Tuesday, 11 September 2012

How the war on terror was lost

Originally written in 2010 for my old blog, but still relevant.

Eventually, the United States is going to pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. The former has a chance of survival as a viable state. The latter does not. Afghanistan lacks roads, schools, hospitals, manufacturing, etc. Hamid Karzai's power base does not appear to extend significantly beyond Kabul. When the US leaves, Afghanistan has a good chance of falling to the Taliban. Even if the Taliban do not succeed, Afghanistan does not have a good chance of prospering. Decades of war with the Soviets and US have removed any hope of this. Even without the Taliban, Afghanistan will still continue to produce and harbor anti-Western terrorists. As will Pakistan. As will Saudi Arabia. As will Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Oman, UAE, and so on.

How did we get here? What led the situation in the Middle East deteriorate so powerfully that the Western world is under a constant threat from terrorism? What can we do to end this threat?
Contrary to popular opinion, I believe our political leaders know how to end this threat. Unfortunately, the price to be paid is too high for either them or the Western public to accept.

History Matters — To A Point

In 1066, William the Conqueror attacked England and won decisively at the Battle of Hastings. The British, despite their traditional dislike of the French (William was actually a Norman), don't visit significant reprisals against the French (or Normans) for this, though there was a significant amount of resistance at the time. Of course, we know why the British don't throw stones at Normans today: the Battle of Hastings is ancient history. Who cares?

Ancient history matters in that it impacts us today. However, most people don't take up arms for historical reasons, they take up arms for real issues they feel today. They might use those historical reasons for justification, but you're not going to find them acting en masse against others for grievances they don't even remember. For example, if a foreign country dispatched troops to the US and managed to burn down the White House, the Americans would certainly be up in arms. Yet the British burned the White House in 1814 and no one cares. Individuals might start a fight based on old grievances (happens all the time), but for the most part, you don't have long, drawn-out conflicts without some real "here and now" issue being addressed.[1] So what are some of those "here and now" issues?


Even if we accept the premise that people fight for current reasons and not historical ones, it doesn't render history moot as that can describe the chain of events that led us to where we are now, particularly in matters of territorial disputes. For example, many condemn Syria's long-standing claims on Lebanon, yet many Ottoman Empire maps show Syria, but not Lebanon.[2] Why?

It was the French Mandate of Lebanon which created Lebanon in 1920, by carving up Syria. Lebanon was not granted full independence until 1943. Syria wants Lebanon back. Not only is it a potential invasion route into Syria, but it also has seaports. It would provide both military and economic benefits to Syria and they have a stronger historical claim than many other territorial disputes.

Ottoman Empire (1798 - 1923) Ottoman Empire (1798 - 1923)
Note the lack of Lebanon on this map. (No credit given as I'm finding this all over the Web and cannot determine whom to credit, but this one was downloaded from http://iranpoliticsclub.net/maps/maps08/index.htm).

Like Lebanon, the Golan Heights is a serious issue for Syria. Syria would like Israel to return Golan. They lost it to Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and though Syria has tried repeatedly to resolve this dispute — including offering formal recognition of Israel — Syria views US support of Israel as one of the primary reasons why the Golan Heights have not been returned. Not only are the Heights important militarily, but they cut Syria off from the Sea of Galilee, an important source of fresh water, a critical resource in the Middle East.[3]

Golan Heights Golan Heights
Released into public domain in 2007 by "Dp roberson" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Golan_heights_rel89B.jpg)

So at the end, Syria views the Western world as having supported the removal of large parts of Syrian territory. Regardless of whether or not we agree with the Syrian description and interpretation of these events, we cannot deny Syrian opinion of these events, part of which is driven by differing value systems and the fact that, unlike most Westerners, they experience the repercussions directly.

This is the most important point to take out of all of this: the opinions and beliefs of Westerners are largely irrelevant to the opinions and beliefs of local people. Westerners would do well to remember that they rarely live in war-torn parts of the world and they're rarely exposed to the points of view of people who are directly experiencing these difficulties.

