The days since Barack Obama’s speech at the West Point military academy on 1 December 2009 have allowed the immediate response to the new United States strategy in Afghanistan to settle. Many analysts note the risks that a military “surge” in Afghanistan entails; the considerable differences between Afghanistan and Iraq (and the severe doubts over the real impact of the surge there, as evidenced by the bombing in Baghdad on 8 December that killed around 127 people); and the regional linkages which make the outcome of the Afghan war inseparable from what happens across the border in Pakistan.
At the same time, a few observers point out that in coming to his long-awaited decision Obama is at every point burdened and constrained by the fact that he inherited a war of (by the time of his inauguration) seven years’ duration from George W Bush - and that this explains in great part the difficulties that the United States and its coalition partners now face (see “Afghanistan: new strategy, old problem”, 7 December 2009). The ninth year of the war is well underway, and - though Obama hopes to be able to start a drawdown of American troop numbers in 2011, following the deployment of 30,000 more in 2010 - there is every indication that their involvement will stretch over many more years.
A fantasy project
It is indeed hard to overstate the importance of the George W Bush administration’s legacy - in particular, to three key early errors it made in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001:
- it saw al-Qaida as a global enemy worthy of a war, instead of an example of brutal transnational criminality - albeit rooted in a perverse interpretation of one of the world’s main religious faiths
- it failed to help Afghanistan, in the vital 2001-02 period, make some kind of transition to a stable country when that was still possible
- it invaded and occupied Iraq.
The Bush-Dick Cheney “war on terror” envisaged a military confrontation that would make al-Qaida dispersed and leaderless, create a pro-western Afghanistan, and establish a long-term US presence there and in neighbouring central Asian republics. For their part, Iraqis were expected to welcome the American troops with flowers and street-parties, followed by the country’s rapid transition under Washington’s zealous ideological tutelage to an unalloyed free-market economy with a flat-rate tax, minimum regulation, wholesale privatisation and the exposure of Iraqi state enterprises to foreign (mainly American) takeover.
The implantation of tens of thousands of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the presence of the US fifth fleet in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, would have the further benefit of constraining Iran. The reverberations of this fantastical “project” for a “new American century” would include a transformation of the entire middle east in the US interest.
There was nothing in this script that anticipated the real outcome: long-term (and far from finished) wars that have killed over 100,000 civilians, maimed hundreds of thousands, and caused 4 million people to flee their homes; the detention without trial of over 120,000 people (some for over five years) and systematic prisoner-abuse, rendition and torture. Barack Obama may do his best to start healing the breach - and the Nobel peace prize he receives in Oslo on 10 December 2009 is a signal of how many hopes are still invested in him - but the continuing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq is doing little to help.
An end to “liddism”
The “war on terror” has failed in almost all its ostensible aims. Moreover, it was counterproductive. The immediate Washington-led response to the 9/11 atrocities, regime-termination in Afghanistan, was to be expected in the circumstances. But it was (as was argued at the time) still crucially misconceived: the events of 9/11 demanded worldwide policing and legal responses for which there would have been sustained support, not a conventional war.
That response gave the al-Qaida movement a much greater status and credibility than it deserved. This was reinforced by the war in Iraq, when the movement could present itself as a defender of Islam and avoid being seen for what it really was: a brutal example of extreme transnational criminality.
An important and far from intended consequence of the great failure of the “war on terror”, however, could be far more effective responses to issues of global-security. A new study from the Oxford Research Group analyses this possibility and suggests that a fundamental rethinking of many of the old approaches to international security could indeed be retrieved from the wreckage of the 21st-century’s first decade.
The report - Global Security after the War on Terror (November 2009) - argues that sophisticated and wide-ranging approaches to conflict-prevention (rather than military responses) will be the key to tackling future security challenges. For these challenges will come not from groups like al-Qaida but from the impact of the widening global rich-poor divide, marginalisation and climate change. In this context, any attempt by wealthy communities to maintain the status quo in a fragile and unstable world will be self-defeating:
“(The) experience of the last eight years is hugely relevant to the future. In the original 9/11 attacks, a small number of determined people turned passenger jets into weapons. In Iraq, just a few thousand insurgents tied down over 200,000 of the world’s best equipped and best trained armed forces for nearly six years. In Afghanistan the insurgents are probably no greater in number yet are gaining ground after more than eight years of conflict.
“The war on terror has been a classic example of what might be termed ‘liddism’ - keeping the lid on security threats without recognising, still less understanding, the underlying reasons for insecurity. Such an approach - the determined effort to maintain control - fails to recognise the interconnected nature of today’s globalised world. The castle gates simply cannot be closed.”
A turn to reality
The course of action and analysis recommended in Global Security after the War on Terror seeks to do what the architects of that war neglected to do: namely, to understand the underlying roots of current problems and identify the trends that make future conflict more likely in order to take appropriate (and not useless or harmful) action. The most important of these roots are a widening socio-economic divide which excludes 80% of the world’s people from access to sustainable life; and the impact of environmental limitations, especially climate change.
A more relevant symbol of the pattern of conflict that will result from an increasingly divided and constrained world is less al-Qaida than the resurgent Naxalite rebellion in India. This “revolt from the margins” is now being met by the Indian government’s huge new security operation - “green hunt” - in which tens of thousands of police and paramilitary forces try to confine the Naxalites to more remote areas where they can inflict less damage on economic targets and security personnel (see “India’s 21st-century war”, 5 November 2009).
India has achieved impressive economic growth since the 1990s, but it is facing pervasive internal dissent from the marginalised and dispossessed. The same can be said of China (see “China and India: heartlands of global protest”, 7 August 2008). The experience of these Asian giants is but one part of what is likely to become a much wider predicament - and it cannot be controlled by force. In the words of the Oxford Research Group report:
“In a divided and increasingly constrained world, an elite minority will not be able to prosper at the expense of the majority - a transition to a sustainable security policy rooted in emancipation and justice is essential.
The war on terror has been a disaster, but recognising its failure might at least help us develop our understanding of global security in a manner appropriate to the 21st century.”