Notes From the Margins…

What did you do in the Great War on Terror Daddy?

  • July 10, 2011
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Is the Global War on Terror (GWOT) approaching its end?   Apparently so, if statements made by  US Defence Secretary and former CIA director Leon Panetta during a  visit to Afghanistan are to be believed.   According to the Washington  Post Panetta has endorsed the Obama administration’s ‘increasingly aggressive campaign to hunt down al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and declared

“Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them, because I do believe that if we continue this effort that we can really cripple al-Qaeda as a threat to this country,” he told reporters on his plane en route to Afghanistan.  “I’m convinced,” he added, “that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.”

Before we prepare for the ticker tape parades and celebrations it is worth remembering that:

1) Al-Qaeda has always been more of a transnational network and an idea/call to arms, rather than a centralised organization, for whom attacks on the US ‘far enemy’ were essentially a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  The 9/11 atrocities – and the attacks on US civilians/military personnel that preceded them – were a provocation intended to goad a militarily more powerful enemy into an overreaction that would radicalise al Qaeda’s hoped-for constituency in the Muslim world, and the Middle East in particular.

2) These efforts succeeded, thanks to the Bush administration’s wildly disproportionate response, and its opportunistic willingness to use ‘al-Qaeda’ as a pretext for a projection of US military power in areas of strategic interest – most of which were located in Muslim countries.   Panetta’s suggestion that Afghanistan and Pakistan were essential bases for further attacks on the United States ignores the fact that the US response to 9/11 rendered such attacks unnecessary.

Indefinite detention without trial, kidnappings and extraordinary renditions of terrorist suspects, the porno-interrogations at Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, drone killings in Pakistan, extra-judicial killings, a corrupt warlord government in Afghanistan, death squads in Iraq – all these indications of America’s new determination to ‘take the gloves off’ did more to radicalise Muslim public opinion than al-Qaeda’s savage acts of ‘propaganda by deed’ and might have been scripted by bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.

3) The 9/11 attacks cost an estimated 500,000 dollars.  The costs of the Bush/Obama terrorwars can be counted in the trillions and are still rising.  Apart from military contractors, arms manufacturers and military services corporations like Halliburton,  the US economy has surely lost  lost more than it has gained through these wars.

4) Just under 3,000 civilians were killed in the 9/11 attacks.  US military ‘interventions’ in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have left hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians dead, injured or disabled.   Other more indirect interventions, such as US backing for the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, or its backing for the attempted Fatah coup in Gaza in the same year, have also taken a heavy toll in human lives.

5) The ‘9/11 wars’ in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have not created stable societies.  On the contrary they have left a legacy of political failure, corruption, chaos, conflict and violence – all of which have tarnished the democratic credentials of the United States and undermined its ability to influence global events.

Hindsight can often provide a misleading clarity, but even so it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that all this could have been avoided, had the US and its allies set themselves a clear and realistic set of objectives in response to the 9/11 attacks in the first place, with law enforcement, intelligence and legality at its core, rather than a murky and dishonest ‘war’ against anyone who the US considered an enemy.

All these means that the victory celebrations may be somewhat muted, though one can never underestimate the ability of politicians to believe their own propaganda – or seek to use it to their political advantage.   The fact that the US has not ‘won’ the GWOT does not mean that al-Qaeda can claim victory.   Both the US and al-Qaeda behaved like ‘enemies in the mirror’ using each other to pursue their own specific global objectives.

If al-Qaeda has been partially successful in its attempts to radicalise the Muslim world, its vicious, merciless and ultimately reactionary conception of ‘resistance’ has not translated into a leadership position in the new political struggles that are being waged across the Middle East and beyond.

Today millions of Muslims are challenging their rulers, just as Osama bin Laden once urged them to do, but they are not doing so in order to create the virtuous Islamic state that he and his cohorts dreamed of, but to participate as democratic citizens in their countries.

It is events and movements like these, not drones or assassination squads, that offer the greatest hope of rendering al-Qaeda – and the GWOT itself – ultimately  irrelevant.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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