Five Years On
The Economist/September 2, 2006
How George Bush fought back against al-Qaeda's assault, and what he got wrong
IT STANDS to reason that 19 men cannot change history. But they did. Five years and two American-led wars later, the world created by the September 11th hijackers is a darker place than almost anyone predicted at the start of the new century. Al-Qaeda itself may have been battered and dispersed, but the idea it stands for has spread its poison far and wide.
The essence of that idea, so far as a coherent one can be distilled from the ferment of broadcasts and fatwas issued by Osama bin Laden and his disciples, is that Islam is everywhere under attack by the infidel and that every Muslim has a duty to wage holy war, jihad, in its defence. America is deemed a special target for having trespassed on the Arab heartland. Intoxicated by their defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the jihadists are hungry to topple another superpower (see article).
This cause had deadly adherents before the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre in 2001. Mr bin Laden issued his “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders” in 1998, the year al-Qaeda bombed two American embassies in East Africa. But an honest tally of the record since September 11th has to conclude that the number of jihadists and their sympathisers has probably multiplied many times since then. It has multiplied, moreover, partly as a result of the way America responded.
Half-success in Afghanistan, total failure in Iraq
The first of the two wars George Bush launched after September 11th looked initially like a success, and compared with the second it still is. Al-Qaeda operated openly in Afghanistan and enjoyed the protection of its noxious Taliban regime, which refused America's request to hand Mr bin Laden over. America's invasion, one month after America itself had been attacked, therefore enjoyed broad international support.
The fighting ended swiftly and the political aftermath went as well as could be expected in a polity as tangled as Afghanistan's. By 2004 a first-ever free election had legitimated the presidency of Hamid Karzai. A ramshackle but representative parliament took office in 2005. The country is plagued by warlordism and the opium trade, and Taliban fighters are mounting a challenge in the south. But they do not yet look capable of dislodging the new government in Kabul.
Even though Mr bin Laden himself eluded America's forces in Afghanistan, the invasion deprived al-Qaeda of a haven for planning and training. This achievement, however, was cancelled out by the consequences of Mr Bush's second war: the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. There, three and a half years on, fighting and terrorism kill hundreds every month, providing the jihadists with both a banner around which to recruit and a live arena in which to sharpen their military skills.
Why has Iraq turned out so much worse than Afghanistan? Not only because of the familiar catalogue of Rumsfeldian incompetence—disbanding Iraq's army, committing too few American troops—but also because of al-Qaeda itself. Like most Sunni extremists, some in al-Qaeda regard Shia Muslims as virtual apostates. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the movement's leader in Iraq, managed before being killed last June to organise so many attacks on Shias and their holy places that after a long forbearance the Shias at last struck back, turning what had been an insurgency against the Americans and the new government into a bitter sectarian war.
Had Iraq turned out better, fewer people would have continued to complain that this war, unlike Afghanistan's, was conceived in sin. Loathsome though he was, Saddam Hussein had no link to al-Qaeda or the September 11th plot. Moreover, the pre-war claims of America and Britain that he had defied the Security Council by keeping his banned chemical and biological weapons, and continuing to seek nuclear ones, turned out to be false. In the battle for world opinion, this mistake, if such it was, had calamitous consequences.
Being unwise after the event
Mr Bush and Tony Blair tried and failed to win a clear United Nations mandate for war. By invading without one, they made themselves vulnerable to the charge that the war was unlawful. The quarrel in the Security Council widened a rift between America and Britain on one hand and France, Germany and Russia on the other. But this would have counted for much less if the weapons of mass destruction had existed. When it transpired that they did not, Muslims—and many others—began to assume that they had been just a pretext. Opinion polls show that millions of Muslims now think America's real aim in Iraq was to grab its oil, help Israel, or, just as Mr bin Laden said all along, wage war on Islam.
There were those (such as this newspaper) who supported the Iraq war solely because of the danger that a Saddam Hussein with a biological or atomic bomb would indeed have posed. But Mr Bush and Mr Blair refused after the war to be embarrassed by the absence of the weapons that had so alarmed them beforehand. They stressed instead all the other reasons why it had been a good idea to overthrow Mr Hussein. In Los Angeles last month Mr Blair argued that the invasion was all about supporting Islam's moderates against its reactionaries and bolstering democracy against dictatorship.
Such arguments no longer sell in the West, let alone the Muslim world. If it was all about dictatorship, what about the dictatorship the West continues to embrace in Saudi Arabia, and the quasi-dictatorship in Pakistan? If it was about helping Islam's moderates against its reactionaries, what is so clever about stepping in to someone else's civil war?
Besides, the horrors of pre-invasion Iraq had nothing to do with Islam's inner demons. Mr Hussein's was a secular dictatorship in which Islamists of all stripes kept their heads down. It is true, and it is commendable, that once America and Britain had toppled Mr Hussein, they helped to organise free elections. They are right to support Iraq's new government and to make the argument for democracy elsewhere in the Arab world. But portraying the whole enterprise as if it had from the start been all about an experiment in democracy just makes Muslims crosser. By what right do you invade someone else's country in order to impose a pattern of government?
Whatever else it may become, Iraq has so far been an own-goal in the battle for hearts and minds—and not just Muslim minds. The West rallied behind America five years ago. Now it is split: poll after poll shows deep distrust among America's traditional allies, distrust that makes co-operation on everything from nuclear proliferation to trade far harder. Some of this can be put down to the usual anti-Americanism, and the European politicians who have pandered to it. But Mr Bush has played, unerringly, straight into anti-Americans' hands.
