December 08, 2003

What I Fear

I am not sure that Ewen MacAskill's analysis is correct. But it is what I fear:

Guardian | Jihad has worked - the world is now split in two: Ewen MacAskill | Monday December 8, 2003 | The Guardian: Osama bin Laden, two years and three months after the New York and Washington attacks that were part of his jihad against America, appears to be winning. He has lost his base in Afghanistan, as well as many colleagues and fighters, and his communications and finances have been disrupted. He may be buried under rubble in Afghanistan or, as Washington and London assume, be hiding in Pakistan's tribal areas. But from Kandahar to Baghdad, from Istanbul to Riyadh, blood is being shed in the name of Bin Laden's jihad.

On Saturday, a Taliban bomb went off in the bazaar in Kandahar, aimed at US soldiers but wounding 20 Afghan civilians. On the same day, US planes targeted a "known terrorist" in Ghazni, also in Afghanistan, killing nine children. The deaths of the children will not help the US win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, or elsewhere; indeed, they will alienate Muslim opinion worldwide.

There is a tendency in the west to play down - or ignore - the extent of Bin Laden's success. The US and UK governments regard mentioning it as disloyal or heretical. But look back on interviews by Bin Laden in the 1990s to see what he has achieved. He can tick off one of the four objectives he set himself, and, arguably, a second.

The objectives were: the removal of US soldiers from Saudi soil; the overthrow of the Saudi government; the removal of Jews from Israel; and worldwide confrontation between the west and the Muslim world.

His success in the first is clear-cut. Bin Laden's animosity towards the US began in earnest with the arrival of tens of thousands of US soldiers in his home country, Saudi Arabia, for the war against Iraq in 1991. He objected to their presence because Saudi Arabia holds Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

After September 11, the US did exactly what Bin Laden wanted. It pulled almost all its troops out of Saudi Arabia and moved its regional headquarters to Qatar. Relations between Washington and Riyadh have remained strained since September 11, not surprising given that the bulk of the attackers were from Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden has not succeeded in his second objective of overthrowing the Saudi regime. But its position is much more precarious than when he first called for it to be deposed. The US government's ambivalence towards Riyadh has created jitters in the kingdom. The Saudi authorities, after a decade in denial, are now confronting al-Qaida and cracking down on preachers regarded as too fiery. Saudi Arabia, in spite of its oil wealth, has huge economic and social problems -including a large, disgruntled pool of unemployed youths - that leave it vulnerable. Reports of firefights between the Saudi authorities and al-Qaida-related groups are now commonplace.

Bin Laden has not achieved his third objective either: the destruction of Israel. In spite of its suffering at the hands of suicide bombers, Israel is in the ascendant, with strict controls over the daily lives of Palestinians, frequentassassination of suspected bombers and other militants, and a continued land grab in the West Bank. But the one-sided nature of the conflict and the emotions it arouses beyond its boundaries have helped Bin Laden achieve the fourth and most important of his objectives: polarisation.

In February 1997, he predicted such polarisation at a time when it seemed unlikely: "The war will not only be between the people of the two sacred mosques [Saudi Arabia] and the Americans, but it will be between the Islamic world and the Americans and their allies, because this war is a new crusade led by America against the Islamic nations."

Bin Laden, assuming he is alive and wired to the internet, would have enjoyed the Times on Saturday, which devoted the best part of a page to a story headlined "the new enemy within", warning of a potential bombing threat in the UK from a British-born sleeper from the Muslim community. That such a possibility is no longer regarded as unlikely shows the extent to which the world has changed.

Tony Blair and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, have repeatedly argued that the "war on terrorism" is aimed at a small group of Muslim terrorists and the failed states that harbour them. They will, rightly, deny that it is a crusade against Muslims.

Last week, for the first time, the Foreign Office published a list of its policy objectives, of which the war against terrorism was top, and acknowledged the danger of polarisation. Looking at the next 10 years, the Foreign Office said the battle of ideologies between market economics and Marxism that dominated 20th-century Europe appears to be giving way to battles over religion.

"The possible confrontation of ideas most likely to affect the UK and other western democracies in the early 21st century stems from religion and culture," according to the Foreign Office strategy document, UK International Priorities. "Religious belief is coming back to the fore as a motivating force in international relations; in some cases it is distorted to cloak political purposes. The question will arise most obviously in relations between western democracies and some Islamic countries or groups."

