Why al-Qa’eda is
Correlli Barnett says
that the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq serve as object lessons
in how not to conduct an anti-terrorist campaign
Last month, the sixth since President Bush
proclaimed ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Iraq, proved the worst so far
in terms of American and ‘coalition’ body bags: 81 in all. November
was also marked by the bombing of a residential quarter in Riyadh,
and by the four Istanbul car-bombs. In ironic contrast, this was the
month dignified with President Bush’s state visit to Britain,
complete with his and Blair’s defiant rhetoric about defeating
‘global terror’. All in all, now is surely a good time coolly to
re-assess the state of play in this so-called ‘war on terrorism’.
First of all, we have to clear our minds of
moralising political cant and media clichés. Thus it is misleading
to talk of a ‘war on terrorism’, let alone a ‘war on global
terrorism’. ‘Terrorism’ is a phenomenon, just as is war in the
conventional sense. But you cannot in logic wage war against a
phenomenon, only against a specific enemy. It is therefore as
meaningless to speak of ‘a war on terrorism’ as it would be to speak
of a ‘war on war’. Today, then, America is combating not ‘terrorism’
but a specific terrorist network, al-Qa’eda.
terrorist campaigns, whether conducted by al-Qa’eda, the IRA or ETA,
are not at all irrational expressions of hatred, let alone
manifestations of ‘evil’ to be denounced from political pulpits, but
instead are entirely rational in purpose and conduct. To adapt a
well-known dictum of Clausewitz about conventional war, terrorism of
any brand is a continuation of politics by other means. Al-Qa’eda’s
own political aim has been proclaimed by Osama bin Laden: to expel
American military forces, bases and business corporations from Arab
or Islamic soil, along with ‘corrupt’ Western cultural influences.
Furthermore, to adapt a second of Clausewitz’s dicta about
conventional war, terrorism is an act of violence intended to impose
the terrorists’ political will on their enemy.
for us today is this: which side is at present imposing its will on
the enemy — the United States or al-Qa’eda? Which side enjoys the
initiative? Objective strategic analysis can return only one answer:
it is al-Qa’eda.
For ever since the destruction of the World
Trade Center on 11 September 2001, America has haplessly reacted to
al-Qa’eda’s prior actions. Osama bin Laden’s very purpose in
launching the attacks of 9/11 was to provoke an open conflict
between ‘the West’ and the Islamic world. He succeeded. The American
people’s rage and grief (fully shared by Bush’s Washington) made
some massive American counter-stroke politically inevitable, no
matter whether strategically advisable or not. Hence followed the
invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. And only last
month the worsening security situation in Iraq, and especially the
killing of the Italian carabinieri, led to Paul Bremer, the American
viceroy of Iraq, bringing back from Washington a new policy and a
new timetable for the future of the country. Here is proof that
al-Qa’eda still holds the initiative.
But have the invasions
of Afghanistan and Iraq enabled the United States to inflict
decisive damage on the al-Qa’eda network and curb its operations, as
was the proclaimed intention? Hardly: since the first of these two
invasions in 2001, al-Qa’eda’s rate of global striking has, in fact,
greatly increased in comparison with the years beforehand. In the
two years 2002–2003 there have been 17 major bombing attacks around
the world (up to and including the Istanbul attacks on the HSBC bank
and the British consulate), as against only five major attacks in
the eight years from 1993 to 2001 (up to and including 9/11).
The truth is that the two military occupations (and
especially that of Iraq) have simply opened up long American flanks
vulnerable to increasing guerrilla attack: a classic case of
strategic overextension. In Iraq, moreover, Washington has brought
about the linkage between al-Qa’eda and Saddam’s men which, despite
Washington’s claims at the time, never existed before the war. Major
American combat divisions — airborne, armoured and infantry — are
now tied down in Iraq in peace-enforcement operations, for which
they have not been trained and wherein they are clearly floundering
(viz, the random blasting of firepower in all directions when
ambushed in Samarra the other week). These field divisions are of
course no longer available for deployment elsewhere in the world.
Result: the army of the world’s single hyperpower is now seriously
overstretched in terms of personnel, with reservists and National
Guardsmen having to be posted to Iraq.
