US: world empire of chaos
The US seems not to understand that its current global war on terrorism is an asymmetrical war, and that the last military superpower is losing its engagements. The resistance in occupied and bombarded lands can still claim victory when the US fails to impose its will.
THE scheduled date for a seminar at the American University of Paris on asymmetrical warfare in the age of globalisation was 12 September 2001; the previous day’s events in the United States provided us with the best possible case study of the subject.
Al-Qaida, allegedly involved in 9/11, is a non-state transnational group that functions according to the Spin (segmented, polycentric, ideologically networked groups) model. It is a loose and horizontally structured network rather like ecological, feminist and other modern transnational groups, and is secretly organised in the same way as mafias, drug cartels and similar illegal traffickers (1).
After 9/11, however, definitions of asymmetric threats and enemies have changed according to the principle of “who’s with us or against us”, the us being the US, and relative to the mood and interests of decision-makers in Washington, with little or no connection to real new threats. Lumping classical anti-colonial resistance movements and national secular regimes together with al-Qaida and other criminal networks as the target of Washington’s global war against terrorism has proved not merely wrong but catastrophic.
In the decade before 9/11 some 4 million people, mostly civilians, had been killed in non-conventional ethnic and criminal wars that had been financed by drug, diamond and arms trafficking. These wars had ruined the mood of post-cold war optimism. Pentagon planners, changing their tack from the previous era of superpower rivalry, began to relate the new conflicts to globalisation and to analyse their threat to US and western security and interests.
They traced two new types of asymmetrical threat: internal wars that mostly resulted from the transformation, weakening or disintegration of states under the pressures of globalisation; and transnational threats emerging, not from a separate system, territory or religion, but from a more violent western strategic landscape that had been nourished by minor criminal wars, underdevelopment and demographic transformation.
It is generally understood that global asymmetrical threats of the al-Qaida type stem from the insurrection of those who have been hurt by globalisation. From failed states such as Somalia and from the belts of poverty around the richest countries, they rebel against the world’s dominating, affluent centre. Inflamed by the inequalities generated by neoliberal globalisation, they exploit the new information technologies that unite rebels internationally.
Far from Hamas or Hizbullah
This threat is far from Hamas, Fatah, Hizbullah or the national resistance groups encountered in Iraq. The Bush administration has demonised all these groups by linking them to al-Qaida and calling them “Islamic fascists”, instead of engaging with them in any political process that might lead to the liberation of their territories and further the war against al-Qaida. The fact that these movements use urban, low-intensity, guerrilla tactics — even terrorism — does not make them part of the global asymmetrical threat. These groups have defined, popular bases and just, limited territorial objectives; they are ready to agree on political settlements. In these things they are unlike al-Qaida’s violent global jihad against Christians and Jews.
The US has not yet suffered further attacks. But the bombings on the transport systems of London and Madrid were carried out by mostly homegrown and disaffected western Muslims, inspired by al-Qaida’s populist agenda and incited by images from the wars in Iraq and Palestine. These more properly define global asymmetrical attacks.
Al-Qaida and similar groups have profited from the war against them over the past five years. Their power lies in their ability to attract support and recruits from among disenfranchised, angry Muslims who feel victimised by the US global war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. The lucidity and unpredictability of this asymmetrical campaign is in direct contrast with the massive and excessive use of force by the US in predictable and failed territorial wars.
Some anti-war moralists argued that the first war against apocalyptic terrorism, in Afghanistan, could, if fought with limited ends, be regarded as the first just war of the US. But this view was soon compromised by the injustice of “improper means and excessive ends” (2). Disproportionality, the excessive use of force relative to goals, diminished the legitimacy of the war, fanned the flames of Islamic militancy and gave credence to calls for holy war. The US’s F-16s and Tomahawk cruise missiles may command the skies, but “Kalashnikov submachineguns still rule the ground” (3).
Selective targeting of the planners and perpetrators of 9/11 could have rid the US of al-Qaida without alienating the general Afghan population, which over the years had developed an indifference and even animosity towards the “Arab Afghans”.
