Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2010
Issue No. 993
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A savage decade

Unlike during the Cold War, in the new century the United States has had no superpower rival, giving it overwhelming destructive power, writes Deepak Tripathi*

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Clockwise from top: File photo: US Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Fox Company "Raiders" jump from a truck during exercises in an undisclosed location in the Kuwaiti desert, 17 March 2003 (photo: REUTERS); File photo: an Afghan refugee takes his dead daughter back to his tent at Makaki refugee camp which was under the control of the ruling Taliban, 1 November 2001 (photos: AFP); File photo: men and boys gather under a giant mural of Saddam Hussein to watch the British 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment search a military compound in Ad Dayr north of Basra 12 April 2003.

The inaugural decade of the new century will be remembered for two phenomena above all: the savagery of human nature, and the United States, the world's sole hegemon, going rogue and taking other nations with it.

As we were about to leave the 20th century, and as many in the West were enjoying unprecedented prosperity, the prospect of a clash of ideologies became a reality. Instead of the "menace" of Communism, the neoconservatives and the Religious Right in the United States found another enemy in radical Islam. It was one of the supreme ironies that the confrontation was between president George W Bush and the ideology that his father, George H W Bush and Ronald Reagan had promoted in their fight against Soviet Communism when they were in the White House during the last phase of the Cold War.

Having seen off the Soviet threat, the hegemon that emerged victorious had a fatal belief in its own destructive power. In refusing to learn lessons from the past, it invited worse. The new confrontation was not going to be between two equals that were aware of the certainty of mutual destruction in the event of an all-out war. The primary characteristic of the new confrontation would be its lack of symmetry, making it more brutal. For when combatants are not equals and mutual destruction is not certain, the dominant side becomes vulnerable in other ways.

Overwhelming power leads to impudence and a disregard for law and reason. Institutions that are there to protect the innocent and weak begin to lose their meaning. In a world without restraint, the underdog is often depicted as evil and brutality becomes the norm. With too much power comes the belief that it is easy to crush the enemy. However, the underdog has strength in numbers, paving the way to atrocities on both sides. All of this has been witnessed in the savage first decade of the new century.

To view Al-Qaeda and the many nationalist movements in the Islamic world as one "enemy" during the "war on terror" has been a historic miscalculation. The project under the presidency of George W Bush to crush nationalism in the Middle East has exacted a high price from the West. But countries in the region have paid a price that has been even greater. Al-Qaeda's terrorist violence has been answered by the terror of American military power. The lives of millions of people have been destroyed or blighted. In 2010, a year after Barack Obama's ascent to the US presidency, the initial euphoria has evaporated and gloom has set in.

Unlike during the Cold War that ended in the late 1980s, the United States has no superpower rival in the new century, and the balance of the threat of mutual annihilation is absent. Instead, one side in the new conflict has overwhelming destructive power and has therefore become insolent. The underdog is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in the form of suicide attacks. Fear has lost its deterrent quality. Death is no longer an unwelcome prospect for a growing number of people living without hope. And for an alarming number, the rationality of martyrdom has replaced the rationality of survival. Humans are at their most dangerous when they no longer fear death.

HUBRIS IN IRAQ: In the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, James Carafano of the US Heritage Foundation wrote a commentary entitled "The Long War Against Terrorism". A retired lieutenant-colonel in the US Army, and a leading neocon ideologue, Carafano began with these words: "Two years down the war on terror. How many more to go? We don't know."

Boastfully, he argued that America's "long war" against terror was similar in scope and duration to the Cold War. The military establishment, delighted with the enlargement of the Pentagon budget following the return of Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary in the Bush administration, jumped at the term. It gained currency in the war lexicon within a few months, and in 2006, Rumsfeld invented a phrase of his own, describing the war on terror as "a generational conflict akin to the Cold War" that was likely to go on for decades.

These assertions were based on flawed thinking, and comparisons with the Cold War are not relevant. America's victory over the former Soviet Union was achieved not by bombing the Soviet state out of existence, but by draining the Soviet economy and resolve through an arms race and regional proxy wars. America's "enemy" in the new century is a ghost army of guerrillas, with little to lose except their lives. And they are only too willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. The hegemon, in possession of the most sophisticated war technology, has decided to confront this loose army of guerrillas that is equipped with little more than light weapons, explosives and simple timing devices and that is able to move at will across frontiers.

In The Art of War, believed to have been written in the sixth century BCE and still regarded as one of the most influential works on war strategy and tactics, the Chinese general and military theorist Sun Tzu wrote:

Warfare is the way of deception. Therefore, if able, appear unable.

If active, appear not active.

If near, appear far.

If far, appear near.

If they have advantage, entice them.

If they are confused, take them.

If they are substantial, prepare for them.