Bin Laden's September 11 attacks are mainly to blame for this polarisation. But the responses of George Bush have exacerbated this, with his two wars and the failure to tackle the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Two years after the occupation of Afghanistan, US control is patchy. Outside cities, travel is risky, and even within them, life can be dangerous, as the Kandahar bombing demonstrated. The Taliban have regrouped and are returning in strength.

Perhaps the war on Afghanistan was necessary - but the war on Iraq was not. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden. The US is fighting on two fronts, in control of neither country. Much of the resistance in Iraq to the US is from Saddam loyalists or criminal or tribal groups. But the US and British claim there are also elements of al-Qaida...

Posted by DeLong at December 8, 2003 12:43 PM | TrackBack

Comments

I do not know whether or not the war on Afghanistan was justified, in the sense that it may have existed some alternative. Still once decided to take this road, the lack of commitment of Western powers (and of Japan of course) in truly reconstructing the Afghan state has been proof enough, to inhabitants of Islamic countries, of the lack of interest in allowing democracy to them. And when Bush announced that the USA would invade Iraq they had no reason to believe in any promise he could utter about democracy and human rights. The situation of Afghanistan says so.

DSW

Posted by: Antoni Jaume on December 8, 2003 01:02 PM

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I'd have to agree with Antoni Jaume on this. Not only did the Admin refuse to commit to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, it totally slammed the door on any Congressional hearings of the 9-11 failures, or indeed, anything.

This is not all GWB's fault. A lot is, but there is a long tradition of letting our government choose when it feels like slamming the door on any kind of scrutiny. And we let them get away with it!

Posted by: James R MacLean on December 8, 2003 01:22 PM

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Some of us opposed the invasion of Iraq because we feared it would hurt our war against Al Qaeda. IMO - it did. But were we praised for standing up for America? No, we were labelled as traitors by the Bush sheep.

Posted by: Hal McClure on December 8, 2003 01:35 PM

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Some of us opposed the invasion of Iraq because we feared it would hurt our war against Al Qaeda. IMO - it did. But were we praised for standing up for America? No, we were labelled as traitors by the Bush sheep.

Posted by: Hal McClure on December 8, 2003 01:38 PM

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Like probably most (old) Europeans I do not understand the contradiction between the discurse "war on terror".


Like probably most (old) Europeans, I find it hard to understand the contradiction between the official discourse on the vital importance of the "war on terror" and the lack of seriousness of American policy:
- The "war on terror" concept is IMO not a good one because it makes no distinction between very different organization (Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah...). Hamas and Hezbollah have never threatened the United States.
- Attacking a secular regime like Iraq and trying to destabilize an other one like Syria really does not make sense when you are in a fight against Islamic terrorism.
- I had always thought that professionalism was an undeniable quality of the American, it is all the more surprising to see the total amateurism and lack of preparation regarding the occupation of Iraq (and the ignorance and lack of curiosity of the “Commander in Chief”).
- This US government is absolutely unserious about the peace process in Israel/Palestine.

On September 12 2001, I would have bet a lot of money on the fact that Ben Laden would be dead/in jail two years later.


Posted by: flutier on December 8, 2003 02:02 PM

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It's true the level of incompetence exposed in the occupation of Iraq is shocking. I have been very surprised. I find it hard to believe that any American administration can be this stupid, but we see the evidence every day. I have come to believe that this admin runs on a set of rigid beliefs and simply doesn't have the cognitive skills to deal with reality in an international context. They are highly skilled in cultivating domestic allies, and highly skilled at the political equivalent of brass knuckles when its allies waver, and that's it. That's all this administration has brought to the table.

Posted by: camille roy on December 8, 2003 02:11 PM

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One more thing. I have concluded that the Bush Administration is a great example of a new kind of political entity: a parasite. They occupy the apparatus of government not in order to lead but to orchestrate payoffs to keep themselves in power. Acts of 'leadership', like Bush on the aircraft carrier celebrating victory in Iraq, are on inspection always found to be fraudulent. The photo-op of Bush serving turkey to the troops is another example, that turkey was for decorative purposes only.

