Taking stock of the war on terror

Not only has America not defeated al-Qaida -- but now terrorism has gone viral.

Topics: George W. Bush, Iraq war, Iraq, Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, Syria,

Taking stock of the war on terror

To contemplate a prewar map of Baghdad — as I do the one before me, with sectarian neighborhoods traced out in blue and red and yellow — is to look back on a lost Baghdad, a Baghdad of our dreams. My map of 2003 is colored mostly a rather neutral yellow, indicating the “mixed” neighborhoods of the city, predominant just five years ago. To take up a contemporary map after this is to be confronted by a riot of bright color: Shiite blue has moved in irrevocably from the east of the Tigris; Sunni red has fled before it, as Shiite militias pushed the Sunnis inexorably west toward Abu Ghraib and Anbar province, and nearly out of the capital itself. And everywhere, it seems, the pale yellow of those mixed neighborhoods is gone, obliterated in the months and years of sectarian war.

I start with those maps out of a lust for something concrete as I grope about in the abstract, struggling to quantify the unquantifiable. How indeed to “take stock” of the “war on terror”? Such a strange beast it is, like one of those mythological creatures that is part goat, part lion, part man. Let us take a moment and identify each of these parts. For if we look closely at its misshapen contours, we can see in the war on terror:

Part anti-guerrilla mountain struggle, as in Afghanistan;

Part shooting war-cum-occupation-cum-counterinsurgency, as in Iraq;

Part intelligence, spy vs. spy covert struggle, fought quietly — “on the dark side,” as Vice President Dick Cheney put it shortly after 9/11 — in a vast territory stretching from the southern Philippines to the Maghreb and the Straits of Gibraltar;

And finally the war on terror is part, perhaps its largest part, virtual war — an ongoing, permanent struggle, and in its ongoing political utility not wholly unlike Orwell’s famous world war between Eurasia, East Asia and Oceania that is unbounded in space and in time, never ending, always expanding.

President Bush announced this virtual war three days after Sept. 11, 2001, in the National Cathedral in Washington, appropriately enough, when he told Americans that “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”



Astonishing words from a world leader — declaring that he would “rid the world of evil.” Just in case anyone thought he might have misheard the sweep of the president’s ambition, his national security strategy, issued a few months later, was careful to specify that “the enemy is not a single political regime or person or religion or ideology. The enemy is terrorism — premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.”

Again, a remarkable statement, as many commentators were quick to point out; for declaring war on “terrorism” — a technique of war, not an identifiable group or target — was simply unprecedented and, indeed, bewildering in its implications. As one counterinsurgency specialist remarked to me, “Declaring war on terrorism is like declaring war on air power.”

Six and a half years later, evil is still with us and so is terrorism. In my search for a starting point in taking stock of those years, I find myself in the sad position of pondering fondly what have become two of the saddest words in the English language: Donald Rumsfeld.

Remember him? In late October 2003, when I was in Baghdad watching the launch of the so-called Ramadan Offensive — five simultaneous suicide bombings, beginning with one at the headquarters of the Red Cross, the fiery aftermath of which I witnessed — then Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was in Washington still denying that an insurgency was under way in Iraq. He was also drafting one of his famous “snowflakes,” those late-night memorandums that he used to rain down on his terrorized Pentagon employees.

This particular snowflake, dated Oct. 16, 2003, and titled “Global War on Terrorism,” reads almost poignantly now, as the defense secretary gropes to define the war that it has become his lot to fight: “Today we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror,” he wrote. “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”

Rumsfeld asks the right question, for beyond the obvious metrics like the number of terrorist attacks worldwide — which have gone up steadily, and precipitously, since 9/11 (for 2006, the last year for which State Department figures are available, by nearly 29 percent, to 14,338) — and the somewhat subtler ones like the percentage of those in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world who hold unfavorable opinions of the United States (which soared in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and has fallen back just a bit since); apart from these sorts of numbers that, for various and obvious reasons, are problematic in themselves, the key question is: How do you “take stock” of the war on terror? At the end of the day, as Secretary Rumsfeld perceived, this is a political judgment, for in its essence it has to do with the evolution of public opinion and the readiness of those with certain political sympathies to move from holding those opinions to taking action in support of them.

