Tag Archives: terrorism

Spiraling Into Permanent War

Dispatches From the edge

Nov. 18, 2016

 

“Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War

Simon & Shuster, 2016

$26.00

 

“We have fallen into a self-defeating spiral of reaction and counterterror. Our policies, meant to extirpate our enemies, have strengthened and perpetuated them.”

-Mark Danner

 

Danner—an award winning journalist, professor and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has covered war and revolutions on three continents—begins his book “Spiral” with the aftermath of a 2003 ambush of U.S. troops outside of Fallujah, Iraq. The insurgents had set off a roadside bomb, killing a paratrooper and wounding several others. “The Americans promptly dismounted and with their M-16s and M-4s began pouring lead into everything they could see,” including a passing truck, he writes. “By week’s end scores of family and close friends of those killed would join the insurgents, for honor demanded they kill Americans to wipe away family shame.”

 

The incident encapsulates the fundamental contradiction at the heart of George W. Bush’s—and with variations, that of Barak Obama’s—“war on terror”: the means used to fight it is the most effective recruiting device that organizations like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Shabab, and the Islamic State have. Targeted assassinations by drones, the use of torture, extra-legal renditions, and the invasions of several Muslim countries has been an unmitigated disaster, destabilizing several states, killing hundreds of thousands of people and generating millions of refugees.

 

Danner’s contention is hardly breaking news, nor is he the first journalist to point out that responding to the tactic of terrorism with military forces generates yet more enemies and instability. But Spiral argues that what was once unusual has now become standard operating procedure, and the Obama administration bears some of the blame for this by its refusal to prosecute violations of international law.

 

Torture is a case in point. In the aftermath of the 2001 attack on New York and Washington, the Bush administration introduced so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques that were, in fact, torture under both U.S. and international law. Danner demonstrates that the White House, and a small cluster of advisors around Vice-President Dick Cheney, knew they could be prosecuted under existing laws and carefully erected a “golden shield” of policy memos that would protect them from prosecution for war crimes.

 

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama announced that he had “prohibited torture.” But, as Danner points out, “torture violates international and domestic law and the notion that our president has the power to prohibit it follows insidiously from the pretense that his predecessor had the power to order it. Before the war on terror official torture was illegal and an anathema; today it is a policy choice.”

 

And president-elect Donald Trump has already announced that he intends to bring it back.

 

There is no doubt that enhanced interrogation was torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross found the techniques “amounted to torture and/or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” How anyone could conclude anything else is hard to fathom. Besides the water boarding—for which several WWII Japanese soldiers were executed for using on allied prisoners—interrogators used sleep depravation, extreme confinement and “walling.” Abu Zubaydah, who was water boarded 83 times, describes having a towel wrapped around his neck that his questioners used “to swing me around and smash repeatedly against the wall of the [interrogation] room.”

 

According to a 2004 CIA memo, “An HVD [high value detainee] may be walled one time (one impact with the wall) to make a point, or twenty to thirty times consecutively when the interrogator requires a more significant response to a question.” There were, of course, some restraints. For instance, the Justice Department refused to approve a CIA proposal to bury people alive.

 

And, as Danner points out, none of these grotesque methods produced any important information. The claim that torture saved “thousands of lives” is simply a lie.

 

There was a certain Alice in Wonderland quality about the whole thing. Zubaydah was designated a “high official” in Al Qaeda, the number three or four man in the organization. In reality he was not even a member, as the Justice Department finally admitted in 2009. However, because he was considered a high up in the Al Qaeda, it was assumed he must know about future attacks. If he professed that he knew nothing, this was proof that he did, and so he had to tortured more. “It is a closed circle, self-sufficient, impervious to disobedient facts,” says Danner.

 

The logic of the Red Queen.

 

The Obama administration has also conjured up some interpretations of language that seem straight out of Lewis Carroll. In defending his use of drone strikes in a 2014 speech at West Point, the President said he only uses them “when we face a continuing, imminent threat.” But “imminent” means “likely to occur at any moment” and is the opposite of “continuing.” A leaked Justice Department memo addresses the incongruity by arguing, “Imminent does not require the U.S. to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

 

Apparently the administration has now added, “elongated” to “imminent,” so that “a president doesn’t have to deem the country under immediate threat to attack before acting on his or her own.” As Humpty Dumpty says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”

 

Danner turns the phrase “American exceptionalism” on its head. The U.S. is not “exceptional” because of its democratic institutions and moral codes, but because it has exempted itself from international law. “Americans, believing themselves to stand proudly for the rule of law and human rights, have become for the rest of the world a symbol of something quite opposite: a society that imprisons people indefinitely without trial, kills thousands without due process, and leaves unpunished lawbreaking approved by its highest officials.”

