Nicolas J S Davies

A collection of published articles and letters to policymakers regarding the crisis in United States foreign policy by Nicolas J S Davies.

Location: North Miami, Florida, United States

Monday, February 02, 2009

Obama and the war on terror - the real thing

Published by Online Journal:

My brother gave me War on Terror, the boardgame for Christmas. It’s a world domination game like Risk, but with the added feature that players employ terrorists as well as conventional armies to attack each other. The real twist is that the terrorists can and usually do end up turning against the player who recruited them in the first place. As it says on the box, “Fight the terrorists. Fund the terrorists. Be the terrorists.” The game is a razor-sharp satire of the world according to Washington.

Barack Obama got War on Terror for Christmas too, but, unlike me, he got the real thing. Every day, as the Obama presidency begins, American weapons are blowing real people to bits -- men, women and children -- all over the world.

The so-called surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 provided cover for a massive escalation of U.S. air strikes. These were mostly in civilian areas and therefore illegal under international law, as the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq reminded U.S. officials. The climax of the campaign was 760 air strikes between June and September 2007, but it continued at full force into 2008, with about 110 air strikes per month through at least the first half of the year. In terms of devastation, Iraq remains the “central front in the War on Terror,” with a million dead and 5 million refugees.

U.S. Central Command’s numbers on air strikes in Iraq don’t include cannon or rocket fire by planes or helicopters, nor attacks by AC-130 Specter gunships operated by U.S. special forces. These modified cargo planes are equipped with machine guns, howitzers and every weapon in between “to provide surgical firepower or area saturation during extended loiter periods” according to the U.S. Air Force web site. In other words, they cruise over and around targets, pouring a torrent of bullets and shells into them for as long as necessary to completely obliterate them. The United States has 13 of these planes operating in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Incredibly, the Air Force touts their value in “urban operations.”

It was a Specter gunship that killed 90 civilians at Azizabad in Afghanistan in August 2008, according to U.N. and local officials. The U.S. initially denied killing civilians in that attack, but was forced to admit it had killed at least 33 civilians after American officials and journalists were confronted with cell phone video footage of the bodies of dead children. In Afghanistan, in the first week of the Obama administration, another American Special Forces attack killed 16 civilians in Garoosh in Laghman province, resulting in demonstrations in Kabul and an official protest by President Karzai. According to figures released by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies killed at least 472 civilians in 2007 and 577 in the first eight months of 2008. Considering the geography of Afghanistan and based on the results of studies in other war-zones, these numbers from passive reporting probably represent only 5 percent to 20 percent of the actual number of civilians killed.

Then there is the first specific military operation known to have been ordered by the new Obama administration, a series of Predator or Raptor drone attacks in Pakistan on January 23. Five American missiles killed 22 people, including at least three children. This was about the fortieth American attack inside Pakistan in the past year. U.S. officials claim they have killed eight “senior al-Qaeda leaders,” but they have killed at least 120 other people, too.

Even as President Obama issues orders to close Guantanamo, the Pentagon is expanding the capacity of its prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan from 600 to 1,100 prisoners, more than picking up the slack. Prisoners who have passed through both prisons have reported equally disturbing forms of torture in each of them. In Five years of My Life, Murat Kurnaz described being hung in excruciating positions and beaten for days on end at Bagram. Later he was repeatedly suffocated to the point of unconsciousness for a month at a time in an airless, stifling shipping container at Guantanamo. It would be difficult to make a case that the treatment of prisoners has been better or less criminal at Bagram or Guantanamo.

Many other people have disappeared without trace into the world of secret American prisons, on U.S. ships at sea, on U.S. bases in Europe, and in the “frequent flyer program” of extraordinary rendition to Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Libya and elsewhere. The human rights group Reprieve has compiled a list of 39 people who have disappeared without trace in U.S. custody. Some of their names were read into the Congressional Record on July 19, 2006, by four Republican members as part of a mysterious “No Longer a Threat” list. Since at least 96 prisoners are known to have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, including cases of death by torture for which U.S. troops have been court-martialed, it is feared that many of the disappeared may also have died horrific deaths.

Since the launching of the War on Terror, at least 19 U.S. allies or clients have used newly acquired American weapons against their neighbors or their own people (Chad, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, Colombia, Haiti, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Yemen). U.S. arms exports hit an all-time high in fiscal year 2008 at $32 billion, but this barely maintained America’s 40 percent share of global arms exports as its allies and competitors have eagerly joined the new arms race. British arms exports exploded from $600 million per year in 2000-2003 to $5.4 billion per year since then. In 2006, Pakistan was the largest customer for American weapons, surpassing even Israel and Saudi Arabia, and now it’s also a target of U.S. weaponry -- an arms merchant’s dream come true.

Across the border in Afghanistan, the absurd premises of the War on Terror make even less sense. Every Afghan knows that it was the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI “intelligence” service that recruited, funded, trained and deployed Al Qaeda and the Taliban. So, when the United States sends its own troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, seven years after Al Qaeda fled back over the mountains to Pakistan, the only two possible explanations for this behavior are that Americans are just utterly stupid or that we have ulterior motives. Either way, the prospect of persuading Afghan Pashtuns to take our side in our war against the terrorists we unleashed on them and ourselves is zero. And the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance, now dubbed the “Afghan Army,” are just more foreign invaders to 40 million Pashtuns on either side of the border. Afghan drug gangsters are glad to profit from American policy, but they offer no prospect of salvaging America’s honor or investment in this futile adventure.

