War on Terror Leaves
World in Turmoil

Five years after U.S. President George W. Bush launched his “global war on terrorism” (GWOT), the world has become more unsafe, more divided, more strife-prone, more paranoid, and ironically, more vulnerable to terrorism.

The Middle East, the globe’s most volatile region, now seethes with enormous anger, and more violence and conflict than it did before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. And South Asia, the political birthplace of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and home to two nuclear rivals engaged in a half-century-long hot-cold war, remains a cauldron of discontent.

Globally, Bush’s war has failed to tame, let alone destroy, al-Qaeda. Not only do its two top leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large, but “al-Qaedaism” as an ideology has spread and acquired strength in country after country.

The GWOT, waged by a primarily U.S.-British coalition, has deeply hurt and antagonized millions of Muslims the world over. It has created rifts within the Western bloc and alienated the United States’ own allies.

Worst of all, the GWOT’s greatest manifestation, in Iraq, is regarded by a majority of the U.S. population as a mistake. A recent poll finds that a third of the U.S. respondents think the terrorists are winning the war on terrorism. In an earlier survey, 70 percent backed it.

“The greatest political setback for the U.S. is that GWOT is now widely seen as a figleaf for America’s imperial project,” says Achin Vanaik, political scientist and author of several papers on terrorism. “American neoconservatives thought they could use GWOT to establish total and lasting U.S. global hegemony, a sort of modern-day Roman Empire which would allow no rival to emerge for decades. Today, they are looking for an exit strategy.”

Five years ago, Bush enunciated a new doctrine, arrogating to himself the right to act unilaterally against whatever he defines as “terrorism.” He advocated preemptive attacks. And he unfurled several banners to rationalize military force: regime change (or forced removal of “oppressive” rulers), humanitarian intervention, promotion of democracy, etc.

He also famously stipulated the “you are either with us or against us” proposition, erasing the distinction between perpetrators of terrorism and the country where they might be based.

Today, the Bush doctrine is in tatters. It’s widely identified as the single most important cause of insecurity and instability in the world. The three states that Bush named as forming the “Axis of Evil” (Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) have either emerged more powerful or become greater threats.

Iraq is a bloody mess, fast resembling Vietnam in the late 1960s. The deaths of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians, a number estimated by the medical journal The Lancet, have produced deep resentments against the occupation, as have the excesses and human rights violations in Fallujah and Abu Ghraib. Iraq may even be “disintegrating,” as U.S. military cables say. It has certainly become unmanageable.

Five years on, Iran and North Korea have further advanced their nuclear pursuits. And yet, the U.S. cannot coerce or compel them to fall in line with its demands.

“The U.S. arrogated to itself overambitious goals,” says Vanaik. “It didn’t describe the 9/11 attacks as a grave crime against humanity, which must be punished. It described them as the first salvo in a ‘war,’ which must be countered by GWOT. The use of these words was deliberate, not accidental. In a war, you can act militarily at any time. You need not wait for an attack on yourself. And the battleground would now be the whole globe.”

To wage the GWOT, the U.S. had to bypass and sabotage the United Nations and violate international law. It did that in 2003 when it discovered it couldn’t win a second vote in the UN Security Council, for invading. This set a terrible example, encouraging lawlessness on the part of key U.S. allies, especially Israel.

Israel intensified its oppression of the Palestinian people by imposing more closures and blockades and immobilizing the Palestinian Authority leadership. It emulated U.S. unilateralism by declaring it must act alone because there is “no dialogue partner.” It killed the peace process.

Israel stepped up the construction of its illegal “apartheid wall,” and withdrew from Gaza only to expand its settlements in the West Bank. In July, Israel invaded Lebanon.

Israel’s actions, and U.S. support for them, have generated unprecedented anger and hostility in the Middle East and among the world’s Muslims. Like the detention centers at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq, punctuated by Bush’s ill-conceived references to “crusades” and “infinite justice,” this ensured a huge propaganda victory for al-Qaeda.

Five years ago, bin Laden’s claim that the West was engaged in a crusade against Islam convinced very few Muslims. Today, it finds many supporters.

This claim isn’t far-fetched. The GWOT targets “Islamic terrorism” almost exclusively. Until recently, of the 36 organizations on the U.S. State Department’s banned list, 24 were Muslim. The rest were Basque and Irish separatists and leftist groups. There were no Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu groups. The State Department also lists 26 countries whose nationals represent an “elevated security risk” to the U.S. Barring North Korea, all are Muslim-majority countries.

This fits into growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. In a recent poll of 1,007 U.S. citizens, 39 percent said they felt at least some prejudice against Muslims. The same percentage favored requiring Muslims, including U.S. citizens, to carry a special identification “as a means of preventing terrorist attacks.” About one-third said U.S. Muslims were sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and 22 percent said they wouldn’t want Muslims as neighbors.

More and more Europeans see themselves as particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks because of their governments’ pro-U.S. foreign policy, especially on Iraq and the GWOT. In Britain, the proportion is 73 percent, according to a poll this week.

The GWOT’s effects on the Middle East stand further magnified after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. This sharply polarized Arab opinion, turning a majority radically against the U.S. and Israel.

Washington’s bullying tactics toward Iran have further antagonized Muslims, especially because the U.S. presumes Iran’s guilt regarding its nuclear program, although it hasn’t the slightest intention of giving up its own nuclear arms.

Israel’s failure to substantially weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon complicates U.S. plans to weaken pro-Iranian forces in the Middle East. Should it start a military misadventure in Iran, Washington will pay an onerous price.

In South Asia, the early phase of the GWOT dramatically changed strategic-political equations. Pakistan, which had groomed the Taliban, turned against it. The war in Afghanistan also strengthened radical Islamist forces in Pakistan’s border provinces. The unrest and secessionist violence in the Balochistan region is one long-term effect of this.

The Musharraf government has committed some 70,000 troops to the anti-Taliban fight in the border region of Waziristan, and provided military facilities to the U.S. But doubts have been raised about its commitment to the fight. Pakistan is loath to lose its influence in Afghanistan, especially among Pashtuns.

The accord signed last Tuesday between Pakistan and Waziristan’s tribal leaders will allow pro-Taliban militants to operate more or less freely in the area.

In India, home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population, terrorist incidents have increased in number and intensity. Official counter-terrorism operations have also become more indiscriminate. These are based on the U.S. model of understanding “Islamic terrorism” and fighting it by solely military means. This has produced rights violations and widespread discontent among Muslim youth.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh implicitly admitted on Tuesday that excesses had been committed. He said it is “unfortunate” that terrorism has resulted in the selective targeting of certain sections of the population. He advocated “a proactive policy to ensure that a few individual acts do not result in tarnishing the image of an entire community, and remove any feelings of persecutions and alienation from the minds of the minorities.”

He also said: “No innocent person should be harassed in our struggle against terrorism. If a mistake is made, effective remedial corrective measures must be taken well in time.”

It is not clear if Singh’s exhortations will be translated into action. But it’s plain that the U.S. war on terrorism, so long as it continues, will impede a transition to a sensible, rational, effective, and humane counter-terrorism strategy.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.