Other Middle Eastern States

Many other states in the Middle East are upset with the Western world. In the 1950s, Iran wanted the British to share Iranian oil revenue with Iran. Many other countries in the Middle East had worked out similar terms with their current or former colonial occupiers, but the British refused. When the democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mosaddegh nationalised the oil fields, the British approached the US about removing Mosaddegh and this led to the 1953 coup in Iran, the first acknowledged CIA covert action. The monarch, Shah Pahlevi, then assumed control of the country and his increasingly autocratic (and western) rule so alienated the population that he was finally overthrown in 1979. Iranians well remembered that it was a US-sponsored coup that gave the Shah his power.

Shortly after the 1979 revolution in Iran, Iraq invaded, with US military and financial support. Again, the Iranians could see the hand of the US behind their misery.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis saw a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, supported by the US. Hussein was quite willing to kill Iraqis he viewed as a threat, even allegedly using chemical weapons against them.[4] The long US history of supporting this dictator and the US's subsequent invasion of Iraq have convinced many Iraqis that the US cannot be trusted. In fact, it's possible that the US not only supported Saddam Hussein, but also had a hand in putting him to power. The CIA FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) archives are remarkably open and easy to search. However, while there is extensive information about Iraq, there appears to be little information about the 1963 Ba'ath Party coup in Iraq. Perhaps not coincidentally, many argue that the CIA was involved in the assassination and coup which allowed Hussein's Ba'ath party to take over Iraq. This would not be particularly out of character for US actions in the Middle East.

Israel and Palestine

Of course, no description of Western involvement in the Middle East would be complete without mentioning the biggest issue: Israel and Palestine.

The history of Israel is long and complicated, but suffice it to say that Israeli Jews have very valid concerns about their safety and that the Holocaust, while being the catalyst for the creation of Israel, is far from being the cause. For anyone interested, reading about Theodor Herzl is a good start. The history of the Jews has been one of persecution, robbery and murder. The rest of the world has treated Jews abominably and this has continued for millennia. It is far from a recent phenomenon and if the Jews are paranoid, history shows they have good cause.

Unfortunately, when the Zionists decided to find a home to settle, they chose a home which, like most of the planet, was already occupied. Though there is tremendous debate about whether Palestine was heavily populated or whether people even identified themselves as Palestinian, there is little doubt that the Zionists displaced many local inhabitants of Palestine, often seizing their property. In fact, the practice of seizing Palestinian property continues to this day.

Palestine (Filistin) during the middle ages, an 1890 map Palestine (Filistin) during the middle ages, an 1890 map
Public domain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Medieval_Arab_Palestine.jpg)

Today the Palestinians, like Jews prior to Israel, find themselves stateless and persecuted. Further, they view the US as being largely responsible for this. For fiscal year 2010, the Obama Administration requested $2.775 billion in military aid for Israel (PDF). This is consistent with US military and economic aid to Israel of billions of dollars a year. The Palestinians see the Israelis killing them with bullets paid for by the US government. They see the strong support of the US government for virtually any action the Israelis take. In fact, the US even opposed an independent investigation of the recent aid flotilla killings carried out by the Israeli Defence Force in international waters. This just further confirms to the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East that the US is not interested in seeing peace in the Middle East, but in maintaining their support for the Israelis.

Again, many Americans might disagree with Palestinian interpretation of events, but that does not change the fact that Palestinians have an opinion and, unlike most Americans, have to live day-to-day with the consequences of US and Israeli actions.

What Does This Have to Do With Terrorism?

The above merely gives one the briefest taste of how the Middle East views the West: constantly interfering in the Middle East for the benefit of the West. This has been going on for centuries. This would likely not be a significant issue today were it not continuing and were the Middle East better off. Unfortunately, neither is the case and this history is used as the justification for much of the terrorism arising there.

Defining Terrorism

Terrorism is a word which is, to put it mildly, abused. Perhaps one of the most unintentionally hilarious abuses is the use of the term intimate terrorism (pdf) to describe partner abuse. A husband who beats his wife is a criminal and a threat to society, but hardly a terrorist. The motivations are different, the goals are different, the appropriate response is different. However, it's easy to misapply the term if it's not defined.