 

The war has also undermined basic constitutional restrictions on the right of intelligence agencies and law enforcement to vacuum up emails and cell phone calls, and has created an extra-legal court system to try insurgents whose oversight and appeal process in shrouded in secrecy.

 

The war on terror—the Obama administration has re-titled it a war on extremism—has not been just an illegal and moral catastrophe, it is a failure by any measure. From 2002 to 2014, the number of deaths from terrorism grew 4,000 percent, the number of jihadist groups increased by 58 percent, and the membership in those organizations more than doubled.

 

The war has also generated a massive counter terrorism bureaucracy that has every reason to amp up the politics of fear. And yet with all the alarm this has created, a total of 24 Americans were killed by terrorism in 2014, fewer than were done in by lighting.

 

Terrorism, says Danner, is “la politique du pire,” the “politics of the worst” or the use of provocation to get your enemy to overreact. “If you are weak, if you have no army of your own, borrow you enemy’s. Provoke your adversary to do your political work for you,” he says. “And in launching the war on terror, eventually occupying two Muslim countries and producing Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib celebrating images of repression and torture, the United States proved all too happy to oblige.”

 

Danner argues that idea you can defeat terrorism—which is really just a tactic used by the less powerful against the more powerful—with military force is an illusion. It can and does, however, make everything worse.

 

Even the Department of Defense knows this. In 2004, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board found that :

  • American direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature and support for radical Islamists while diminishing support for the United States.
  • Muslim do not “hate our freedoms,” they hate our policies, including one-sided support for Israel and for tyrannies in the Arab world.
  • American talk of bringing democracy to Muslim countries is self-serving hypocrisy.
  • The occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has not brought democracy to those countries, but chaos and destruction.

Increasingly the war on terrorism/extremism is a secret war fought by drones whose targets are never revealed, or by Special Operations Forces whose deployments and missions are wrapped in the silence of national security.

 

And as long as Obama calls for Americans “to look forward as opposed to looking backward,” the spiral will continue. As Danner argues, “It is a sad but immutable fact that the refusal to look backward leaves us trapped in a world without accountability that his [Obama’s] predecessor made. In making it possible, indeed likely, that the crimes will be repeated, the refusal to look backward traps us in the past.”

 

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Terrorism: Then and Now

Terrorism: Then & Now

Dispatches From The Edge

March 28, 2016

 

The year 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rebellion. Throughout the year I will try to revisit some of the lessons of Ireland’s struggle for freedom.

 

Bombs explode in a subway. The victims are everyday people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What follows is outrage: track down the perpetuators. The people who set off the bombs are monsters and inhuman fanatics, thunder the authorities.

 

But the year is not 2016, it is 1883 during the “Dynamite War” waged by mainly Irish-American members of the Fenians against the English occupation of Ireland. The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in 1848. The “War” targeted the underground, train stations, city halls, public plazas, and factories in London, Manchester, and Liverpool. The war spanned four years, and in the light of the current terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe, it is an instructive comparison.

 

On one level there is no similarity. The “Dynamite War” killed and injured very few people, while terrorist attacks and bombs in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, France and Belgium have murdered hundreds and wounded thousands. It is also hard to compare John Devoy and Patrick Tynan of the Fenians to the likes of the Islamic State’s Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muslim al-Turkmani.

 

Yet there is an historical lesson here, and we ignore it at our peril. Terrorism is a difficult subject to talk about because anything other than outrage seems like one is making an excuse for unspeakably heinous acts. And yet if we are to seriously look for solutions, that requires asking “why,” even if the answers are uncomfortable.

 

There are certainly easy “solutions” out there: occupy Muslim communities and torture suspects we arrest. Unleash yet more drones, carpet bomb the bastards, and, if necessary, send in the Marines. But that is exactly what we have doing for the past three decades, and is there anyone who would seriously argue that things are better now than they were in 1981?

 

Did the invasion of Afghanistan muzzle terrorism? A decade and a half later, we are still at war in that poor benighted country, and the terrorism that we experienced on 9/11 has spread to Madrid, Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Cairo, Brussels, Damascus, Baghdad, and other cities. We sowed the wind in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Did we expect to reap less than a whirlwind?

 

In his book “Blowback,” the late Chalmers Johnson chronicled the ricochets from American foreign policy. We raised up the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to defeat the Russians and helped create Osama bin Laden. We ally ourselves with Saudi Arabia, the country that supplied most of the people who flew those airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, whose reactionary brand of Islam has helped create an army of jihadists worldwide.

 

The flood of refugees headed toward Europe is a roadmap of U.S. interventions in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya. In the case of the latter, we created a failed state, whose massive arms caches has succeeded in destabilizing significant parts of Central Africa.