What “metrics” do we have to take account of the progress of this “evolution”? Well, none really — but we do have the guarded opinions of intelligence agencies, notably this rather explicit statement from the U.S. government’s National Intelligence Estimate of April 2006, titled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,” which reads in part: “Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision” — those metrics again — “a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although still a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic distribution. If this trend continues, threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide.”

Dark words, and yet that 2006 report looks positively sanguine when set beside two reports from a year later, both leaked in July 2007. A National Intelligence Estimate titled “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland” noted that al-Qaida had managed to — in the summary in the Washington Post — reestablish “its central organization, training infrastructure and lines of global communication” over the previous two years and had placed the United States in a “heightened threat environment … The U.S. Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years.”

This NIE — the combined opinion of the country’s major intelligence agencies — only confirmed a report that had been leaked a couple of days before from the National Counterterrorism Center, grimly titled “Al Qaeda Better Positioned to Strike the West.” This report concluded that al-Qaida, in the words of one official who briefed its contents to a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, was “considerably operationally stronger than a year ago,” “has regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001,” and has managed to create “the most robust training program since 2001, with an interest in using European operatives.” Another intelligence official, summarizing the report to the Associated Press, offered a blunt and bleak conclusion: Al-Qaida, he said, is “showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States.”

Given these grim results, one must return to one of the more poignant passages in Secretary Rumsfeld’s “snowflake,” released to flutter down on his poor Pentagon subordinates back in those blinkered days of October 2003. Having wondered about the metrics, and what could and could not be measured in the war on terror, the secretary of defense posed a critical question: “Does the U.S. need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists?”

For me, the poignancy comes from Rumsfeld’s failure to see that, in effect, he and his boss had already “fashioned” the “broad, integrated plan” he was asking for. It was called the Iraq war.

That the Iraq war is “fueling the spread of the jihadist movement,” as the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate put it, has been a truism of intelligence reporting from the war’s beginning — indeed, from before it began. “The Iraq conflict has become the cause célèbre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating support for the global jihadist movement” — this point from the 2006 NIE is truly an example of a “chronicle of a war foretold” (to borrow from García Márquez). In fact, that NIE cites the “Iraq jihad” as the second of four factors “fueling the jihadist movement,” along with “entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness”; “the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations”; and “pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims.”

Any attempt to “take stock of the war on terror” must begin with the sad fact that the story of that war has largely become the story of the war in Iraq as well, and the story of the Iraq war (all discussion of the so-called surge aside) has been pretty much an unmitigated disaster for U.S. security and for America’s position in the Middle East and the world. Which means that telling the story of the war on terror, half a dozen years on — and taking stock of that war — merges inevitably with the sad tale of how that so-called war, strange and multiform beast that it is, became subsumed in a bold and utterly incompetent attempt to occupy and remake a major Arab country.

That broader story comes down to a matter of two strategies and two generals: Gen. Osama bin Laden and Gen. George W. Bush. General bin Laden, from the start, has been waging a campaign of indirection and provocation: That is, bin Laden’s ultimate targets are the so-called apostate regimes of the Muslim world — foremost among them, the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the House of Saud on the Arabian peninsula — which he hopes to overthrow and supplant with a new caliphate.

For bin Laden, these are the “near enemies,” which rely for their existence on the vital support of the “far enemy,” the United States. By attacking this far enemy, beginning in the mid-1990s, bin Laden hoped both to lead vast numbers of new Muslim recruits to join al-Qaida and to weaken U.S. support for the Mubarak and Saud regimes. He hoped to succeed, through indirection, in “cutting the strings of the puppets,” eventually leading to the collapse of those regimes.

In this sense, 9/11 proved the culmination of a long-term strategy, following on a series of attacks of increasing lethality during the mid- to late 1990s in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Nairobi, Kenya; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Aden, Yemen. The 9/11 attackers used as their climactic weapon not transcontinental airliners or box cutters but the television set — for the image was the true weapon that day, the overwhelmingly powerful image of the towers collapsing — and used it not only to “dirty the face of imperial power” (Menachim Begin’s description of what terrorists do) but also to provoke the United States to strike deep into the Islamic world.

