13 December 2003  
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Why al-Qa’eda is winning
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.

What’s more, 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.

The question 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.

Nor can 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.

In 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 European peoples.

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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