Bias Against Understanding Terrorism

Deepak Tripathi

Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism, University of Surrey, 4 October 2010

The events of September 11, 2001 and the “war on terror” have made an undeniable impact on human and international relations. Increasingly, these relationships have come to be seen and interpreted through the prism of counter-terrorism, migration and a selective focus on “religious fundamentalism” of a certain kind, namely Islamic fundamentalism. The result has been a loss of context. The way it has changed media discourse over the last decade is more obvious. However, the nature of scholarship on terrorism and political violence has also come under pressure. The themes of migration and security, democracy and the rule of law have become more salient at the expense of the historical context, which explains imperialism, great power rivalries and other causes of conflict where the Western world has played a crucial role. Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 declaration of “The End of History” has proved short-lived and his prediction that Western liberal democracy would become universal is far from being achieved. Over the last twenty years there have been two major wars and numerous minor conflicts around the globe.

With this context in mind, I will offer a personal critique of the debate about terrorism and political violence as it has evolved in recent years. Focusing on Afghanistan since the early 1970s, I will discuss the war in its various stages and the evolution of a “culture of violence”. I will explain the internal, regional and international dimensions of the Afghan conflict and offer an indicative analysis of the failure to learn from the recent past, let alone long-term history.

First of all, I want to thank the Centre for asking me to give this talk, and to thank you for coming. I am delighted to be here. As you know, I have had a career in journalism. I went into journalism at an early age; in my late teens, but by early twenties, I was well established and found myself working for the federal government in Washington. So while I have had a long eventful, very interesting working life, the sense of fulfillment was tinged with some regret. Occasionally, I have reflected – success in finding a job perhaps came too early. I missed being close to scholarship long enough. So occasions such as this one have a special meaning for me. I am glad to be here; glad to be talking about a subject that has been close to me for many years.

Journalists and academics have an interesting relationship. Journalism is instant, scholarship reflective. Journalists are sometimes called frivolous, inconvenient, mischievous; academics deep, serious, thinking people. Disparagingly, we are called “hacks.” On the other hand, I recall occasions when a colleague in my own profession would summarily dismiss me by saying: “Deepak is not punchy enough; he is an academic.” We both have our detractors. But  on a serious level there exists a common purpose: challenging the status quo; questioning conventional wisdom. Science cannot progress, the boundaries of knowledge cannot be pushed unless we question what is now.

Now to the topic of my talk: “Bias Against Understanding Terrorism.” If there were any suggestion of frivolousness or mischievousness about it, I would deny that. I have chosen this topic to challenge the conventional wisdom which has been accumulating rapidly in the last decade, mainly in the West, but also in other parts of the world. “Terrorism” was always a highly contested term, but the ease with which “terrorism” and “freedom” – these two central terms – have entered common usage is remarkable. Remarkable because whereas they were both contested terms before, they are even more poorly defined now in the wake of September 11, 2001. Many of us have bought into the idea that we are all engaged in fighting for “freedom” and against “terrorism” when both terms remain largely undefined.

What is “freedom?” The mere fact of participation in an electoral exercise and putting our vote in the ballot box, or something more? Does taking part in periodic elections, only to see state control over citizens’ lives further tightened mean freedom? Volatility of public opinion and the “tyranny of the majority” that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about so eloquently constantly haunt minorities and their freedoms that democracy is supposed to protect. In Europe, we are witnesses to the French government’s expulsion of Romani people and planned legislation to revoke the citizenship of certain immigrants who have acquired French nationality in recent years. Some opinion polls suggest these actions are popular in France.

I want to briefly talk about freedom in a different context which does not receive sufficient attention in the West. As many as three million nomads, people of Kuchi tribes, inhabit Afghanistan and the north in Central Asia, constantly on the move. Waves of Kuchi communities are used to migrating from north to south in Afghanistan and across the frontier inside Pakistan in harsh winter to relatively milder climate, only to move north again when spring arrives. Freedom means something different to them and they would not barter their freedom for the right to vote once every few years. Their movements have been disrupted, they are more endangered by war. Ask them what is freedom.

I was in India a few months ago, where we hear Maoist terrorists are active. The Indian press is full of stories about them. To describe them as “Maoist terrorists” is plain wrong. These are tribal people who know little, if anything, about Maoism or who Mao was. I heard accounts of what is happening in the remote areas of central India. Suddenly one day, workers hired by the state, or by a private firm, arrive in a remote tribal community. An area is cleared of trees, flattened. To appease the local tribal community, a small building, a school, is erected. The tribal population of the village is told: “Look, we have built a school for you.” Often, within days, the entire little village has disappeared from that spot; moved deep inside the forest. The tribes don’t want such rapid change in their life. Ask them what freedom is to them. The point I am trying to make is this: the “war on terror” is a war fought in the name of two concepts; both undefined despite ceaseless use of the terms “freedom” and “terrorism.” But, in fact, these terms have become tools to protect the majority against minorities, and the mighty against the weak and vulnerable. The right of self-defense of the powerful has superseded the right of the underdog to resist.

There has never been a universally accepted definition of terrorism and the United Nations has consistently failed to agree on how to define this phenomenon. Less than three decades ago, Ronald Reagan proclaimed that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” Soviet communism has since collapsed, but geopolitical factors still play a critical part in the states’ determination of policy, more so in this post-Cold War era. Two decades after Francis Fukuyama, one of the leading lights of neoconservatism, declared “The End of History” and “universalization of Western democracy” in his 1989 essay, history has delivered a sharp rebuke to those who forget or ignore it. We are witnesses to two, I would say, three major wars: Afghanistan, Iraq and the wider “war on terror”. “Terrorism” and “terrorist” have become much overused terms of abuse for non-state groups and a handful of states while friendly states, and client regimes, can employ extreme repressive measures, and overwhelming force, and justify them in the name of self-defense.

So what is “terrorism” and what are its causes? The next part of my paper deals with these questions in trying to understand the phenomenon of terrorism, casting aside the subjectivity that clouds the debate today. I will attempt to look at “terrorism” and “political violence” (both terms are subsumed here) as part of a “culture of violence.” I will focus on Afghanistan, though parallels can be seen in Iraq, Palestine and other conflicts.

The conflict in Afghanistan can be seen in four separate but overlapping, sometimes simultaneous, stages. These stages are: internal conflict; great power involvement; state disintegration; and foreign indifference and the rise of extremism. These are the four main building blocks of a culture of violence. The question I want to raise here is: How did this dialectic play out in Afghanistan?

The last two decades of the twentieth century were a period of intense struggle between competing ideologies – a struggle which was played out in the Afghan conflict. Afghanistan was caught up in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union as early as the 1950s. The clash of capitalism and communism, both essentially Western ideologies, magnified the internal divisions in what is a tribal system in that country. Such a society has two essential characteristics – an inner weakness born out of social fragmentation, and a defensive instinct to react violently against foreign interference. These very characteristics were reinforced as intervention by massive military-economic aid and secret intelligence operations grew in Afghanistan and the country fell under Soviet domination. Afghan Communists became bolder and they seized power in a bloody coup in 1978. The rise of communism radicalized Islamic groups in Afghanistan.

Imposition of a Soviet-style system on a deeply religious people was the beginning of a chain of events which shook the Communist regime in Afghanistan. Rebellions in rural areas, mutinies and desertions in the armed forces and escalating internal warfare in the ruling People’s Democratic Party created a crisis in the country. The deeper the crisis became, the more repressive measures were used by the first Communist regime in 1978-1979.

The nature of such a chain reaction, or dialectic, is self-perpetuating. A dialectical process acquires a life of its own by virtue of what is described as the power of ‘negativity’. Negativity is what comes into being in opposition to the ‘subject’. The first ‘subject’ is a thesis in the shape of an event or force which is gradually stripped of its immediate certainty after coming into existence as it embarks on a “pathway of doubt.”

Simply put, a thesis is what rises in its environment as a distinct entity, its character imposing itself before reaching a point at which that entity begins to come under challenge by the negative force which the original thesis created. In the ensuing struggle between the thesis and its negative, or antithesis, the certainty of the original entity progressively weakens as doubts over its viability are raised. This explanation of the nature of dialectic is based on an acknowledgment that things are multi-faceted and always in the process of becoming something else.

The conflict between a thesis and its negative is a process which slowly strips the former of properties that determined its certainty and lends the latter contradictory properties. What is obtained in such a process is a reconciliation between the two – a synthesis. While the original and its negative were contrary to each other, their synthesis preserves both, and stresses unity once again. It is at this point that the synthesis transforms itself into another thesis, leading to further contradictions and conflict before reaching another stage of resolution. So the dialectical progression goes on. It has no beginning, and no end.