It is clear from various documents and from the assassination, days before 9/11, of Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood, that bin Laden expected this American counterstrike to come in Afghanistan, which would have given al-Qaida the opportunity to do to the remaining superpower what it had done — so the myth went, anyway — to the Soviet Union a dozen years before: trap its arrogant, hulking military in a quagmire and, through patient, unrelenting guerrilla warfare, force it to withdraw in ignominious defeat. In the event, of course, the Americans, by relying on air bombardment and on the ground forces of their Afghan allies in the Northern Alliance, avoided the quagmire of Afghanistan — at least in that initial phase in the fall of 2001 — and instead offered bin Laden a much greater gift. In March 2003, they invaded Iraq, a far more important Islamic country and one much closer to the heart of Arab concerns.

Why did Gen. George W. Bush do it? Lacking in legitimacy and on the political defensive, the president and his administration moved instantly to transform the war on terror into an ideological crusade, one implicitly crafted as a new Cold War.

“They hate our freedoms,” Bush told Congress and the nation a few days after the 9/11 attacks. “Our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with one another … We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions — by abandoning every value except the will to power — they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

Drawing a lurid picture of a new Cold War, with terrorists playing the role of communists, Bush rallied the country behind the war on terror, obliterating the subtleties of the struggle against al-Qaida and with them the critique of U.S. Middle East policy implicit in the assault. “This is not about our policies,” as Henry Kissinger put it soon after the attack. “This is about our existence.” In this view, the attack came not because of what the United States actually did in the Middle East — what regimes it supported, for example — but because of what it stood for: the universalist aspirations it symbolized. Iraq quickly became part of this crusade, the great struggle to protect, and now to spread, freedom and democracy.

One can argue long and hard about the roots of the Iraq war, but in the end one must tease out a set of realist compulsions (centrally concerned with the restoration of American credibility and American deterrent power) and idealist aspirations (shaped around the so-called democratic domino effect). The realist case was well summarized, once again, by Kissinger, who, when asked by a Bush speechwriter why he supported the Iraq war, replied: “Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough.” In the conflict with radical Islam, he went on, “they want to humiliate us and we have to humiliate them.” The Iraq war was essential in order to make the point that “we’re not going to live in the world that they want for us.”

Ron Suskind, in his fine book “The One Percent Doctrine,” puts what is essentially the same point in “geostrategic” terms, reporting that, in meetings of the National Security Council in the months after the 9/11 attacks, the main concern “was to make an example of [Saddam] Hussein, to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States.”

Set alongside this was the “democratic tsunami” that was to follow the shock-and-awe triumph over Saddam. It would sweep through the Middle East from Iraq to Iran and thence to Syria and Palestine. (“The road to Jerusalem” — so ran the neoconservative gospel at the time — “runs through Baghdad.”) As I wrote in October 2002, five months before the Iraq war was launched, this vision was detailed and well elaborated:

Behind the notion that an American intervention will make of Iraq “the first Arab democracy,” as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it, lies a project of great ambition. It envisions a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq — secular, middle-class, urbanized, rich with oil — that will replace the autocracy of Saudi Arabia as the key American ally in the Persian Gulf, allowing the withdrawal of United States troops from the kingdom. The presence of a victorious American Army in Iraq would then serve as a powerful boost to moderate elements in neighboring Iran, hastening that critical country’s evolution away from the mullahs and toward a more moderate course. Such an evolution in Tehran would lead to a withdrawal of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups, thereby isolating Syria and reducing pressure on Israel. This undercutting of radicals on Israel’s northern borders and within the West Bank and Gaza would spell the definitive end of Yasir Arafat and lead eventually to a favorable solution of the Arab-Israeli problem.

This is a vision of great sweep and imagination: comprehensive, prophetic, evangelical. In its ambitions, it is wholly foreign to the modesty of containment, the ideology of a status-quo power that lay at the heart of American strategy for half a century. It means to remake the world, to offer to a political threat a political answer. It represents a great step on the road toward President Bush’s ultimate vision of “freedom’s triumph over all its age-old foes.”

