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Enduring Wars of Terror

Pranjal Tiwari
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

Five years since the declaration of the “war on terror” suddenly everyone seems to be a critic. Even the complacent US public seems to have had enough and in the recent congressional elections, they voted to kick out the republicans. Pranjal Tiwari takes account of the last five years of the “war on terror” and the misery and instability it has created globally.

It seems almost every month now that another lie is exposed at the highest levels, as one after the other senior US officials and mainstream commentators line up against the policies of the Bush administration. Whereas even a squeak of disagreement was difficult to detect in the later part of 2001, today, words such as “mistakes”, “failure”, and even “defeat” have become increasingly present in the discourse.
In 2004, former White House official Richard Clarke criticized these policies as “counter-productive,” saying that “[t]he pool of people who really hate us is so much greater than it was on 9/11.” Confirming this view, a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate claims that the invasion of Iraq has increased worldwide recruitment in “terrorist organizations,” following consecutive reports from different sources over the last three years that incidents of terrorism have increased since the beginning of the “war on terror.”

Five years after its declaration, then, official sources were claiming that the so-called “war on terror” had instead created a global environment that actually nurtured “terrorism,” along officially understood definitions of the word. In the mean time, George W. Bush’s own public justifications for the invasion of Iraq under the framework of the “war on terror” were still frequent but increasingly hair-brained. In a 2005 speech he continued to proclaim the most tenuous of links, saying that the US “mission” in Iraq was “hunting down… followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington, and Pennsylvania.”

Eventually even a 2006 US Senate report, echoing the views of previous CIA and DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) analyses, not to mention most of the rest of the world, concluded that prior to the US invasion “Saddam Hussein… viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from al-Qa’ida to provide material or operational support.”

Among the military, a number of high ranking officials also lined up to criticize the invasion of Iraq and the conduct of the “war on terror.” Whereas a few years earlier a CIA official had published his criticisms anonymously, officers in the US and the UK military began to openly criticize actions in Iraq and Afghanistan in no uncertain terms. In the UK, in particular, General Richard Dannatt’s observations regarding the British military occupation of southern Iraq were taken as nothing short of open revolt by the Blair cabinet. “[O]ur presence [in Iraq] exacerbates the security problems,” he said. “I don’t say that the difficulties we are experiencing round the world are caused by our presence in Iraq but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them.”

The fissures in elite consensus are now apparent, and they have meant that the words such as “withdrawal” feature more prominently in the discourse, and notions such as “victory” and “staying the course” have become flimsier to maintain. Does this mean that a sense of reality is finally beginning to seep into the bubble of power?

“Terror speak”

A crucial point that we should remember is that criticism such as the above, as with much of the mainstream criticism of the Bush administration since 2001, continues to be based on the logic that a “war on terror” exists, and that some epic and ongoing battle between “terrorism and democracy” merely needs to be conducted more effectively. The problem, such critics would hold, is that an “incompetent” and “arrogant” administration has made critical “mistakes” in a war which is nevertheless noble and just.

Clarke, for example, still talked about the need for a “war of ideas” in the Muslim world. And Dannatt’s comments, while provocative on one level, were tempered by the belief that “[t]he original intention [in Iraq] was that we put in place a liberal democracy that was an exemplar for the region.” Therefore, while these differences among elite interests are important, they also worryingly signal that “terror-speak”—along with its various satellite propagandas, such as spreading “freedom and democracy”, “women’s rights”, and racist stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims—has become firmly entrenched in the mainstream political discourse. Rather than suggesting an acceptance of reality, then, the nature of such criticism instead highlights the prevalence of this great myth.

There is no better indication to the depth of “terror-speak” in US politics than the fact that only weeks or months after finally, unequivocally realizing that had been lied to all along by their leaders in invading Iraq, people in the US were being asked in all seriousness to turn their heads towards Iran, Syria, North Korea, or the next imminent threat to “national security.”

No doubt many hundreds of column inches have already been devoted to the finer points of the “war on terror” in US left publications over the past five years. Even back in 2001, many were quick to assess the focus on “terrorism” as little more than a framework for an increasingly aggressive pursuit of long-standing US imperial policies and that it was these policies that in fact led to incidents such as the attacks of September 11 rather than prevented them. Now, in the present environment, it seems clear that the logic of the “war on terror” and the imperial policies behind it will continue to be invoked by elites, of either party and of all stripes, for some time to come.

While action could arise from the frictions among elites suggested above, it should continue to be an important role of the left to push the discourse further, and lay bare the myth of the “terror war”, not only in what its logic contains, but what it leaves out. And what it leaves out crucially is the notion of other people, particularly those on the receiving ends of US foreign policy.

Iraqi lives

By now there must be very few people on this planet who would feel more left out, more forgotten, more callously insignificant to the world around them than people in Iraq. From a bloody 8-year war with Iran, to the crimes of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, to over a decade of “genocidal” UN sanctions, to the current invasion and occupation—the levels of death, destruction, displacement, and despair inflicted on an entire generation of Iraqis are almost incomprehensible, as is the barbarism through which these policies have not only persisted but escalated in their horror.