We can now begin to understand in dialectical terms the advent of various external and internal forces that eventually conspired to create a culture of violence in Afghanistan. When a small group of Communist sympathisers in the armed forces, representing an ideology that was foreign and contrary to the basic character of Afghan society, seized power in 1978, it was an event that was bound to lead to profound consequences. Under the Communist regime, there was a short-lived experiment to restructure Afghan society on the Soviet model – an experiment carried out by coercion, including purges, imprisonment, torture and assassination of opponents. The Marxist experiment provoked violent opposition that became progressively more stubborn as measures of the Communist regime acquired greater ruthlessness. There was resistance not only in wider society, but also within the regime. It took many forms – the Parcham (or Banner) faction against the Khalq (the Masses) faction, internal dissidents within Khalq, ethnic Pashtun against non-Pashtun, communist against anti-communist and so on. As the conflict escalated, fear and chaos began to take hold and the outcome was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

The scale of violence was altogether different during the years of Soviet occupation. The overwhelming war machine of the Communist superpower was at work and, in the final major confrontation of the Cold War, the United States threw its vast resources in support of the anti-Communist Mujahideen groups to fight that war machine. Weapons of terror were used by all sides and the conflict produced millions of victims. The violence committed by the Soviet occupation army was answered by the Mujahideen opposition on the ground.

The war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is often portrayed as one in which the Afghan resistance took on a superpower and won. This is an over-simplification, because such a view ignores the dialectical nature of the conflict which triggered intervention by other external powers in opposition to the USSR. The Mujahideen victory could not have been possible without the military and financial support from America and its allies, notably Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and China. American and Pakistani intelligence services were deeply involved in the planning and execution of the war against the Soviet occupation forces. The role of Pakistan in the recruitment and training of anti-communist guerrillas was critical.

State intervention from outside also brought foreign militants to Afghanistan. The military government of Pakistan allowed thousands of Islamic radicals to train and fight in the conflict, which made them battle-hardened and reinforced their fundamentalist ideology. After the defeat of communism, they were left without a cause and many returned to their own countries to engage in struggle against regimes they regarded as un-Islamic and corrupt.

Islam has been a powerful force in modern Afghanistan. It was the main source of resistance to change from above, whether imperial powers like Britain and Russia tried to impose that change, or internal regimes such as those of Mohammad Daud and subsequently under Communism in the 1970s and 1980s. Religion, interwoven with a tribal system, provided the core of this resistance. It was endorsed by local mullahs who found their position in society threatened. The war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan went beyond this. Islam was used as a political ideology to bind together the disparate factions and their members at the insistence of President Zia of Pakistan and with the active support of the CIA-ISI alliance.

The idea of Islam as a political ideology, not merely a religion, to be used to reshape and control society is sometimes described as ‘Islamism’. Afghanistan is a deeply religious country, but Islamism had not taken root in the wider Afghan society before the Communists seized power in 1978. In the early 1970s, religious militancy was primarily concentrated in Kabul, where a relatively small number of educated Afghan fundamentalists fought for influence with left-wing groups in student politics and the armed forces. However, the Islamists became isolated in later years. Almost all prominent activists had fled to Pakistan by 1975, when an attempt to overthrow President Daud failed.

At this stage, the Islamist movement of Afghans underwent internal turmoil as it prepared to oppose the Daud regime. The movement split into two significant groups: the Hizb-i-Islami, dominated by ethnic Pashtuns and led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, and the mainly-Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami under the leadership of Burhanuddin Rabbani. The Pashtun-Tajik divide was to prove permanent, but both groups had a lot in common with their Middle Eastern counterparts. They both recruited members from the intelligentsia. Many of the activists of these Islamist groups had been students in scientific and technical institutions. They were joined by more educated Afghans and foreign militants who eventually fought against the Soviet occupation forces. They were Sunni Muslims with a strong anti-Shi‘a stance, reflecting the wider trend in the Arab world against Iran. Sunni Arab regimes, threatened by the growing Shi‘a militancy following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, wanted to keep Iranian influence in check. Their answer was to support anti-Shi‘a forces, whether it meant the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, in his war with Iran or Sunni militants in Afghanistan.

It has been suggested that the ideology of the Afghan Islamists was ‘borrowed entirely’ from two foreign movements: the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt, and the Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan. Just like these two movements, the Afghan Islamists opposed secular tendencies and rejected Western influence. Within Islam, they opposed Sufi influence, with its emphasis on love and universality of all religious teachings. Rabbani was among those prominent Afghans who had spent years at al-Azhar University in Cairo and had been active in the Muslim Brotherhood. Hikmatyar, on the other hand, was close to Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, which was itself influenced by the Brotherhood and its ideologue, Sayed Qutb. The writings of Qutb were a source of inspiration to a large number of Arabs who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The main appeal of Qutb comes from his assertion that the world is ‘steeped in jahiliyyah’, the Arabic term for ignorance. He argues that this ignorance originates from the rebellion against God’s sovereignty on earth. Qutb attacks communism for denying humans their dignity and capitalism for exploiting individuals and nations. He claims that the denial of human dignity and exploitation are nothing but consequences of the challenge to God’s authority. The solution advanced by Qutb is that Islam acquires a ‘concrete form’ and attain ‘world leadership’, but this is possible only by initiating a movement for its revival.

Qutb does not openly preach violence, but other ingredients of a revolutionary brand of Islam are present in his writings. He recognises that there is a significant body of educated people who are disillusioned with the existing order. These people represent a constituency for change in a number of Middle Eastern countries, where economic and social problems, corruption and a lack of involvement in political processes have created a wide gulf between governments and the people. Qutb rejects the Communist and capitalist systems alike and  asserts that Islam is the only alternative. His vision is idealistic and its attraction very strong for the alienated looking for political adventure.

The Muslim Brotherhood was hostile to successive Egyptian governments and firmly aligned itself with the Palestinian cause after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. When Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt in 1970 following the death of Nasir, he promised to implement Islamic law and released all Brotherhood members from jail in an attempt to pacify the movement. But Sadat’s decision to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 resulted in a new confrontation, which led to his assassination in September 1981. The Muslim Brotherhood went underground and, in subsequent years, developed a complex network of more than seventy branches worldwide.

The disintegration of the Afghan state system between 1992 and 1994 and the subsequent rise of the Taliban turned Afghanistan into a haven to which foreign fighters could return without fear of retribution. Many more new Islamic radicals came from the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East to study, train and fight in Afghanistan during the Taliban period. They developed personal contacts with each other, learned about the Islamist movements of other countries and planned cross-border activities.

No other veteran of the Afghan conflict has achieved worldwide notoriety like Osama bin Laden. He had his initiation to radical Islam as a student at King Abdul Aziz University in the Saudi city of Jiddah, from where he got a degree in economics and management. It was there that bin Laden developed a deep interest in the study of Islam and used to hear recorded sermons of the fiery Palestinian academic, Abdullah Azzam. In the 1970s, Jiddah was a centre of disaffected Muslim students from all over the world and Azzam was a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. His influence encouraged bin Laden to join the movement.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, bin Laden moved with several hundred construction workers and heavy equipment to the Afghan-Pakistan border and set out to “liberate the land from the infidel invader.” He saw a desperately poor country taken over by tens of thousands of Soviet troops and millions of Muslims bearing the brunt of the military machine of a superpower. Afghans neither had the infrastructure or manpower to mount effective resistance to the occupation of their country.

Osama bin Laden created an organisation to recruit people to fight the Soviets and began to advertise all over the Arab world to attract young Muslims to Afghanistan. In just over a year, thousands of volunteers, including experts in sabotage and guerrilla warfare, had arrived in his camps. Their presence clearly suited CIA operations in Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s private army became part of the Mujahideen forces based in Pakistan and supported by the United States. Military experts with a close understanding of US policy estimated that a “significant quantity” of high-technology American weapons, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, reached bin Laden and were still with him in the late 1990s.

Bin Laden helped build an elaborate network of underground tunnels in the mountains in eastern Afghanistan in the mid-1980s. The complex was funded by the CIA and included a weapons depot, training facilities and a health centre for the Mujahideen. He set up his own training camp for Arab fighters and his following increased among foreign recruits. But he became increasingly disillusioned by two things: one, the continuing infighting in the Afghan resistance after the Soviets left; the other, America’s disengagement from Afghanistan that many saw as abandonment. Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia to work for his family business.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and it looked as though the security of Saudi Arabia was under threat,  he urged the royal family to raise a force from the Afghan war veterans to fight the Iraqis. Instead, the Saudi rulers invited the Americans – a decision that greatly angered bin Laden. As half a million US troops began to arrive in the region, bin Laden openly criticized the Saudi royal family and lobbied Islamic leaders to speak out against the deployment of non-Muslims to defend the country. It led to a direct confrontation between him and the Saudi royal family.

