In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Bush administration launched a campaign of less restrained law enforcement, increased government secrecy, unilateral aggressiveness in international affairs, and monumental military might. For the administration, these measures are considered appropriate remedies for the problems that caused 9/11. On the other side of the equation, the al Qaeda network became entrenched after
9/11; it reconfigured itself and is now waging a new phase of its jihad against the United States and its allies. Thousands have been killed and wounded in the war between the U.S. and al
Qaeda. Yet from the crux of battle there appears both a blaze of light and a shadow of
darkness, an opportunity for ending the violence or for intensifying it.
On August 10, 2003, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of the
J.W. Marriott Hotel in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, killing twelve and injuring 152. In a statement released to Arab media sites, a Qaeda spokesman called the attack “a fatal slap on the face of America and its allies in Muslim Jakarta, where faith has been denigrated by the dirty American presence.” The Jakarta bombing represents a major tactical shift for al
Qaeda, on three levels.
First, the statement went on to say that the Marriott was attacked because agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency were staying there while questioning two Indonesian militants of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the local affiliate of al Qaeda, who were in police custody (CNN, Aug. 11, 2003). This means that al Qaeda has knowledge of the comings and goings of CIA agents worldwide (no Americans were killed in the blast, however.). The skills needed to produce that information are highly sophisticated, indicating that
al Qaeda is far from finished as a terrorist
threat. In fact, its intelligence appears to be superior to the CIA’s: If al Qaeda can track the movements U.S. intelligence agents, then it can also follow members of Congress and the President–something the CIA has failed to do in the case of
Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Second, while it had long been thought that suicide bombings were alien to Asian culture, the Marriott attack demonstrates that al Qaeda has not only forged close links with other international terrorists groups–in this case, JI–but these groups have also begun to co-mingle their ideas and resources. Last, the statement set forth a list of demands. Al Qaeda has never done this before–not after the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, not after the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, not after the 2000 bombing of the American destroyer Cole, and not after 9/11.
The Qaeda statement lists three specific demands: an end to the U.S. war on terrorism, the release of prisoners held on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the withdraw of U.S. military forces from
Muslim lands. Unless these demands are met, the statement concludes, terrorist attacks will continue. Yet consider the implied alternative: If the demands are met, then maybe, just maybe, the killing will stop.
Capitulation Versus Common Sense
We must consider these options by coldly weighing their costs and benefits, rather than resorting to the fevered political imagination that has so far characterized the crisis of “September 11" and the “War on Terrorism.” These narratives contribute little to effective counter-terrorism initiatives. Viewing America as a “beacon of freedom” engaged in a “crusade” against “evildoers” not only deepens
anti-American resentment around the world, but these propositions have created a domestic credibility gap reminiscent of the one we witnessed during the war in Vietnam. One at a time, then, here are the costs and benefits of the options now facing the United States.
Beginning on October 7, 2001, the U.S. military proceeded to drop some 18,000 bombs on Afghanistan in order to carry out its principle mission in the war on terrorism: to capture
Osama bin Laden and dismantle al Qaeda (Isaacs, 2002). The immediate cost of this campaign was the killing of civilians as well as combatants. Although the U.S. government refused to make any public accounting of the death toll in the Afghan war, no less a publication than the New York Times acknowledged that the American military killed more people in Afghanistan than died in the attack on the World Trade Center, and provided an estimate of 8,000 to 12,000 dead Taliban fighters and more than 1,000 civilians (Feb. 1, 2002). The paper subsequently reported that “hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent Afghans have lost their lives during American attacks,” citing several cases in which one hundred or more civilians were killed by U.S. air strikes (New York Times, Feb.10, 2002). The actual number of casualties may never be known. Yet what matters is that many innocent lives were lost and this created the perception throughout the Muslim world that the U.S. aggression was unjustified. In that world, George W. Bush was responsible for slaughtering more people than Osama bin Laden did.