We heard, of course, about the 2004 study published in The Lancet which found that 100,000 Iraqi people had been killed as a direct result of the situation created by the invasion. We have now also heard of the latest, 2006 study published in The Lancet, which found that more than 650,000 Iraqis have by now been killed since the invasion began.

These days, we have even been given the grisly daily and monthly estimates of deaths. To accompany all these numbers we have a litany of abuses. We have heard of the siege and assault on Fallujah; the massacre at Haditha; the routine torture and arbitrary detention at prisons around Iraq, including Abu Ghraib; the use of death squads; the bombings of hospitals and civilian areas; the car bombings and the kidnappings; the daily terror of the checkpoints; and the use of chemical weapons.

According to Sami Ramadani, writing in The Guardian, there is a “culture of indiscriminate violence” that permeates the occupation. What else is there left to say?
Iraq has certainly been a centre point of the “war on terror”, though not in the way George Bush has meant it. For the majority of the world, Iraq has always been by far the most blatant example and the “supreme crime” of the increasingly militarist trajectory of US foreign policy that the “war on terror” represents.

Now, even as support for continued occupation falls in the West and various commentators in the US and UK openly declare “defeat” in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn writes that there continues to be a “hopeless lack of realism in statements from senior US officials. It is as if the taste of defeat is too bitter.” It was a particularly glaring “lack of realism” that was exhibited during a press conference by the US ambassador to Iraq, the infamous Zalmay Khalilzad, and the US General George Casey.

“Our goal is to enable Iraqis to develop a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian representative democracy after decades of tyranny,” Khalilzad recited. He continued to refer to the invasion as the “liberation” of Iraq, saying that “…despite the difficult challenges we face, success in Iraq is possible and can be achieved on a realistic timetable.” Such a magnanimous and selfless commitment to “democracy” belies the fact that the vast majority of Iraqis at virtually every level of society have, since the beginning, wanted an immediate end to the US occupation.

“The reality is that the occupation is detested by most Iraqis,” writes Ramadani. “US-led forces are surrounded by popular hostility, and are operating completely outside Iraqi ‘sovereign’ jurisdiction. No Pentagon courses in the ethics of how and how not to kill Iraqis will change this.” Of course, recent history has shown the value of Iraqi lives and needs to US planners and policy makers.

Perhaps of greater importance is the growing level of support for military withdrawal within the US and UK. On this point, many commentators have already noted that Khalilzad and Casey’s was a press conference groomed specifically for audiences “at home.” As a major military defeat looms in Iraq, electoral defeat in the mid-term elections seems to have made more vociferous the official denial of reality.

And despite the mutterings of “defeat”, this “official story” is still a fantasy that is maddeningly pervasive. While the facts of the invasion and its aftermath are undeniable, and the imperial aims behind them would seem less and less justifiable, Iraq has also proved the tenacity of corporate media institutions. It was a view perpetuated by Christopher Hitchens, for example, when he recently accused the study published in The Lancet of inflating its estimate of Iraqi deaths—but warned that the number could certainly reach such a grisly level if the occupation were to end. Among the likes of Khalilzad and Hitchens is that peculiar concern for Iraqis that only seems to appear when justifying the continuing atrocities committed against them.
“Focused on Afghanistan”

While commentators such as Hitchens can increasingly find work stressing the need for a continued occupation of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan has never been that hard to sell. Afghanistan has always been touted as the “good battle” of the “war on terror”, and many liberal commentators indeed criticized the Bush administration for invading Iraq when it should have “focused on Afghanistan.” The original framework for that invasion and the myths that were constructed around it remain largely intact and subject to little scrutiny.

Forgotten among a portrayal of beard-shaving, burqa-shedding liberation, and eventually eclipsed by news on Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has begun to creep back into the headlines. Though much of the focus is on the resurgence of the Taliban as a military force, the real story lies in the underlying factors and conditions that were created over the five years since the US invasion.

For example, the BBC’s David Loyd, who has spent time interviewing members of the Taliban, notes that the movement’s growing support has a lot to do with the “corrupt” Karzai government and its promotion of regional warlords. Loyd also mentions the “failure of the international aid effort to make enough difference in people’s lives,” the increasing number of civilian casualties, and the fact that life “has got worse, particularly in the south.”

Zoya, a representative of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA), more specifically blamed the US-led war for the situation. In an October 2006 talk, she said that “US bombs, B52s and the presence of thousands US troops is not meant to bring about liberation or establish democracy in our country.” Aside from the number of people killed in the invasion itself, Zoya also described how the five years since 2001 have been marked by an increase in violence, particularly against women and girls; kidnappings in broad daylight; and institutional violence through the increasing power of local autocrats.