One can identify two factors underlying this vision: first, the great enthusiasm for a moralistic foreign policy based on universalized principles and democratic reform that dated back to containment’s main rival, the “rollback” movement of the 1950s, and that had been revivified by the thrilling series of Eastern European revolutions of the late 1980s and by scenes of popular, American-aided democratic triumph (as it was then thought to be) in Afghanistan; and, second, the recognition that terrorism, at the end of the day, was a political problem that arose from a calcified authoritarian order in the Middle East and that only a dose of “creative destabilization” could shake up that order. “Transforming the Middle East,” in Condoleezza Rice’s words, “is the only guarantee that it will no longer produce ideologies of hatred that lead men to fly airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington.”

The latter perception — that terrorism as it struck the United States arose from political factors and that it could be confronted and defeated only with a political response — strikes me as incontestable. The problem the administration faced, or rather didn’t want to face, was that the calcified order that lay at the root of the problem was the very order that, for nearly six decades, had been shaped, shepherded and sustained by the United States. We see an explicit acknowledgment of this in the “Bletchley II” report drafted after 9/11 at Defense Department urging by a number of intellectuals close to the administration: “The general analysis,” one of its authors told the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, “was that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where most of the hijackers came from, were the key, but the problems there are intractable. Iran is more important … But Iran was similarly difficult to envision dealing with. But Saddam Hussein was different, weaker, more vulnerable.”

In this sense, many of the Bush administration’s leading Iraq war backers constituted a kind of guerrilla force within the U.S. government, fighting against a long-standing strategic alignment in the Middle East. This guerrilla status, which defined many of the government’s most knowledgeable Middle East hands as enemies to be isolated and ignored, helps to account, at least in part, for a great many of the extraordinary incompetencies and disasters of the war itself. That the roots of the war lie in stark opposition to established U.S. policy also helps explain the central conundrum of the current U.S. strategic position in Iraq and the Middle East. This was defined for me with typical concision and aplomb by Ahmed Chalabi in Baghdad last year. “The American tragedy in Iraq,” said Chalabi, “is that your friends in Iraq are allied with your enemies in the region, and your enemies in Iraq are allied with your friends in the region.”

Chalabi’s concision and wit are admirable (and typical); but his point, once you look at the map, is obvious. The United States has made possible the rise to power in Iraq of a Shiite government that is allied with its major geopolitical antagonist in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran. And the United States has been fighting with great persistence and distinctly mixed results a Sunni insurgency that is allied with the Saudis, the Jordanians and its other longtime friends among the traditional Sunni autocracies of the Gulf.

This is another way of saying that the U.S. policy built on the famous meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King ibn Saud aboard Roosevelt’s cruiser on the Great Bitter Lake near the end of World War II — a policy that envisioned a vital, mutually beneficial and enduring alliance between the Saudis and the Americans — having been put in grave question by the Saudi insurgents at the controls of those mighty airliners of Sept. 11, now smashed full on into the strategic assault perpetrated by the Bush administration insurgents led by Paul Wolfowitz and his associates. Their “creative destabilization” was aimed not just at Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but at more than half a century of American policy in the Middle East.

Al-Qaida, opportunistic as always, was willing to play this game, seizing on the occupation of Iraq as the golden opportunity it most certainly was and focusing on the Shiite-Sunni divide on which U.S. policy was foundering. The late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s famous intercepted letter to Ayman al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, in which the insurgent leader of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia told the al-Qaida potentates — the front office, as it were — that his aim in Iraq was to “awaken the sleeping Sunnis” by launching a vast bombing campaign against the “Shiite heretic,” describes precisely both the national and the regional strategy: “If we manage to draw them into the terrain of partisan war, it will be possible to tear the Sunnis away from their heedlessness, for they will feel the weight of the imminence of danger.”

This is a strategy that, after the bombing of the revered al-Askari mosque and shrine in Samarra in February 2006, bore terrible fruit. My map that shows divisions running through Baghdad will show, if one zooms out, those same divisions running through Iraq and beyond its borders. Like the former Yugoslavia, Iraq is a nation that gathers within itself the cultural and sectarian fault lines of the region; the Sunni-Shiite divide running through Iraq in effect runs through the entire Middle East. The United States, in choosing this place to stage its democratic revolution, could hardly have done al-Qaida a better favor.

