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The Global War on Terror


a. Satanic Cycle.

Fourteen years ago, the United States and its allies began a major operation against al-Qaeda called the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT). That war, which is ongoing, began in Afghanistan but then expanded to include large swathes of the planet – from the Philippines to Nigeria. States, built after great sacrifice and difficulty, collapsed under the weight of GWOT – Afghanistan and Iraq, both fragile, could not withstand the stress of US full spectrum domination, insurgency and counter-insurgency. Across the Sahara, states fell as a consequence not only of the GWOT but also of the new trade regime set in place by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – Libya and Mali had the greatest catastrophes, but not far behind were the victims of Ebola and al-Qaeda, of predatory mining companies and rapacious ruling elites. Syria, once a proud nation, is now prone – a fragile shadow of its own self-esteem. From the West’s point of view, the GWOT has largely prevented any attacks on its own territory. The price for that has been the destruction of the lives of tens of millions of people. There is a Charlie Hebdo attack each day in the land of the GWOT. It goes by without sentiment. It provokes the creation of more distress. It gives permission for the GWOT to continue. It is a Satanic Cycle.

b. Non-State Making.

Strikingly, in the war against the Islamic State and the Taliban, it is no longer the armies of states that are capable in the fight. In Syria, the most competent outfit is the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, helped along by newly created Syrian militias (including the fearsome Shabiha). Iraq’s army, routed from Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah, is a pale shadow of the militias such as the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Kataib Hezbollah. Fearful of the fissiparous violence of the 1990s, the Afghan government has tried to rein in the local mujahideen; but with the impossibility of making gains against the Taliban without such militia, the government of Ashraf Ghani has once more turned to them. It is the age of Non-State Actors fighting Non-State Actors, this militia against that one. Charles Tilly’s aphoristic claim that modern states are a product of the institutions of war could be turned on its head – states are being destroyed by war, and non-state militias are creating fiefs of their own rather than states with a broader, less sectarian claim.

c. Bombing.

Desiccated by the avarice of finance capital and bloodied by the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq, the states of the West are no longer willing to risk land occupations in their wars. They prefer to bomb from on high – whether from manned or unmanned (drone) aircraft. Assassination attempts masquerade as bombing raids, as the Western craft seek out this or that target for the never-ending GWOT. Taking a page from the Western and Israeli guide-book is the royal family of Saudi Arabia, whose war in Yemen is a mirror of the GWOT and of the periodic Israeli pummeling of Gaza. Saudi jets bomb the Yemeni landscape, claiming increasing civilian lives. The strategic gains from the bombing are doubtful. Nothing on the ground – whether in Iraq, Palestine or Yemen – is clarified by the harsh bombardment. Today the Intellectuals of War are too cagey to be honest about their strategic motivations. A hundred years ago, the imperialists were much more candid. Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill had some ideas when the Kurds rebelled in northern Iraq in 1922: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes. It would spread a lively terror.” Squadron chief Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who followed Churchill’s orders, later reported on one such raid: “Where the Arab and the Kurd had just begun to realize that if they could stand a little noise, they could stand bombing, they now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within forty-five minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.”

d. Efficacy

Al-Qaeda, the main target of the GWOT, makes gains in Syria and Yemen as well as around Mali. Its offshoot, the Islamic State (IS), metastasizes across North Africa, in the Arab East and into South Asia. Bombing raids in Iraq and Syria make little difference to the audacity of the IS. Its brutality has made the West reconsider its aversion to al-Qaeda, with some Intellectuals of War now offering the latter as a “moderate” alternative. The Saudi bombing in Yemen leaves al-Qaeda alone. What began as a War on Terror has morphed now into the great Cold War of West Asia, between the monarchical Islamism of Saudi Arabia and the republican Islamism of Iran. The West has become the air-force for both in different theaters, offering its bombing runs for the Iranian alliance in Iraq and for the Saudi alliance in North Africa. Forgotten is the goal of removal of the forces of radical salafism; the new goal is to reestablish the pillars of imperialism, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel. It is the West’s lowered ambition. The politics of antipathy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, forged in the smithy of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, is reduced now – for obvious reasons – to the contradictions of sect. Saudi worries about the export of Iranian republican Islamism are no longer the surface conversation; what dominates the debate is the Shia-Sunni fissure. It is what provokes the annulment of the Sykes-Picot divisions in the Arab East and the emergence of a new sectarian geography. But sectarianism is merely the stimulant. Other geographies of domination are at work, buried over by the more vulgar display of religious symbolism and hatred. Exits from either sectarianism or imperialism are not visible. Perhaps this is precisely the point of the never-ending GWOT.

Vijay Prashad’s latest book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (New Delhi: LeftWord Books and London: Verso, 2013).

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