It is no coincidence that the Taliban are back five years later, just as vigorous and stubborn. In a speech on 12 September, the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, underscored the danger of Talibanisation, which he described as the real strategic threat facing Afghanistan and Pakistan. The spread of this violent religious extremism, Musharraf argued, is far more dangerous than al-Qaida’s superstructure and must be confronted chiefly through political means (4).
Since the war began, there has been little or no positive change outside Kabul and the population continues to suffer from war and deprivation. The chaos has continued, with a mix of drug traffickers (over 90% of the world’s opium originates in Afghanistan), tribal leaders, warlords and Islamists running the rest of the country. Five years after the fall of the Taliban, its leadership remains at large, conducting a low-intensity war that has cost the Nato forces worsening casualties; in September Nato appealed for reinforcements.
Despite the presence of 20,000 US soldiers, some 2,000 people have been killed this year; parliamentarians, religious leaders, mayors and others have been assassinated.
Now, according to recent media reports: “60% of the country is still without electricity, 80% without potable water. The absence of credible police has created vacuums that are being filled by an array of anti-government forces: Islamists in the south, 1980s-era warlords in the west and drug runners in the north. Meanwhile, the fighting between coalition troops and the Taliban has halted new reconstruction projects and undermined the impact of finished ones. Only half the aid pledged to the country since 2001 has been distributed, and violence has rendered the road from Kabul to Kandahar (which until now was the US’s biggest reconstruction success) impassable” (5).
This has also come as a result of the US failure to concentrate its efforts on rebuilding, perhaps even providing a mini-Marshall plan for a country cynically turned into a cold war killing field by Washington and Moscow. A year after it began, Operation Enduring Freedom was a forgotten war, ignored by the US media once Washington had embarked on a far greater and more cynical adventure.
In Iraq, the second front in the global war against terror, the US occupation has entered its fourth year with no end in sight. This summer’s escalation of violence has destroyed the optimism that followed the death of the local al-Qaida leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and disproved the claim of the US vice-president Dick Cheney that the resistance was in its “last throes”.
The head of Marine Corps Intelligence in Iraq concluded in a recent secret report that “the prospects for securing Iraq’s western Anbar province are dim and that there is almost nothing the US military can do to improve the political and social situation”. The number of Americans who have been killed in Iraq has surpassed the number who died in the 9/11 attacks (6).
The severity and complexity of the violence are polarising Iraq’s Sunni and Shia, exacerbating tyranny and escalating anti-US feeling as never before. The Baghdad morgue registered over 1,500 deaths in June and 1,855 during July. In August, despite the deployment of 8,000 US and 3,000 Iraqi soldiers in the capital, the morgue reported 1,526 fatalities, an embarrassing contradiction of the US military’s claim of a 52% drop from July’s figures. Now the Ministry of Heath has taken over body count statistics and morgue officials who divulged the figures have been “retired” (7).
Washington’s three-year war has resulted in two unattractive alternatives. If, as expected, the situation deteriorates further, Iraq “will go under” according to the parliamentary speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. If by some miracle it survives the current deterioration, the quagmire will render Operation Iraqi Freedom an unwinnable war. In either case, the multiplication of organised insurgencies, resistance groups, death squads, criminal gangs and splintering paramilitary groups is complicating counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts, the interdependent pillars of any success in Iraq.
To stay or to go
Such a complex impasse makes it increasingly dangerous for the US to stay, but also makes it unrealistic to declare victory and leave Iraq to dissolve into civil war. In either case, the deterioration is problematic for long-term US strategic interests and its deterrent capacity in a volatile region. “Mission unaccomplished” has emboldened regional enemies such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran and increased threats to US security. No wonder three out of five Americans think the war in Iraq has made a terrorist attack in the US more likely.
Talibanisation is a possibility in another failed state, Somalia, where the Islamic courts, having defeated tribal leaders recruited by US forces in Ethiopia and Djibouti, have taken control of Mogadishu and are making headway in regions around the country. These conflicts further destabilise the Horn of Africa, the region that is assumed to have been the centre of training and recruitment for the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, which killed around 250 people. According to the International Crisis Group, present instability “threatens to escalate into a wider conflict that would consume much of the south, destabilise peaceful territories like Somaliland and Puntland and possibly involve terrorist attacks in neighbouring countries” (8).