How has the United States benefitted from the war on terrorism? Ordinary Afghans were liberated from the Taliban.
Women shed their
burqas and U.S. promises were made to built schools, hospitals, and roads. The massive killing, therefore, served a humanitarian goal, since Western aid could now pour into the impoverished country and save a million sick and starving Afghans over the next decade. This aid would, in turn, serve the U.S. national security strategy which held that weak states are as threatening to American security as strong ones. The war resulted in the deaths or permanent detention of nearly half of al Qaeda’s thirty senior leaders, including Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (reportedly the mastermind of 9/11), as well as roughly 2,000 confirmed rank-and-file members. More than $125 million of the group’s finances were also frozen (International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2003, hereafter referred to as IISS).
But today, many of these benefits have dwindled away while costs continue to rise. More than $3 billion has been spent on Afghan reconstruction, yet that progress has been slow in improving the quality of housing, water sanitation, education, and healthcare. Non-governmental relief organizations are going bankrupt. Military teams trained in reconstruction have failed to recruit community volunteers. They have wasted money and botched construction projects. Schools built in the aftermath of the bombing are already falling down (Zeller, 2003). Thousands of students are studying outdoors in tents and the U.S.-led coalition has yet to built a single road in Afghanistan (New York Times, Aug. 9, 2003).
The nation’s stability is in peril. The Bush administration, distracted by the war in Iraq and dismissive of nation-building, has failed to give Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai, the assistance needed to secure his country and establish economic reforms. Fear of American bombers has kept Afghan warlords in power. The warlords maintain their own security forces, collect their own taxes, and sabotage public construction projects. Taliban guerrillas and Afghans opposed to the American-backed government are regularly attacking government soldiers and police officers, bombing civilians, shooting aid workers, and burning schools. Violence against U.S. troops has also risen. A recent United Nations report found that the average number of attacks on coalition forces rose from nine in 2002 to more than thirty in 2003 (Mayer, 2003). And opium cultivation is surging. In 2001, when the Taliban controlled the country and enforced an opium ban, only 4,200 acres of raw opium were cultivated. In 2002, that figure jumped to 76,000 acres, making Afghanistan the world’s largest opium producer (Waldman, 2003). To counteract Afghanistan’s litany of problems, the Pentagon spends $10 billion a year to support 9,000 American troops in the country (New York Times, Aug. 9, 2003).
Despite these measures, the majority of al Qaeda’s leadership is still intact and over 18,000 potential al Qaeda terrorists are still at large (IISS). Although the Afghanistan intervention hobbled the offensive operations of al Qaeda, defensively it has benefitted since the network no longer has a state to defend. Operatives are therefore harder to detect. Meanwhile, the search for
bin Laden and Al-Zawahri has come to a grinding halt. Jane Mayer’s (2003) authoritative investigation reveals that the CIA and foreign intelligence services believe that bin Laden is most likely hiding somewhere along the fifteen-hundred-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In order to maintain Pakistan’s cooperation in the search for bin Laden, the United States will pay Pakistan $3 billion over the next five years, in addition to lifting economic sanctions imposed in 1998 after the country violated its nuclear arms treaty. The manhunt has also suffered from the Bush administration’s distraction by the war in Iraq. Mayer’s interview with Rohan Gunaratna, author of the oft-cited Inside Al Qaeda, brings the U.S. distraction into sharp relief. “If they had not gone to Iraq,” he said, “they would have found Osama by now. The best people were moved away from this operation. The best minds were moved to Iraq. It’s a great shame. It’s the biggest military failure in the war on terrorism so far” (Mayer, 2003:31).