If they are strong, avoid them.

"Shock and Awe," the post-Cold War defence doctrine drawn up at the United States National Defense University in 1996, was designed to paralyse the enemy and achieve rapid dominance by overwhelming force. However, the truth has been rather different. Provided the enemy removes himself and recovers from the effects of high- altitude bombing and missile attacks, in time he will improvise tactics to fight an effective guerrilla war that a conventional army will find difficult to sustain. A great military power wants rapid victory. The underdog prefers a long war. This, and not merely the use of overwhelming power and lightning speed, is the essence of Sun Tzu's doctrine of warfare.

Gabriel Kolko, a historian of the Left, observes that while most European nations and Japan have gained insights from the calamities that have so seared their modern history, the United States has not. "Folly is scarcely an American monopoly," says Kolko, "but resistance to learning when grave errors have been committed is almost proportionate to the resources available to repeat them." The United States is by no means the only major power that has refused to learn from past mistakes. When countries with overwhelming destructive power fail to prevail in war, they are disposed to employ even more firepower. But the record of this tactic against guerrilla forces has not been successful.

Contrary to the initial aims of the Bush administration, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become nasty, brutish and long. They show few signs of ending in the new decade. In 2007, the US National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq admitted that "the term 'civil war' accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence... and population displacements." The spectre of failure loomed large at the end of the Bush-Cheney presidency. From that unpleasant reality arose the military surge during the final phase of the Bush administration.

More than 20,000 additional US troops were deployed in Iraq, mostly around Baghdad, the scene of the worst conflict. While American reinforcements defended the Iraqi capital, Washington's proxies in the Sunni Awakening movement were used to suppress Al-Qaeda violence in the Anbar province covering much of Iraq's western territory. This twin approach was the last chance for Bush to claim success in reducing the escalating violence. With a Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad and a Sunni Awakening movement unhappy at the prospect of US withdrawal, Iraq remains a highly unstable country.

Politicians crave success. When unpleasant reality threatens success, a politician seeks to create an illusion, or at least a new reality that will make it possible to claim success. For this, success must be redefined and the politician's own conduct shown to accomplish the goal. Enoch Powell, one of the most controversial British politicians of the last century, once said that "all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and human affairs." It is the worst nightmare for any politician, and any politician will do his or her utmost to avoid it.

In October 2002, Obama, aspiring to become a member of the US Senate in Washington, gave a speech at the Federal Plaza in Chicago. It was a defining address that would set him apart all the way to the presidency in 2008. In a move meant to demonstrate that he was not just some sort of anti-war politician, Obama repeated a critical sentence again and again: "I don't oppose all wars." He reminded his audience that his grandfather had signed up for war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and had fought in General Patton's army "in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil."

In the same vein, Obama reminded his audience that after the 9/11 attacks on America and after witnessing the dust and tears, he had supported the Bush administration's "pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance." Indeed, he pledged that he himself would "take up arms to prevent such a tragedy happening again". To his fellow Americans, Obama said, "I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances." Thus began his mission to establish himself as a future commander-in-chief. It was also the beginning of a more subtle political stance that would take him to the White House seven years later.

While Obama said he did not oppose all wars, he was against a "dumb war", being one that America has entered without sufficient thought and preparation. At a time when Democratic Party lawmakers in Washington had decided to go along with the war on terror of the Bush administration, and a large number of them had supported Bush in his determination to open another front against Iraq, Barack Obama was constructing a different platform. He described the gathering campaign to invade Iraq as a cynical attempt by "armchair weekend warriors" to impose their own ideological agenda, "irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne".

Just six weeks after the March 2003 invasion, Bush announced that "the United States and our allies have prevailed" in Iraq. A banner in the background loudly declared "Mission Accomplished". However, persistent conflict, the subsequent civil war and the disintegration of Iraqi society all shattered early illusions of a quick victory and an ever-grateful Iraqi nation. There were no more illusions to entertain, and instead there was reality, an awful reality of violence and chaos. For public figures who had supported sending troops to Iraq, it was a heavy burden to carry. For Bush administration officials, it became a nightmare.

Those who had expected a dramatic shift in American policy after the Bush-Cheney administration were soon to be disappointed. Obama had already established that he was no anti- war politician, and was rather one with a much more cautious disposition and considerable intellect. These qualities had given him a more focussed approach and a certain facility to articulate his views. The original justification for the Iraq War, that Saddam Hussein had been developing weapons of mass destruction, had long been discredited. Five years after Bush announced that America and its allies had prevailed in Iraq, the occupation forces were still unable to suppress the insurgency. A vicious civil war was not only causing much loss of life and property, but it was also polarising the country. Millions of Iraqi refugees fled to Jordan, Syria and other destinations.