He left for Sudan, which was going through an Islamic revolution. He was warmly welcomed, not least because of his wealth, in a country devastated by years of civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian south. His relationship with Sudan’s de facto leader, Hasan al-Turabi, was close and he was treated as a state guest in the capital, Khartoum. Returning veterans of the Afghan conflict were given jobs and the authorities allowed bin Laden to set up training camps in Sudan. Meanwhile, his criticisms of the Saudi royal family continued. The Saudi authorities finally lost patience and revoked his citizenship in 1994. Osama bin Laden was not to return to his homeland again.

These events had a lasting impact on bin Laden. He had fallen out with the United States and the Saudi ruling establishment and his freedom of movement was severely restricted. In Khartoum, he began to concentrate on building a global network of Islamist groups. His business, Laden International, had a civil engineering company, a foreign exchange dealership and a firm that owned peanut farms and corn fields. Other business ventures failed, but he had enough money to support Islamic movements abroad. Funds were sent to militants in Jordan and Eritrea and a network was set up in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan to smuggle Islamic fighters into Chechnya. He set up more military training camps, where Algerians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Saudis were given instructions in making bombs and carrying out sabotage.

The ideological nucleus of what became al Qaeda also attracted Ayman al-Zawahiri, regarded as Osama bin Laden’s deputy. Al-Zawahiri was born into a leading Egyptian family and fell under the influence of revolutionary Islam at an early age. His grandfather, Rabia‘a al-Zawahiri, was once head of al-Azhar Institute, the highest authority of the Sunni branch of Islam. His great-uncle, Abdul Rahman Azzam, was the first Secretary-General of the Arab League. When he was a boy of 15, Ayman al-Zawahiri was arrested for being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He trained as a surgeon, but his radical activities led to a rapid advancement in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. By the late 1970s, when he was still in his twenties, he had taken over the leadership of the group.

In October 1981, al-Zawahiri was arrested with hundreds of activists following the assassination of President Sadat by members of his group at a military parade. The authorities could not convict him of direct involvement in the murder, but he was sentenced to three years in prison for possessing weapons. He left Egypt after his release – first going to Saudi Arabia and then to Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, from where large numbers of foreign fighters entered Afghanistan during Soviet occupation.

There is evidence that the association of Ayman al-Zawahiri with the Afghan resistance started just before his arrest in Egypt in 1981. He was a temporary doctor in a clinic run by the Muslim Brotherhood in a poor suburb of Cairo, where he was asked about going to Afghanistan to do some relief work. He thought it was a ‘golden opportunity’ to get to know a country which had the potential to become a base for struggle in the Arab world and where the real battle for Islam was to be fought. On his way to Afghanistan several years later, al-Zawahiri briefly worked as a surgeon in a Kuwaiti Red Crescent Hospital in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar. He made frequent visits inside Afghanistan to operate on wounded fighters, often with primitive tools and rudimentary medicines. Ayman secured his place in the Afghan resistance as someone who treated the sick and the wounded – just as Osama had secured his by virtue of being a wealthy Arab who spent his money and time helping people in an impoverished country which had been devastated by Soviet forces.

In subsequent years, al-Zawahiri emerged as an intellectual and the main ideological force behind Osama bin Laden. He enunciated clear distinctions between his and other Islamist groups. Al-Zawahiri saw democracy as a ‘new religion’ which must be destroyed by war. He accused the Muslim Brotherhood of sacrificing God’s ultimate authority by accepting the idea that people are the source of authority. Other Islamist groups were also condemned for accepting constitutional systems in the Arab world. In his view, such organisations exploit the enthusiasm of young Muslims, who are recruited only to be directed towards “conferences and elections (instead of armed struggle).”

The further al-Zawahiri went in his consideration of modern social systems, the more radicalised he became in reaction. He implied that the moral and ideological pollution was made worse by material corruption. He complained that the Muslim Brotherhood had amassed enormous wealth. This material prosperity, he said, was achieved because its leaders had turned to international banking and big business to escape the repressive and secular regime of Nasir in Egypt. Joining the Muslim Brotherhood created opportunities for its members to make a living. Their activities were driven by materialistic, rather than spiritual, aims. These views amounted to a complete rejection by al-Zawahiri and his organisation, the Islamic Jihad, of other Islamist groups and brought the Jihad closer to Osama bin Laden and his network.

The influence of the Palestinian-Jordanian academic, Abdullah Azzam, was central in all this. Azzam was a child when Israel was founded in 1948 and had been active in the Palestinian resistance movement from an early age. He had links with Yasir Arafat, but their association ended when he disagreed with the secular philosophy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, eventually coming to the view that it was far removed from “the real Islam.” Azzam’s logic was that national boundaries had been drawn by infidels as part of a conspiracy to prevent the realisation of a trans-national Islamic state. And he came to the view that his goal was to bring together Muslims from all over the world.

Abdullah Azzam saw in the Afghan conflict an opportunity to realise this ambition. Recruitment of volunteers from all over the Muslim world to fight the Soviet occupation forces was to be an important step towards his goal to set up an Islamic internationale. To achieve this, these volunteers would train, acquire battle experience and establish links with other radical Islamic groups. The Mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan had already established a legendary reputation which would inspire potential followers all over the world. The resistance could eventually become a highly-motivated and trained force, ready to destroy the decadent West and export the Islamic revolution to other parts of the world.

In November 1989, Azzam and his two sons were assassinated in a bomb attack as they drove to a mosque in Peshawar to pray. The identity of their murderers remained a mystery, but rumours persisted about a link with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. It was reported that while they both supported the idea of extending the struggle to overthrow Arab regimes, Azzam wanted the job completed first in Afghanistan by replacing the Communist regime of Najibullah with a Mujahideen government. Other players, including the Soviet and Afghan secret services, also had an interest in removing Azzam. Whoever was responsible for his assassination, its most significant consequence was that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri gained almost total control of the network of foreign fighters linked to the Afghan conflict.

The split between Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam in the late 1980s was the beginning of al Qaeda. Whereas Azzam insisted on maintaining the focus on Afghanistan, bin Laden was determined to take the war to other countries. To this end, bin Laden formed al Qaeda. His main goal was to overthrow corrupt and heretical regimes in Muslim states and replace them with the rule of Shari‘a, or Islamic law. The ideology of al Qaeda was intensely anti-Western and bin Laden saw America as the greatest enemy that had to be destroyed.

To sum up, we need to consider the dialectic I have been explaining that led to the creation of al Qaeda’s ideology to understand the organization itself. The two main ideologies to emerge after the Second World War were communism and free-market liberalism.  Competition between them during the Cold War obscured the challenge they faced from a third force, radical Islam in the Middle East. The first significant manifestation of this force was the Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 1970s. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s created an environment in which the challenge from radical Islam was directed against communism. America strengthened it by pouring money and weapons into the Afghan conflict, but failed to recognise that the demise of the Soviet empire would leave the United States itself exposed to assaults from groups like al Qaeda.  In time, this failure proved to be a historic blunder. And it created a “culture of violence” – a condition, fuelled by war, in which violence permeates all levels of society, and becomes part of human nature, thinking and way of life.



American Mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq

Deepak Tripathi

History News Network, May 3, 2010

A little more than a year after Barack Obama succeeded George W Bush as president, United States military hardware and troops are transferring to the Afghan theater in yet another attempt to control the insurgency.  Despite the ‘surge’ that General Stanley McChrystal asked for and President Obama approved after weeks of reflection, militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border continue to defy American power.

High-profile military operations against the Taliban in Helmand, and more recently in Kandahar, illustrate both abilities and limitations of a superpower.  This is not new.  The Soviet occupation forces went through a similar experience during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Like the Soviets, the Americans are increasingly finding that it is possible to wrest control of specific areas, but only as long as their troops are in occupation of those areas.  As they move on for other operations, the insurgents make a comeback.

