Three years after al Qaeda-commandeered planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon, the leaked ruminations of U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seem more pertinent than ever.
”Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror,” he wrote in a memo to his top staff 11 months ago. ”Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”
If that is how success in the Bush administration’s ”war on terrorism” is to be measured, then Rumsfeld would have to conclude that he is failing badly.
While some 70 percent of al Qaeda’s leadership from the time of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks has been killed or captured—as Bush and his top aides never cease to remind nervous voters—terrorism experts have been amazed at how quickly the group appears to have reconstituted itself, in part by associating with new ”franchises” that have grown like mushrooms, particularly since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
”A rump leadership (of al Qaeda) is still intact and over 18,000 potential terrorists are at large with recruitment accelerating on account of Iraq,” the respected International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London said last May in its latest assessment, one that is widely accepted among counterterrorist experts here.
”U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalisation of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s,” wrote a top counter-terrorist official at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who calls himself ”Anonymous”, in a new book entitled ‘Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror’.
”Anonymous”, whose real name is Michael Scheuer, has argued—like the top counter-terrorism official under Bill Clinton and during the first half of the Bush administration, Richard Clarke—that the administration’s decision to invade Iraq, purportedly to disarm a mortal threat and bring the blessings of Wilsonian democracy to oppressed Arabs and Kurds, has produced precisely the result that Rumsfeld was most concerned about.
”(T)here is nothing bin Laden could have hoped for more than the American invasion and occupation of Iraq,” according to Anonymous. ”All Muslims would see each day on television that the United States was occupying a Muslim country, insisting that man-made laws replace God’s revealed word, stealing Iraq’s oil, and paving the way for the creation of a ‘Greater Israel’.”
This perception is indeed what appears to have taken hold across the Arab and Islamic worlds, according to a series of opinion polls taken over the past year confirming that Washington’s standing in those countries has plunged into the cellar.
”What you have is a collapse of trust in U.S. intentions,” according to Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland (UMD) who published one survey in July that tested opinions in six Arab countries whose governments are among Washington’s closest allies in the region.
Asked by interviewers to identify Washington’s motives in invading Iraq, the top four explanations volunteered by majorities of some 3,000 respondents ranging from well over 50 percent to as much as 75 percent overall named ”weakening” or ”dominating” Muslims or the Muslim world, ”controlling oil”, and ”protecting Israel”.
Similarly, the percentage of respondents in the Arab world who say their overall opinions of the U.S. are ”favourable” has fallen into the single digits in most countries, according to the UMD and other recent surveys. The figures are much the same in Pakistan, a critical U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda, and barely more elsewhere in predominantly Muslim countries in Eurasia, including even in Turkey, a strategic stalwart of the U.S. for more than 50 years.
This has clearly given bin Laden’s potential followers a much larger sea in which to swim. The result is that, despite the much greater counter-terrorist co-operation provided to Washington during the past year by previously more reticent governments, especially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the gulf that divides those states from their publics may have grown wider than ever, offering yet more fertile ground for al Qaeda’s recruiters or others who wish the U.S. ill.
That, of course, is particularly true for Iraq which by now, 18 months after the U.S. invasion, should have been well on the way to consolidating a democratic government in a federal system, protected by only about 50,000 or 60,000 U.S. troops quietly garrisoned at various permanent bases around the country with the support and gratitude of the surrounding population and its pro-western rulers.
The fact is that Washington still has nearly three times that many troops bogged down in Iraq, most of them surrounded by a resentful, if not actively hostile, population that can be counted on not to inform on a growing, albeit multifaceted, insurgency that mounts an average of more than 80 attacks on U.S. targets a day—four times more than one year ago. All of which suggests that it is not only ”madrassas and radical clerics” that are turning out ”more terrorists”, as Rumsfeld’s question suggested, but the U.S. presence itself.
That notion was raised by Friday’s Financial Times which, by way of noting that more than 1,000 U.S. troops in Iraq have now been killed since the 2003 invasion, asked a question that apparently has not yet figured in Rumsfeld’s strategic musings: ”Is the continuing presence of U.S. military forces part of the solution or part of the problem?”
”We have a stronger jihadi presence in Iraq today than in March 2003,” noted Roger Cressey, the former director for Transnational Threats in Bush’s National Security Council at a briefing at the libertarian Cato Institute earlier this week. ”Jihadists now see Iraq as a strategic opportunity.”
”It is hard to find a counterterrorism specialist who thinks that the Iraq War has reduced rather than increased the threat to the United States,” wrote James Fallows, a prominent national-security journalist, in the current edition of ‘Atlantic’ magazine..
Nor is it only in Iraq that Washington has achieved much less traction than it had hoped. In Afghanistan, most of the country remains under the rule of fractious warlords, whose cultivation of opium has, in just a few short years, reached historic levels, even as the ousted Taliban continue to make inroads in the predominantly Pashtun south and southeast.
Meanwhile, the latest surveys in Europe show that disenchantment with the administration’s conduct of the war on terror continues to grow, even in Rumsfeld’s ”New Europe” where governments had generally lined up behind Washington on Iraq.
The result: growing support for European independence from a half century of U.S. leadership and a growing risk for leaders, like former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who have ostentatiously attached themselves to the U.S. ”war on terror”.
At a time when the United States is unifying the Islamic world against it, the Bush administration has demoralised and divided the West.
It may be time for Rumsfeld to ruminate some more.