The third region of major concern, the (largely) Islamic world, also the scene of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) that George W. Bush declared in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attack. To be more accurate, re-declared. The GWOT was declared by the Reagan administration when it took office, with a fevered rhetoric about a plague spread by depraved opponents of civilization itself (as Reagan put it) and a return to barbarism in the modern age (the words of George Shultz, his Secretary of State). The original GWOT has quietly been removed from history. It very quickly turned into a murderous and destructive terrorist war afflicting Central America, southern Africa and the Middle East, with grim repercussions to the present, even leading to the condemnation of the United States by the World Court (which Washington dismissed). In any event, it is not the right story for history, so it is gone.
The success of the Bush-Obama version of GWOT can readily be evaluated on direct inspection. When the war was declared, the terrorist targets were confined to a small corner of tribal Afghanistan. They were protected by the Afghans, who mostly disliked or despised them, under the tribal code of hospitality-which baffled Americans when poor peasants refused to turn over Osama bin Laden for the, to them, the astronomical sum of $25 million.
There are good reasons to believe that a well-constructed police action, or even serious diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban, might have placed those suspected of the 9/11 crimes in American hands for trial and sentencing. But such options were off the table. Instead, the reflexive choice was large-scale violence- it with the goal of overthrowing the Taliban (that came later) but to make clear US contempt for tentativeTaliban offers of the possible extradition of bin Laden. How serious these offers were, we do not know, since the possibility of exploring them was never entertained. Or perhaps the United States was just intent on trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don’t care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose. That was the judgement of the highly respected anti-Taliban leader Abdul Haq, one of the many oppositionists who condemned the American bombing campaign launched in October 2001 as a big setback for their efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within, a goal they considered within their reach. His judgement was confirmed by Richard A. Clarke, who was the chairman of the Counterterrorism Security Group at the White House under George W. Bush when the plans to attack Afghanistan were made. As Clarke describes the meeting, when informed that the attack would violate international law, “the President yelled in the narrow conference room, ‘I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.’ ” The attack was also bitterly opposed by the major aid organizations working in Afghanistan, who warned that millions were on the verge of starvation and that the consequences might be horrendous.
The consequences for poor Afghanistan years later need hardly be reviewed.
The next target of the sledgehammer was Iraq. The US-UK invasion, utterly without credible pretext, is the major crime of the twenty first century. The invasion led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people in a country where the civilian society had already been devastated by American and British sanctions that were regarded as genocidal by the two distinguished international diplomats who administered them and resigned in protest for this reason. The invasion also generated millions of refugees, largely destroyed the country, and instigated a sectarian conflict that is now tearing apart Iraq and the entire region. It is an astonishing fact about our intellectual and moral culture that in informed and enlightened circles it can called, blandly, the liberation of Iraq.
Pentagon and British Ministry of Defence polls found that only 3% of Iraqis regarded the US security role in their neighbourhood as legitimate, less than 1% believed that the coalition (US-UK) forces were good for their security, 80% opposed the presence of coalition forces in the country, and a majority supported attacks on coalition troops. Afghanistan has been destroyed beyond the possibility of reliable polling, but there are indications that something similar may be true there as well. Particularly in Iraq, the United States suffered a severe defeat, abandoning its official war aims and leaving the country under the influence of the sole victor, Iran.
The sledgehammer was also wielded elsewhere, notably in Libya, where the three traditional imperial powers (Britain, France and the United States) procured Security Council resolution 1973 and instantly violated it, becoming the air force of the rebels. The effect was to undercut the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated settlement; sharply increase casualties (by at least a factor of ten, according to political scientist Alan Kuperman); leave Libya in ruins, in the hands of warring militias; and, more recently, to provide the Islamic State with a base that it can use to spread terror beyond. Quite sensible diplomatic proposals by the African Union, accepted in principle by Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, were ignored by the imperial triumvirate, as Africa specialist Alex de Waal reviews. A huge flow of weapons and jihadis has spread terror and violence from West Africa (now the champion for terrorist murders) to the Levant, while NATO attack also sent a flood of refugees from Africa to Europe.
Yet another triumph of humanitarian intervention and, as the long and often ghastly record reveals, not an unusual one, going back to its modern origins four centuries ago.
THE COSTS OF VIOLENCE
In brief, the GWOT sledgehammer strategy has spread jihadi terror from a tiny corner of Afghanistan to much of the world from Africa through the Levant and South Asia. It has also incited attacks in Europe and the United States. The invasion of Iraq made a substantial contribution to this process, much as the intelligence agencies had predicted. Terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank estimate that the Iraqi war generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadists attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilians lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third. Other exercises have been similarly productive.