There are similarities between the recent American surge approved by President Obama and the increase in the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan after Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the USSR in 1985.  Early on, Gorbachev had decided to bring his troops home following a costly war in Afghanistan.  But he also ordered reinforcements similar in size to the American surge now. Ostensibly, it was to give the Soviet armed forces one last chance to win the Afghan war, but more realistically because the Soviet Union needed to reinforce before a planned withdrawal.  Troops being withdrawn have to partially disarm. The heavy equipment to be transported cannot be operational at the same time. Soldiers moving out carry light arms for self-defense, not heavy lethal weapons for attack. At the same time, the surge of more mobile units is intended to warn the enemy of more trouble coming.

President Obama has already announced that American troops will begin to leave Afghanistan by the middle of 2011. My recent visit to South Asia reinforced this impression.  Obama is smart enough to know history and its lessons.  He has disappointed many of his liberal supporters who had expected much more from him.  But there is not much doubt that he would like to withdraw from Afghanistan. Re-election in 2012 would depend on it to a considerable degree, along with the economy.  The wreckage of military ventures abroad and economic collapse at home left by the preceding administration must be prominent on Obama’s mind. What Obama will achieve is by no means certain.  But there are lessons to be learned from the past.

The presidency of George W. Bush was rooted in a manifesto we know as the Project for the New American Century. The project was born in reaction to the Clinton presidency in the post-Cold War decade of the 1990s.  The alliance of neoconservatives and the Christian Right provided George W Bush with core support.  Above all, the Bush presidency will be remembered for America’s foreign military ventures in the shape of three wars:  the Afghan war, the Iraq war, and a third war, borderless and timeless – the “global war on terror.”

The events of 9/11 posed an unprecedented security challenge.  The most important questions in Washington at the time should have been:  Where to start and where to stop?  What should be the scale and proportion of America’s response?  However, such considerations were absent as the talk of a “long war” or “generational war” illustrated, certainly in the first term of President Bush.

The record of great powers fighting long or generational wars against insurgents is not good.  The United States learned this in Vietnam.  The Soviet Union did so in Afghanistan.  A long war suits insurgent forces deeply embedded in the locale and culture of the theater.  They enjoy considerable support in the battleground. Denial of this reality is often fatal.  A United States president has numerous issues to deal with.  But the overwhelming weight of events of the last decade leads to the conclusion that the Bush presidency was all about war.  The foreign ventures he embarked on within months of inauguration eclipsed everything else during his presidency.  It is therefore appropriate to evaluate the Bush presidency’s legacy in terms of the “war on terrorism.”

The objective of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was regime change. There has been a long debate about the true objective of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq:  weapons of mass destruction or regime change.  Time and events seem to have settled that debate.  It was claimed that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons that could be activated within 45 minutes. Such weapons were not found.  A lot more about the considerations and deliberations between Washington and London, and in each capital, has come to light.  We know more about the private communication between President Bush and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run up to the Iraq invasion – communication that other significant figures who should have been made aware of did not know.  And we have learned from Tony Blair that even with knowledge of there being no weapons of mass destruction, he would have employed other arguments to remove Saddam Hussein.

Much has been said about mistakes being made in Afghanistan and, more specifically, Iraq.  The biggest error of judgment was that two very different countries were given the same treatment of military power.  In doing so, the interveners appeared to act with vengeance more than a planned strategy. Otherwise, why would Afghanistan – an utterly failed state – be subjected to sustained destructive air power and left without a serious attempt at rebuilding for so long? And the primary intervener moved on to Iraq to dismantle a well-organized state structure, after the dictator had been overthrown.  By treating Afghanistan and Iraq in the same way, the interveners did the opposite of what was needed in each country.

To view al Qaeda and the various nationalist movements in the Arab world as one “enemy” in the “war on terror” was an historic miscalculation.  The determination under the Bush presidency to crush nationalism in the Muslim world exacted a high price from the West.  But countries in the region paid, and continue to pay, a price even greater.  Al Qaeda’s terrorist violence has been answered by the terror of American military power.  Differing agendas of regional powers became fused with America’s aims in the “war on terror.” The impact was huge across the region, producing anger, resentment and outright rebellion in the wider populace.

In a country without national infrastructure, or where infrastructure is destroyed, there will be certain consequences. The essence of the state’s role is maintaining order.  It does so by means of coercion, taxation and distribution.  In a country such as Afghanistan, self, family, clan, tribe and ethnic group acquire much greater significance.  In a failed or weak state, other agencies – a village elder, tribal chief or warlord – replace the state.  They command popular following, because they make things happen.

In Iraq, two early decisions by the American administrator Paul Bremer after the 2003 invasion triggered a multi-layered conflict.  By Order Number 1 of May 16, Bremer dissolved the Ba’ath Party.  In an article in Le Monde diplomatique, the British academic Toby Dodge described the Iraqi population a month after the arrival of the U.S. forces as dominated by a Hobbesian nightmare.  Dodge estimated that between 20,000 and 120,000 senior and middle-ranking Iraqi officials lost their jobs in the civil service purge alone.  They would have constituted the very force capable of restoring order amid chaos and violence. Dodge wrote that seventeen of Baghdad’s twenty-three ministries were completely gutted, stripped of all portable items like computers, furniture and fittings – all within three weeks. There were not enough American troops to stop it.

Bremer’s Order Number 2 dismantled the most important state institutions and subordinates such as government ministries, Iraqi military and paramilitary organizations, the National Assembly, courts and emergency forces.  It was essential to be prepared with alternatives to take over the functions of these organizations in a country of 30 million people.  Bremer’s two edicts left a vacuum that was rapidly filled by new violent players.

I want to offer a brief explanation of the nature of the other conflict – the Afghan war – since the 1970s.  It also applies, to an extent, to Iraq.  Afghanistan has striking parallels with other conflicts in Palestine, Yemen and elsewhere.  These conflicts can be seen in four separate yet overlapping, often simultaneous stages. This is how:

Stage 1:  internal conflict.  In Afghanistan, internal conflict is a fact of history. For simplicity, let’s begin from the “decade of liberalism and modernization” in the 1960s.  The conflict escalated after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973 – and again after the 1978 coup by young Soviet-oriented military officers, who feared that President Daud was taking the country too close to the United States.  

Stage 2:  increase in great power involvement.  External intervention fuels the unrest, and upsets the balance of forces locally.  This, in turn, attracts more external forces, until they begin to dictate the scale and course of events. But their unacceptability among local players, and active resistance by local groups, hinder the creation and functioning of institutions.

Stage 3:  state disintegration.  In Afghanistan, the death of the state was slow, taking more than two decades.  In Iraq, too, considering the effects of sanctions and isolation, we are talking about more than a decade.  After Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, the final blow came relatively quickly.

Stage 4:  foreign indifference and rise of extremism.  I have in mind the decade of the 1990s and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The Soviet state had been defeated and had disintegrated.  For the United States, exhausted and occupied with the urgency to manage the wreckage of the Soviet Union, most importantly its nuclear arsenal, Afghanistan was simply not a priority.

There is a general lesson to be learned.  A prolonged war leads to fatigue and indifference among external interveners. A culture of violence matures. Expectations on all sides are altered and violence becomes a way of life.  Actors left behind acquire a habit of using coercion.  And citizens come to expect solutions to be found through violence.  That few intervening powers grasp this lesson is a tragedy.  

We have at present a mix of the McChrystal plan of military surge and counterinsurgency and President Obama’s wish to start drawing down the combat forces in mid-2011.  His wish is driven by the 2012 presidential election in America. And it is dependent upon recruitment, training and ultimately guaranteed discipline of a 300,000-strong Afghan national force.

However, history shows that integrity in the Afghan armed forces is difficult to achieve.  Tribal realities among Pashtun officers and rank-and-file soldiers – and distrust for Pashtuns among non-Pashtuns – cannot be wished away. It would require a generation to transform the culture of the armed forces and the country even if the United States and the allies had the will.  In the absence of that will, I have some fears.  They are:  

  1. As soon as President Obama begins to draw down the combat forces in mid-2011 (or soon before), altering the balance of power, dramatic shifts of loyalties will occur in the Afghan armed forces.  This has happened before and could happen again.
  2. The Karzai government cannot survive if the military disintegrates along tribal and ethnic lines.  The Afghan armed forces and police lack cohesion already.
  3. Afghanistan has weapons in abundance.  Guns poured into the country, with the best possible intention of equipping the military, would fall into the wrong hands.  And I am not even talking about increased activity by Pakistan’s ISI and other regional players.

All of these are ingredients of a state of nature again.

The answer is a long-term regional project, led but not dictated by the United States, involving Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China and India; and a deliberate policy of demilitarization, however difficult and painful. Internally, a type of tribal democracy, certainly outside Kabul and the other main cities, is what is realistic to hope for.