One vast mistake has been his neglect of Mr Blair's advice to push seriously for the creation of a Palestinian state, instead of just saying that this was his “vision”. But worse has been his administration's wanton disregard for civil liberties. Some curtailing of freedoms was inevitable. Yet Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the torture memos and extraordinary rendition have not just been unAmerican and morally wrong but also hugely counter-productive. In a battle that is largely about ideas, America seems to many to have abandoned the moral high ground and so won more recruits for the jihadists.
Your people, our people
Still, not everything has gone al-Qaeda's way either. For if, as that ferment of fatwas suggests, Mr bin Laden's longer-term aim was to topple the pro-American regimes in the Muslim world, and so establish a new caliphate, he has failed.
Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudis, as is Mr bin Laden himself. Before 2003 al-Qaeda had not attacked the Saudi regime. However, in May of that year, just after America invaded Iraq, the organisation launched an offensive at home. Suicide-bombers attacked a housing compound in Riyadh, starting a campaign of terrorist violence that has claimed some 200 lives. Yet the regime is still standing, and so far as anyone can tell the violence has served mainly to strengthen it.
Another prize to have eluded al-Qaeda is Pakistan. Like Saudi Arabia, this is a country where Islam is central to the state's idea of itself. It is undoubtedly unstable. Pakistan teems with al-Qaeda sympathisers and other jihadists training for operations in Kashmir and beyond. Mr bin Laden himself is probably hiding there. Nonetheless, all of al-Qaeda's efforts to kill President Pervez Musharraf, or to deflect Pakistan from an American alliance that has grown steadily closer since September 11th, have so far come to naught.
As in the 1990s, when jihadists have mounted a violent challenge to the authoritarian states of the Muslim world they have been defeated. This is not only because such states possess strong instruments of repression. It is also because the jihadists' grandiose aims and gruesome methods have prevented them from turning a resentment of America into an appetite for revolution at home. It has not escaped the notice of Iraq's neighbours that most of the victims of al-Qaeda there have been fellow Muslims. Jihad in the abstract, or far away, may be all very well. But attacks inside countries such as Indonesia, Turkey and Jordan, where the victims were mainly Muslim, have turned local people away from al-Qaeda's cause.
If anything, that cause may have fared better in the West itself, among those whose identity as Muslims has come to take precedence over loyalty to the host country. On July 7th last year four very ordinary British-born Muslims blew themselves up on the London underground, leaving behind martyrdom tapes making it clear in homely Yorkshire accents that they saw “our people” as being at war with “your people”. British police claimed last month to have thwarted a more elaborate plot, also by British Muslims, to destroy up to ten transatlantic airliners. In June police in Toronto arrested a dozen Canadian Muslims for planning attacks, including, it is said, a plan to seize and behead the prime minister.
To many susceptible Muslims the message that the faith is everywhere under attack is evidently compelling. Jihadists are skilled at weaving the “resistance” in Palestine, Lebanon, Kashmir, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan into a single narrative of persecution by the infidel. Of the 15m to 18m Muslims who live in Europe (excluding Turkey), the percentage who sympathise with the bombers is small. But the hijackers proved in America, and the train bombers of March 2004 in Madrid, that small numbers of terrorists can produce devastating results—and a few percent of 15m is still a big number.
To the secular mind, the jihadists' notion that the faith is everywhere under attack looks absurd. How can conflicts as different as those in Palestine, the Caucasus, Kashmir and the Balkans, even East Timor, be interpreted as parts of a seamless conspiracy against Islam? In Kosovo, for goodness sake, NATO intervened to protect Muslims from Christians, not the other way round. And yet a troubling recent development is the emergence in America of an equal and opposite distortion. This is the idea that it is the West and its values that are everywhere under attack, and everywhere by the same seamless front of what Mr Bush has taken to calling “Islamic fascism”, as if this conflict is akin to the second world war or the cold war against communism. “We are in the early stages of what I would describe as the third world war,” Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in July.
What's new, and what isn't
It is wrong to look at the post-September 11th world this way, as if every local conflict is part of a civilisational clash. Mr Gingrich was speaking about the Lebanon war. But not every Islamist movement is inspired by the ideas that animate al-Qaeda. In Palestine Hamas is a pious (and vicious) version of a national-liberation movement with local goals, not another front in a global fight. Ditto, more or less, Hizbullah, except that it is also a tool of Iran. And Iran itself is better understood as an assertive rising (and dangerous) power that happens to have a theocratic constitution than as an ally of al-Qaeda, whose ideas come from a separate strand of Islam.
Al-Qaeda did not invent terrorism. In its Baader-Meinhof or Shining Path or Irish or Basque or Palestinian guise, terrorism was the background noise of the second half of the 20th century. But September 11th seemed to portend something new. There was something different in the sheer epic malevolence of the thing: more than 3,000 dead, with destruction sliding out of a clear blue sky, all captured on live TV. Most previous terror organisations had negotiable demands and therefore exercised a measure of restraint. Al-Qaeda's fantastic aims—sweeping away regimes, reversing history and restoring the caliphate—are married to an appetite for killing that knows no limits. It boasts openly that it is seeking nuclear weapons.
Mass terrorism by Islamist extremists remains a danger. To say that America's mistakes have increased the threat is not to say that America caused it. It is important to remember who attacked whom five years ago. Islam had its deadly and inchoate grievances before the Iraq war and before September 11th. The world must still strive to destroy al-Qaeda and, even more, the idea it represents. But it had better do so with cleverer means than those Mr Bush has used so far.