Global Policy Forum

United States: Losing the War on Terror


By Bernard Adam

Le Monde diplomatique
April, 2004

Even before former US security adviser Richard Clarke made it public that the Bush White House had wilfully ignored the threat from al-Qaida, it was clear that the US war on terror was failing and that the unjustified attack on Iraq had worsened the situation.

The Madrid bombings of 11 March, nine days before the first anniversary of the attack on Iraq, show just how badly the current United States-led fight against international terrorism is failing.

President George Bush's State of the Union address on 28 January 2003 had claimed: "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody reveals that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al- Qaida." A few days later, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, presented the United Nations Security Council with charges detailing links between Iraq and al-Qaida.

So persuasive was the Bush administration's communications offensive that by the time of the Iraq invasion 44% of Americans believed that some or even most of the 11 September 2001 hijackers had been Iraqi; and 45% thought Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks.

Yet just days before Powell's presentation, US newspapers had revealed that the CIA and FBI had both been astonished at the presumptuousness of the Bush administration line. A number of CIA agents had complained that the results of their investigations into Iraq were being exaggerated, especially where potential links with terrorism were concerned. European intelligence experts could see no proof of any links between Iraq and al-Qaida.

A year on, the world is facing the fact that the two main arguments used by the US to justify the war have proved false. Not one weapon of mass destruction has been found in Iraq and no supposed links with al-Qaida have materialised. The US and British governments have repeatedly tried to deal with this by shifting blame to their intelligence services. It appears that members of both governments deliberately manipulated for propaganda purposes the information that was available to them.

The US and its allies are also in an increasingly difficult situation as the security situation in Iraq worsens. From 1 May 2003, the date Bush officially declared the war over, to the end of February 2004, there were on average 17 attacks a day on allied forces; 407 Americans had been killed since the war ended [at the time of writing], against 148 during the war. Attacks on civilians are increasing. While Saddam Hussein's supporters had no links with al-Qaida before the war, it is likely they have collaborated since it ended.

From October 2003 the Bush administration began to acknowledge these concerns. In a memo published in USA Today, the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said: "We lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror" and gave credence to the assessment that "the harder we work, the behinder we get". The memo acknowledged that factors motivating young Muslims to join a jihad against the West and the US in particular were as present as ever. Indeed, Rumsfeld concluded, the jihad probably had more recruits than it did before, thanks in large part to the invasion of Iraq (1).

By the end of 2003 more incisive criticism was emerging even from bodies close to the US government. In a report for the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, a visiting professor, Jeffrey Record, called the invasion "an unnecessary preventive war against a deterred Iraq that has created a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism and diverted attention and resources away from securing the American homeland against further assault by an undeterrable al-Qaida . . . The war against Iraq was not integral to the global war on terrorism, but rather a detour from it" (2).

In January 2004 Jane's Intelligence Digest seconded this view, saying that the intelligence available before war was declared did not justify the action and that the operations in Iraq were not only a distraction from the fight against terrorism but increased the security risk to the US (3).

Many other analysts agree that US intervention has opened a new area for terrorists and given terrorist-inclined groups both in Iraq and elsewhere a new cause to fight for and increased their anti-US convictions. After the attacks in Madrid, the former European Union envoy to the Middle East who will be Spain's new foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, said: "The strategy followed by the US administration and by other Western countries has failed spectacularly." He added that this unilateral policy of preventive war had led to "chaos and disaster".

The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, told La Stampa: "Clearly the fight against terrorists cannot be resolved through force. We should remember that the war in Iraq began a year ago . . . The results are not good, whether we are talking about Iraq or elsewhere - Istanbul, Moscow and now Madrid. The terrorism that this war promised to stop is infinitely more powerful today than it was a year ago" (4).

There are two fundamental errors behind the failure of US policies. The first goes back to the roots of Washington's attitude, which is to see terrorism as a disease when it is in fact the symptom of a condition suffered by certain groups. Any lasting and effective attempt to defeat it should focus on the underlying motives of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks. This would require long-term work, well beyond repression and would be unlikely to produce any concrete results for several years.

The second mistake is an inflated view of the effectiveness of military measures. It is not pos sible to end the real problems by attacking nation-states or dangerous groups with heavy weaponry. Asymmetrical war is extremely costly (the war in Iraq has so far cost $70bn) and it is also wholly ineffective. It merely creates further problems.

It is also misguided to believe that the industrial world's democratic societies can barricade themselves against the rest of the planet. The globalisation of trade, the will to speed up the movement of goods and of people, especially for economic purposes, and the need to maintain fundamental liberties and rights for citizens all require freedom of movement, which inevitably leads to a high level of vulnerability.

Security should be seen as a collective, global concern, for wherever dangers and threats exist they are capable of hitting our societies. This means that, rather than resorting to force, we should establish political dialogue to negotiate settlements wherever people express their demands through violence. The key concepts are peaceful resolution and conflict prevention - the stated foundations of the EU's common foreign and defence policy.

(1) USA Today, 16 October 2003.
(3) (Jane's Intelligence Digest->], 15 January 2004.
(4) La Stampa, 15 March 2004.

Translated by Gulliver Cragg

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