SAVING THE PLANET IS NOT A SPECTATOR SPORT
Making Terrorism History Scilla Elworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind Rider, UK, 2006, £3.99
FOUR MONTHS AFTER the attacks on New York and Washington, President Bush set out the strategy for his “global war on terror”. Not only would the al-Qaeda network be tracked down and eliminated, but the enemies in that war now included “rogue states” such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea. In this wider war, Bush declared, “you are either for us or against us.” He declared that the United States would pre-empt future threats even before any attacks on American interests.
Right through until April 2003, this strategy seemed to be working as planned. There were still some problems in Afghanistan, but in Iraq it had taken only three weeks for US troops to reach Baghdad. An Iraqi government would come to power that would be pro-American and follow a free-market ideology, permanent US bases would ensure security and, above all, such a clear-cut victory and a long-term presence would mean that the Iranians would see sense and present few problems. More generally, success in Iraq and Afghanistan would be a huge blow for the al-Qaeda movement, and it would be only a matter of time before it would wither away. The New American Century would be assured.
How different it now seems. We are heading towards the sixth year of a bitter and protracted conflict in Afghanistan, and are already into the fourth year of the war in Iraq. At least 35,000 civilians have been killed there, and well over 5,000 in Afghanistan. More than 90,000 people have been detained without trial, some of them for over four years. Afghanistan is unstable and much of Iraq is in turmoil.
Perhaps most unexpected has been the survival and transformation of the al-Qaeda movement. Many of its leaders have been killed or detained, yet the movement has become a dispersed phenomenon that has substantially wider support than five years ago. This has been demonstrated in violent actions across the world, whether in Bali, Jakarta, Istanbul, Casablanca, Sinai, Amman, Mombasa, London, Madrid or a dozen other places. More generally, there has been a marked growth in anti-Americanism across much of the world. This war on terror has made things worse.
Could this mean that there might now be the possibility of a re-think, and are there alternatives? While there is little evidence of any change of outlook in Washington or London, there are plenty of ideas around, just waiting to be taken up. One very good example is the short book Making Terrorism History, by Scilla Elworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind, originally published by the think-tank Demos. This extraordinary little book points to the overwhelming military power of the United States, Britain, Russia and Israel alongside their persistent failure to subdue opponents and bring about peace, whether in Iraq, Chechnya or Palestine. It argues that such strategies will never be successful unless they address the full range of factors that fuel cycles of violence and influence the use of terror. These include the economic, social and cultural context in which violence is sustained. Perhaps even more importantly, they also include the emotional and psychological effects of violence and humiliation – factors often missing from traditional approaches to counter-terrorism, and especially the ‘war on terror’.
A cycle of violence might involve an atrocity such as a suicide attack killing many people, or a bombing raid that kills many civilians. From such atrocities come shock and fear, together with grief and anger. The anger leads to bitterness, through to revenge and retaliation. That retaliation may, in the eyes of the instigators, be a just response to the atrocity they have experienced, but to the recipients, who may have had no personal part in the original action, it is another atrocity, setting in motion a further cycle of violent response.
Making Terrorism History points to the crucial need to break into that cycle of violence, arguing that once such a cycle is in motion, the best point may well be between anger and bitterness. At that point there are many forms of intervention or assistance that can stand a real chance of breaking open the cycle and preventing a further escalation of response and counter-response.
The authors cite the critical need to recognise and understand the circumstances from which violent movements arise, especially those movements that are readily labelled “terrorist”. Take Israel/Palestine as an example. To the Israeli government and to the great majority of Israelis, Hamas is a terrorist organisation that is devoted to the destruction of Israel and sends suicide bombers to cause death and destruction. Legitimate responses include targeted assassinations, punitive raids, destruction of houses and the maintenance of Gaza as something little short of a huge open prison. To a very large proportion of Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas has long been heavily involved in all manner of social welfare ventures from nurseries to health centres and has been largely free of corruption. It also has an armed wing that offers one of the few centres of resistance to an Israel determined to maintain control through military force and fundamentally unwilling to allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
In this climate of mutual suspicion a cycle of violence has developed from which neither side can escape, and even Israel, with all its military power, cannot control. In Gaza, and in many other areas of this war on terror, there is almost never any kind of recognition of the extent of the humiliation and powerlessness that fuel the radical movements.
It may be difficult or even impossible to engage with the most extreme elements of leadership in some movements, but they only maintain power through a much wider base of popular support, with much of that support resulting directly from humiliation and marginalisation. Making Terrorism History offers numerous suggestions for breaking into the cycle of violence, but always with one thread running through – the need to understand the roots of violence while avoiding those actions that make it worse.
The US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has now characterised the war on terror as the “Long War”, with this now replacing the Cold War and with terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda seen as the enduring global threat. In such a Long War, anything other than full support is unpatriotic, and the fundamental policy is one of the widespread use of military power in all its many forms. What is almost entirely absent is any recognition of the manner in which the United States has locked itself into a cycle of violence.
At some point, and hopefully very soon, the futility of the approach will be recognised. Indeed, there are already signs of a deep unease over events in Iraq, even as a potential confrontation with Iran looms. As the counterproductive effects of the war on terror become obvious, there is a real chance of alternative approaches being taken seriously. If that is to happen, it is critically important that new approaches are available. Making Terrorism History is a really valuable start to that process.
Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and writes a weekly column on international security issues for www.opendemocracy.net.