Since 2002, approximately 680 men from more than forty countries have been detained at Guantanamo Bay. The vast majority of these men are suspected al Qaeda fighters who were captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan. They range from a member of Bahrain’s royal family to some juveniles, some elderly men, and many low-level foot soldiers. The benefits accrued by the United States are hard to determine due to the veil of secrecy surrounding the detainees’ incarceration. Official statements have been largely anecdotal. President Bush voiced his blanket conclusion that the Guantanamo detainees were “bad people” (quoted in Stevenson, 2003). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said they were “hard-core, well-trained terrorists” and Attorney General John Ashcroft branded them “uniquely dangerous” (quoted in Lelyveld, 2003:104). The camp’s ranking officer told the Associated Press (July 20, 2003) that three-fourths of the detainees have confessed to some involvement in terrorism. Interrogations have also led to tips about terrorist recruiting techniques and suspected plots against the United States. Yet the doctrine of secrecy has prohibited any independent verification of these charges.
For the United States, the cost of the detainee issue has taken the form of an international public relations fiasco. There are several reasons for this. First, to date there have been no terrorism charges brought against any of the detainees. This has led to the widespread perception that none of the detainees can be linked to 9/11 or any other terrorist plot. Supporting this view is the fact that sixty-four of the detainees have recently been released because they were not considered a threat. Second, some twenty of the released detainees were repatriated to Afghanistan (including one schizophrenic, two geriatric cases, and three teenagers who had been kidnaped by al Qaeda ) where they reported to the media stories of abuse at the hands of their American captors. A recurring theme was that these men were taken prisoner in Afghanistan, bound and gagged, flown to the other side of the world and then imprisoned for months in solitary confinement where they were chained at the hands and feet and routinely beaten with a metal rod (AP, July 20, 2003).
The third reason involves a series of complex legal issues associated with President Bush’s claim of executive power to override procedures laid down by the Geneva Conventions. The administration maintains that the Conventions do not apply to terrorist networks, thus the Guantanamo detainees are not protected by the established rules of war. As “illegal enemy combatants” held in a foreign country, the detainees also have no recourse to protections afforded in the U.S. constitution. As such, they can be detained indefinitely without charge, interrogated, and barred from speaking to a lawyer. If they are found to be suspected of terrorist activity, they can be brought before a military tribunal, where they are offered an attorney who will also be a U.S. military officer. Trials can be held in secret and evidence against defendants can be withheld. If convicted, detainees face the death penalty. Appeals are possible, not to a judge, but to the U.S. President who has already concluded that the detainees are “bad people.” There is no presumption of innocence. This practice has been roundly condemned as unjust, unwise, and un-American. The Economist, for example, has charged that “the military commissions the Bush administration has set up to try al Qaeda suspects is wrong–illiberal, unjust and likely to be counter-productive for the war on terrorism” (2003:9).
Finally, the U.S. faces charges of favoritism. In July 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair asked President Bush to consider transferring two Britons from Guantanamo to British custody. A similar request was made by the Australians. A month later, Bush conceded to the requests and the transfers were granted. This opened the flood gates as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia then began pressing the United States to free their nationals from Guantanamo as well. Yet these requests were denied, giving rise to the perception that the U.S. has two standards of justice: one for Christian nations and one for Muslim countries.
Islam and the U.S. Military
President Bush misled the American public when he alleged that the September 11 attacks were caused by
al Qaeda’s hatred of American democracy, culture, and
prosperity. Anyone who has read the writings of Osama bin Laden since the early 1990s knows that his core grievance is the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia–because he believes that “infidel troops” both desecrate the holiest sites of Islam, the cities of Mecca and Medina, and support a corrupt Saudi monarchy. (U.S. support for Israel has been a secondary grievance.) Bin Laden has repeatedly called for a U.S. withdraw of troops from Saudi Arabia, arguing (as he did in a1998 interview) that he had declared war on America because its military was propping up Saudi Arabia’s “oppressive, corrupt and tyrannical regime.” By attacking the United States, bin Laden was trying to harm the Saudi regime indirectly while linking it to its infidel patron.