But the current state of America’s relations with China, Iran and Russia do not favor such a prospect.  Tensions have grown with Pakistan and Turkey.  And I know there is uncertainty, if not outright unhappiness, over the Obama administration’s policies elsewhere in the region.  This makes cooperation much more difficult.  The current strategy in Afghanistan lays too much emphasis on military tactics.  And it does not appreciate nearly enough how objectionable, how provocative, foreign military presence is to Afghans.  The sentiment goes beyond the Taliban.


The Cost of Empire

Deepak Tripathi

President Barack Obama is having a bad time. The health reforms he so confidently promised have been bogged down in Congress for months; his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, said the other day that the pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp by January 2010 would take longer to fulfill; Obama’s top general, Stanley McChrystal, appeared to break military discipline by openly demanding forty thousand extra US troop for the Afghan War, warning his commander-in-chief that otherwise the mission would fail; the award  of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama brought more scorn and disbelief than congratulations and encouragement; it generated an odd unity of purpose between the Left and the Right, his erstwhile supporters and bitter adversaries out to destroy his young presidency; and two decades after the United States defeated its superpower adversary, a resurgent Russia made plain that sanctions against Iran over its suspicious-looking nuclear program were not acceptable to Moscow.

History is full of contradictions between what American presidents offered and could deliver. Upon the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1789, President George Washington spoke of ‘the eternal rules of order and right’ and ‘the preservation of sacred fire of liberty’ in his inauguration address. In fact, American Indians and black slaves were to endure white oppression for a further two hundred years. Two and a half centuries ago, history recorded that Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in 1865. In truth, re-enslavement occurred quickly under different laws and slavery was to persist for another century.

In the early twenty-first century, many humans continue to live in extreme poverty and squalor in America and around the world, for which forces of globalization and free trade are responsible. Workers on meager wages and in unsafe conditions produce goods for the United States and other western societies. In contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these men, women and children are modern-day slaves.

There are many examples that illustrate the limits of power of the mightiest. John Tirman in his book 100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World says, “When Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin kicked off the Cold War, they probably did not realize what a long game it would be.” More than four decades and many ruinous conflicts later, the Soviet empire collapsed. American triumphalism did not last long either. By the end of the presidency of George W Bush, the most bellicose of the neoconservative generation had acknowledged the limits of American power and the talk of America’s ‘exceptionalism’ had become muted. The sense of vulnerability dwarfed claims of America’s status as the global hyperpower, with much of the insecurity emanating from the ruins of conflicts during and after the Cold War. It was a hollow victory.

John F Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Yet the Central Intelligence Agency was in close liaison with the South Vietnamese generals who staged a coup in November 1963 and executed the nationalist president, Ngo Dinh Diem, three weeks before President Kennedy was himself assassinated.

Over the next twelve years, the military rulers of South Vietnam ran a brutal, corrupt and incompetent regime. America bombed areas bordering the South, then throughout Cambodia, between 1969 and 1973. King Sihanouk of Cambodia was deposed in a pro-US coup by General Lon Nol, whose brutal regime fell to communists in 1975. America, a nuclear superpower, with the capacity to obliterate its adversaries in Indo-China withdrew its forces from the region, wounded. The region fell under communist rule.

Jimmy Carter ordered the CIA to channel secret American aid to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the pro-Soviet Marxist regime. America’s covert intervention in the Afghan War thus began well before the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The evidence gradually came to light several years after the Soviet Union had retreated from Afghanistan following a decade of brutal occupation and the Soviet state’s own demise. America’s proxy force of the Mujahideen left a trail of brutality of its own. It had been kept wrapped in CIA-inspired official misinformation campaign as long as the Soviet occupation army was there.

The cover was blown no sooner than the Soviets had gone home and the Afghan battlefield was engulfed in a new round of civil war. It gave birth to an even more extreme form of political Islam represented by the Taliban and al Qaeda, a phenomenon that directly led to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Afghanistan showed how a historic conquest turned into a catastrophe.  

In the case of Afghanistan after 9/11, the Taliban were removed from power barely five weeks after the US-led coalition went to war in October 2001. The achievement of the narrow aim to oust the Taliban from the Afghan capital so quickly led to claims of a perfect war. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michael O’Hanlon described Operation Enduring Freedom as “a masterpiece of military creativity and finesse.” It was assumed that al Qaeda had been deprived of its sanctuary, meeting sites, weapons production and storage facilities. The regret was that the Taliban and al Qaeda leaders got away. The folly of this Pentagon-nurtured view of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, came to haunt in subsequent years.

On being an empire

Humans by nature are expansionist. They want more. Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC, has a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about civilized society. They discuss how societies develop from primitive to higher levels of civilization; trades and occupations multiply and populations grow. The next stage of the dialectic, according to Socrates, is an increase in wealth that results in war, because an enlarged society wants more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to the understanding of the causes of war even today. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims.

Nearly two and a half millenniums later, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offered a Marxist vision of the twenty-first century in their book Empire. Their central argument in the book, first published in 2001, was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but rather a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Hardt and Negri, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication, with no definitive political center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the ‘enemy’ must now be someone who poses a threat to the entire system – a terrorist to be repressed by police force. Written in the mid-1990s, Empire got it right, as events a few years later would show. 

The United States occupied a privileged position in Empire depicted by Hardt and Negri. However, America’s privileges did not arise from its “similarities to the old European imperialist powers.” Its privileges derived from its differences, otherwise described as American exceptionalism. From the early days of its formal constitution, the founders of the United States had believed that they were creating “a new Empire with open, expanding frontiers,” where power would be distributed in networks. More than two centuries later, the idea emerged on a global scale. The presidency of George W Bush was a powerful militaristic, if crude and disastrous, attempt to impose America’s will on the rest of the world.

Like terrorism, the term ‘empire’ is often used disparagingly by those on the Left and the Right. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two greatest powers after the Second World War offered contrasting examples. Advocates of each accused the other of being an empire, meaning a large population comprising many nationalities in distant territories living under subjugation or exploitation.

In fact, different concepts of empire have existed throughout history. For many centuries, the term referred to states that considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire, but later it came to be applied to non-European monarchies such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire. Most empires in history came into being as a result of a militarily strong state taking control of weaker ones. The result in each case was an enlarged, more powerful political union, before its eventual decline.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a blow against the idea of maintaining an empire by brute force. Suddenly, the floodgates opened for rapid globalization and expansion of the markets to places that had previously been in the Soviet domain. Capitalism could reach where it had not been before, from newly independent countries in eastern Europe to Soviet-style economies in Asia and Africa. Two decades on, the West was to hit the most serious crisis of its own since the Great Depression, due to a combination of impudence after its victory in the Cold War, false sense of moral superiority and belief in its power to destroy and recreate nations at will.

The Norwegian scholar, Johan Galtung, regarded as the father of conflict and peace studies, said in 2004 something that is a fitting definition of the term Empire. He described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” An empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the American empire “provides a complete configuration, articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner.”

“The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.”

This confession is as revealing as it is extraordinary. Economic interests and cultural domination are closely interwoven in imperial thinking, driven by its simplistic logic. Imperial powers are expansionist by nature, always inclined to enlarge territories they control. What lies behind their ambition is access to more and more resources – energy, minerals, raw materials and markets to trade. Imperial behavior dictates a great power to expand its domain of direct control or influence by military or other means to new territories that have resources and a certain cultural symmetry with the center. The greater this symmetry, the better.

Culture and consumption

To appreciate the relationship between economic interests and cultural symmetry, culture has to be understood as a broad concept. E B Taylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and many other capabilities and habits acquired by … [members] of society.” Culture is the way of life which people follow in society without consciously thinking about how it came into being. Robert Murphy describes culture as “a set of mechanisms for survival, but it also provides us with a definition of reality.” It determines how people live, the tools they use for work, entertainment and luxuries of life. Culture is a function of homes people live in, appliances, tools and technologies they use and ambitions.

It is, therefore, possible to conclude that culture is about consumption in economic terms. Culture defines patterns of production and trade, demand and supply, as well as social design. In Moscow, the old Ladas and Wolgas of yesteryear began to be replaced by Audi, Mercedes and BMW cars in the late twentieth century. The number of McDonalds restaurants in Russia rose after the launch of the first restaurant in the capital in 1990. In Russia, China and India, luxury goods from cars to small electronic goods and jeans are fast becoming objects of passionate desire for the growing middle classes, despite grinding poverty affecting vast numbers of citizens. Following the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, sales of American brands in Kabul and Baghdad increased. These trends form an essential part of the theme that defines societal transformation and, at the same time, represents a powerful cause for opposition.  