Words do not intrinsically have meaning. We have to assign it. We could, for example, define terrorism as "non-consensual tickling". We don't because that would not be a useful definition. If we want to "defeat" terrorism, have to know what it is. First, however, let's define "defeat".
"Defeat" cannot mean "eliminate" because that's simply not going to happen. Some of the earliest know terrorists were the Sicarii, existing almost 2000 years ago and attempting to liberate Jews from Roman rule. The Hashashin, from where the modern word "assassin" probably derives, were another ancient group of terrorists. Whenever you have a disaffected group which cannot obtain their goals through normal political channels, terrorism is a possibility. It cannot be simply eradicated. Thus, "defeat", in this context, should be read as meaning "minimize to acceptable levels".

Which brings us back to the word "terrorism". Rather than belabour the term at length, I'll just state that for the purposes of this essay, I'll adopt the definition used by Louise Richardson in her excellent book "What Terrorists Want". In short, she defines terrorism as the use or threat of violence against non-combatants for the purpose of bringing about political change. That definition is short and to the point.[5] By having such a simple and clear definition, we can start to concretely tackle the problem.

Note that this definition does not contain any value judgment. Regardless of one's opinions of the Nicaraguan Contras, the 1989 Human Rights Watch Report on Nicaragua, amongst others, clearly states that the Contras murdered civilians in their attempt to overthrow the Sandanista government. If true, the Contras are terrorists by this definition. Or what about the Karen rebels in Burma? They are alleged to have detonated bombs in public markets and Phil Rees, in his book Dining with Terrorists, describes a May 2002 attack where Karen "guerillas" (who forcibly recruit child soldiers), attacked a school bus and killed two Thai teenagers and wounded fifteen. Yet the US State Department does not list the Karen rebels on their list of terrorist organisations, presumably because the US does not like the Burmese government. In short, you cannot decide that someone is not a terrorist simply because you agree with their goals. This makes the entire issue both subjective and futile.

The Dividing Line in Terrorism

To better understand how to deal with terrorism, let's group them into two categories: "significant" and "insignificant". By "significant" we simply mean "both long-lasting and strong societal impact". Here's a rough sample:

Al-QaedaAum Shinrikyo
Sendero LuminosoNovember 17
Irish Republican ArmyBaader-Meinhof

It's probably fair to say that victims of terrorist organisations in the "insignificant" column may disagree with the term, but none of the groups in that column had a strong impact (in terms of change) on the political structure of their societies, though some, like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, existed for a long time.

Those terrorist groups were just some I thought of off the top of my head. Now pick a few more and figure out whether you would put them in the "significant" or "insignificant" column: the Weather Underground, Hamas, Tamil Tigers, Basque separatists, various US militias, and so on. While there will be disagreement over which group belongs in which column (and even disagreement over my list), there is one common attribute that "significant" groups tend to have: public support.

We're not arguing that Muslims support Al-Qaeda. The vast majority do not support Al-Qaeda's behaviour, but some (particularly in the Middle East) are at least sympathetic with its motivations. This leads to a ready-made recruiting pool. Further, attempts to investigate groups with a modicum of public support means the group can hide amongst people without fear of being turned in. It's also easier for the groups to raise funding.

The various incarnations of the Irish Republican Army had the same advantage: easy to fund, plenty of recruits and a sympathetic populace. In fact, many Irish who disapproved of the IRA's tactics also strongly disapproved the British Government's tactics. There would not be a strong motivation to turn a criminal over to another group you viewed as criminal.

The Weather Underground, by contrast, simply did not have enough public support to continue. They were responsible for arson attacks, bombings, and riots, but when the US pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, the Weatherman gradually stopped activities. Support from the populace, whether tacit or not, is the key to a long-lasting terrorist group which can make an impact.

