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Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.
Breaking bread with terrorists
Asymmetric warfare is the result of conflict between the powerful and the powerless, reinforcing a cycle of violence.
Last Modified: 03 May 2011 15:13
Bin Laden's guerrilla campaign and the huge reprisals locked much of the world in a cycle of violence [REUTERS]

In an earlier moment of resistance against the Western world order, the Hong Kong Chinese opened a front in the bakeries. They nearly wiped out the entire European community on the island by kneading arsenic into their bread. But the bakers were too generous with the arsenic, which caused the Europeans to vomit before the poison could take effect.

The British were trying to open up Chinese markets for the sale of Indian opium. It took them two wars to do so in the mid-nineteenth century and the "terrorist bakers" provided part of the excuse to get the second war started. The prime minister, Lord Palmerston, railed against those who would kill British subjects by "murder, assassination, and poison".

The irony that he was practising narco-colonialism on a grand scale by force of arms, addicting Chinese in order to balance payments, perhaps never occurred to him.

When those who are weak in conventional military terms seek to fight the strong, they often do so through unconventional tactics and ruses. To do otherwise is to be stupid and risk being mown down by superior firepower. Yet tactics like poisoning families as they break bread expose the weak to charges of barbarity.

These tactics fuel the desire for righteous revenge in the West, for "justice" as those US citizens celebrating bin Laden's death called it. Palmerston made his remarks at an election rally, where he also spoke of insolent barbarians. Such desires have a way of licensing their own forms of savagery and reprisal.

A blinkered vision of warfare

This cycle in the war of the weak against the strong is an old one. The strong can afford traditions of warfare which prize decisive combat between military forces. They are genuinely shocked and horrified when their opponents find ways to shoot them in the back or massacre their loved ones. Yet the strong somehow do not see the great suffering they inflict, whether through violence or the kinds of mass slow death that capitalism specialises in for those enmeshed in its lower rungs.

As Victor Davis Hanson comments, "we in the West call the few casualties we suffer from terrorism and surprise 'cowardly', the frightful losses we inflict through open and direct assault 'fair'."

The great problem for those leading revolts in the era of European empire was that their local resources, no matter how cleverly deployed, rarely could match the global power of the West. A troop convoy on the way to fight Palmerston's war of choice in China was diverted to crush the 1857 rebellion in India.

Guerrilla warfare could beguile and tie down Western armies, but ordinarily it could not achieve decisive results. One of bin Laden's predecessors in resistance, Omar Mukhtar of what is now Eastern Libya, repeatedly flummoxed Italian forces with his lightning raids and local support in a fight that lasted twenty years from 1911.

The Italians responded with one of the great tools of counterinsurgency: concentration camps. They transferred and locked up around 100,000 people from Mukhtar's home region, draining the sea around the guerrilla fish in the Maoist idiom.

Invented by the British to deprive Boer guerrillas of their civilian support, the concentration camp would morph into the strategic hamlet in Malaya and Vietnam and the concrete barrier in Iraq, all designed to separate insurgents from those who succour them.

Mukhtar had but the resources of one mountainous area with which to oppose the modern state of Italy. How could a local people counter the weight of the strong and their world order?

End of empire

It was the Second World War which finished off the European empires, draining their resources while Japanese victories punctured forever the myth of white superiority. For those who tried to hang on to colonies, Mao, Fanon, Ho Chi Minh and others had evolved answers.

In various ways, they developed political strategies that could be served by guerrilla tactics. Military operations became armed propaganda exercises, aimed at local and faraway populations. They turned to the idea of the nation to mobilise the masses, requiring the West to devote large numbers of troops to obscure, hot places.

Back in the West, a combination of media and democratic politics made those wars politically unsustainable over time, leading to the axiom that guerrillas only had to avoid defeat to win. Western armies were very rarely defeated in the field, but eventually were forced to withdraw by their own politicians and publics.

But victories in taking over countries only reproduced the problem of the local and the global in new form. Another of bin Laden's predecessors, Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi of the Sudan, had managed to wrest control of the Sudan from Britain's Egyptian clients in 1885. No matter, the country could be left isolated for fifteen years before it was convenient to organise an expeditionary force to retake it.

The struggle for liberation

The nation-state can serve as a kind of large concentration camp, walling off from one another peoples with shared interests in resisting the West. Revolutionary leaders in places like Egypt, Cuba and Vietnam took state power amid a hostile world. They could be subject to sanctions, embargoes, and covert attack while they struggled with their own internecine conflicts, inflicted disastrous economic policies on their populations, and became corrupt.

Eventually they faced a choice between withering on the vine or re-entering the capitalist world order on unfavourable terms.

This was the stalemate between the local and the global that bin Laden sought to bust open with his spectacular attacks on the US. With the greatest armed propaganda operation in world history he sought to generate a revolt that did not respect sovereign borders.

Westerners mocked his idea of the Caliphate as a seventh-century throwback. They did not appreciate what a creative response it was to the division of the world into nation-states, which could so easily be turned into clients of the West and partitioned off from one another. As an al-Qaeda website once noted with contempt, "A 'Karzai' regime exists officially in all the Muslim countries."

But bin Laden lacked a politics with which to capitalise on his armed success. His brand of Islam divided rather than unified even those who shared the faith, and had no appeal for those outside it no matter how much they suffered from Western power. After all, who wants to fight a revolution only to live in something like the Taliban's Afghanistan?

In the late 1980s, El Salvadoran guerrillas struggling against a US-supported client regime considered using their immigrant population in Washington DC for terrorist attacks on the city's subway. Despite their desire for revenge, they cool-headedly rejected the idea out of fears that it would simply call forth a more direct and violent reprisal from the Americans.

In essence, 9/11 was like a brilliant guerrilla raid that exhilarates young fighters and gives them the taste of a victory they can never achieve. Its immediate effect is to call forth legions of imperial storm troopers on missions of reprisal, missions that wreck the rebellion and inflict suffering on those it sought to liberate.

Like bad schoolboys, bin Laden's followers never quite learned the lesson. They repeated smaller scale terrorist attacks that sowed division and generated reprisal. About the only people receptive to their propaganda were other groups of would-be young terrorists. They were enough to keep the conflict going and the reprisals coming but never sufficient or minded to build anything serious politically.

In the long arc of the decline of empires and great powers, the main consequence of 9/11 and the wars that followed is to hasten the decline of the US. Precious resources needed to regenerate the US have been spent on wars of reprisal as well as the fantastically corrupt arrangements for economic reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having allowed business to feed so well at the public trough for a decade, US politicians now deny their own people desperately needed funds for healthcare, education, and modernisation.

Guerrilla raids and imperial reprisals both achieve little but further human suffering. Nonetheless there may come a day not too far off, in the violent world of competing powers to come, that we may long for the world order built by the Anglo-Americans and for the grand ideals of many of those who resisted them.

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the study of war, armed forces and society with a focus on conflict between the West and the global South in historical and contemporary perspective. He is author of Globalisation and War, as well as many scholarly articles.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

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