaida's afterlife", 29 May 2008).

In the United States, a narrative of "victory in Iraq" has been long and actively promoted by conservative voices in politics and media. This is again in the ascendant - if far from uncontested - as violence in the country has either declined (partly as a result of the redrawing of sectarian boundaries) or become confined to particular areas. The narrative, however, is embraced less by the people closest to events; notable here is the caution expressed by US military strategists, and their deep reluctance to contemplate withdrawing more than a small proportion of the 146,000 troops now in Iraq.

In contrast, there is consensus - including bipartisan political support in Washington - that a substantial increase in US military forces in Afghanistan is required. The combination is sobering for military planners: for it means that American troops are most unlikely to withdraw from Iraq in substantial numbers for many years to come, yet that to win in Afghanistan will require at least another decade of war (with the near-certainty of extended military operations in Pakistan factored into US calculations).

In light of these considerations, which are widely shared by thoughtful military analysts on both sides of the Atlantic, the first part of this retrospective asked three questions:

* is there any possibility of a fundamental review of the military policies of the United States and its remaining partners as they continue to pursue the war on terror?

* what does the bitter experience of the last seven years mean for the response of the United states and its partners to wider issues of global security - including the growth in insurgencies and anti-elite unrest, and the potentially devastating 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?

The limits of revision

The first question raises the issue of a strategic rethink. The answer is that there are are some small indications of a change in outlook in military circles in the United States, and indeed in western Europe. The experience described in Mary Kaldor's openDemocracy article is shared by other independent analysts, who are much more likely to get invited to speak to senior military audiences than as recently as 2005 (see "'New thinking' needs new direction", 25 September 2008). In part this is because of consternation within the higher ranks over the persistent problems of the war on terror, and a search for alternative ways to victory; but there are also occasions when some senior officers appear to question the very basis of the war.

It is also now quite common to have conversations with mid-ranking British soldiers and marines - especially in a conference bar or the officers' mess late in the evening - and find them uncompromising in their contempt for the politicians who landed them with what they see as an impossible task in Iraq. Some will even concede that Afghanistan - no matter how many troops are deployed - is simply not "winnable".

True, such scepticism comes mainly from those close to or on the ground, whereas air-force and naval chiefs are much more concerned to retain their high-tech edge without querying basic strategy. Furthermore, though uncertainty over the course of the war has developed quite rapidly, this rarely entails any revision in the basic aim of defeating opponents (whether they be labelled insurgents, guerrillas or terrorists). A more fundamental questioning of whether pursuing a war on terror was and is the appropriate course of action following the 9/11 events is still rare. 

These internal tensions in military thinking are reflected in the main conflict-zones. General David Petraeus, the former commander of United States forces in Iraq who is about to become head of US Central Command (Centcom), led his colleague in a shift of US tactics in Iraq with some effect on the ground; it is just possible that comparable changes of approach in Afghanistan will occur. But the dominant assumption remains, that the United States can use military force to ensure a stable and acceptable pro-American order in the middle east and southwest Asia. There is no real indication yet of awareness that foreign occupations may be untenable - an echo of the way that the military-colonial era continued for some years after the warning-signs of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and Suez in 1956 (see "Afghanistan's Vietnam portent", 17 April 2008).

The occasional reality-check does emerge. A notable coincidence of reports is one: the US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, seeking a rapid escalation in troop numbers (see "U.S. general urges troop surge in Afghanistan", International Herald Tribune, 2 October 2008) at the very time that the British ambassador in Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, judges - in a leaked report - such reinforcements to be counterproductive and foreign troops to be part of the problem not the solution (see "British envoy says mission in Afghanistan is doomed, according to leaked memo", Times, 2 October 2008). But the dissonance effect of such contradictions, when they come to the light, is treated as a problem to be managed rather than an opening to a real debate.

The state-centric vision

The second question addresses the problem of future security threats.  A few military think-tanks and associated circles are slowly coming round to the view that a focus on the current war on terror carries the danger of missing the key emerging drivers of insecurity. There is belated recognition, for example, that the combination of a widening global socio-economic divide and widespread awareness of marginalisation and injustice is more likely to create an age of insurgencies than a clash of civilisations. The Maoists in Nepal, the Naxalites in India and the extensive social unrest in China can be seen as indicators of deeper, systemic problems (see "China and India: heartlands of global protest", 7 August 2008). In addition, it is becoming clearer that wealthy urban-industrial societies are particularly vulnerable to civil unrest, especially from radical and violent social movements (see "The global economic war", 14 August 2008).   

There is a growing perception too among some military analysts that climate change and resource-scarcity could each have formidable security consequences (see "A global threat multiplier", 20 March 2008).

These shifts of outlook are welcome, but a large problem persists. This is that the perspective of these institutions and figures remains locked in the requirement of securing the state, either on its own or in alliances. The publication in March 2008 of the United Kingdom's national-security strategy, for example, refers to many of the above concerns while considering them strictly from the need to maintain the country's well-being and its ability to react successfully (see Cabinet Office, National Security Strategy, 19 March 2008).

The use of old tools to handle new problems means that concern about socio-economic division, marginalisation, resource-scarcity or climate change is not matched by an ability to see their true dimensions or interconnections. The result is that the causes of future insecurity are viewed through a state-centric lens rather than a global and sustainable-security one (see "A tale of two futures", 1 May 2008).

The next seven years

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 third question speaks to the overall chance of a reorientation of official policy, most immediately in relation to the outcome of the United States presidential election on 4 November 2008. The signs are mixed, but there is some cause for optimism, if only because the many problems that have arisen from the conduct of the war on terror are calling into question the "control paradigm" that lies at the heart of western security strategy (see "A world beyond control", 22 May 2008). The questioning may not yet be radical enough - but it is starting.

There is also a far greater recognition of the twin issues of climate change and energy security than even in 2005-06; while the financial crisis of 2007-08 is visible evidence of the problems of a largely unregulated free-market system (see Ann Pettifor, "Debtonation: how globalisation dies", 20 August 2007).  These trends need to be integrated into an analysis of the pernicious trend towards socio-economic polarisation on a worldwide scale, especially in the context of the problems in achieving the Millennium Development Goals by their 2015 target-date (see Andrew Shepherd, "The anti-poverty relay: a progress report", 24 September 2008).

The result of the US presidential election is almost impossible to predict, not least in view of a financial crisis whose effects will last until voting-day and far beyond. John McCain might solidify a conservative approach that persuades a bare majority to support him, and if (as is far from unthinkable) Sarah Palin becomes his successor there would be a rush of liberals for the Canadian border. Barack Obama might create enough of a coalition to carry him to victory, and though the space for substantial reform in security and economic policy would be constrained the resulting change in style could itself have many positive consequences.

But there is a deeper point that goes far beyond the identity of the next political leader in the United States. This is that the war on terror is best seen as classic "old thinking", more reminiscent of the cold-war era than an appropriate response to the problems of the early 21st century. It is now being seen in many quarters as obsolete: a shift of perceptions that coincides with a steadily growing awareness of wider security issues, of economic circumstances and environmental trends.

In the unlikely event that this column survives another seven years, it is just possible that an equivalent retrospective in 2015 can look back on a period of intense and positive change in which the essential questions of sustainability and security are fully recognised and integrated into a fresh and widely shared understanding. This wager on the future alone makes the next seven years crucial. It means too that independent thinking and analysis in outlets such as openDemocracy will continue to play an important role. If prophecy is "suggesting the possible", then a wounded world in need of a new direction could do with a few prophets.

The first part of this retrospective on the seven years of the war on terror was published on 25 September 2008

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