The same could be said of the asymmetric wars fought by Israel in Palestine and Lebanon — the latter characterised by President George Bush as one of three fronts in the global war on terror (9). Widespread destruction and the deaths of thousands of Palestinians, Lebanese and Israelis have produced only a strategic impasse. Despite US diplomatic, logistic and strategic support for Israel’s war in Gaza and its extension to Lebanon, these ventures augmented Hamas’s popularity and boosted enrolment in Hizbullah among religious Shia. They also diminished Israel’s strategic deterrence, while threatening to provoke Hizbullah-style resistance in Palestine if Israel continues to negotiate its withdrawal from the occupied territories (10).
Although asymmetric wars have proven far more effective for the enemies of the US than conventional ones, they rarely end with white flags, a clear winner and losers. Resistance groups can hardly claim overall victory when their lands have been bombarded, occupied and ravaged, just as imperial powers cannot claim to have achieved their strategic goals. Both lose, but the weaker can claim strategic victory because the stronger force wasn’t able to impose its will.
Nevertheless the White House’s September 2005 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism lists only successes and challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, with no mention of failures. The US capacity to go on failing successfully has only raised the rhetoric and stakes in the war, and made it more difficult to step back from the abyss.
The extension of the theatre of war is dangerous. It is one thing to use the word “war” metaphorically as in wars on crime and poverty, from which no final results are expected. But this “perpetual war for perpetual peace” is a contradiction that can only be resolved, theologically speaking, by death. The US is developing an eschatological theo-strategy directed against absolute evil, with a proclaimed constructive agenda of destruction.
Washington’s strategic “success” in spreading constructive chaos is pitting regions’ contesting regimes, groups and ethnicities against each another. Washington’s cynical approach of taking the war to the enemy has revealed itself as a destroy, divide and rule strategy. Iraq is sliding into civil war under the pressure of US occupation, while Somalia is fragmented by fundamentalist and tribal infighting. In Lebanon, where Israel destroyed much of the infrastructure, displaced a third of the population and killed over 1,000 without achieving its goals, tensions are rising between “Iran-supported” Hizbullah and “US accommodationists”.
Israel’s US-sanctioned siege of the occupied Palestinian territories strengthens the Islamist Hamas over the moderate, secular Fatah and, as in Iraq, decentralises power among local militias.
These ongoing tensions and wars are further undermining central governments, compromising state sovereignty, and preparing for the emergence of more effective players. A state that cannot protect its citizens has no future. So introducing intra-state and supra-state players to take over Middle Eastern security from existing states, however oppressive, can only lead to tyranny. States can be reformed and transformed, but the new order is facilitating an “empire of chaos”, as Alain Joxe describes it, from Somalia to Afghanistan and into the immigrant-packed poverty rings around major western cities.
Victory, a pipedream
“Are we killing, capturing or deterring jihadists faster than they are being produced?” asked Donald Rumsfeld. If the US’s success or failure in the war on terror is determined by the answer to this strategic question, most observers agree with former US navy secretary John Lehman’s “emphatic no” (11).
Five years, five wars and $500bn later, the US global war on terror has strengthened fundamentalist enemies and weakened its moderate clients. The Bush administration has acted like a pyromaniac fireman in applying preventive multilateral policies and special intelligence measures to defend against future terrorist attack. Bush has aggravated and increased the asymmetrical threats that culminated in the attacks on New York and Washington (12).
Contrary to the conclusions of the self-serving National Strategy Report For Combating Terrorism (September 2006), US operational successes have been compromised by strategic failures, rendering the pledge of victory no more than a dream. From Afghanistan to Somalia, and throughout Muslim communities across the world, asymmetrical threats against the US and its allies have multiplied. The world’s only superpower looks increasingly powerless to contain the escalation of its own devastating enterprise.
This is far from the situation before 9/11. People in the Middle East may have shed no tears over the fall of the World Trade Centre towers, but neither did they lament the ousting of al-Qaida or the Taliban. Despite the attack on Iraq and Israel’s siege of Palestine, the US enjoyed far-reaching cooperation in its war on terror from Arab regimes who, in 2002, also embarked upon an ambitious peace initiative to end the Arab-Israeli conflict in the hope that Washington would shift direction in favour of stability and peace. Sadly, the Bush administration chose retributive over restorative policies.
