War Without End?


Pablo Picasso’s Guernica

George W. Bush has been inaugurated for a second term, promising to spread freedom “to the darkest corners of the world”. With much discussion of whether the second term will bring a new direction, this is an appropriate time to consider whether the War on Terror is being won.

I’ve argued previously, in agreement with Republican conservative internationalists, it was not at all obvious that the response to s11 need have been characterised as a “War” and in particular, the Iraq War was a pre-existing project rather than a rational response to Al-Qaeda’s activities.

One thing that often gets said in debate over Al-Qaeda is that their actions lack rationality and are disconnected from a political strategy. A contrast is usually made with nationalist or sectionalist terrorist activity or insurgencies like those of the IRA in Northern Ireland or the ETA in the Basque country of Spain. Historically, terrorism – as in Algeria – was usually connected to some defined political objective. Even the anarchist assassinations of European and American politicians at the end of Nineteenth Century and the beginning of the Twentieth Century had some sort of political logic, however far-fetched, behind them. Al-Qaeda, by contrast, is often said to have no definable political aims and therefore not to be amenable to containment or neutralisation through a political strategy. But is this true?

Two recent publications cast doubt on this perception of Al-Qaeda.

The French sociologist Gilles Kepel, who’s an expert on Political Islamism and has spent many years living and working in the Middle East, has a new book out – The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West. In a review of Kepel’s book for The Guardian, William Dalrymple writes, in the context of translations of some of Bin Laden’s texts by Kepel:

The fact that much of this material has been relatively hard to come by in English highlights a central problem in the western response to al-Qaida. In the panic to denounce Bin Laden, we have forgotten to try to understand him: to read his statements properly and calmly analyse his aims and weaknesses. Three years after 9/11, non-specialists may still have difficulty in finding out first-hand why al-Qaida is engaged in terrorism and what it is attempting to achieve. All terrorist violence, Islamic or otherwise, is contemptible.

But just because we condemn does not mean we should not strive to analyse the evidence accurately and respond judiciously. Kepel argues that al-Qaida is not some structured multi-national. Instead it barely exists: “al-Qaida was less a military base of operations than a database that connected jihadists around the world via the internet.” As Kepel shows, this failure to understand the nature of al-Qaida was the reason that the US attempted to counter it with such unsuitable policies – so inadvertently turning itself into al-Qaida’s most effective recruiting agency. Kepel emphasises the centrality of Palestine to this equation. From Bin Laden’s first public statement, “A Declaration of War Against the Americans”, issued in 1996, he announced he was fighting US foreign policy in the Middle East and in particular American support for the House of Saud and the state of Israel. In Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, al-Zawahiri emphasises that it was the failure of Oslo, the eruption of the second intifada in the autumn of 2000, and the repressive campaign waged by Ariel Sharon that provided the opportunity al-Qaida had been waiting for: here was the rallying cry that could unify the Muslim world. All that was needed was a massive strike, and the US system in the Middle East would begin to unravel.

British Economics Professor and Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the LSE, Fred Halliday, makes a complementary point in an article at Global Democracy:

The first, essential step in defining the conflict is to assess the nature of the challenge. Much is made in western rhetoric about the irrational, fanatical, even barbaric character of al-Qaida and its associates a moral judgment and expression shared by many in the Muslim world. But in trying to explain the actions of these groups, moral outrage or generic denunciations of “Arab” or “Muslim” extremism needs to be replaced by cool analysis.

Here, the core need is to assess the political calculations in the minds of those organising, or at least inspiring, the attacks. These are of two kinds: the rejection of western policies in west Asia and of states there allied with the west, and the ambition to seize power in a range of states, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. To adapt Karl von Clausewitz, terrorism is the continuation of politics by other means. The footsoldiers and suicide-bombers of the current campaign may well be fanatics, but the people who direct them have a political strategy. And their vision stretches over years if not decades.

This political logic explains the object and timing of terrorist attacks. 9/11 was designed, not to destroy or even seriously weaken the US, but to mobilise support for al-Qaida and its allies within the Muslim world. “11-M”, by contrast, sought to influence the politics of the target country, Spain to punish a government involved in the western occupation of Iraq and to affect an electoral outcome. Attacks in the non-western world the US embassy bombings in east Africa, the massacre of tourists in Bali, the attacks on shipping in Yemeni waters and on economic and political targets in Saudi Arabia are designed to highlight the vulnerability of American and western power.

Noteworthy also is the evaluation by both Halliday and Kepel of Al-Qaeda as an amorphous and porous organisation rather than a hierarchical entity whose key nodes or top leadership can be strategically targetted in a military fashion. For this reason, and for the reason that as American historian Gabriel Kolko argues, war always heightens the ideological charge of political life, it is likely that the means taken to defeat Al-Qaeda have increased its salience and its support. As Dalrymple observes, it was not without reason that Bin Laden effectively endorsed Bush in the lead up to the presidential election.