The hegemon flaunts its power, but also reveals its limitations. It invades and occupies distant lands, but cannot end opposition from determined resistors. Economic interests of the hegemon and the way of life it advocates are fundamentally interlinked. The hegemon claims superiority of its own culture and civilization at the expense of the adversary’s. Its own economic success depends on the exploitation of natural and human assets of others. The hegemon allows political and economic freedoms and protections enshrined for the privileged at home. Indeed, the hegemon will frequently buy influence by enlisting rulers in foreign lands. Rewards for compliance are high, but human labor and life are cheap in Third World autocracies.

The costs of all this accumulate until their sum total surpasses the advantages. Military adventures require vast amounts of money. As well as hemorrhaging the economy, they drain the Empire’s collective morale as the human cost in terms of war deaths and injuries rise. Foreign military expeditions tend to attain a certain momentum. But a regal power is unlikely to pause to reflect on an important lesson of history – that adventure leads to exhaustion. Only when the weight of liabilities – economic, political and moral – moves the citizenry to abandon the cause does it mean that the day of debacle may be near.  

The above essay was published by the History News Network, George Mason University, Virginia, on November 2, 2009.

Obama’s Foreign Crises

Deepak Tripathi

The carnage in Mumbai by young, well trained gunmen is the latest chapter in the world’s most complex web of problems today. Not only is it bound to have new consequences, it also throws up fresh challenges for all concerned, not least for America’s President-elect, Barak Obama.

When a bloodbath in India’s main commercial center is played out on television screens across the world, people who have witnessed events in New York and Washington, London and Madrid, Islamabad and Bali immediately connect with a rapidly escalating phenomenon. India is no stranger to terror. Still, it has suffered a huge shock. The Indian economy, already caught up in a global recession, is bound to feel the impact. Tourism and investor confidence may suffer, at least in the short term. The political fallout may go beyond the resignation of the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. The country faces a general election in May 2009. The governing coalition led by the Congress Party is under heavy criticism from the Hindu nationalists, as well as the population in general.

We have seen instances of backlash against Muslims in the United States and Europe after 9/11. The Indian authorities will be mindful of this possibility in their own country. Violence against India’s Muslim and Christian minorities has been on the increase recently. The authorities have come under criticism for failure to protect them, too. Fortunately, Islam has deep roots in India and the 150 million or so Indian Muslims were all born and brought up in a secular country. This does not, however, guarantee harmony between India’s diverse communities. Opposition among Muslims against Indian rule in Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan, has been a serious problem for the central government. Harsh measures by India’s security forces to suppress the militancy fuel the popular discontent even more.

As investigations continue into the massacre, there are accusations and counter-accusations within the governing coalition and between the opposition and the government. Relations between India and Pakistan have plunged following claims that the gunmen may have come by sea from Pakistan and belonged to a group based there. The attackers had AK-47 assault rifles that are manufactured in abundance on the western frontier of Pakistan, where Taleban and Al-Qaeda have sanctuaries and training camps. The sustained ruthlessness and cold-blooded determination of the gunmen to kill until the end was a product of a hardened, well-trained frame of mind.

The president-elect of the United states, Barack Obama, had made the economy his number one priority upon taking office on January 20, 2009. With the recent events in India, he faces another big challenge. Claims of improvement in Iraq are no longer enough to reduce America’s engagement in the Middle East, to concentrate on the Afghan theater and rebuilding the US economy.

The truth is that the web of crises spans from Palestine through Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India and further east. The combination of extreme remedies applied as part of the ‘war on terror’ and neglect of the real issue in the Middle East – the Palestinian crisis – by the outgoing Bush administration has added fuel to the fire. The mistakes have alienated many decent ordinary people. The same old condemnations of ‘uncivilized terrorists’ and perfunctory support for their victims seem increasingly meaningless.

A strong sense of alienation, humiliation and injustice pervades the Middle East and South Asia. When the situation is so volatile, local crises feed each other until they become a catastrophe. The chain of events in recent years illustrates the way in which many problems have become one. One-and-a-half million Palestinians remain cut off in the Gaza Strip, virtually imprisoned without sufficient food, fuel and medicine. More than a million of them are registered as refugees with the United Nations. They rely on humanitarian assistance that cannot be distributed as it should. The blockade of Gaza may be aimed at breaking the will of its people to support Hamas, which won the parliamentary elections for the Palestinian Authority in 2006. But the embargo has had the opposite effect. The conditions in the territory are increasingly desperate and desperate people resort to desperate things. Underground tunnels have been dug in to Egypt to secure access to essential goods. The humanitarian situation demands urgent and extraordinary measures to prevent the one-and-a-half million residents of the territory reaching the point where desperation is beyond containment.

The Palestinian problem is central to the wider crisis in West and South Asia. Its solution requires historic efforts involving America and Russia, as well as regional powers including Syria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India and China. Obama has repeatedly offered friendship and support to Israel – a political necessity for any successful American politician. The time has come to exercise a restraining influence on the Israelis. The president-elect says he is willing to negotiate with Iran – a country which has a nuclear program. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States already conducts discreet negotiations with the Taleban. Israel does the same with Syria. In the light of these overtures, the refusal to hold talks with Hamas does not make sense.

The rest comes after the Palestinian problem. Following prolonged negotiations, the timetable for America’s military withdrawal from Iraq is set. It is to be completed by the end of 2011, provided unforeseen events do not frustrate the plan. For the success in stabilizing both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s cooperation is essential. But the more hawkish the US administration becomes, the less chance there is of securing that vital support. At the same time, cooperation of Syria, another big player in the Middle East, is essential for progress in Lebanon and elsewhere.

The crisis across the triangle that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and India has both distinct and common aspects. The Taleban are an indigenous tribal movement across the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier and cannot be eliminated. But it is possible to influence them if conditions are right in both countries and Washington shows willingness to listen to regional experts. America has been heavily involved in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for almost three decades. It played a role in the war. Now it needs to play a part in their reconstruction and stabilization, in the interests of all. Last but not least is Kashmir, a territory disputed between India and Pakistan since their independence from Britain in 1947. The prospects of a resolution to this intractable problem could improve with democratic reforms in Pakistan and with America’s engagement with Pakistan’s civilian political establishment instead of military. Reforms are also needed on the Indian side of Kashmir, where a combination of political failures and heavy-handed military tactics over many years has fuelled popular disaffection and strengthened the militants.

The above article appeared in CounterPunch on 1 December 2008.

On A Revolution to Remember

Deepak Tripathi

With the victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, America has undergone a revolution. I say this not only for its symbolism, undeniable though it is. The entry of a black man into the White House is a powerful symbol – something that has taken nearly two-and-a-half centuries since the American revolution of 1776 and almost a-hundred-and-fifty years since slavery was abolished under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Progress of this magnitude is the end result of a monumental struggle, often by people whose names will not receive the limelight they deserve.

A revolution must go beyond such boundaries. It must be a wider response to critical problems in society, an acknowledgement by the masses that things have got to change, or there will be a greater calamity. Above all, a revolution is not a coup d’état which involves seizure of power by a small group of people. It is a wider phenomenon that happens when the time has come. The 2008 election in America reflects all of this and much more. The last eight years of the presidency of George W Bush illustrate what damage can be done when the world’s most powerful nation goes rogue, squandering its capacity to do good.

I belong to a generation born just after the Second World War. As someone who has lived and worked in America, travelled from coast to coast and one who has kept a keen eye on its politics, my interest in the country is abiding. With sadness, I say that I cannot recall a more repressive period in America’s domestic and foreign affairs in my lifetime than the era that will soon be behind us. It may sound uncomfortable to some, but the facts speak aloud.

At home, a mismanaged economy, driven down by hugely expensive foreign wars, crushing the middle-class America. The numbers of Americans struggling to stay above the poverty line are growing. In real terms, their plight invites comparisons with the basket cases in the Third World: lack of food, nourishment, health care, education and job opportunities, security. Abroad, profound alienation from the United States, caused by the use of devastating military power by America and discredited client regimes. The scale of this repression has affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Such behavior loses friends and inflames armed opposition, leading to stronger retaliation. And the cycle goes on. The importance of prudence in the employment of power has never been greater.