A group of major human rights organizations—Physicians for Social Responsibility (US), Physicians for Global Survival (Canada), and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Germany)—conducted a study that sought to provide as realistic an estimate as possible of the total body count in the three main war zones [Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan] during 12 years of ‘war on terrorism, including an extensive review of the major studies and data published on the number of victims in these countries, along with additional information on military actions. Their conservative estimate is that these wars killed about 1.3 million people, a toll that could also be in excess of 2 million. A database search by independent researcher David Peterson in the days following the publication of the report found virtually no mention of it. Who cares?
More generally, studies carried out by the Oslo Peace Research institute show that two-thirds of the region’s conflict fatalities were produced in originally internal disputes where outsiders imposed their solutions. In such conflicts, 98% of fatalities were produced only after outsiders had entered the domestic dispute with their military might. In Syria, the number of direct conflict fatalities more than tripled after the West initiated air strikes against the self-declared Islamic State and the CIA started its indirect military interference in the war—interference which appears to have drawn the Russians in as advanced US antitank missiles were decimating the forces of their ally Bashar al-Assad. Early indications are that Russian bombing is having the usual consequences.
The evidence reviewed by political scientist Timo Kivimaki indicates that the protection wars [fought by ‘coalitions of the willing] have become the main source of violence e in the world, occasionally contributing over 50% of total conflict fatalities. Furthermore, in many of these cases, including Syria, as he reviews, there were opportunities for diplomatic settlement that were ignored. As discussed elsewhere, that has also been true in other horrific situations, including the Balkans in the early 1990s, the first Gulf War, and of course the Indo China wars, the worst crime since World War II. In the case of Iraq, the question does not even arise. There surely are some lessons here.
The general consequences of resorting to the sledgehammer against vulnerable societies comes as little surprise. William Polk’s careful study of insurgencies, cited above, should be essential reading for those who want to understand today’s conflicts, and surely for planners, if they care about the human consequences and not merely power and domination. Polk reveals a pattern that has been replicated over and over. The invaders-perhaps professing the most benign motives—are naturally disliked by the population, who disobey then, at first in small ways, eliciting a forceful response, which increases opposition and support for resistance, the cycle of violence escalates until the invaders withdraw— or gain their ends by something that may approach genocide.
Obama’s global drone assassination campaign, a remarkable innovation in global terrorism, exhibits the same patterns. By most accounts, it is generating terrorists more rapidly than it is murdering those suspected of someday intending to harm us—an imperative contribution by a constitutional lawyer on the eight hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta, which established the basis for the principle of presumption of innocence that is the foundation of civilized law.
Another characteristic feature of such interventions is the belief that the insurgency will be overcome by eliminating its leaders. But when such an effort succeeds, the reviled leader is regularly replaced by someone younger, more determined, more brutal and more effective. Polk gives many examples. Military historian Andrew Cockburn has reviewed American campaigns to kill drug and then terror kingpins over a long period in his important study Kill Chain and found the same results. And one can expect with fair confidence that the pattern will continue.
No doubt right now US strategists are seeking ways to murder the Caliph of the Islamic State Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, who is a bitter rival of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The likely result of this achievement is forecast by the prominent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman, senior fellow at the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Centre. He predicts that al-Baghdadi’s death would likely pave the way for a rapprochement [with al-Qaeda] producing a combined terrorist force unprecedented in scope, size, ambition and resources.
Polk cites a treatise on warfare by Henry Jomini, influenced by Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Spanish guerrillas, that became a textbook for generations of cadets at the West Point military academy. Jomini observed that such interventions by major powers typically result in wars of opinion, and nearly always national wars if not at first then becoming so in the course of the struggle, by the dynamics that Polk describes. Jomini concludes that commanders of regular armies are ill-advised to engage in such wars because they will lose them, and even apparent successes will prove short-lived.
Careful studies of al-Qaeda and ISIS have shown that the United States and its allies are following their game plan with some precision. Their goal is to draw the West as deeply and actively as possible into the quagmire and to perpetually engage and enervate the United States and the West in a series of prolonged overseas ventures in which they will undermine their own societies, expend their resources and increase the level of violence, setting off the dynamic that Polk reviews.
Scott Atran, one of the most insightful researchers on jihadi movements, calculates that the 9/11 attacks cost between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute, whereas the military and security response by the US and its allies is in the order of 10 million times that figure. On a strictly cost-benefit basis, this violent movement has been wildly successful, beyond even Bin Laden’s original imagination, and is increasingly so. Herein lies the full measure of jujitsu-style asymmetric warfare. After all, who could claim that we are better off than before, or that the overall danger is declining? And if we continue, he to wield the sledgehammer, tacitly following the jihadi script, the likely effect is even more violent jihadism with broader appeal. The record, Atran advises, should inspire a radical change in our counter-strategies.
