The declared intention of the “war on terror” was to make the world a safer place, but if the last 12 years teaches us anything it’s that militarily confronting terror has so far been an abject failure, if not totally counter productive.
“Terrorism” is a concept which despite having been around for over half a century remains extremely difficult to define, yet we all know what it is when we see it. The real problem facing western governments is to come up with a definition which doesn’t implicate themselves.
Consequently, dictionary definitions pivot around the concept of legality.
“The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.”
Since states can determine their own laws, and states influential enough can control the implementation of international law, this leaves a rather meaningless and circular definition of state-sponsored terrorism which can be selectively applied:
“state-sponsored terrorism – terrorism practiced by a government against its own people or in support of international terrorism”
In any case, there are better descriptions for these acts, oppression and covert warfare.
In ages gone by wars would be fought by two armies lining up on a battlefield and slogging it out until one side conceded defeat. Alternatively, if the combatants refused to face open battle the attacking army would lay siege to a city until it was repelled or else managed to gain entry to the city and sack it. Certainly in the latter case civilians would bear the full brunt of military conquest.
Since then, military tactics have adapted to the available technology. Formation manoeuvres were replaced by front lines stretching hundreds of miles, hand to hand combat by cannon and rifles, artillery and tanks, and eventually warfare took to the air.
By WWII, the hoped for possibility of being able to hit a specific target from the air had receded, having proven difficult to achieve, so the concept of area bombing (or as it was known at the time, “terror bombing”) was developed as an alternative. If it wasn’t possible to hit a particular factory accurately enough to put it out of action then the next best thing was to bomb the entire workforce with the hope of demoralising and incapacitating them. When this didn’t prove effective, bombing strategies were adjusted to cause even greater damage and loss of civilian life by creating the kind of fire storms that were seen in Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, reaching the pinnacle of destructive capability in Hiroshima and Nagasaki once the atomic bomb had been developed.
Terror bombing deliberately targeted civilians, so by today’s standards must surely count as terrorism every bit as much as 9/11. In terms of the number of casualties, it was actually far more devastating.
The rationale behind what we recognise today as terrorism comes from a similar reasoning process. It’s simply not possible, or if it is possible it’s highly inadvisable, for those sufficiently motivated to want to attack technologically advanced nations or well defended military targets to do so directly in an open confrontation.
There’s another term for terrorism which is rather more descriptive. “Asymmetric warfare” refers to a conflict where the opposing forces are unequal. Generally, those engaged in terrorism against advanced nations have limited resources and only basic equipment. Today’s insurgencies use tactics similar to the guerilla warfare methods developed by the the Irgun in Palestine, the Viet Cong in Vietnam, and the Mau Mau in Kenya, to name but a few, to achieve the greatest effect with the minimum resources and exposure.
These tactics exploit the weaknesses of modern technology-reliant profession armies; an unwillingness to suffer large numbers of casualties and a reluctance to inflict large numbers of civilian casualties due to public sensibilities at home, and to sustain a benevolent, moral façade in the occupied nation abroad.
As repugnant as these tactics may appear, they are no more so than a high altitude bombing which hits a civilian target by mistake or as a result of poor intelligence. That such events are not calculated or deliberate makes little difference to those affected, they are still negligent, predictable and horrific. It is no less cowardly to fly out of range of enemy fire and drop bombs, or sit behind armor plating and fire tank shells than it is to remotely detonate an IED as a military vehicle passes over it. In the media’s reporting of such incidents every effort is made to use language which legitimises state sanctioned violence whilst delegitimising retaliation against it.
Somewhat ironically, western Special Forces are also extremely familiar with these tactics, and indeed are the people responsible for providing training in them in Afghanistan, and to other insurgent/terrorist forces as is convenient to western interests. The public and media revulsion at such tactics clearly does not extend to the military, unless of course they become the victims.
If it is the case that terrorism results from military necessity, as dictated by the different levels of technological sophistication, then the assertion that the deployment of more, more expensive and more sophisticated weapons systems will reduce the incidence of terrorism is fundamentally flawed.
“Surgical strikes” are only as accurate as the intelligence they are based upon, and incurring innocent casualties appears to do nothing except harden the resolve of the victims to continue fighting, and drive them towards even more desperate and vicious measures. This was certainly the result of the Blitz on London, why should we expect it to be any different in Afghanistan or any other country?
The very concept of a “war on terror” makes no sense. You can’t fight a tactic, an intangible idea, any more than you can reasonably assert that one form of violence is morally superior to another. All war is coercion, all war is threatening, all war generates terror.
That’s not to say that war is never necessary. Sometimes conflicting interests are so far apart, so entrenched, that the choice is either to fight or to submit to the unacceptable, or worse, to die. History is littered with many such scenarios. It is however to say that war should be a solution only of last resort, of self defence, and that when entered into it should be with distaste, without pretence of glory or nobility of action, even where there is nobility of purpose.
A culture which lionises its warriors and glorifies conquest lends itself to becoming an imperial aggressor. The irony for the USA, a country which takes so much pride in its own struggle for independence against an occupying power stamping the same oppressive boot in so many other countries around the world seems to be lost on the majority of its population, so much has it lost sight of its core values. In today’s world, George Washington would have been portrayed as a terrorist.