Posted by: camille roy on December 8, 2003 02:15 PM

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In the category of things to fear, look at this article from Monday's NYT:
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/08/opinion/08BOBB.html

The writer says that the US only uses strategic planning, which is defined as setting a goal and figuring out a strategy to get there. He says that gbest business practice is scenario planning, in which we envision a group of futures, and figure out how to deal with each of them, following the branching trees as we go.

I think that is this is true, it explains a lot about the rigidity of this administration. It is also scary to think that the government is not doing what the rest of us do.

Posted by: Masaccio on December 8, 2003 03:48 PM

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It happens that the Saudis also wanted the US troops to leave, and that's why it happened. Not because of Osama. Osama was just one of the first or loudest to bring up the subject. The US presence was always intended to be temporary (at least, intended by the Saudis).

That al-Queda is taking credit for the departure of the US presence is tribute to its propaganda skills, not to its influence.

Afghanistan cannot be rebuilt. This is because it was not "built" in the first place. Afganistan has reverted to its pre-Taliban post-Communist condition. The tribalism and backwardness in Afghanistan are not inventions of the US but are and have been Afghanistans natural state. The US is being more successful than the English and Russians in Afghanistan because the US is not trying to change its essential nature. That is the job of the Afghanis in an indigenous process.

Yes, the US could spend more money and be more generous, but this is not necessary to achieve the objective of disrupting al-Quedas operations in Afghanistan.

There is a terrible habit in the west of interpreting almost anything in the mideast as a failure of US policy. In particular, the formula interprets almost any outcome as self-defeating, so that the message is: the harder the US might try, the backwarder it goes. The implicit message is that the US shouldn't try anything. This is most evident in any analysis that uses the phrase "Hearts and Minds". This is a habit of the left since the war in Vietnam. There's a saying that generals always fight the last war. In this case, the critics are analyzing the "Last war".

I think the critics of US policy in administering Iraq have a point when they point out that the US has been amateurish and rigid. However, there has been no hesitation to fire one administrator and install another. For an administration that was dead-set against "Nation-building", they have shown remarkable flexibility. Nevertheless, one is forced to conclude that either Bush Sr. or Bill Clinton would have showed greater panache and skill. Also note that the amateurishness has been largely confined to the civilian leadership; the military has been very professional and effective throughout.

The limitations of the Bush administration, however, must be balanced against the limitations of the Iraqi opposition: Corrupt, lacking appeal to higher principles, widely acknowledged to be parasites trying to get their meal ticket back, little practical support from outside, military weakness, little ability to upgrade weapons, insufficient force to disrupt the economy, loss of personnel to ever-growing business opportunities, lack of an economic base, permanent minority status within Iraq, and inability to ally with the Shia leadership.

Remember how the press was practically gloating that the the push to Baghdad was "Bogged down"? And then how the press was lauding the Fedayeens use of white pickup trucks as a technique to defeat the Americans? You have to consider the source.

Posted by: Warren on December 8, 2003 04:50 PM

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in re, "[t]here is a terrible habit in the west of interpreting almost anything in the mideast as a failure of US policy," perhaps in these two cases the habit isn't so terrible. Hussein and Bin Laden are both former US clients. both Afghanistan and Iraq were proxy battlegrounds in the 1980s for the US versus the USSR and Iran, respectively. India/Pakistan this ain't. I'd say the twin morasses in Afghanistan and Iraq today are indeed at least partially US policy failures.

Posted by: wcw on December 8, 2003 05:25 PM

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It's old stuff, but I'll say it again: we do not know that most of the hijackers were Saudis. We know that most were carrying Saudi passports, but that passports are easy to fake, and that the passport office at Riyadh was notably porous.

Posted by: Buce on December 8, 2003 07:43 PM

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"Hussein and bin Laden are both former US clients"

Osama says right out he was never a recipient of US aid. How was Osama bin Laden a client?