Despite plenty of warning – bin Laden’s attacks on the Khobar Towers, two American embassies in Africa, and on the U.S.S. Cole – the U.S. government did not withdraw its military from Saudi Arabia. Instead, the U.S. kept more than 5,000 troops in the country to support its strategic interests in
oil production. Saudi Arabia is the principle international supplier of U.S. oil, accounting for about 20 percent of total U.S. crude-oil imports and 10 percent of U.S. oil consumption (Council on Foreign Relations, 2003). That has been the primary benefit of the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia–keeping the oil flowing. The secondary benefit has been to provide access to Iraqi airspace in order to patrol the southern no-fly zone.
In the run-up to war, Egyptian President Hosnai Mubarrak issued an ominous warning: “The war in Iraq,” he said, “will create hundreds of bin Ladens.” Tragically, that is the situation we face on the second anniversary of that terrible day in September, 2001.
These benefits have come at a great cost to both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. United States support for the corrupt Saudi autocrats is a leading cause of
anti-Americanism throughout the Arab
world. A recent Saudi survey reported that 95 percent of educated Saudi men between the ages of 25 and 41 backed bin Laden’s cause–primarily because they admire bin Laden’s willingness to take on the U.S. and Saudi governments (Ibid.). Such anti-American sentiment has long been a thorn in the side for Saudi rulers. For the U.S., costs have included billions of dollars to support the military presence, as well as the deaths of nearly 4,000 innocent Americans killed by al Qaeda between 1996 and September 11, 2001.
American military policy in the Persian Gulf is undergoing a serious reappraisal. On one hand, at the request of the Saudi government the United States is all but ending its military presence in the kingdom. Most of the troops will leave by the end of summer, 2003. The official explanation for the evacuation is because, with the U.S. “victory” in Iraq, forces are no longer needed to enforce the southern no-fly zone. There is, however, a security concern as well. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has admitted that the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia was “putting Americans in the cross-hairs of the terrorists” (quoted in Eland, 2003).
On the other hand, the United States is simply re-arranging its military forces in the region. In addition to Afghanistan, the U.S. has troops in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and it has recently built a regional command center in Qatar. And, of course, the U.S. now has 148,000 troops in Iraq. In effect, then, the Bush administration has merely replaced a military presence in one nation that is home to Islamic holy places with the armed occupation of another. Ordinary Iraqis live with an exquisite pain of the war just passed. It is estimated that at least 5,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives in the U.S. invasion, many of them killed as a result of U.S. bombings of targets in or near residential neighborhoods. At least 20,000 more suffered serious injury and are still suffering from the effects. This has exacerbated anti-U.S. sentiment among Muslims.
A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that majorities of citizens in seven of eight Islamic countries said they fear a U.S. military attack (Richter, 2003). Accordingly, much of the world’s Islamic population now views the American war on terrorism as a jihad against the faith. This only plays into the hands of al Qaeda, making the threat of anti-American terrorism greater than it was prior to 9/11. Thus, getting rid of Saddam Hussein has not made the United States safer.
The goal of U.S. counter-terrorism policy is to prevent further acts of terrorism on American citizens and national interests abroad. Any assessment of this goal requires disproof of a negative, which is outrageously difficult. As long as there are no attacks on the United States by al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, then the government will declare the war a success. But if there are no attacks, how do we know that they were actually “prevented” by the war? Because terrorism occurs within a distinctive context of social, political, and cultural factors, changes in any one of these factors (e.g., a diminution in anti-Americanism) can explain an absence of terrorism. By ignoring these factors, the Bush administration’s war on terrorism suffers from its own parochialism and isolation. Because its counter-terrorism policy is browbeaten by military activism, the United States primarily deals with the symptoms rather than the root causes of terror and extremism.