This retributive strategy is intended to replace the previous US policy of containing the Soviet Union, a change brilliantly summed up by a US Republican party campaign advertisement that depicts many scary, dangerous foxes replacing one strong bear.
The Bush administration has been adamant about its force projections across the globe. In a 2004 tour of Europe, the undersecretary of state, Marc Grossman, shocked the Nato allies with the scope and depth of the US redeployment of forces from Europe to Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Some read his remarks as the declaration of a world war. These plans involve wide deployment of small, mobile contingents of Special Forces, first in central and south Asia, then in Africa and the Mediterranean. Latin America was not mentioned, on the assumption that it is already under US strategic influence. The US has warned that some of these troops could be redeployed in European countries’ areas of influence (13).
The US was right in its prognosis of asymmetrical threats before 9/11, but has subsequently prescribed the wrong solutions. Europe downplayed the new challenges but prescribed a far better response to the threats, based on multilateral efforts, and more responsive and just global governance, mirroring its internal orientation as a peaceful regional project with an initial emphasis on a soft approach.
The resulting normalisation of violence in the shadow of protracted conflicts in the broader Middle East has resonated among Arab and Muslim communities in the West, and has threatened to shift the fault lines of conflict from the poverty zones around Cairo and Baghdad to those established around major western cities.
The US is stuck in the quicksands of the broader Middle East, sinking deeper with every move because the Bush administration has refused to learn any lessons about asymmetrical warfare in the region. The 9/11 attacks showed that in the age of globalisation, violence and extremism stemming from criminal wars, illegal occupations and failed states can and will transcend national and regional boundaries to threaten the heart of the western world, through the ease of modern transportation and hi-tech communications, or through the inspiration and incitement of live satellite television wars and sermons.
Instead of concentrating western efforts on reconciliatory and restorative measures such as rebuilding Afghanistan or resolving the Palestinian issue, the region’s leading generator of anti-US sentiment, the Bush administration, motivated by big oil and military industrial interests, preferred to pack the region with its forces. It invaded oil rich Iraq, supported Israel’s crackdown on the Palestinians and destabilised the broader Middle East.
Which brings us to the second missed lesson. If the 20th century is any guide, no low-intensity guerrilla war or insurrection has ever been won on foreign soil. The US, like the Soviets in Afghanistan, the French in Algeria, and its own forces in Vietnam, might possess far more advanced and destructive firepower, but it is far less committed than its opponents and is far more fragile and prone to losing momentum.
In a conflict perceived as being between a selfish crusade and selfless jihad, highly trained, paid and equipped US, Israeli and British soldiers strive to stay alive as they fight wars of choice against low-tech volunteer militants who are ready to sacrifice themselves and die as martyrs in a confrontation of necessity. The US mourns its dead; resistance groups celebrate theirs.
In all five asymmetrical conflicts, the fragmentation of guerrilla, insurgency and resistance groups has complicated US efforts, and anti-US sentiment has hardened in the violence-ravaged areas. The goal of any war must be peace, which can only be accomplished through political accommodation. But the latter becomes ever more problematic since the US lacks coherent, specific strategic goals. This in turn complicates the strategic landscape, leaving Washington facing multiple enemies that have no defined geography but have a well-defined political agenda.
The central question remains: what strategy does the global war on terror really demand? After the series of defeats in the broader Middle East, the US media and congress are struggling to find an answer. Did the Bush administration misunderstand? From weapons of mass destruction to the flowers with which the population of Iraq greeted the invading soldiers, was the US misled in its Middle East wars? Did it deliberately mystify its own people by conducting a policy of deliberate deception with specific goals in mind?
Judging by President Bush’s insistence, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, on lumping all US adversaries together into one great terrorist threat, and his appeal for God’s blessing in fighting and winning the “decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century”, mystification seems a more plausible explanation than misunderstanding.
How can such flights of fantasy be reconciled with the revelations that delegitimised his war before it began, at a time when post-war escalation is turning into a nightmare?