Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 74, December 2003
Reports and Analysis
President Bush's War on Terror
Within two weeks of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush administration was already responding in terms of a "War on Terror", with every expectation that there would be vigorous military action against al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even at that stage there was also talk of an attack on Iraq to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime.
There was concern over the risk of further attacks on the United States, and an immediate worry over anthrax outbreaks affecting people in several US cities. Even so, there was also a confidence that the United States, as the world's sole superpower, would not have too much difficulty in reasserting control over an evidently dangerous security environment.
Two years after the fall of the Taliban regime, it is an appropriate time to assess the progress, so far, of President Bush's war on terror. To do so, it makes sense to go back to the immediate context of the 9/11 atrocities, with three main factors determining the response of the US government.
The State of the US Military
The first significant factor was the nature and capabilities of the US armed forces. In the ten years or so after the end of the Cold War, US military forces had been scaled down substantially, but mainly in relation to what were considered to be the previous requirements of the Cold War era. While the US Navy lost much of its anti-submarine capability, its carrier battle groups were maintained at close to Cold War levels and were enhanced with large numbers of land attack cruise missiles.
The US Marine Corps, with its global amphibious capabilities, retained almost all of its forces and the US Air Force, while experiencing considerable personnel cutbacks, developed a much greater ability to project air power at the global level. The Army was particularly badly affected through the loss of much of its armoured capabilities from the old Central Front in Europe, but it retained its rapid reaction forces such as the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and also put much more emphasis on special forces and counter-insurgency capabilities.
Overall, the US military had adapted to a post Cold War era of a fractured world scene in which, in the words of former CIA Director James Woolsey, the United States had slain the dragon but now lived in a jungle full of poisonous snakes.
At the end of the 20th Century, the US military seemed to be overwhelmingly powerful but was also looking to the future, with the probable development of directed energy weapons and a greater emphasis on 'network-centric' warfare and the control of space. All of this was part of a wider concern with "full spectrum dominance", the ability to dictate military outcomes on land, sea, in the air or in space.
The second issue was the state of US politics. Contrary to expectations, the incoming Bush administration made no attempt to develop a consensus administration, despite the exceedingly narrow margin of victory (due in no small way to the infamous Florida 'chads' and the US Supreme Court). In terms of international affairs, a unilateralist stance became evident almost at once, with opposition to the Kyoto Protocols on climate change, the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and many other treaties and agreements.
The United States would engage with others on a multinational basis only where it was in its direct interest, but its wider concern involved the embracing of a neo-conservative vision of the "New American Century". With the collapse of the Soviet system, a form of free market democracy that was modelled on - and was also highly advantageous to - the United States became viewed as the only global system, to be pursued with vigour by the world's only superpower. This was an outlook that went well beyond practical politics, amounting to a matter of belief; thus it followed that any alternatives were dismissed as malignly intentioned, or at best, misjudged.
The Impact of 9/11
By early September 2001, progress towards the 'New American Century' was already underway, and in such circumstances the trauma of the 9/11 atrocities had the additional impact of seeming to threaten this much wider worldview. Moreover, there was a grim symbolism in the destruction of the twin towers as the very icons of modern US business success.
That the effects of the attacks were seen live on television was even more traumatic and this set the scene for a vigorous response that was to stretch across the world. The US had the military capabilities for such a response; 9/11 was clearly aimed at the heart of US commercial and political power and it was therefore critically important to regain control. In such circumstances, the neo-conservative vision provided the context for the "war on terror" that was to follow.
Afghanistan and Iraq: Part I
The Afghanistan war was fought to terminate the Taliban regime and cripple al Qaeda, although it had the wider effect of enabling the United States to develop a military presence across Central Asia. The war itself was fought with sustained air power and small numbers of special forces. In addition, a key feature was the use of the Northern Alliance forces as ground troops against the Taliban, a process that involved a substantial programme of arming these troops, despite widely expressed concerns that the Northern Alliance had a human rights record little better than the Taliban.