Halliday assesses the War on Terror against the criteria of both its means and its ends, and suggests it is failing in both spheres. He closes by quoting the Spanish Prime Minister Jos© Luis Rodriguez Zapatero:

It is legality, democracy and political means and ways that make us stronger and (terrorists) weaker”¦We can and must rationally analyse how (terrorism) emerges, how it grows, so as to be able to fight it rationally.

If the US administration really wants to re-engage with its allies, it might usefully start by listening to words such as these. Combatting the causes of terrorism and its threat would benefit from some rethinking. It would help also if those doing the rethinking weren’t automatically stigmatised as traitors or Saddam-lovers by the proponents of Bushism.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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20 Responses to War Without End?

  1. Peter Kemp says:

    The war on ”terrorism” can never be won when one protagonist generally labels all those who oppose them as ”terrorists” and this includes nations, the current one in sight being Iran.

    Al-Qaida is a franchise for extremist thought in the Islamic world which identifies past and present US policy as being exceptionally detrimental to the interests of Muslims, particularly in the middle east. It is more a flexible pan Arabian/Islamic extremist ideology than it is a structured organisation; as people have said before, declaring war on al-quida ”terrorism” is like declaring war on blitzkrieg.

    The ”darkest corner of the world” happens to be right now, in terms relative to past multilateralism and statistically measured fear by majorities in ”allied” nations, the USA.

    The slaughter of innocent civilians from S11 is now matched by the former exemplar of international law and due process, blindly slaughtering civilians on the altar of American exceptionalism and righteousness, with the highly obvious factor being that the US public has been effectively historically and specifically brainwashed out of accepting any culpability for the US created crime of war in Iraq.

    Such is the price of monumental arrogance, ignorance and in Christian terms, the heresy of declaring one’s nation to be infalliably doing God’s work on earth.

    When one talks of ”terrorism”, should a definition of it automatically exclude the actions of George Bush and his administration? Is the war on ”terrorism” simply a war between extremists?

  2. Rafe says:

    Good to step back and try to think some of these situations through from first principles.

    Really, what are the institutional arrangements that promote peace, freedom and prosperity?

    How come with the technological means to fly well past the moon, to feed, clothe and house the world’s population, we still have so much tyranny, conflict and poverty? What has gone wrong with our political economy that has screwed things up.

    Perhaps it is an intellectual problem in political economy and the human sciences. How to account for the difference between the natural sciences and our technological success on the one hand and our social sciences and state of society on the other.

    Actually I think that our political economy at its best is robust and helpful (I am thinking Hayek and the less doctrinnaire elements of the Austrian school) but that is not what is taught to most students. More research is required but I suspect that much if not most of our teaching in these fields is equivalent to teaching physics without Newton and Einstein.

  3. Peter Kemp says:

    Rafe: Narrowing the view somewhat to political global economy and the TNCs, how is it possible given their exploitative natures and insatiable greed, that a company such as Monsanto will benefit a developing country using natural science to expropriate their unique bio-diversity and deliver back to them patented terminator seed? (destroying in the process of utilisation, the very bio-diversity of traditional seed material).

    This is only one extreme example, but my question is, surely such institutions do great damage to peace, freedom and prosperity under one sided WTO rules? ergo: major reforms to the WTO but I can’t see that happening anytime soon.

  4. Peter Kemp says:

    Applying an Orwellian double-speak twist to the Toxic Texans inauguration speech:

    ”We support tyranny in order to suppress democracy”

    Let’s not forget also: ”You are either with us, or against us”

  5. Irant says:

    The recent videos of Bin Laden show him changing his fashion from renegade militant to spiritual/political leader. My idea is that the is trying to woo the more moderate muslims being pretending to be a statesman not a terrorist. In this context I don’t think it is far fetched for Al Qaeda to develop a political wing of sorts.

    I like the conclusion. The war on terror for some on the right has become a tired reiteration of meaningless slogans. Understanding and long term solutions are needed instead of a policy of bombing every country that Bush doesn’t like. And the Iran rhetoric is starting to heat up as well.

  6. michael carden says:

    I like what Robin Cook had to say in the Guardian

    “Nor should we accept the implicit assumption of Bush’s muscular foreign policy that freedom can be delivered from 38,000ft through the bomb doors. One of the rare passages of the speech when Bush appeared animated by his own text, rather than engaged in formal recitation, was when he saluted the declaration of independence and the sounding of the liberty bell. But those were celebrations of freedom from foreign dominance – not to put too fine a point on it, independence from the British. He needs to grasp that other nations are just as attached to freedom from foreign intervention, including domination by America.

    The president and his speechwriters have yet to confront the tension between their rhetoric about freedom, which is universally popular, and their practice of projecting US firepower, which is resented in equal measure. That explains why, on the very day when the president set forward his mission to bring liberty to the world, a poll revealed that a large majority of its inhabitants believe that he will actually make it more dangerous. The first indication of whether they are right to worry will be whether the Bush administration mediate their differences with Iran through the state department or through the US air force.”