Husseins Iraq was much more a client of the USSR than of the US. That's why Iraq has those T-72 tanks and AK-type rifles. The US attempted to be a friend to Hussein during the Reagan adminstration to wean Iraq away from the USSR and as a counterbalance to newly anti-American Iran. The USSR is gone and Iran is slightly less anti-American than it used to be. The USA was wrong to provide support to Saddams gas-warfare program — but this mistake was not repeated and is not the cause of either the problems in Afghanistan or Iraq. Clearly the Europeans (including Russia) have more responsibility for making Saddam what he was than the US. Saddam got the bulk of his military and nuclear-weapon-making equipment from those countries, not from the US. The US has obviously learned its lesson about Saddam but France, Germany and Russia have yet to fully get the message.

Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq are morasses, quagmires, or bogs. They are much more like the Korean peninsula than Vietnam. Neither the Taliban nor Saddam are coming back to power.

Posted by: Warren on December 8, 2003 08:00 PM

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"Hussein and bin Laden are both former US clients"

Osama says right out he was never a recipient of US aid. How was Osama bin Laden a client?

Husseins Iraq was much more a client of the USSR than of the US. That's why Iraq has those T-72 tanks and AK-type rifles. The US attempted to be a friend to Hussein during the Reagan adminstration to wean Iraq away from the USSR and as a counterbalance to newly anti-American Iran. The USSR is gone and Iran is slightly less anti-American than it used to be. The USA was wrong to provide support to Saddams gas-warfare program — but this mistake was not repeated and is not the cause of either the problems in Afghanistan or Iraq. Clearly the Europeans (including Russia) have more responsibility for making Saddam what he was than the US. Saddam got the bulk of his military and nuclear-weapon-making equipment from those countries, not from the US. The US has obviously learned its lesson about Saddam but France, Germany and Russia have yet to fully get the message.

Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq are morasses, quagmires, or bogs. They are much more like the Korean peninsula than Vietnam. Neither the Taliban nor Saddam are coming back to power.

Posted by: Warren on December 8, 2003 08:57 PM

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"Hussein and bin Laden are both former US clients"

Osama says right out he was never a recipient of US aid. How was Osama bin Laden a client?

Husseins Iraq was much more a client of the USSR than of the US. That's why Iraq has those T-72 tanks and AK-type rifles. The US attempted to be a friend to Hussein during the Reagan adminstration to wean Iraq away from the USSR and as a counterbalance to newly anti-American Iran. The USSR is gone and Iran is slightly less anti-American than it used to be. The USA was wrong to provide support to Saddams gas-warfare program — but this mistake was not repeated and is not the cause of either the problems in Afghanistan or Iraq. Clearly the Europeans (including Russia) have more responsibility for making Saddam what he was than the US. Saddam got the bulk of his military and nuclear-weapon-making equipment from those countries, not from the US. The US has obviously learned its lesson about Saddam but France, Germany and Russia have yet to fully get the message.

Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq are morasses, quagmires, or bogs. They are much more like the Korean peninsula than Vietnam. Neither the Taliban nor Saddam are coming back to power.

Posted by: Warren on December 8, 2003 10:09 PM

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Lamentable weakness of Movable Type in handling posts results in multiple submissions. I did not intend to repeat myself...

Posted by: Warren on December 8, 2003 10:29 PM

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Osama had four objectives, only one of which has been achieved (US out of Saudi Arabia). But that would have been a US objective as well. Two of the others are clearly off, and the fourth (clash of civilizations) looks like a failure as well, at least for the moment - but I'd admit you can describe this glass the way you want it, since it's such an abstract objective it's hard to pinpoint exactly how much water is in there.

Posted by: Andrew Boucher on December 9, 2003 12:07 AM

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"The objectives (of Osama bin Laden) were: the removal of US soldiers from Saudi soil; the overthrow of the Saudi government; the removal of Jews from Israel; and worldwide confrontation between the west and the Muslim world."

1) Removal of U.S. soldiers from Saudi soil: A reasonable objective for the U.S., as well as Osama bin Laden. It's been accomplished. (Should have happened a decade sooner, but better late than never.)

2) The overthrow of the Saudi government: Another reasonable objective for the U.S., as well as Osama bin Laden. But the difference is that the U.S. would replace it with a liberal democracy, and Osama bin Laden would replace it with an Islamic totalitarian dictatorship.

3) Removal of Jews from Israel: Ain't gonna happen.

