The war on terror: Misnamed, misfought, misthought

Sam Smith – According to the belligerently bombastic Daily Beast:

ISIS continues to gain substantial ground in Syria, despite nearly 800 airstrikes in the American-led campaign to break its grip there. At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities that the so-called Islamic State hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate. Meanwhile, the Islamic extremist group does not appear to have suffered any major ground losses since the strikes began.

At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities it hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate.

In the first two months following American airstrikes, about a million Syrians who had previously lived in areas controlled by moderates now lived in areas controlled by extremist groups al Nusra or ISIS, according to CDS, citing conversations with European diplomats who support the Syrian opposition.

If the Daily Beast had used the phrase “because of” rather than “despite” it would have been much closer to describing the situation and its context.

We haven’t seen a war close to its traditional meaning since Vietnam and even there we badly misgauged it as Ray McGovern pointed out last November:

Why was I reminded of Vietnam on Saturday when Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Iraq to “get a firsthand look at the situation in Iraq, receive briefings, and get better sense of how the campaign is progressing” against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL?

For years as the Vietnam quagmire deepened, U.S. political and military leaders flew off to Vietnam and were treated to a snow job by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander there. Many would come back glowing about how the war was “progressing.”

Dempsey might have been better served if someone had shown him Patrick Cockburn’s article in the Independent entitled “War with Isis: Islamic militants have an army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader.”

Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, told Cockburn that “I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters because they are able to mobilize Arab young men in the territory they have taken.”

Hussein estimated that Isis rules about one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria with a population from 10 million to 12 million over an area of 250,000 square kilometers, roughly the size Great Britain, giving the jihadists a large pool of potential fighters to recruit.

While the Kurdish estimate may be high … the possibility that the Islamic State’s insurgency is bigger than believed could explain its startling success in overrunning the Iraqi Army…

Westmoreland insisted that the number of enemy Vietnamese in South Vietnam could not go above 299,000.

The inconvenient truth finally became abundantly clear during the Tet offensive in late January and early February 1968, but still the misbegotten war went on, and on, ultimately claiming some 58,000 U.S. lives and millions of Vietnamese.

A traditional war is, in no small part, about gaining ground, but since Vietnam the term has become hard to define because our leaders use it in whatever way seems most convenient at the moment. For example, in Iraq, our mission was accomplished – at least according to our then president – in a matter of months but we stayed there another eight years and now may be headed back. As for Afghanistan, even our publicly stated mission was far mushier, but also a failure: to dismantle Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

To understand why the world’s most powerful nation – one that spends more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UK, Japan, India, Brazil and Turkey combined – should do so badly it helps to recognize that war today is no longer about physical conquest so much as it is about the reaction of the prospectively conquered and their allies. It is far more about anger than about acres.

And when the targets are especially poor and lacking in economic and social support, bombing their friends and relatives does little good. The Pentagon is trying to defeat those who already feel defeated and furious about it. Further, it makes these societal victims perfect conversion targets for the likes of the Taliban or ISIS. The war on terror is really a war for more terror.

In a sense, what we are seeing is the grand failure of the drug war being applied to foreign affairs, involving a massive cultural dysfunction created by our government’s action and exploited by what we would call in the case of drugs, cartels, mob leaders or drug lords.

In short, we are seeking to obtain acreage when we should be seeking to contain anger. The terminology of war serves little good and works against our stated goals.

A few scholars and journalists have noticed this. Tom Porter in the International Business Times drew some striking parallels between the war on terror and the war on drugs:

US president Barack Obama has deplored Isis’ violence and pledged to “degrade and destroy” the group, but Musa al-Gharbia, a research fellow at the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts, claims that there is a far graver threat to the US closer to home.

He points to a series of figures showing that the violence of the [drug] cartels in some cases eclipses, and in others equals that of the Islamist group.

A recent United Nations report estimated that nearly 9,000 civilians had been killed and 17,386 wounded this year in fighting in Iraq… On the other hand figures from the Mexican government show that last year cartels were responsible for murdering more than 16,000 people in Mexico alone, and an estimated 60,000 in the preceding six years.

– Like Isis, cartels aim to strike fear into their rivals and opponents through torture and mass executions. They carry out hundreds of beheadings every year, and deliberately target women and children. Executed and mutilated victims have been displayed in gruesome arrangements in town squares and at town roundabouts, as cartels strive to outdo each other in violence.

– Both groups exploit social media to advertise their exploits. Only this week, cartel members executed anti-cartel activist, Dr Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, accessed her Twitter account, then posted a picture of her corpse.

– Isis is believed to have enslaved approximately 1,500 Yazidi women and children, yet by some estimates cartels have enslaved tens of thousands, forcing some into sex work, and others to labour in plantations.

-Isis is believed to have recruited children as young as 10 to take part in suicide bombing missions and to fight on battlefields. Mexican cartels are also believed to have recruited scores of child soldiers, and have kidnapped children to harvest their organs.

The author goes on to argue that with its tentacles having reached every city in the US and claimed thousands of US victims in the ‘narco wars’, the cartels in fact pose a graver threat to the US than Isis.