Al-Qaeda/ISIS are assisted by Americans who follow their directives; for example, Ted carpet-bomb ‘em Cruz, a top Republican presidential candidate. Or, at the other end of the mainstream spectrum, the leading Middle East and international affairs columnist of the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, who in 2003 offered Washington advice on how to fight in Iraq on the Charlie Rose show: There was what I would call the terrorism bubble . . . And what we needed to do was to go over there basically, and, uh, take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world, and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it . . . What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go? Well, suck on this. Ok. That, Charlie, was what this war was about.
That’ll show the ragheads
Atran and other close observers generally agree on the prescriptions. We should begin by recognizing what careful research has convincingly shown: those drawn to jihad are longing for something in their history, in their traditions, with their heroes and their morals; and the Islamic State, however brutal and repugnant to us and even to most in the Arab Muslim world, is speaking directly to that . . . What inspires the most lethal assailants today is not so much the Quran but a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. In fact, few of the jihadis have much of a background in Islamic texts or theology, if any.
The best strategy, Polk advises, would be a multinational, welfare oriented and psychologically satisfying program . . . that would make the hatred ISIS relies upon less virulent. The elements have been identified for us: communal needs, compensation for previous transgressions, and calls for a new beginning. He adds, A carefully phrased apology for past transgressions would cost little and do much. Such a project could be carried out in refugee camps or in the hovels and grim housing projects of the Paris banlieues, where, , Atran writes, his research team found fairly wide tolerance or support for ISIS’s values. And even more could be done by true dedication and negotiations instead of reflexive resort to violence.
Not least in significance would be an honourable response to the refugee crisis that was a long time in coming but surged to prominence in Europe in 2015. That would mean, at the very least, sharply increasing humanitarian relief to the camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey where miserable refugees from Syria barely survive. But the issues go well beyond, and provide a picture of the self-described enlightened states that is far from attractive and should be an incentive to action.
There are countries that generate refugees through massive violence like the United States, secondarily Britain and France. Then there are countries that admit huge number of refugees, including those fleeing from Western violence, like Lebanon (easily the champion, per capita) Jordan and Syria before it imploded, among others in the region. And partially overlapping, there are countries that both generate refugees and refuse to take them in, not only from the Middle East but also from the US backyard south of the border. A strange picture painful to contemplate.
An honest picture would trace the generation of refugees much further back into history. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk reports that one of the first videos produced by ISIS showed a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand that had marked the border between Iraq and Syria. As the machine destroyed the dirt revetment, the camera panned down to a handwritten poster lying in the sand. ‘End of Sykes-Picot,’ it said.
For the people of the region, the Sykes-Picot agreement is the very symbol of the cynicism and brutality of Western imperialism. Conspiring in secret during World War I, Britain’s Mark Sykes and France’s Francois Georges-Picot carved up the region into artificial states to satisfy their own imperial goals, with utter disdain for the interests of the people living there and in violation of the wartime promises issued to induce Arabs to join the Allied war effort. The agreement mirrored the practices of the European states that devastated Africa in a similar manner. It transformed what had been relatively quiet provinces of the Ottoman Empire into some of the least stable and most internationally explosive states in the world.
Repeated Western interventions since then in the Middle East and Africa have exacerbated the tensions, conflicts, and disruptions that have shattered the societies. The end result is a refugee crisis that the innocent West can scarcely endure. Germany has emerged as the conscience of Europe, at first (but no longer) admitting almost one million refugees—in one of the richest countries of the world with a population of 80 million. In contrast, the poor country of Lebanon has absorbed an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, now a quarter of its population, on top of half a million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN refugee agency UNRWA, mostly victims of Israeli policies.
Europe is groaning under the burden of refugees from the countries it hS devastated in Africa—not without US aid, as Congolese and Angolans, among others, can testify. Europe is now seeking to bribe Turkey (with over 2 million Syrian refugees) to distance those fleeing the horrors of Syria from Europe’s borders, just as Obama is pressuring Mexico to keep US borders free from miserable people seeking to escape the aftermath of Reagan’s GWOT along with those seeking to escape more recent disasters, including a military coup in Honduras that Obama almost alone legitimized, which created one of the worst horror chambers in the region.
Words can hardly capture the US response to the Syrian refugee crisis, at least any words I can think of.
Returning to the opening question, Who rules the world? we might also want to pose another question: What principles and values rule the world?” That question should be foremost in the minds of the citizens of the rich and powerful states, who enjoy an unusual legacy of freedom, privilege and opportunity, thanks to the struggles of those who came before them, and who now face fateful choices as to how to respond to challenges of great human import.