 

The nature of American foreign policy—as well as those of some of its allies—is where the conversation of what to do about terrorism has to begin. This is not to excuse terrorism, but to try to understand what it emerges from, instead of playing an endless—and eventually futile—game of whack-a-mole.

 

For people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz the answer is simple: terrorists are evil Muslims (although sometimes just being a Muslim is enough). But how many of our leaders ask, “Why are they doing this” and are really interested in an answer? Hillary Clinton says she doesn’t think we should torture people, but she is all for bombing the bejesus out of them and overthrowing their governments. Bernie Sanders is much more sensible, but even he voted for the Yugoslav War, which set off NATO’s eastward march and led to the current crisis over the Ukraine.

 

Terrorism is not a thing you can wage war against, it is a tactic employed by the less powerful against the more powerful. If you can’t defeat someone’s armies you can always blow up their citizens. Simply using military power in response to terrorism is the most efficient way to recruit new terrorists. Drone strikes are supposed to be “surgical” weapons that only kill bad guys. But as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found, drones have killed thousands of civilians. Each of those civilians has a family, and each of those family (clan, tribe, etc.) members is now a potential recruit. The drone war is a perfect example of Johnson’s “blowback.”

 

Of course, terrorism generates its own “blowbacks.” The “Dynamite War” didn’t do much damage to the British, but it was a political catastrophe for the Irish. The English used it—along with the infamous 1882 Phoenix Park murders of the colonial authority’s chief secretaries—to pass the “Perpetual Coercion Act” and imprison hundreds of Irish activists. The loss of those leaders seriously damaged efforts by the Land League to stop a wave of tenant farmer evictions that followed in the wake of the 1878-79 crop failures.

 

Those evictions produced a “blowback” of their own. Tens of thousands of Irish were forced to emigrate to America, bringing with them a deep rage at English landlords and the colonial authorities. That fury fed the anger that many Irish-Americans still held against the British, and that led to a revival of the Fenians and the launching of the “Dynamite War.” It was good old American know how that built the bombs that blew up targets in England.

 

The “War” was actually similar to the current wave of terrorism, at least in conception. Rather than going after the English armed forces and police, most the bombs were set in public places with the explicit idea of terrorizing everyday life. The plan was to transplant the violence of the colonial occupation to the home country. It did, indeed, scare people, including many English who formerly favored the Irish cause, and turned those who were indifferent anti-Irish. It derailed the Home Rule movement for several decades.

 

The Colonial authorities responded with yet greater repression, much as many of the current candidates for the White House would if given a chance. But while the “Dynamite War” was ill conceived and counter productive, it was a reflection of the basic injustice of colonialism. The Islamic State is a genuine monstrosity, but it reflects a hundred years of European and American manipulation of the Middle East’s resources and politics. When Britain and France divided up the Middle East to their liking in 1916—deliberately building in ethnic, tribal and religious instability—did they really think there would never be a day of reckoning?

 

There are monsters in the Middle East, but we have helped create them. The question is, can we stop them?

 

We should know by now that more bombs and troops do exactly the opposite. To seriously tackle terrorism will take a fundamental re-examination of U.S. foreign policy. It must start with challenging the idea that everything about this country is the “best,” the ideology of “American exceptionalism” that underlies so much of our strategic policies. That idea of “exceptionalism” gives us the right to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs, to subvert their political structures, and, if necessary, seek regime change.

 

We preach “democracy” to Cuba, China and Russia, while being perfectly comfortable with Saudi Arabia and the other autocratic monarchies that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. People take note of that contradiction and quite logically assume that it is hypocrisy and has more to do with our “interests” than any commitment to the right of people to choose how to run their own lives.

 

In any case our own political system increasingly looks like some grotesque caricature of democracy, where presidential candidates blithely propose ignoring the Constitution and violating international law, and where a handful of billionaires can dominate the public space.

 

We are the most powerful economic and military force on the planet, so overthrowing a government or strangling its economy is not all that hard to do. At least in the short run. But the world is simply far too complex to fit into one model of government or worldview and, sooner or later, people will dig in their heels.

 

How we respond to that resistance is what we need to examine. If the response is force, we can hardly complain when we find ourselves the target of “asymmetrical violence”—terrorism.

 

The people who set the bombs have to be caught and punished, but that will not end the problem. The Irish who murdered the colonial secretaries in Phoenix Park were caught and punished, but it did not make Ireland a calm place or end Irish resistance to the English occupation. That was resolved when the British finally realized that they could no longer determine the history of another country. We must do the same. And that will take a conversation that we have not yet had. It’s time to start.

 

—30—

 

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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