All indications are that those causes have worsened since 9/11. Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on deadly military intervention and ineffective reconstruction in Afghanistan,
bin Laden has not been captured–either “dead or alive”–and al Qaeda is still the most significant threat to U.S. national security in the world today. Costs have clearly exceeded benefits in the case of Afghanistan. For all intents and purposes, the Afghan war is over; yet the government in Kabul is having trouble subduing a growing insurgency. Afghanistan is still a worn-torn country and its people continue to live in rank poverty; yet the insurgents are disrupting the delivery of aid and threatening to kill Afghans who cooperate with Westerners. American forces are mired in defensive warfare in the southern provinces; yet U.S. troops have begun to lose the initiative and there is little help coming from Washington. Moreover, the U.S. military has run its course in Afghanistan. Were the United States to declare an official end to the war on terrorism, withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, and hire independent contractors from Islamic nations to complete the reconstruction, this would stanch the bleeding and possibly invigorate the Karzai government. Making reparations to the families of war victims would take the U.S. a step closer to political redemption within the Muslim world. And, more to the point of this essay, these actions would remove a primary grievance from the terrorists’ agenda.
Ending the war on terrorism does not mean that the U.S. should curtail its efforts to reign in the jihadists. The “war” on terrorism is no more a war than the war on drugs, and like that war the greatest successes of the U.S. have come not through military force, but through international law enforcement. Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were captured by Pakistani security forces, aided by CIA and FBI agents. Zubaydah’s interrogation led to the arrest of Jose Padilla, the former Chicago gang member turned al Qaeda operative who allegedly planned to attack a U.S. city with a crude radioactive bomb. The JI leader Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, was captured in Bangkok by Thai police, assisted by the CIA. To this list we may add dozens of lesser known al Qaeda soldiers who have been quietly apprehended by law enforcement agencies in Saudia Arabia, Jordan, Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and Malaysia.
As for the Guantanamo detainees, they have entered what a panel of senior British judges call a “legal black hole” that violates standards of
international law. Yet the practice of indefinitely detaining these men cannot go on indefinitely.
Humanitarian organizations make the point that the war in Afghanistan is, indeed, all but over and therefore the United States under international law faces a choice between charging the detainees with a crime or releasing them. Since the detainees have not been granted prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Conventions, the advocacy groups further argue, they should be charged in criminal courts rather than before the planned military tribunals. Other nations have done this with their terrorists. Britain and Spain, for instance, have special anti-terrorism laws and altered procedures designed to handle terrorist cases, but they have not abandoned the established court systems and have attempted to retain the fundamental rights of the accused. In fact, the U.S. has a long record of dealing with terrorists in just this fashion. Between 1980 and 1998, a total of 430 terrorists were tried in U.S. federal courts, including jihadists involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (Smith et al., 2002). More recently, John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban,” was successfully tried in a civil court.
There is no reason why this can’t be done with the detainees of Guantanamo Bay. At the very least, it would offer a modicum of fairness and justice to the innocent, those detainees who–as Paul Wolfowitz admitted in 2002–are “harmless.” Even Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld once conceded that among the Guantanamo detainees may be individuals who have been picked up “unintentionally,” someone “who just happened to be in there that didn’t belong in there” (quoted in Lelyveld, 2003:124). Moving the detainees to civil courts would serve the purpose of removing yet another grievance from the terrorists’ agenda. That benefit would considerably outweigh the costs of the current situation.
The most significant grievance against the United States today is the occupation of Iraq. And that occupation, as it is well known, is based on a series of deceptions foisted upon the American public by President Bush. In addition to claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was reconstituting its nuclear capabilities, Bush alleged that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda. Hence, Iraq was fraudulently included in the war on terrorism. While there was limited evidence of Islamic fighters in Iraq then, now it is true. Through its incompetence, the Bush administration has created precisely the problem that it evoked to justify the war: America has turned Iraq into a breeding ground for terrorists. The country is spiraling out of control due to the failure of U.S. forces to control Iraq’s borders or provide its citizens with basic services–adequate security, water, jobs, and electricity–and legitimate government. As more ordinary Iraqis reject the American occupation, religious extremists are increasingly welcomed by the public.