We need to move beyond focussing on the weapon systems and tactics and ask not why people select a particular method of fighting, but why they choose to fight at all. This is the key question, and one which the media and public figures are reluctant to discuss. It is necessary in order to combat any phenomenon to do all you can to understand it, again, if indeed that is your intention – rather than, say, creating a fertile environment for perpetual war.
“We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I apologise that women have had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same.”
The other notable aspect of this case was the outrage in the UK that a soldier could be attacked and killed while “off duty”. I’ve never once heard that criticism levelled at the USA for striking “off duty” targets with drones. I can’t even begin to imagine the level of outrage in the UK had not only this soldier been killed, but 16 members of his extended family along with him, on their way to a wedding.
Such comparisons are never made because it is simply unthinkable to imagine that Islamic militants are anything like ourselves. That would destroy their sense of “otherness” and disconnectedness from everything which is familiar to us. It would undermine their dehumanisation. Yet, one only needs to spend half an hour on the internet to find shockingly large numbers of people who would quite happily expel or kill all Muslims in western Europe and North America, or worse, suggest nuking the entire Middle East to then “let God sort them out.”
People with such views are fundamentally no different, no less genocidal or psychopathic than the Islamic militants themselves. They similarly divide the world into “us and them”, where it is not the actions of the individual that count, nor is it a question of whether those actions have any justification, it’s just a question of belonging, of identity. They perceive these conflicts in the same spiritual and cultural terms as do members of al Qaeda or the Taliban.
These backward beliefs provide a convincing and thick smokescreen for what I would argue are the real causes of these wars; competition for resources and access to markets, and to the same end, strategic global positioning. The resistance encountered is resistance to global economic domination expressed in terms that resonate culturally and politically with the populations they affect.
The rise of al Qaeda is directly attributable to western actions, from deliberately fostering Islamic extremism throughout the late 70’s and 80’s in Afghanistan in a short-sighted but ultimately successful attempt to defeat the Soviet Union, to facilitating their infiltration into the Bosnian conflict and supporting them in Iran, Libya and Syria to do the dirty work in overthrowing regimes who refused to cooperate with western imperialism. At the very least they can be used to provide a pretext for intervention, as was the case in 2001 in Afghanistan.
That Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the United States and a de facto ally of Israel has played such a pivotal role in the creation and dissemination of Wahhabi Islam and in funding and arming these groups is virtually ignored. The 28 pages redacted from the 9/11 Commission’s report are widely rumoured to implicate Saudi intelligence services, which given the close relationship between the then Saudi Ambassador to Washington and current head of Saudi intelligence Bandar bin Sultan and George W. Bush, is at best highly embarrassing, at worst, extremely suspicious.
It is not necessary though to imply direct complicity of the US government in the attacks on 9/11 to observe the coincidence of interests which it represented. The military industrial complex has made an industry out of war, and in order to justify the simply staggering levels of public spending on the war machine it is essential to have an enemy. If that enemy can be almost alien in nature, so much the better. The more inhuman and beyond the comprehension of ordinary people that enemy is the easier it is to scare people and arouse their anger to the point they are baying for blood and retribution.
So, here I can argue either of two points of view; that the “war on terror” is ill conceived and counter productive, or that the “war on terror” was never meant to succeed, rather to create a pretext for perpetual war with the dual benefits of destabilising and weakening states that challenge Washington’s global hegemony and to provide a constant stream of new business to the military industrial complex.
Keeping the public in a constant state of fear also affords western states an excuse to continually expand their creeping legislative and technological attack on the liberty and privacy of their own citizens. This, combined with the fact that all of this is paid for, at enormous expense, by those same citizens compounds the assault. Freedom is indeed under threat, but in reality that threat comes from our own governments! The public purse is being looted and our rights are being taken away while we in turn provide the soldiers to loot other countries and violate their right to self-determination.
It’s not that intervention is a bad idea in principle. Had there been a timely intervention in Rwanda in 1994 maybe half a million lives could have been saved. The reason there was no intervention was because Bill Clinton, sore over the humiliation of the US military in Somalia declared that the US had “no interests” in Rwanda. He went further, instructing US diplomats to obstruct all attempts by the UN to declare what was happening in Rwanda a genocide which would have legally compelled member states to act.
The problem with either intervention or non-intervention is the motivation, and therefore the priorities and goals set. To intervene or not intervene on the basis of “interests” is going to be wrong in either case.
If we were serious about combating terror we would address the grievances which motivate ordinary people to resort to extraordinary acts by finding political avenues for them to empower themselves, as opposed to relying on purely military options as a first choice to suppress them. We would base our foreign policy on pragmatic solutions which address the needs of people rather than business.
If we were serious about “defending our freedom” we would begin by addressing the completely disproportionate political representation which can simply be bought, either through professional lobbyists or political donations in our own nations.
We would challenge the necessity of having such large and profligate “defence” budgets whilst at the same time our social programmes are being axed in the name of austerity and fiscal responsibility. We would challenge our so called friends as well as our so called enemies to try to create a world in which more people enjoy proper democratic representation and have the power to control their own lives, free of corporate or political interference from vested interests within our nations or theirs. We would stand on principle rather than interests, we would value other people’s lives as highly as our own.
We would not deem it patriotic to cheer as our troops are sent off to fight wars for the profit of the few at the expense of the many.
The fight against terrorism begins at home.