Neither wars nor drones

Obama must recognise that “counterterrorism” is first and foremost political.

A young Nigerian from an affluent family, trained in Yemen and reportedly influenced by extremists in the United Kingdom, tried to blow a hole in a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas day and failed.

Instead, he blew a greater hole in the logic of the US Global War On Terror – GWOT.

If he succeeded, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would have cost the lives 300 innocent people and bruised Western economic recovery.

But even though he failed, his journey demonstrated that there is nothing “central” about the ”central front in the war on terror”. Nor is it a war in any traditional military sense.

Although the Obama administration inherited the war strategy from its predecessor and has tried to distance itself from the Bush administration’s GWOT, it has faced the same dilemma of how to go about preventing a repeat of 9/11.

Thus far the one-year-old administration has tried to be more nuanced, more selective and less rash than its predecessor’s disastrous policies.

But it has offered no real alternatives.

‘Fighting the terrorists’

The US has long adopted two paths: A Pentagon-led war through overwhelming use of military force, occupation and counterinsurgency and a CIA-managed secret campaign of spying, harsh interrogation, assassinations, and extraordinary rendition.

In terms of war, the Bush administration considered Afghanistan as the “central war on terror” and went to war in 2001, but soon “forgot” it in favour of the more ambitious but disastrous war against Iraq – the manufactured front of the GWOT.

The Obama administration has been redeploying out of what Obama termed the “stupid” war in Iraq to the fighting in Afghanistan. It then proceeded to escalate and expand it to Pakistan as another indispensable front (Afpak) for winning the GWOT.

But over the last several months, Yemen has emerged as the latest front. Reportedly, the US air force has participated in the bombardment of several locations in Yemen and spent tens of millions of dollars.

But since the Nigerian man was apparently trained in Yemeni camps that are less threatened than Afghanistan, one can expect this war front to be expanded sooner rather than later.

Waging another war in or through Yemen could prove, as in Afghanistan, untenable as the country could descend into chaos.

With war against the Houthis in the north, tensions with the secessionists in the south, and the regime’s tenuous hold on power, Yemen could implode.

Intelligence & prevention

The Nigerian’s journey of radicalisation via London and Yemen has exposed intelligence failure on the part of Western agencies, considering that his father had blown the whistle on him several months ago.

President Obama admitted as much, and US experts made clear that the 9/11 commission’s main recommendations are yet to be implemented. Not mentioned is the failure of US wars to prevent attacks.

But more security and screening at airports that have been proposed over the last few days, are hardly the answer. As most experts would tell you, serious prevention starts before suicide bombers get to the airports. It starts with good intelligence.

To its credit, the Obama administration realised that extracting information under torture is not helpful, but rather counterproductive, and banned it. It also signed into law the closure of Guantanamo prison.

But there is no proof that it stopped its rendition programmes. Worse, targeted killings or assassinations continued unabated. They even increased, according to some reports, using drones and other unsavoury methods that inflict terrible losses on innocent lives, the so-called collateral damage.

Zero-sum game

What is obvious to many but unclear to both the Obama administration and its predecessor, is that the Pentagon’s wars and Western intelligence operations are not complementing one another as part of comprehensive policy.

Rather, they are part of a zero-sum approach to preventing another attack in the US.

In other words, wars are bad for preventive intelligence operations. They also consume the lion’s share of the security budget of the US.

Intelligence gathering has helped prevent major attacks and led to the arrest of many suspects.

But the overt wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the covert wars in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen are mostly inflaming anger and providing new recruits for al-Qaeda and its mutations, making intelligence gathering and “terror prevention” ever more impossible.

In the long run, these war zones would become the fertile ground for extremism and bases for anti-Western operations. They also incite mostly young people across borders to take up the fight against those they perceive as new Crusaders.

In the GWOT, wars have come with terribly high cost and low yield, while prevention, with all its shortcomings, has brought better results at far lower costs.

Wars, classic or covert, undermine serious political settlements or solutions to problems, whether intra-national or inter-regional.

And neither wars or drones are right to tackle the problem of “terrorism”.

Unless the Obama administration recognises that “counterterrorism” is first and foremost political and not military, it will repeat more of its predecessor’s crimes and mistakes.

To be continued …  

Source : Al Jazeera


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