Coleen Jose, writing for Mic Network last fall, added, “The cartels killed 293 Americans in Mexico from 2007 to 2010. The groups have also repeatedly attacked U.S. consulates in Mexico. In October 2008, two assailants fired their weapons and threw a grenade at the consulate in Monterrey.”

To bring it even closer to home, consider that the domestic drug trade has been estimated to be the size of the pharmaceutical industry yet you would have no hint of it in the major media which virtually never looks into the effect on politics and life in general from the perspective of those with power. It is only the minor dealers and their customers who get covered. As I learned examining the drug culture of Arkansas in the 1990s, nobody in the establishment wants to touch this issue and that, rather than there being a drug war, there is a covert relationship between the alleged enforcers and the actual enablers.

A rare exception is a remarkable story from the British paper, The Independent:

The entire criminal justice system was infiltrated by organised crime gangs, according to a secret Scotland Yard report leaked to The Independent. In 2003 Operation Tiberius found that men suspected of being Britain’s most notorious criminals had compromised multiple agencies, including HM Revenue & Customs, the Crown Prosecution Service, the City of London Police and the Prison Service, as well as pillars of the criminal justice system including juries and the legal profession.

The strategic intelligence scoping exercise – “ratified by the most senior management” at the Met – uncovered jurors being bought off or threatened to return not-guilty verdicts; corrupt individuals working for HMRC, both in the UK and overseas; and “get out of jail free cards” being bought for £50,000.

The report states that the infiltration made it almost impossible for police and prosecutors to successfully pursue the organised gangs that police suspected controlled much of the criminal underworld.

The fresh revelations come a day after The Independent revealed that Tiberius had concluded the Metropolitan Police suffered “endemic police corruption” at the time, and that some of Britain’s most dangerous organized crime syndicates were able to infiltrate New Scotland Yard “at will.”….

In 2000, according to Tiberius, a key police informant was secretly helping Scotland Yard with an investigation into the importation of £10m of heroin by a Turkish gang in north London.

The deal went wrong, the informant was tortured in a cellar and “an attempt was made to sever his fingers with a pair of garden shears”. His associate was also attacked and had “three fingers chopped off with a machete”.

The henchman Tiberius alleged had committed the assaults was the son of a named Met detective, who repeatedly tried to impede police inquiries into the case, according to Tiberius. He also had a corrupt relationship with a named detective sergeant then based in Marylebone police station who is suspected to have “organised cheque frauds”. Research conducted by The Independent suggests that none of the three men has ever been prosecuted.

The truth is that in Mexico, Arkansas or Britain – to name a few – there are too many in power who could say “Je suis ISIS” people who have learned how to defeat or capture the system without the conventional tools of warfare.

Their weapon is a populace too much ignored, mistreated or excluded from the benefits of conventional citizenship, making them easy candidates for either ISIS or a Mexican dug cartel. Chris Hedges hit on this remarkably recently:

The 5 million North Africans in France are not considered French by the French. And when they go back to Algiers, Tangier or Tunis, where perhaps they were born and briefly lived, they are treated as alien outcasts. Caught between two worlds, they drift, as the two brothers did, into aimlessness, petty crime and drugs.

Becoming a holy warrior, a jihadist, a champion of an absolute and pure ideal, is an intoxicating conversion, a kind of rebirth that brings a sense of power and importance. It is as familiar to an Islamic jihadist as it was to a member of the Red Brigades or the old fascist and communist parties. Converts to any absolute ideal that promises to usher in a utopia adopt a Manichaean view of history rife with bizarre conspiracy theories. Opposing and even benign forces are endowed with hidden malevolence. The converts believe they live in a binary universe divided between good and evil, the pure and the impure. As champions of the good and the pure they sanctify their own victimhood and demonize all nonbelievers. They believe they are anointed to change history. And they embrace a hypermasculine violence that is viewed as a cleansing agent for the world’s contaminants, including those people who belong to other belief systems, races and cultures…

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, while living in Paris and working as a reporter for The New York Times, I went to La Cité des 4,000, a gray housing project where North African immigrants lived in apartments with bricked-up windows…

“You want us to weep for the Americans when they bomb and kill Palestinians and Iraqis every day?” Mohaam Abak, a Moroccan immigrant sitting with two friends on a bench told me during my 2001 visit. “We want more Americans to die so they can begin to see what it feels like.”

“America declared war on Muslims a long time ago,” said Laala Teula, an Algerian immigrant who worked for many years as a railroad mechanic. “This is just the response.”

It is dangerous to ignore this rage. But it is even more dangerous to refuse to examine and understand its origins. It did not arise from the Quran or Islam. It arose from mass despair, from palpable conditions of poverty, along with the West’s imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and hubris. As the resources of the world diminish, especially with the onslaught of climate change, the message we send to the unfortunate of the earth is stark and unequivocal: We have everything and if you try to take anything away from us we will kill you. The message the dispossessed send back is also stark and unequivocal. It was delivered in Paris.

To declare a war on terror and ignore such socio-economic realities makes no more sense than to declare a war on drugs or crime and ignore the similar truths of the neighborhoods being targeted for raids, chokeholds and stop and frisks.

The typical result of such a mindless strategy is to create more violence and far more power for the violent, which is just what is happening now in the Mid East. To end the violence, we must end our part in it and seek solutions that move both sides – however slowly – towards a more peaceful and rational future.


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