4) Worldwide confrontation between the West and the Muslim world. Also ain't gonna happen. What is *already* happening is that most of the Muslim world is seeing Osama bin Laden for the terrorist he is.

5) The writer neglected a 5th goal, which was replacement of all the world's governments with Islamic totalitarian dictatorships. I think the writer neglected that goal, because mentioning it would defeat the writer's purpose.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on December 9, 2003 10:05 AM

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Andrew Boucher is correct. The USA has left Saudi Arabia for its own reasons - not because of OBL. The base is Qatar is temporary too. However, the US Military has approved a contract to build facilities for 100,000 troops in Iraq. That is a long term commitment to a very large presence.

Iraq is a much better location for us than Saudi Arabia. Other things aside, it has a much more heterogeneous and secular culture. I believe that our military could make a militarily useful base in any physical location, but a secular and amendable population is an impossible asset to fake.

But where our armies are physically located can be a bit misleading. There is not one 'War of Civilizations' going on really; there are two Civil Wars occurring in tandem. One in the West, and one in Islam.

In the West the forces of liberalism are stronger, but the forces of Liberalism/ Marxism are putting up a stiff fight. Within Islam there's really a many-sided fight going on - Saudi Wahabbism v. Iranian Shia v. OBL Jihad v. Established Tyrannies v. secular enlightenment. OBL is just the face-man of just one of these sides - and currently the weakest to boot. He's on the run, has limited and shrinking resources, and is loosing his small manpower base very quickly.

What OBL/9-11 has really done is accelerated the course of the debate, and thrown differences into sharp relief on all sides, and in both Civilizations. But he's not winning, not by a long shot. Where once he had free roam of Afghanistan, now he does not. Where once he had many military cooperation agreements with Iraq and other nations, now he has few. Where once Saudi charity money seemed a well that would not run dry, the tap is closing. He is losing.

That's what matters really. Our goal isn't to transform Islamic society into a liberal Western one in a year (let alone a generation) - that's impossible. BUT, if we can get the debate going and support institutions that focus human energy into political discourse, then we win. All of the human energy that powers radical Islam will always exist - but it can be redirected. Turned on itself - just like we Westerners do 24/7. We debate, and we don't go to war (aggressive war, anyway).

If our campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have a purpose, it's to shorten the time it takes the secular-enlightened Muslims to win the debate within the Islamic world. We can't win it for them though - that's something they have to do on their own. My concern is that some of our tactics are counter-productive, but as long as they're arguing among themselves, we'll be Ok.

Brad, you want something to fear? Don't fear OBL, fear the our Western 'allies' never get it into gear and implode. Failure is France and Germany or Russia is much more frightening. A United Franco-Prussian State which collapses into madness and turns its anger and resentment on the rest of the world is a much more frightening scenario than OBL will ever be.

Brock Cusick, New York, three blocks from Ground Zero.

Posted by: Brock Cusick on December 9, 2003 12:39 PM

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"It's old stuff, but I'll say it again: we do not know that most of the hijackers were Saudis. We know that most were carrying Saudi passports, but that passports are easy to fake,..."

Yes, and Mohammed Atta's father still gets called regularly by his son (may he rot in Hell).

The Saudi government would probably spend tens of millions of dollars to prove that the hijackers were NOT Saudis. The fact that the Saudi government hasn't announced that any of the 15 weren't really Saudi is a pretty good clue that they *were.*

Posted by: Mark Bahner on December 9, 2003 08:31 PM

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Since Osama is reputed to have visited the U.S. once or twice with his oil-businessmen brothers, you have to wonder if he ever ran into Dubya, and who sized-up whom the better. Worldwide terrorism cannot finally win, but it can make lots of hell on the way, and dragging the U.S. into an ill-planned unilateral occupation, though not an original objective, is one that Osama may well boast to have fathered.

Now we are bringing in special ops to do targeted assassinations, but many if not most of the insurgents are merely nationalists, some ex-Baathists, but neither Saddam loyalists nor cross-border terrorists. And mixed in with them are the bad guys no doubt. So we are on the precipice of a moral disaster, about to kill lots of people we shouldn't. The worldwide confrontation between the West and the Muslims isn't here yet, but it's currently on course.

Posted by: Lee A. on December 9, 2003 11:32 PM

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