    As far as I’m concerned the US is a very primitve democracy and could learn a thing or two from even Australia, not to mention quite a few countries. I also suspect that when Dubya talks about liberty he’s really talking about the liberty of US corporations to plunder/ have open slather on the world’s resources without resistance from the rest of us to their assumed manifest destiny. Did anyone see Wolfowitz interviewed on PBS Newshour the other night? Very scary. Totally drunk with power and with no compunction about the lives that have been lost.

    It’s a very danerous time ahead for ther est of us on planet earth I’m afraid

  7. John Morhall says:

    One wonders whether Bush’s promise to spread freedom “to the darkest corners of the globe” is an allegory for spreading the gospel of right wing Christian fundamentalism, rather than a political doctrine per se. With Rice, another fundamentalist replacing Powell, a return to the Crusades, promoting the good news of a la Bush, seems more likely than not. Perhaps not war entirely without end, but certainly one senses that the apocalyptic horsemen of Bush, cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld are in the tack room, and a form of Armageddon from those nice people who brought us the war in Iraq is on the cards. If one holds the keys to absolute truth, why try to understand those who do not?

  8. Homer Paxton says:

    you are quite naive.
    bush won’t do anything against Iran because:
    1) Iran unlike Iraq can retaliate
    2) It costs the US too much money
    3) The US army is quite stretched.

  9. Mark Bahnisch says:

    Homer, I can’t find where I said that Bush would.

  10. David Tiley says:

    Homer, attacking Iraq was not logical either.

    The insistence on WMD was delusional. So we cannot use the “They wouldn’t be so stupid” argument in this case.

  11. Peter Kemp says:

    Homer: 1) Iran can retaliate but since when did Bush live in a world of reality and accept listening to bad news while plotting in his Fuehrerbunker? He doesn’t read the newspapers —right?

    2) Costs too much—inapplicable, bombing is quite cheap.

    3)US army stretched, per 2) not necessary.

    When it comes down to trusting Seymour Hersh or Bush-nein-todt-spiel, I think it is wise to lean towards the former.

  12. Nic White says:

    “makes a complementary point in an article at Global Democracy” If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu.

  13. Nic White says:

    Mental note: comment software does not like html tags.

    “makes a complementary point in an article at Global Democracy” <– broken link

    Understanding Bin Laden, and understanding Islamic terrorism in general, is something that the USA should never have thought they could do without. They clearly do not understand anything about what makes them tick, if they did then perhaps we would nto be in the mess we are today. In any situation, knowing and understanding what you are up against is imperative if you are to be successful – it would seem this simple truth has been lost on Bush.

    “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu.

  14. Mark Bahnisch says:

    Thanks, Nic – the link to Global Democracy should work now.

  15. MarkL says:

    The structure, rationale behind and strategic-political aims of AQ has been common knowledge now in the public arena for over three years. large quantities of AQ material was captured during the invasion of Afghanistan, and a lot of AQ stragegic estimates and concepts were published. What you have covered in your post has been common knowledge in a certain specialist arena for a decade.

    Mark, I am gobsmacked, simply astounded that this is news in this community!

    I am not having a go here, I am very, very surprised at this post. If this is news in this community, then the logical corollary is that the community has spent some years opining about US and Australian policy during this war when it had NO understanding of what the enemy was about in his day-to-day affairs.

    I saw estimates over three years ago that this war would last well in to mid-century. I still see no reason to doubt those. That is the reason for the logic behind management of Iraq – we are still in the early days of phase one of a VERY long war.

    I have to re-assess my opinions of this community. What I took for deliberate mis-assessment of the facts to fit a preconceived world view may have reflected basic lack of knowledge of the realities of the situation.


  16. Mark Bahnisch says:

    MarkL, I’m not suggesting it’s news to me – it’s not. But go back and have a look at any number of commentators and pollies’ statements and you’ll find the refrain “senseless violence” etc repeated over and over. It tends to be linked to claims that violence is inherent in Islam (which it is not).

  17. MarkL says:

    Hmm. OK. Did not think this was news to you, hence my surprise (though I think it is to many right across the spectrum due to a distinct lack of popular MSM focus on this issue due to their inherent superficiality). Yes, the same drones who do not understand this do refer to ‘senseless violence’, too.

    I’d very slightly qualify the inherence angle too, for there are splinters of Islam where it is actually inherent in their INTERPRETATION, which word I really do stress. The nastier Wahabist sects are a good example. But generically – no. Regrettably, these people will take some time to deal with – fanatics are like that – and do vast damage to their own societes, as the Taliban showed.


  18. Mark Bahnisch says:

    MarkL, yes I agree. It’s a pity that the primary meaning of Jihad as an inner struggle and the complexities of the Islamic tradition regarding non Islamic regions aren’t better known, among Political Islamists as well as in the West.

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