Into this dangerous void has stepped al Qaeda, issuing a worldwide call to Muslims to travel to Iraq and fight the Americans. From Saudi Arabia alone, a reported 3,000 young jihadists have entered Iraq in recent months, calling the war “a gift to Osama bin Laden” (Stern, 2003). Hezbollah has entered the country from Iran and stepped up its activities in Baghdad. Ansar al-Islam, a Qaeda affiliate, has returned from hiding and is suspected of several bombings, including the August 7, 2003 attack on the Jordanian Embassy. A previously unknown Iraqi group called the Armed Vanguards of the Second Muhammad Army have claimed responsibility for the bombing of the United Nations headquarters two weeks later. And al Qaeda itself has staked out training camps in the border region between Iraq and Syria. In the run-up to war, Egyptian President Hosnai Mubarrak issued an ominous warning: “The war in Iraq,” he said, “will create hundreds of bin Ladens.” Tragically, that is the situation we face on the second anniversary of that terrible day in September, 2001.
The United States has three options for dealing with the quagmire in Iraq: increase the military presence in order to subdue the extremists, turn the country over to the United Nations, or pull out. The first option will only accelerate resistance to the U.S. occupation, giving terrorists both more targets to shoot at and more reason to make Iraq ungovernable by destroying its infrastructure. The second option is just as dismal. The U.N. is by no means an innocent bystander in the tragedy that has been inflicted upon the Iraqis. The U.N. approved and enforced twelve years of economic sanctions that created mass hunger and disease that claimed the lives of an estimated half a million Iraqi children. It oversaw a weapons inspection program demanding that Iraq prove another negative: showing evidence of an absence of weapons of mass destruction. In these instances, the U.N. acted as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. For that reason, bin Laden and his followers view the U.N. as a criminal organization.
The only viable option, then, is for the American people to demand an end to the Bush administration’s colonial-style occupation of Iraq. As Times columnist Bob Herbert argues: “Beefing up the American occupation is not the answer to the problem. The occupation is the problem” (Aug. 20, 2003). Americans must demand an immediate and unconditional withdraw of all U.S. troops from Iraq and call for a massive international policing effort led by Arab countries like Jordan and Turkey. Only when security is established, especially within the Sunni Muslim population in the central and western core of Iraq, can further reforms take place, namely: rebuilding the nation and electing a constituent assembly, to be supervised by a special envoy of the U.N. secretary general. The American people must then demand a public investigation into the false claims made by the Bush administration for carrying out a pre-emptive war of aggression in the first place. Not only is this is a prescription for preventing future wars of aggression, but it achieves the added benefit of correcting a root cause of terrorism and extremism.
columns by former Nixon advisor John Dean:
Council on Foreign Relations (2003) “Saudi Arabia.” Council on Foreign Relations.
Eland, Ivan (2003) “Is withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia enough?” The Independent Institute.
International Institute for Strategic Studies (2003) “Transnational terrorism after the Iraq war.” IISS.
Isaccs, Jerry (2002) “How the U.S. media covers up civilian deaths in Afghanistan.” World Socialist Web Site. Feb. 26.
Lelyveld, Joseph (2003) “‘The least worse place’”: Life in Guantanamo.” In Richard C. Leone and Greg Anrig, Jr. (eds.) The War on Our Freedoms: Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism. New York: Public Affairs.
Mayer, Jane (2003) “The search for Osama.” The New Yorker, Aug. 4.
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Smith, Brent L., Kelly R. Damphousse, Freedom Jackson, and Amy Sellers (2002) “The prosecution and punishment of international terrorists in federal courts: 1980-1998.” Criminology & Public Policy, 1: 311-38.
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Stevenson, Richard W. (2003) “Bush at his side, Blair is resolute in war’s defense.” The New York Times, July 18.
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