What is more,
al-Qa’eda also holds the psychological initiative. By its acts of
terror, it provokes fresh outbursts of grief and anger in the West
(cf. the reaction to the Istanbul attacks) and a political response
of windy rhetoric (cf. Blair and Bush at their joint press
conference in London). But grief, anger and windy rhetoric are poor
guides to shrewd strategy, as the ‘coalition’ entanglements in
Afghanistan and Iraq already go to demonstrate. As also demonstrated
by these entanglements, an equally poor guide to strategy is the
romantic vision of ‘neocon’ ideologues in Washington like Richard
Perle and Paul Wolfowitz who want to revolutionise the entire Middle
East, even the whole world, into ‘democracies’.
So what is
now desperately needed are cool heads, soberly realistic judgments,
and actions based on pragmatism rather than on ideology.
Firstly, in a conflict with insurgents, as in Iraq, there
can be no quick fixes of the kind so congenial to the American
temperament. It took the British colonial government in Malaya 12
years, from 1948 to 1960, to defeat the communist guerrillas. The
vain British attempt to defeat the IRA lasted from 1969 to 1994,
when the present armistice was concluded. I could cite other
similarly discouraging case-histories. At present, the various
insurgents in Iraq enjoy the active or tacit support of a population
deeply resentful of the American occupation. The only way to
short-circuit this resentment and so isolate the insurgents is to
transfer military command as soon as possible to the United Nations:
a command preferably led by officers from suitable Muslim countries.
Similarly, the American army should as far as practicable be
replaced as a presence on the streets by soldiers from Muslim
countries able to win the trust of local Iraqis.
there be quick fixes when it comes to creating stable democratic
regimes in countries fractured by ancient rivalries — tribal,
religious and racial. The shooting war in Bosnia ended eight years
ago, and in Kosovo four years ago. Yet in both countries only the
continued presence of large international garrisons to enforce the
peace prevents a relapse into civil strife.
Also taking into
account the turbulent history of Iraq itself in the five decades
before the advent of Saddam Hussein in 1968, we should therefore
reckon on a period of at least five years and probably ten before a
completely stable and secure democratic regime could exist in Iraq.
Certainly, Iraqi society is far too complex for ‘democracy’ to be
simply flown in and installed by an American viceroy and his tame
advisory council. And in any case Washington will simply have to
accept that, in the long term, an Iraqi democracy may turn out to be
dominated by the clerics: in fact, a people’s theocracy.
the meantime, the hostility within Iraq and in the wider Islamic
world towards the American viceregal regime makes it desirable that
administrative as well as military responsibility for Iraq should be
vested as soon as possible in the UN, acting through a UN high
commissioner, preferably a Muslim. Moreover, it is only by the
United States handing over political and military control in Iraq in
this way to the UN that major states originally opposed to the
American invasion, such as France, Germany and Russia, will take
part in forging Iraq’s future.
In regard to the wider global
conflict with al-Qa’eda and its franchised supporters, the West
should drop all its rhetoric about winning ‘the war on global
terror’, and instead lower the emotional temperature. We should keep
our nerve and, above all, get the terrorist threat into quantitative
proportion. In terms of rates of striking, casualties, and physical
damage, al-Qa’eda can wreak only the merest fraction of the
destruction done by strategic air forces of both sides in the second
world war. America in particular must remember that al-Qa’eda can
never inflict on her more than minor hurt, which is what even 9/11
was in terms of a nation of nearly 300 million people, immensely
rich, and possessed of the most powerful armed forces on the planet.
America must comfort herself by recalling that she was fortunate
enough to come through the dreadful 20th century without a battle
fought on or above her continental soil. And she should also comfort
herself by recalling that her casualties in both world wars were
very much smaller relative to population than those suffered by
So it would be sad indeed if she has
allowed herself to be rattled (with far-reaching effects in
Washington’s conduct of world policy) by a single terrorist hit,
uniquely sensational though that was.
The truth is that the
occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq serve as bitter object-lessons
in how not to conduct an anti-terrorist campaign. Washington must
recognise that combating terrorists is essentially a job for special
forces like the SAS, for the police or gendarmerie (or troops
trained in a gendarmerie role) and, above all, for good intelligence
(meaning, at best, spies inside al-Qa’eda cells) — and not a job for
heavy-weight hi-tech firepower.
Rather than kicking down
front doors and barging into ancient and complex societies with
simple nostrums of ‘freedom and democracy’, we need tactics of
cunning and subtlety, based on a profound understanding of the
peoples and culture we are dealing with — an understanding up till
now entirely lacking in the top-level policy-makers in Washington,
especially in the Pentagon.
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