The justification for all the violence I’ve described is that the United States and its allies face serious threats from “non-state actors,” wielding box-cutters and homemade bombs and missiles. In a microcosm of the wider War on Terror, the recent Israeli attack on Gaza demonstrated the obvious, that the latest weapons technology inflicts disproportionate casualties (about a hundred to one) on lightly armed resistance forces and civilians. This disproportionality is an essential feature of the War on Terror, making it politically expedient to use increasingly destructive weapons without a backlash from large numbers of Western casualties. The people of Gaza and the Pashtun tribesmen of Afghanistan and Pakistan therefore have so much more reason to fear Israelis and Americans than we have to fear them, and yet our leaders claim that our fear gives us the right to attack them in their homes. Their assigned role is just to die in whatever numbers we deem necessary without ever fighting back, but of course they do fight back, which then serves to justify the next American or Israeli escalation. As in War on Terror - the boardgame, we fight the terrorists, we fund the terrorists, we are the terrorists.

Our leaders claim that all of their interventions in other countries are designed to bring “stability” or “security.” But killing people and blowing up their homes and infrastructure does not bring stability or security. On the contrary, it brings death, terrible injuries, devastation and chaos. The use of military force is destructive by definition. The fact that people and societies eventually recover from war does not mean that war or those who engage in it deserve the credit for their victims’ recovery. Only a drunk driver who is still very drunk would take credit when a person he injured finally emerged from hospital and rehabilitation, but militarists drunk on aggression are quick to do just that.

No American war is ever launched without reference to the recovery of Germany and Japan from the Second World War as an example of the benefits of aerial bombardment and military occupation. Both countries built new societies out of the ruins of war, but their success was the result of rejecting militarism and redirecting their substantial national resources into peaceful economic development. Now there’s a model the United States could follow!

The reason American leaders are still patting themselves on the back over Germany and Japan (even if they were still in diapers at the time) is that they don’t have more recent examples of successful American military interventions to point to. They understand that the invasion of Grenada does not provide a convincing precedent for bombing Iran. In fact, since the 1950s, it is hard to find a case where American military intervention can legitimately be credited with bringing stability or security anywhere in the world, because that’s just not what military force does. That is why the nations of the world came together in 1945 after the two worst wars in history, signed the U.N. Charter and universally accepted its prohibition on the “threat or use of military force.”

Unfortunately, since then and especially after the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy specialists came to believe that a state of limited war might serve American interests better than a state of peace. With no serious military competitor, they were determined to find new justifications for the use of military force, to make the most of America’s unchallenged military superiority. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Michael Mandelbaum, the director of East-West Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times, “For the first time in 40 years we can conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War III.”

The Clinton administration’s “humanitarian” claims for both of its interventions in Yugoslavia muddied the waters between peacekeeping in Bosnia (to keep a peace that was established by diplomacy, not by force) and aggression against Serbia in 1999. Even after attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa and the U.S.S. Cole at Aden, terrorism still seemed a flimsy justification for widespread U.S. military operations in the Middle East. But then the September 11 attacks provided the opportunity to condition the American public to view that entire region as a legitimate target for the use of military force. The predictable outcome that this would only exacerbate the threat of terrorism it claimed to address was viewed only as a public relations problem by the reinvigorated militarists in Washington. They eventually delegated the diplomacy to mitigate worldwide outrage at U.S. policy to Karen Hughes, a public relations expert with no experience in foreign relations.

The British government has officially replaced the term “War on Terror” with “the struggle against terrorism.” But President Obama has not challenged the legitimacy or rationality of what War on Terror - the boardgame proclaims as “war on the most dangerous abstract noun known to man.” Nor has he unmasked for the American public the opportunism that was inherent in the original choice of words and obvious to the rest of the world all along.

War on Terror - the boardgame can theoretically end in one of three ways: “empire victory,” “terrorist victory” or “world peace.” The first two are almost impossible to achieve. Describing the third option, the “rules of engagement” (the instructions for the game) read, “In this case, the remaining empires share a victory and can give themselves a well-earned pat on the back for being so nice and possessing the wise understanding that this is a war no one can win.”

The world is now holding its collective breath, teetering between the hopes Mr. Obama has raised and awareness of the powerful interests invested in American militarism. Fidel Castro spoke eloquently for the naysayers, “It would be supremely naive to believe that the good intentions of one intelligent person can alter the results of centuries of interests and greed.” Code Pink and other American peace groups are keeping our hopes alive and urging Obama to live up to them. This just may be one of those times in history when smart and committed political activists can actually change the world. We have nothing to fear but fear itself -- our elected officials’ fear of the all-powerful military-industrial interests behind these policies; and the irrational fear of terrorism they have spread among the public to justify disproportionately more deadly state terrorism and a $700 billion annual military budget.