Policy Implications

Louise Richardson, in "What Terrorists Want" describes an public relations campaign waged by the US government. Information was distributed throughout the Middle East to educate people about America's freedom of speech and religion. In the US, it was explained, you can vote for whom you want and set about making your fortune. As the campaign was winding down, polls showed that public opinion about the US had not improved. Invariably respondents stated that they already knew that information and that's not why they hated the US.[6]

The actual issue, of course, is largely that the Middle East sees the Western world as constantly interfering with the Middle East for the benefit of the West. In fact, US-led military action in Iraq led to an increase in terrorism by reinforcing the negative stereotype of Western behaviour. However, military action per se is not necessarily a problem. The Arabic world was largely silent about the US invasion of Afghanistan. It was the invasion of Iraq, against world opposition and clearly another Western effort to install a "friendly" government in the Middle East which reinforced negative opinion.

A PR campaign will not allow the West to "defeat" terrorism. Military action merely reinforces the problem. Instead, the only long-term way to deal with the issue to to address the underlying concerns. However, if people in the Middle East have legitimate concerns about Western behaviour, terrorists share this concern. This leads us to the crux of the problem: even if Western politicians admit their mistakes and try to redress these grievances, they will be accused of "appeasing" the terrorists, no matter how legitimate the grievances are. Fox News, in particular, has long rallied against "appeasement" and welcomed many guests who accuse the Obama administration of said offense. As a result, the best way of addressing the issue of terrorism has effectively become off limits in the minds of many.

The Conundrum

From the dust jacket of the book "Dining with Terrorists", Phil Rees writes:
When George W. Bush screamed, 'You're either with us or against us' in the 'war on terror', he eradicated the right of anyone to question his logic or challenge his new list of 'terrorist' organizations.
Though Bush did not scream and the quote is slightly off, the basic sentiment is correct. Not only has the US laid down the law regarding how people must respond to terrorism, it has also effectively walled off the only favourable route for dealing with the issue. There is not only no conceivable way bring about "defeat", but the US no longer has the financial resources or public support to try to install friendly governments abroad. Those who oppose Western policy in the Middle East now know it's only a matter of time before the US admits that their actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed. The US will remove her troops and with them, the rest of the world will remove theirs. Afghanistan will fall and Iraq might do the same, particularly if aided by Iran — a country with good reason to fear a strong Iraq.

While the Bush administration worsened an already bad situation by invading Iraq, it is hardly their fault. The people of the Middle East have seen the Western world colonize the Middle East, tear apart nations, repeatedly and violently install pro-Western governments, prop up corrupt regimes, support an almost constant state of war and unilaterally support Israel's attacks on Palestinians. Given that worldview, is it any wonder that the US invading Iraq merely made the problem of terrorism worse? Until the West starts leaving people in the Middle East to their own devices, anti-Western terrorism will continue. The "war on terror" was lost a long time ago.

1. Territorial conflicts are sometimes an exception, but they engender a sense of lasting injustice which creates a "here and now" feeling.
2. Many of those maps also show a territory named Kurdistan.
3. Syria and Israel have come close to agreeing to a return of the Golan Heights before, but disagreements over the Sea of Galilee (PDF) have scuttled the issue. Though not brought up in the analysis, I've noted that Israel's insistence upon control of the Sea of Galilee would ensure that they have control of much of the fresh water that the Golan Heights relies on. Thus, returning the Heights to Syria without giving them control over the fresh water would effectively give Israel control over the water supply to the heights (in addition to denying Syrians fishing and leisure access). As a result, Israel could presumably exert financial control over a large sector of the Syrian economy, something Syria cannot accept. This gives Israel the apparent moral high ground of offering a return of the Heights without worry that said offer can be accepted. Of course, it should also be noted that offering Syria access to Galilee offers another potential route to threaten Israel.
4. Whether Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people is in question.
5. For amplification and some counter-arguments to Richardson's definition, see Terrorism: The New World Disorder. It points out that many of the terms are difficult to assess. For example, are police "non-combatants"? What about military doctors? Firemen?
6. The Christian Science Monitor describes the beginnings of the PR campaign. However, an in-depth Christian Science Monitor article entitled Why do they hate us? should make it very clear that people in the Middle East understand very well the American way of life and Bush's "they hate freedom" has nothing to do with reality.