Sunday, March 21, 2010

‘War on Terror’, Excuse Me…

Phillip Knightley

20 March 2010,
It is nearly nine years since President Bush declared a global war on terror so it is fair to ask: how is it going? Well, the first point to make is that it is not called a war on terror anymore. It is the “global struggle against violent extremists”.

But whatever it is termed, the answer to how it is going is: very badly. Not only is there no end in sight—some military men talk of victory in 25 years—but Osama bin Laden, the man America vowed to get “dead or alive”, is as elusive as ever.

Britain and the United States claim that terrorism has grown into an international force that threatens all those who stand with the US. But wait a minute. This growth in terrorism has occurred during their colossal war against it, using all the military, political and intelligence powers at their disposal.

So as Saad al-Fagih, director of the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, pointed out, “the logical conclusion must be that the so-called war on terror in its present form, is yielding precisely the opposite results to those intended.”

Further, as Howard Zinn, professor emeritus of political science at Boston University, charges, “War is itself terrorism... that taking away people and subjecting them to torture is terrorism, that invading and bombing other countries does not give us more security but less.”

The main front in the war, now Afghanistan, remains a disaster. The British Army is taking casualties at a level not seen since the 1950s. The United Nations reported recently that Afghan civilian deaths doubled in 2009.

Two thirds of the British public believes that the war is unwinnable and all the troops should be brought home by Christmas. The hawks urge the Pentagon to put even more troops into the war, forgetting that General Westmoreland had a million soldiers in Vietnam but said he needed a million more in order to win.

At home there has been a shift in the public mood. Insiders are said to be telling President Obama he should follow the advice given to President Johnson in the middle of the Vietnam quagmire – “Declare victory and leave.”

And abroad the United States slides steadily downwards in the Anholt-GMI Nations Brand Index, the equivalent of a world popularity contest.

Some knowledgeable Americans recognize the danger. Robert Baer, a former top CIA officer, says: “Every time you kill a Muslim, whether it is an Israeli killing them or an American or a Brit, there is humiliation, anger, reaction and bombs go off somewhere.”

The unpalatable fact is that Britain and America are fighting an unwinnable war against an unidentifiable enemy. How can they fight terrorism when they cannot even agree what terrorism is?

That seems unlikely but either way what journalists should certainly be doing is reporting the views of terrorists so as to try to understand their motives. Would it not be more productive to try to understand what the terrorists want and what they would be prepared to accept to end their operations.

Instead acres of newsprint and hours of TV time have been devoted to condemning them as “evil”, a word which absolves us from thinking about the problem: if they are evil (born evil; grew up to be evil; taught to be evil? Which is it?), then it is useless to try to understand them.

But as David Clark, the former British Labor Party adviser points out, those who condemn terrorists as evil cannot answer the question: why is there more evil around today than there used to be? And they have nothing to contribute to the debate about what needs to happen next.