The handling of the terror war
It looks as if the US had fallen into the trap laid by Qaeda about which one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants Seif al-Adil pointed out, “The Americans took the bait, and fell into our trap.” (p 175) Bait or no bait, the Americans successfully decimated Qaeda’s top leadership and overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan which was acting as the protector and patron of Qaeda but this was done at a humungous cost
Almost a decade after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US, the Michigan State University organised a conference to evaluate the “war on terror” launched by the American government in the aftermath of the terror acts to hunt and punish the perpetrators of those heinous acts that killed over three thousand innocent Americans. The book entitled “Assessing the war on terror” edited by Mohammed Ayoob and Etga Ugur contains the assessment of nine scholars about the successes and failures of this war and as to how it affected the world at large particularly the peoples of Europe, the Middle East and the US itself.
The war on terror was meant to avenge the death and destruction caused in America. Was this response proportional to the tragedy and beneficial to the US? In brief, the war on terror hinged upon confronting the Islamists and waging wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. The war against Afghanistan, also called “the war of necessity” was waged because Afghanistan provided safe havens to al Qaeda’s leadership and the rank and file that committed terror acts. This war launched under the name of “Operation Enduring Freedom” between 2001 and 2010 cost $217 billion to the US military while the overall cost of this war to the US has been $570 billion and 2,100 deaths of its military personnel.
The war against Iraq, also called the “war of choice” (because Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks) resulted in the deaths of 100,000 Iraqi civilians as well as the deaths of 4,500 and mutilation of 33,000 American soldiers and cost the US tax payer three trillion dollars. When Iraq was in no way involved in the 9/11 attacks then why was it attacked? It is because the US at that time was ruled by a neo-conservative cabal which wanted to establish a conservative order in the US for a century with a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy that aimed to “destroy monsters” in the world (Saddam Hussein was branded as one) and set a benevolent US hegemony over the globe by the use of military force in which those who would not side with the US would be considered against her. The neo-cons thought that the Iraq war would be “quick, glorious and profitable” (a reminder to the Hitlerian blitzkrieg) but it did not turnout the way they planned. On the contrary, this war inflamed the hearts and minds of the millions of Muslims in the Mideast and South Asia against the US.
It looks as if the US had fallen into the trap laid by Qaeda about which one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants Seif al-Adil pointed out, “The Americans took the bait, and fell into our trap.” (p 175) Bait or no bait, the Americans successfully decimated Qaeda’s top leadership and overthrew the Taliban regime in Afghanistan which was acting as the protector and patron of Qaeda but this was done at a humungous cost. Admiral (R) Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence divulged in 2011 that the US was spending eighty billion dollars per year on counterterrorism and this amount did not include the expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Blair also admitted that the total strength of Qaeda and its affiliates was estimated in the range of 3,000 to 5,000 and to hunt them, the US was spending between 16 to 27 million dollars on the each potential Qaeda terrorist per year. (p 162) This was a stupendous cost. Worse, though Osama is dead, Qaeda is still alive. Earlier on, in 2004, while the US was in top gear of this war, Osama had stated in a speech that was broadcast on Al Jazeera that “al-Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event [9/11 attacks], while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost — according to the lowest estimate — more than $500 billion. Meaning that every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars [of the US].” (pages 175, 176) Such has been the American cost in terms of treasure.
Equally damaging has been the effect of this war on the rule of law inside the US. The George W Bush administration sacrificed the constraints of law at the altar of security by undertaking the largest bureaucratic reorganisation since the New Deal by setting up a new security apparatus which included the departments of Homeland Security, National Intelligence and Counterterrorism. Military Commissions were set and National Security Agency was permitted warrantless wiretapping. Over 500 Arab and foreign Muslim nationals inside the US were put in preventive detention but none of them could be convicted of a terrorist offence. (p 163)
The biggest fear is the fear of fear. Americans were fearful of terror acts in future and did not want to leave anything to chance. That is why the Bush government adopted the “one-percent doctrine” which granted the security agencies the powers “to do what they want, when they want to, for whatever reason they decide” and to “create whatever reality was convenient.” At least one scholar thinks that the Bush regime developed a psychology of threat. He quotes the “prospect theory” of the 2003 Economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in this connection which explains how human beings process information that systematically distorts judgement under the “negativity dominance” whereby the brain highly exaggerates the importance of that information which “signal a risk of loss or damage and to minimise information about possible gains or achievements.” (p 187)
Nobody could deny the possibility of terror threat in the US in the years after 9/11 or even today but Professor Ian S Lustick of Pennsylvania University argues that this threat was ‘overblown’ and the war on terror was “wasteful and destructive” and insists that even after a passage of so many years the Americans “still have dangerously distorted ideas of the scale and nature of the terrorist threat” (p 177) and blames the politicians, media and the law enforcement officials for inflating the dangers of the terror threat.
The ‘overblown’ and ‘inflated’ response to terrorism also soured America’s relations with Europe because apart from Britain and Spain, the rest of the European nations did not consider terrorism as their primary concern post 9/11. American pressure to influence Europe to join the war on terror divided the European countries into what the then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Europe, the former opposing while the latter assisting the American counterterrorism policies. In this tug of war, the American prestige lowered in the European eyes. A year after 9/11, the people in the European Union highly supported the idea that the US should lead the world. Seven years later, they began to look upon the US as the bad cop.
The transatlantic relations came under stress when the US began to shift its counterterrorism policy from multilateralism to unilateralism. Instead of taking into account the sensitivities of the European nations in the execution of its counterterrorism policies, the Americans thought that only they knew best how to deal with terror. At the intellectual level, there were criticisms from the American intellectuals on how Europe was responding and as to how it should have. An example in this regard can be the comments of an influential American intellectual Robert Kagan, who dubbed the Europeans as naive Kantians and lionised the Americans as the realistic Hobbesians. Such intellectual attacks did not go unnoticed in Europe because Chris Patten, who served as the European Commissioner for External Relations from 1999 to 2004 hit back by stating that “The United States should not establish itself as the world hegemon, setting and imposing rules — but not itself being bound by them — in pursuit of its own national interest.” (p 154)