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.