The ‘war on terror’, the project of the Bush presidency, has often made me think about something said by Mahatma Gandhi, who inspired leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless,” Gandhi said, “whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?” Those who associate revolutions with the old-fashioned armed struggle in Russia or China in the first half of the 20th century actually miss the point.

A revolution is not necessarily a violent event. It is a definite and an overwhelming response against the existing order by people who feel they have had enough. This is what happened in America in 1776 – independence from Britain that Americans celebrate on July 4 every year. The abolition of slavery in 1865 was also a revolutionary event. So was the introduction of civil rights laws in the 1960s. In Europe, a number of Soviet bloc countries underwent ‘velvet revolutions’ peacefully in the 1980s and 1990s.

The scenes all across America on November 4, 2008 were part of a phenomenon of profound magnitude. The turnout of over a-hundred-and-twenty million people was unprecedented. An ocean of humanity pouring out, determined to vote, will be remembered for a long time. The margin of popular votes for Barack Obama was 52-46 percent – less than some recent opinion surveys had predicted, but substantial. Obama’s majority in the Electoral College, which actually elects the president, was 2-1. And the Democrats strengthened their hold by sizeable margins in both chambers of the US Congress. The verdict was overwhelming.

Writing in Time magazine, Nancy Gibbs made the point that this victory was not achieved because of the color of Obama’s skin, nor in spite of it. “He won because at a very dangerous moment in the life of a still young country,” she said, “more people than have ever spoken before came together to try to save it.” Her comments are all-encompassing. They tell the story of a superpower falling on hard times, nearly twenty years after it had defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War and thought the capitalist system had won for good.

The scale of the Democratic victory in the 2008 election is a truly revolutionary event. But in the euphoria that prevails in America and, in many cases, beyond its shores, it would be prudent to introduce a note of caution. I know of no revolution fulfilling all that it promised. Americans have given their final verdict on the neo-conservative order of the last eight years. It was an order which promoted a deregulated, free-for-all, corporate system and severe state controls on ordinary citizens at home and thoughtless militarism abroad; a form of state capitalism that made the Bush-Cheney administration the most unpopular in US history. As a result, the economy is in turmoil, there is a crisis of faith in America and the country has suffered a loss of friendship and goodwill in the world.

The initial phase of the revolution is over. The old order has been rejected and the arduous task of fixing the broken system lies ahead. America has a total debt of ten trillion dollars. Its budget deficit is likely to be more than 750 billion dollars when Obama takes over as president on January 20, 2009. As the recession deepens, hundreds of thousands of Americans are losing their jobs every month, while Europe and the rest of the world are dragged down. The Bush administration had chosen to fight three wars – in Afghanistan, Iraq and a global ‘war on terror’. Dealing with these wars in the short run with a view to ending them eventually, hopefully before too long, is going to be a mammoth job. Fractured relationships abroad have to be rebuilt and engagement with international organizations must be revived. The most profound lesson of unilateralism of recent years is that the loss of international support for America weakens its leadership and makes it less effective in the world.

The most urgent task is economic revival, beginning with the restoration of the financial system. In the longer term, an enlightened approach to medical care, security and social welfare will be required to ensure the renaissance promised by the president America has just elected. The number of people incarcerated in American prisons exceeds two million. At least five million more are on probation or parole – the vast majority of them from black and other ethnic minority groups. China, with four times the population of the United States, has fewer inmates in jail – around one-and-a-half million.

What is the total cost of all this and can anything be done? Consider the failure of the justice system which relies heavily on plea bargaining to secure convictions. The system convicts some of the most disadvantaged citizens, with little or no chance of proper legal representation. Consider, too, the lax gun laws and the violent incidents that lead to avoidable deaths and injuries and massive hospital bills. Two-thirds of Americans with insufficient medical cover or none at all. How many of the sick and the incarcerated die prematurely or spend their long years in prison, failing to contribute their best to America? These issues must be taken seriously in Washington. For without it, America is a failing state.

The above commentary appeared in the History News Network (George Mason University, Virginia) on November 8, 2008.

From Georgia to the Brink of a New Cold War: A Pawn in Their Game

Deepak Tripathi

The conflict between Russia and the pro-US regime of Georgia has been a decisive turning-point in Russia’s relations with Washington and has taken us to the brink of a new Cold War.  

For the first time in almost twenty years, the West faces a resurgent Russia that has put the trauma of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting chaos behind. Today’s Russia is run by a younger leadership with autocratic efficiency, confident because of its vast energy resources and determined to resist American hegemony, by force if necessary. The crisis in Georgia goes beyond the Caucasus region. Its roots lie in America’s overwhelming ambition to expand and its tendency to make colossal miscalculations under the Bush presidency.

It is often said that the first casualty of war is truth. Behind the fog of disinformation coming from Washington, London, Tbilisi and, indeed, Moscow, the fact remains that the Russian invasion came after Georgia’s bombardment of the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The vast majority of residents in the enclave are Russian citizens and Moscow had deployed its peacekeepers there. Many experts in Europe are depressed over the events in Georgia and blame hardliners in the Bush administration for provoking the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakasvili, to adopt the aggressive posture that has brought this disaster. 

What we see in Georgia is a classic proxy war between Russia and America, which has become heavily involved in the republic since a popular revolt in late 2003 ousted Eduard Shevardnadze from power, with Western help. Today, US troops occupy Georgian military bases of the Soviet era, on the southern fringe of Russia. America provides weapons, training and intelligence to the Georgian armed forces. America’s involvement, which began under the umbrella of the ‘war on terror’ after 9/11, has since become much more. If President Bush had his way, Georgia would be granted membership of NATO as part of the alliance’s expansion around Russia.

The impoverished former Soviet republic is, in effect, a pawn in the broader US design to encircle Russia. It is also located in a region which has some of the largest energy reserves in the world. For the Kremlin, the prospect of NATO coming so close to its southern borders is a step too far. Fortunately, some NATO members, most notably France and Germany, also do not see Georgia either as a full democracy or a stable country. And many in the alliance and the European Union have doubts about Saakasvili’s ability to take mature decisions.

In an era when America has assumed the right to launch pre-emptive strikes, it is difficult to see the Kremlin behaving differently. The prospect of Georgia joining NATO, which might deploy nuclear weapons on Georgian territory, is simply not acceptable to Russia. Remember the Cuban missile crisis of 1962? At the time, Soviet nuclear missiles, deployed just 90 miles from the coast of Florida, brought America and the Soviet Union close to a disastrous war and the Soviets were forced to back down. Does the White House not know history? Or do the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration not care? 

Saakasvili’s decision to order the bombardment of the Russian-majority South Ossetia gave the Kremlin a convenient cover to invade Georgia, just as the Bush administration had found it expedient to invade Iraq in March 2003 based on claims that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. Russia is playing for bigger stakes now just as America did in Iraq a few years ago. 

About one-fifth of Georgia has fallen under Russian military occupation and the Kremlin leadership seems to be in no mood to entertain the idea of Georgia’s territorial integrity in any negotiations sponsored by the West. There are daily condemnations of Moscow in the Western capitals. However, the West is powerless to prevent the Russians doing anything they want in Georgia.

This US-Russia proxy war in the Caucasus region has created a serious humanitarian crisis. President Saakasvili, the pro-US leader of Georgia, has been humiliated. Its chances of joining NATO are negligible after the latest events. They have demonstrated that the West cannot and will not intervene militarily to protect Georgia from the Russian threat. The most important clause in the NATO constitution says that an attack on one member-state will be regarded as an attack on the whole alliance, which will use all possible means to protect the member-state under threat. NATO’s inability to defend Georgia now is a defeat for the West. It is difficult to see how the alliance will accept the republic as a member. 

The description by President Bush of the Russian action as ‘disproportionate and unacceptable’ is laughable in the context of America’s own conduct in its foreign wars in recent years. Washington should be more worried about the damage the crisis has done to its authority in the world. Diplomacy was never a strong point of the Bush administration. The blunders in Washington and Tbilisi have made the conduct of relations with Russia much more difficult. They may also have created other problems for the next occupant of the White House, for an increasing number of countries around the world may begin to look to Russia now that it has risen again.

The above article appeared in CounterPunch on 16 August 2008.