This final point is a crucial one, and highlights a policy adopted by the US following its invasion to prop up regional warlords around the country. A 2002 report from Human Rights Watch referred to Afghanistan as an “enduring system of ‘fiefdoms’… reinforced by the policies of the US and other international actors,” who gave them both “financial and military support.” For people in Afghanistan, this has meant autocracy and all its abuses, including “summary executions… killing scores of civilians, targeting ethnic minorities…[and] Taliban-era social restrictions on women and girls.”

The enduring institutions of the warlords, supported by the US and its allies and now given the legitimacy of “democracy” (many current and former warlords hold positions in the Afghan parliament and in the Karzai cabinet), have meant five years of misery and disillusionment for people in Afghanistan.

With the Taliban now increasing in strength, engaging NATO forces in what has been called “the heaviest fighting for a generation,” and finding recruits in a dire environment, the country, according to Zoya, is a “ticking bomb.” In October 2006, a former head of the British armed forces, Field Marshal Lord Inge, said that Britain faced “operational failure”, i.e. defeat, in Afghanistan. General Lord Guthrie, a former British Chief of Defense Staff also went on to say that the decision to “launch the British Army in with the numbers there are…is cuckoo.”

The last two points are once again rooted in “terror-speak”, calling for a “change in policy” and military “mistakes.” Zoya, however, went on to mention that she was shocked by the silence and the lack of opposition to the US war in Afghanistan from a principled standpoint, and according to the needs of people there. “[E]ven humanity should die for…all Americans when they see their government support such misogynist and dark-minded killers and impose them on the Afghan people.”

Terror in between

Though Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded under the “war on terror” framework, there have been few limits to which this has been invoked around the world. The “war on terror” framework has indeed provided the broadest of mandates for “allied” governments to embark on or escalate their own campaigns of repression, from Russia to Indonesia.

Within this, there have been some strikingly brutal acts of repression committed by some of the staunchest “allies.” Perhaps tellingly, in the face of propaganda hailing “democracy” and “freedom”, much of this repression was committed by autocratic and dictatorial US client states against movements organizing for human rights or democracy in their countries.

The most blatant single display of state violence in this vein was the killing of hundreds of protestors in Andijan, Uzbekistan in May 2005. Human Rights Watch called the incident “so extensive… so indiscriminate and disproportionate, that it can best be described as a massacre.” A “strategic partner” of the US, President Islam Karimov went on to blame Andijan on “Islamic extremists.” A 2004 report by Amnesty International also noted that under the framework of the “war on terror”, the US and its allies in the autocratic Gulf states had displayed a “disturbing disregard for the rule of law and fundamental human rights standards.” Any achievements towards human rights in the region over the past few years were “increasingly in jeopardy in the context of the US-led ‘war on terror.’”

Of course, there can be no greater example of another state emboldened in its repression by the US “war on terror” framework than that of Israel. The past five years have seen such a rapid escalation of Israel’s attacks against Palestinians and their society in the occupied territories that it is almost impossible to describe. To consider the scale, remember we are talking about a period at least as far back as the massacre at Jenin going at least up to the siege of Gaza in 2006, and counting every injury, killing, home demolition, rocket attack, siege, “checkpoint incident”, bombing, and every other act of terror in between. As if this was not enough to push the boundaries of the so-called “international community”, it was augmented in 2006 by Israel’s onslaught against Lebanon.

Killing over 1,000 people and annihilating the country’s infrastructure, the Israeli attack on Lebanon surely stands alongside the invasion of Iraq as one of the crimes of the century. Yet the persistent propaganda about Israel and its “right to defend itself” by bombing and invading Lebanon was matched largely by silence or ambiguity among much of the left. As the language of the “war on terror” runs deeper into the mainstream, we would do well to ask ourselves where its logic, its lies, and its racist conception of the world might have rubbed off on us and our movements.

The “war on terror” has worked itself not only into mainstream discourse, but also deep into everyday life for millions of ordinary people around the world. The effects have been particularly brutal for people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, but people everywhere have felt them to varying degrees. There is the gaping black hole of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and the “gulags” of other camps around the world. There are the “extraordinary renditions” that have snatched thousands of people from streets all over the world to bring them there, and the racist profiling that has guided them.

There is the heightened surveillance and control of ordinary citizens in virtually every country and the erosion of laws preventing arbitrary detention, even as security in real terms for ordinary citizens has decreased. The most exploited sectors of society have been especially affected, often becoming scapegoats in the debates around “border control” and “security.” All this has facilitated the massive siphoning of resources from ordinary people to elite sectors, even as ordinary people around the world bear the brunt of military invasions and occupations. The examples could keep being cited.

It is easy to lose hope in these dark times, but there is nothing to say that any of this is permanent or inevitable. In acting to negate the “war on terror”, its “terror-speak”, and its logic, there are no simple answers—only a lot of work to do.


Pranjal Tiwari, an independent journalist and writer based in Hong Kong, China, writes for The NewStandard, Left Turn, Clamor, and ZNet. He is also a correspondent for Free Speech Radio News.