AFGHANISTAN: OBAMA'S WAR: Obama has been more nuanced than his predecessor on war. Iraq was "a war of choice", part of the reason why Afghanistan was neglected and why America could not go after Osama bin Laden as aggressively as it should have done. As a consequence, America "paid an extraordinary price in blood and treasure" and fanned the anti-American sentiment that "actually makes it more difficult for us to act in Pakistan". Despite this, "we have to, as much as possible, get Pakistan's agreement before we act." However, America should "not hesitate to act when it comes to Al-Qaeda".

Afghanistan thus became Obama's war, just as Iraq had been Bush's. And the scene was set for a rapid American "surge" and an escalation of the conflict in a country that had suffered neglect for almost seven years. In July 2008, nearly four months before he was elected, Obama pledged to reinforce the US occupation forces by 10,000 troops. In February 2009, after a review of US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama sanctioned reinforcements on a bigger scale for Afghanistan. He appointed General Stanley McChrystal, a counterterrorism specialist, commander of the occupation forces in Afghanistan. Pilotless drone attacks became more frequent across the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, killing militants and civilians alike in greater numbers.

The findings of an opinion poll conducted by the Gallup Organisation in Pakistan were published in August 2009. Almost 60 per cent of Pakistanis thought the United States was the greatest threat to their country. About 18 per cent viewed India as a threat and 11 per cent the Pakistani Taliban. An even bigger majority of two thirds opposed US military operations on Pakistani territory. These were depressing results for a country that was pouring billions of dollars into Pakistan and Afghanistan every year.

August 2009 was a bad month for the occupying powers in Afghanistan. Presidential elections were held amid widespread intimidation by men with guns and fraud by power brokers. Despite an attempted news blackout, it emerged that voting had been low outside the capital Kabul because of Taliban threats and general indifference. As few as 10 per cent of Afghans went to the polling stations in many areas. The occupation forces, in particular American and British troops, suffered a high number of casualties during the summer of 2009, as the Taliban consolidated their hold in the south and penetrated new areas north of the capital.

Russia's Ambassador in Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, who had been the senior KGB officer in Kabul in the 1980s, made some insightful remarks as the Obama presidency approached. In the Russian ambassador's view, the American enterprise in Afghanistan faced grim prospects if Washington failed to learn from mistakes made by the Soviets when they occupied the country.

Kabulov said the Americans "had already repeated all our mistakes" since overthrowing the Taliban regime in 2001. The United States had underestimated the resistance, showed an over-reliance on air power and had failed to understand the Afghan "allergy" to foreign occupation. Even worse was the US belief that sweeping into Kabul was all that was necessary. Another flaw was to think that sending more troops would turn the tide of the war.

Fighting an insurgency requires a difficult balance. Too few soldiers impede the ability to secure territory in a country consisting of vast mountainous terrain such as Afghanistan. And determined insurgents will find many more targets when reinforcements are sent to subdue them. This is likely to be the case as the 30,000 or more extra American troops ordered by Obama in December 2009 begin to arrive in Afghanistan. Regimes installed by external powers, and seen as obedient to their masters, often end up being viewed as corrupt and weak. Afghan Communist rulers installed by the Soviet Union suffered this fate in the 1980s. In the early 21st century, the US-installed government of president Hamid Karzai has not been able to avoid this image either.

When an occupation force carries out military operations at will, causing significant numbers of civilian casualties, and the leadership of that country can do little except complain, it is a recipe for disaster. As Afghanistan became Obama's war, 2009 turned out to be the bloodiest year yet in terms of military fatalities among US-led coalition troops. The credibility of a presidential election that had given victory to Karzai lay in tatters. And the enterprise to create a centralised state in Afghanistan appeared doomed.

In a country without a national infrastructure and system of distribution, self, family, clan, tribe and ethnic group form the basis of daily lives and of protection and long-term survival. With no effective central government, he who can provide these to a community, whether a village elder, tribal chief or warlord, will command a popular following. To be the provider, such a person must have the means of coercion, taxation and distribution. But the hegemon, full of belief in its own invincibility, is reluctant to appreciate the consequences of its relying on force alone. Coercion leads to resistance, which necessitates even greater coercion and violence.

External intervention fuels war, and upsets the local balance of forces. This in turn attracts more external force. Increasingly, these external forces begin to dictate the scale and course of events, but the unacceptability of this trend among local players hinders the creation of new institutions and their proper functioning. Violence replaces law as the primary means of maintaining order. Expectations on all sides are altered and violence becomes a way of life. Actors acquire a habit of using coercion, and citizens expect solutions to be found through violence. That few intervening powers grasp this lesson is nothing short of a tragedy.

* The writer is a former BBC journalist who reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Sri Lanka and India during 23 years with the Corporation. His book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan has just been published.

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