The Breaking Point: A New Age of Torture


The recent appearance of Dr Aafia Siddiqi in a New York court (August 5) has brought another disturbing episode in the ‘war on terror’ of President George W Bush to light. According to a  lawyer acting for Dr Siddiqui, an American-educated scientist of Pakistani origin, her client was brought to New York after spending several years in US custody at an unknown place, thought to be the Bagram air base in Afghanistan. While in detention, she suffered ‘horrendous physical and psychological torture’. The American authorities claimed that they captured Dr Siddiqui only in July 2008, accusing her of attacking US military officers and being an Al-Qaeda operative. These charges have been dismissed by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

The case has drawn international attention and comes at a time when the Bush administration, in its last few months, appears determined to put as many detainees captured during its ‘war on terror’ as possible on trial. According to Dr Siddiqui’s lawyer, New York has been chosen as the venue for her trial because it is the city of Twin Towers, where the sentiment is likely to be most prejudicial and the November elections are close. Just before Dr Siddiqui was produced in court in New York, a US military commission in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp convicted and sentenced Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, to five-and-a-half years in prison. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both criticised the Guantanamo trial as falling below the acceptable standards of justice.

The crisis for human rights has grown to unprecedented proportions since 9/11. On the day Amnesty International published its 2007 human rights assessment worldwide, its message reflected something that had become increasingly obvious. The ‘war on terror’ had left a long trail of human rights abuses and created deep divisions that cast a shadow on international relations, making the world more dangerous. In one of the strongest repudiations of the policies of Western governments, the Secretary-General of Amnesty, Irene Khan, said: “The politics of fear are fuelling a downward spiral of human rights abuses in which no right is sacrosanct and no person safe.” She accused these governments of adopting policies which undermine the rule of law, feed racism and xenophobia, divide communities, intensify inequalities and sow the seeds for more violence and conflict. Amnesty said that old-fashioned repression had gained a new lease of life under the guise of fighting terrorism in some countries, while in others, including the United Kingdom, loosely defined counter-terrorism laws posed a threat to free speech.

Among leaders who were named for playing on fear among their supporters to help them push their own political agendas and strengthen their political power were President George W Bush, John Howard, then prime minister of Australia, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Nothing can be more serious than when leading countries of the free world find themselves in the same league as the most barbaric when it comes to human rights.

The 2008 report of Human Rights Watch mourned the state of democracy with these words: “Rarely has democracy been so acclaimed, yet so breached, so promoted yet so disrespected, so important yet so disappointing.” From Pakistan, China and Russia to Uzbekistan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, every dictator or totalitarian regime aspires to the status conferred by the label of democracy. They all used repression before. The rhetoric of President George W Bush since the beginning of his ‘war on terror’ and crusade for ‘democracy’ has given such regimes a new lease of life. Human Rights Watch accuses the Bush administration of embracing this route instead of defending human rights, because talk of human rights leads to Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons abroad, simulated drowning and other forms of ‘rendition’, military commissions and the suspension of habeas corpus.  Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are two of the world’s leading organizations in the field of human rights. How did they reach conclusions so bleak?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes in the opening chapter named ‘Arrest’ in The Gulag Archipelago how it feels when someone is seized by shadowy individuals, about whom the victim knows nothing and has no clue as to what lies ahead: 

“Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life. A bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you.”

On September 6, 2006, President George W Bush admitted the existence of a secret CIA programme to abduct, detain and interrogate people outside America as part of his ‘war on terror’. In a statement intended to portray himself as a strong leader, Bush referred to the CIA interrogation techniques as tough, lawful and necessary. His message, which gave few insights, was that “we are getting vital information necessary to do our jobs and that is to protect the American people and our allies.” The President said he could not describe the methods used. He wanted everyone to understand why. The admission followed months of media reports in America and Europe and protests by non-governmental organizations that had made the administration’s continued silence untenable.

Why did the US administration choose to operate secret prisons abroad? Where were they located and what kind of interrogation techniques were in use there to get what Bush described glibly as vital information? Glossy assertions, in the guise of confidentiality, became the hallmark of the Bush administration as the ‘war on terror’ progressed. The official justification became that ‘we in the civilized world face an unparalleled and escalating terrorist threat and extraordinary measures are required’ to deal with it. The administration knows it all. The people should simply believe what they are told, although the lesson of history is that laws are invariably broken when there is unwarranted secrecy and appropriate constitutional supervision is absent. Where the Bush administration led, other governments followed. From Britain, Italy and Australia to Russia, China and elsewhere, talk of the terrorist threat became engrained in government polemics. Among the most disturbing aspects was the Chinese leadership’s description of protests by Buddhist monks in Tibet as terrorist activity.

Reports, which first surfaced in 2005, of secret CIA prisons in European and other locations were confirmed in an investigation by the Council of Europe in June 2007. The investigation, conducted by the Swiss Senator, Dick Marty, concluded that ‘large numbers of people had been abducted across the world’ and transferred to countries where ‘torture is common practice’. Others were kept in ‘arbitrary detention without any precise charge’ and without any judicial oversight. Still others had ‘disappeared for indefinite periods, held in secret prisons, including in member-states of the Council of Europe, the existence and operation of which had been concealed’.

Dick Marty said in his report that these people were subjected to degrading treatment and torture to extract information, however unsound, which America claimed ‘had protected our common security’. Prisoners were interrogated ceaselessly and physically and psychologically abused before being released because they were ‘plainly not the people being sought’. The report said that these were the terrible consequences of what in some quarters is called the ‘war on terror’. The report specifically named Romania and Poland, where the CIA ran secret prisons and torture centres. 

How were prisoners taken to such camps and what was done to them? It turned out that the CIA first abducted people, including children as young as seven, across the world. The agency was then able to fly captives, under an agreement by all NATO members, including Britain, which granted blanket over-flight clearances to American and allied forces involved in the fight against terrorism. Apart from Poland and Romania, former Soviet bloc countries where successors of the dreaded Communist intelligence services operated, Chechnya, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Syria were among other destinations named, as well as Italy, where abductions by the CIA took place. The report said that the systematic exporting of torture outside the United States and the reservation of such methods exclusively for non-Americans amounted to an ‘apartheid’ mentality, which fuels anti-Americanism and creates sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism.

What went on inside the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is truly horrific, with up to 50000 men, women and children kept there at a time. Pouring acid on captives, forcing them to remove their clothing, keeping them naked for days in low temperatures and pouring cold water on them, a military policeman having sex with a female detainee, arranging naked male prisoners in a pile and jumping on them, forcing them to wear women’s underwear, taking photographs of dead prisoners and threatening captives with rape – such ‘blatant, sadistic and wanton’ abuses of Iraqis were carried out by American soldiers in the prison. All this and more was done to them when, in many cases, their jailers did not even know their identities or the reasons for their detention.

Other examples of the culture of torture are recorded in numerous pictures of Abu Ghraib abuses now in the public domain. A young American soldier, Sabrina Harman, took many of these pictures during her tour of duty inside the prison. Like so many other young American soldiers, she joined the military to help pay for her college education. In March 2008, The New Yorker published her story with photos she took of abuses committed on prisoners. The pictures provided a graphic illustration of the abuses which America itself admitted in the official Taguba report. The inquiry resulted in a number of largely low-ranking reservists who either took the pictures, or were seen in them, portrayed as ‘rogues who acted out of depravity’. Documents obtained by the Washington Post and the American Civil Liberties Union showed that the senior military officer in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, had actually authorised the use of military dogs, extreme temperatures, reverse sleep patterns and sensory deprivation as interrogation techniques in Abu Ghraib.

As The New Yorker said, Abu Ghraib ‘was de facto United States policy’. And ‘the authorization and decriminalization of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies’ of the Bush administration. The techniques of interrogation were a direct result of the administration’s hostility to international law – the doctrine of extracting confessions by torture flowing from the White House, the Vice President’s office and a small number of senior Pentagon and Justice Department officials who had turned themselves into an oligarchy. 

A new dawn comes with new hopes. But the dawn of the twenty-first century will forever be known for vengeance and brutal conflict for domination of energy resources in the Middle East. The attacks on 9/11 were a wake-up call about the existing and future dangers. But they were also a reminder of mistakes of the past. These mistakes were made in the final decade of the Cold War, the 1980s, when America’s decision to favour extremist, against moderate, Islam in the region fanned the fires of hatred; and in the decade after the Cold War, the 1990s, when the battleground in Afghanistan was abandoned with the fires still burning.  

Such mistakes created a sanctuary for the Taleban and Al-Qaeda. Far from learning the obvious lesson, the neo-conservatives had a new agenda for the coming century, well before the events of 9/11. Globalization had gone too far. Economic and political power had rapidly begun to shift to Asia. The scope and intensity of the American project under the presidency of George W Bush was an expression of the determination to draw back the centre of gravity towards the West, with little realization that such course of action involved great risks.

The above article appeared in CounterPunch on 19 August 2008.