At this moment, the Iraq war is at a stalemate. Confronted with a growing threat from those “enemies allied with its friends in the region,” the Sunni insurgents, the Bush administration has adopted a practical and typically American strategy: It has bought them. The Americans have purchased the insurgency, hiring its foot soldiers at the rate of $300 per month. The Sunni fighters, once called insurgents, we now refer to as “tribesmen” or “concerned citizens.”

This has isolated al-Qaida, a tactical victory. But because these purchased Sunni fighters have not been accepted by the Shiite government — the allies of our enemies — the United States has set in motion a policy that will require, to keep violence at current levels, its own permanent presence in the country. This at a time when two in three Americans think the war was a mistake and when both surviving Democratic presidential candidates vow to begin bringing the troops home “on Day One” of a Democratic administration.

On the horizon, after such a withdrawal, is a reignition of the civil war at an even more brutal level, helped by the American rearming of the Sunni forces — and indeed the American arming of Shiite government forces as well. It is a curious reality, if we look again at the regional map, that the current geostrategic situation in the Middle East resembles nothing so much as the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, in which the United States, along with Egypt, the Saudis and the Jordanians, supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its great war against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. We see a similar array of forces today, with these two differences: First, we must move the line of conflict about 200 miles west, shifting it from the Iraq-Iran border to a line running through Baghdad along the Tigris River. Second, the United States is now arming and supporting both sides. And behind the current configuration and the supposed “success of the surge” looms the darkening threat of regionalization — a regionwide struggle fought over the body of Iraq in the wake of an American withdrawal. It has become, to appropriate a phrase, a very complicated war.

Whether or not this darkest of dark visions comes to pass, that very complicated war in Iraq, as the intelligence analysts and our own eyes tell us, will continue to pay vast dividends into the account of political grievances with which terrorist groups recruit. This has only partly to do with the original al-Qaida itself (or “al-Qaida prime,” as some analysts now call it); for however much it has managed to “reconstitute” itself, the true game has moved elsewhere, toward “viral al-Qaida” — “spontaneous groups of friends,” in the words of former CIA analyst and psychiatrist Marc Sageman, “as in [the] Madrid and Casablanca [bombings], who have few links to any central leadership, [who] are generating sometimes very dangerous terrorist operations, notwithstanding their frequent errors and poor training.”

While U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have had considerable success attacking the various formal nodes of al-Qaida prime on the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere, those struggles have about them the air of the past; we have really passed into a different era, the era of the amateurs. Today’s network is self-organized, Internet reliant and decentralized, dependent not on armies, training or even technology but on desire and political will. And we have ensured, by the way we have fought this forever war, that it is precisely these vital qualities our enemies have in large and growing supply.

So how, finally, do we “take stock of the war on terror”? Let me suggest three words:

1. Fragmentation — brought about by “creative destabilization,” as we see it not only in Iraq but in Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere in the region;

2. Diminution — of American prestige, both military and political, and thus of American power;

3. Destruction — of the political consensus within the United States for a strong global role.

Gaze for a moment at those three words and marvel at how far we have come in half a dozen years.

In September 2001, the United States faced a grave threat. The attacks that have become synonymous with that date were unprecedented in their destructiveness, in their lethality, in the pure apocalyptic shock of their spectacle. But in their aftermath, American policymakers, partly through ideological blindness and preening exaggeration of American power, partly through blindness brought about by political opportunism, made decisions that led to a defeat only their own actions — that only American power itself — could have brought about.

A small coven of America’s enemies, using the strategy of provocation so familiar in guerrilla warfare, had launched in spectacular fashion on that bright September morning a plan to use the superpower’s strength against itself. To use a different metaphor, they were trying to make good on Archimedes’ celebrated boast: Having found the perfect lever and place to stand, they proposed to move the Earth. To an extent I am sure even they did not anticipate, in their choice of opponent — an evangelical, redemptive regime scornful of history and determined to remake the fallen world — lay the seeds of their success.


This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.

Mark Danner is the author, most recently, of "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror" (2004) and "The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History" (2007). He has covered the Iraq war from its beginning for the New York Review of Books. He teaches at both Bard College and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His work is archived at MarkDanner.com.

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