Within three months, by the end of 2001, the Taliban had been evicted from power and the Bush administration was able to claim a major victory in its wider war. By this time, the military action in Afghanistan had already cost the lives of as many civilians as were killed in the 9/11 attacks. The war was followed almost immediately by President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address and other speeches that collectively gave us two additional messages. One was that there was an "axis of evil" encompassing Iraq, Iran and North Korea, together with lesser members such as Syria and Libya, and the other was that states and peoples were "either with us or against us" in the war on terror.
Early 2002 was perhaps the highpoint of the neo-conservative vision, but the situation in Afghanistan was already worsening, with further fighting involving substantial loss of life. This stemmed partly from the nature of the war itself. While the Taliban regime had been terminated, most of the militia had simply melted away rather than be destroyed by superior forces, the most extraordinary example being the overnight withdrawal from Kabul. Furthermore, while al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan were certainly disrupted, it was becoming clear that al Qaeda was far from being a rigid hierarchical organisation centred on Afghanistan and had supporters, networks and affiliated groups in countries stretching across the world.
Furthermore, the United States was already losing support among many of its allies, especially in Europe, not least through its refusal to rein in the Israeli government in its wide-ranging destruction across the Occupied Territories. Furthermore, the wider problems of the diminishing of human rights in the war on terror, especially the detention without trial of hundreds of suspects, were being accompanied by the use by many governments of the "war on terror" as a means of countering legitimate political opposition.
Perhaps the greatest loss of support for the Bush administration resulted from its absolute determination to go to war with the regime in Iraq, and as the crisis with Iraq developed towards the end of 2002, so opposition to the more general aspects of US security policy was also heightened, not just in Europe but across much of the world. This culminated, early in 2003, in the most substantial trans-national anti-war demonstrations ever seen. Yet the war went ahead at the end of March and the regime was terminated within three weeks.
The Iraq War initially appeared to be a further big success for the Bush administration. Almost all of the military action was undertaken by US forces, with some 200,000 troops involved. Britain's overstretched armed forces contributed in a much smaller way, and there was minor assistance from some other states. But it was essentially Washington's war and it became apparent almost immediately that the US forces were, for the most part, seen as occupiers rather than liberators.
Within a few weeks, the post-war situation had begun to deteriorate. This was happening at a time when al Qaeda and its associates remained active, where Afghanistan was deeply unstable and where, in a smaller but significant manner, the UK government was becoming embroiled in political controversy over the motivations for going to war, given that Iraq's much-vaunted weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found.
The Current Status of al Qaeda
Although there has been extensive punitive action against al Qaeda and its associates and supporters, including the destruction of the Taliban regime, the killing or capture of some leaders, the indefinite detention of many others, and the closing up of some financial resources, the level of activity that has been maintained is remarkable.
While some planned attacks, such as those in Singapore and Paris, have been intercepted, many more have gone ahead. Together they show a capability that, despite two years of a "war on terror", seems more effective than in the two years before the 9/11 attacks. They include:
It is evident that these many incidents show that it is quite wrong to see al Qaeda as a single rigid and hierarchical organisation. While there is evidence of connections between a number of organisations, including a degree of coordination, what is much more significant is the extent of transnational support and the ability of national and regional groups to generate and undertake attacks.
Afghanistan and Iraq: Part II
Nearly two years after the supposed end of the war in Afghanistan, endemic instability and violence affects much of the country. Large sectors remain in the hands of warlords and their private armies, opium production has increased and US forces are repeatedly engaged in combat with Taliban and other militia. Hamid Karzai's government struggles on, and is aided by relative peace in Kabul and some other centres, but he and his Ministers have had to face several assassination attempts. Kabul's stability is certainly aided by the small International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) but recent attempts to allow the expansion of this to other parts of the country have been hindered by the lack of willingness of western governments to commit forces.
A pattern of conflict has emerged in which US forces, often using considerable air power, are able to counterattack guerrilla groups when caught in the open, but are unable to control substantial regions, especially after dark or when guerrillas operate in small groups. Meanwhile, with frequent desertions and a lack of recruits, it is proving far more difficult to develop an Afghan National Army to help ensure security. The army currently numbers little more than 5,000 troops compared with the 70,000 required.
In Iraq, the situation is more disturbing than ever. About 130,000 US troops are tied down in an attempt to maintain security, yet scores of Americans and hundreds of Iraqis are dying and thousands more are being injured in ongoing violence. The US armed forces have already evacuated well over 6,000 troops back to the United States, nearly 2,000 of them as a result of combat injuries and accidents, and the rest due to physical or mental illness.
In recent months, the guerrilla actions have extended to repeated attacks on Iraqi police, public service managers and politicians, all targeted as "collaborators" with the occupying US forces. They have also involved the bombing of the UN headquarters, Jordanian and Italian compounds, attacks on western contractors and Spanish, Japanese, Danish and Polish nationals involved in the occupation or reconstruction.
The war itself is now known to have killed over 7,000 civilians and injured around 20,000 in barely three weeks, and the Iraqi military casualties were far higher. Even so, many of the elite elements of the Special Republican Guard and other security militia withdrew during the war without engaging American troops, and these may now be forming the core of a well-armed, well-trained and innovative opposition.
Though popular support for the numerous attacks may still be limited, and the end of the old regime remains intensely popular in the Kurdish north-east, the failure of the US occupying authorities to deliver public services has added to the unpopularity of the Coalition forces. This is exacerbated by a stagnant economy and rampant unemployment, made worse by the rushed disbanding of the Iraqi army.
The predicament of the Bush administration is now considerable, compounded by its insistence that Iraq is a core part of the "war on terror" and that the conflict simply must be won. This has resulted in President Bush's recent blunt warnings to the American people, and his pleadings to the wider international community to share the burden, even though the United States is determined to maintain political, economic and military control.
In making Iraq part of the "war on terror", a self-fulfilling prophecy is being enacted as militants from elsewhere have begun to travel across the porous borders into Iraq, and could well link up with dissident elements within the country. Such a presence may not yet be very significant but is certain to build. There is now a widespread regional perception that the United States has taken over one of the historic centres of the Arab world, and its main motives are viewed as control of the region's immensely rich oil reserves and support for the State of Israel.
Whatever the reality, this is the perception; and the United States now offers over 100,000 targets in the heart of the Arab world. This is a "gift" to paramilitary groups such as al Qaeda and its many associates - no longer do they have to plan complicated attacks in the United States, since the Americans have come to them.
Assessing the "War on Terror"
In the past two years, many members of al Qaeda and its associated movements have been killed or detained, the Taliban and Iraqi regimes have been terminated, and some paramilitary attacks have been prevented.
Against this, there have been far more attacks on western interests across the world than in the similar period before 9/11, killing or injuring over 2,000 people. In fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US forces have killed at least 9,000 civilians and injured tens of thousands more. Afghanistan is deeply unstable with Taliban forces still present, and the security situation in Iraq is frankly dire. There are near-weekly warnings of terror attacks.
It is very hard to accept any notion that this has been a successful military campaign, and there is every reason to question what is being done and how the Coalition allies mean to proceed. For the moment, there is a singular unwillingness in Washington to face up to the reality of the American predicament. Even so, given the state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan and the beginnings of serious political questioning in the United States, a necessary change of approach and policies may come sooner than we might otherwise expect.
Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University in the UK and author of A War on Terror: Afghanistan and After, to be published by Pluto Press in January 2004. This article is a revised version of a column for http://www.opendemocracy.com and is based on a report - "The 'War on Terror': Winning or Losing?", published by the Oxford Research Group, http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk.
© 2003 The Acronym Institute.