PARIS – Two years after September 11, 2001, the Washington neo-conservative dream of a rainbow of democracy shining from Israel to Afghanistan and traversing Iraq has vanished into thin air. From Kabul to Baghdad, the vision is being wiped out by the truth of hard facts. 1) The American army does not have the resources to play by itself the role of global sheriff. 2) America is not prepared for or interested in nation-building. 3) Military “victories”, like Afghanistan and Iraq, mean nothing when they are not complemented by moral and political legitimacy. The lack of legitimacy creates a political void, immediately exploited by radical Islam.
Tribal Afghanistan is a Taliban-infested ungovernable chaos trespassed by an anti-American jihad. Iraq is an ungovernable chaos bordering on civil war and trespassed by an anti-American jihad. The Israeli-Palestinian roadmap has been ripped apart. Al-Qaeda, a mutant virus, continues to strike from east Africa to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri remain on the loose in the Pakistan-Afghan tribal areas. Taliban leader Mullah Omar leads the Afghan jihad from his hideout in the mountains north of Kandahar. And Saddam Hussein, after losing yet another war, has exploded a time bomb in the face of the Pentagon by financing a great deal of the Iraqi resistance – a magnet now attracting people from all over the Arab world.
Al-Qaeda is “celebrating” September 11 in its own sinister way, via a new audiotape broadcast on al-Arabiyya satellite television on September 3. A spokesman who identified himself as Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Najdi announced, “There will be new attacks inside and outside [the US] which would make America forget the attacks of September 11.” But the spokesman denied that al-Qaeda was involved in the car bombing that killed Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and another 125 people in front of Imam Ali’s Shrine in Najaf in Iraq last month.
According to the al-Qaeda version, the US and Israel orchestrated the bombing because they feared the ayatollah’s connections with Iran, and also to provoke trouble between Sunnis and Shi’ites and turn the Shi’ites against Wahhabi-dominated al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s objective, according to the spokesman, remains “to fight the Americans and kill them everywhere on earth and drive them out of Palestine, the Arabian peninsula and Iraq”. Of course, the tape has not failed to remind everyone that bin Laden and Mullah Omar are alive and in jihad mode in Afghanistan.
The latest developments have proved once again that American conservatives’ pocket futurology is dead and buried. There has been no “end of history”. There has been no “death of ideology”. Instead of these pre-Galilean platitudes to which all would have been forced to submit, now it’s Medievalism all over again – with clashing sectarian apocalyptic visions (born-again Christian fundamentalists against radical Islamists), Inquisition tribunals (Guantanamo) and the horrors of war (Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine).
It’s Medievalism – but mixed with the epitome of modernity. As John Gray, a professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics argues in his latest book (Al-Qaeda and what it means to be modern, London, Faber & Faber), al-Qaeda is a by-product of globalization: “Its most distinctive feature – projecting a privatized form of organized violence worldwide – was impossible in the past.” Gray goes to great lengths to stress that on September 11, al-Qaeda “destroyed the West’s ruling myth”. And he sharply demonstrates how “like communism and Nazism, radical Islam is modern. Though it claims to be anti-Western, it is shaped as much by Western ideology as by Islamic traditions. Like Marxists and neo-liberals, radical Islamists see history as a prelude to a new world. All are convinced they can remake the human condition. If there is a uniquely modern myth, this is it.”
Just as the US re-invented and financed jihad in the early 1980s to combat the “evil” Soviet empire in Afghanistan – and so contributed to the emergence of this modern myth – by invading Iraq the US has opened up a new Pandora’s box, facilitating the alliance of Wahhabi, Afghan-Arab jihadis with secular, Ba’athist operatives: “the deadliest of combinations” according to European intelligence experts. The White House and the Pentagon won’t admit that Iraq is not tribal Afghanistan – and that the rule of anarchy everywhere around Kabul cannot prevail in a country that George W Bush wants to portray as the window of his democracy export program to the Middle East. If the Iraqi adventure fails, it’s the end of the American pretense of fashioning the new world order, and it’s the death knell for the unilateralist neo-conservatives who have held the world hostage since September 11.
As Asia Times Online has argued (Why the lessons of Vietnam do matter – Aug 20), Iraq is already a Vietnam in the sense that the most powerful army in the world is again facing a popular war of national liberation – with no exit strategy. It’s a popular war in the sense that the resistance is multi-faceted, composed by dozens of groups – left, center, religious, non-religious, Shi’ite, Sunni, Kurd. It’s a simultaneously nationalist, Ba’athist and Islamist resistance. And like in Palestine, the resistance exists as a direct consequence of the occupation – and not, as Israeli and American spin would have it, because of “Islamic terrorists”. To top it all, the absolute key question in Iraq is not the fact that the Sunni triangle (Baghdad-Ramadi-Tikrit) is engaged in a guerrilla war. If the Shi’ites also go for it in the next few weeks, then one will be witnessing the end of the neo-conservatives’ fantasy.
Outside Iraq – not only in the Arab world but also in Europe, Asia and Latin America – there’s a pervasive cynical perception according to which the Islamist scarecrow is an enemy made by US intelligence: invisible and virtual, thus eternal. And very convenient as well, compared to the old Soviet “evil empire”. Franco-Palestinian writer and former peace negotiator Ilan Halevi, in his book Face a la Guerre – Lettre from Ramallah (Paris, Actes Sud) argues that one must distinguish Islamism in general from “the international network created by the American secret services more than two decades ago, essentially with anti-Soviet purposes, and which we are now told it has staged a mutiny”. The real tragedy is that hidden by the Islamist scarecrow, one finds as hostages no less than the hundreds of millions of people living in the Arab and Muslim world.
Two years after September 11 – and after the neo-conservatives have squandered all the capital of sympathy that poured towards America from all corners of the globe – cynicism towards the American “official” version of events is also pervasive. From Rio to Rome and from Sydney to Saigon, many started viewing “Islamic terror” as too convenient a scarecrow, so pliable to the image Washington neo-conservatives want to project. This led to the widespread suspicion that the boys at spy headquarters in Langley have let it live and prosper during the 1990s to better illustrate the necessity of a new never-ending war. It’s important to remember that in the beginning of the Bush administration the top candidate for enemy number 1 in a new Cold War was China – until the Islamic terrorism scarecrow came, literally, out of the sky.
Another impregnable perception is widely shared all over the world: the American adventure in Iraq was not about weapons of mass destruction (which simply have refused to show up); but, as British analyst Tariq Ali, author of The Clash of Fundamentalisms puts it, “capturing an oil-producing country with a regime that was very hostile to Israel, which was giving money to the Palestinians”. It was also a display of “theatrical militarism”, a concept coined by French historian Emmanuel Todd and already analyzed by Asia Times Online (Theatrical militarism – Dec 4, 2002).
In the eyes of most of the Iraqi population, as well as most of the Arab and Muslim world, the Bush adventure has not “liberated” Iraq, but replaced a cruel dictatorship – which successive US governments encouraged and supported until it went out of line – with a neocolonial regime headed by a proconsul with absolute powers.
European intelligence experts have noted how Bush’s recent messages have been in fact designed to address the “liberated” Iraqi people, with the same tone “you are either with us or against us”. This means “accept our occupation on our terms, or else”. But as the Iraqi resistance stiffens – and the secular “remnants of Saddam’s regime” and radical Islam have finally found a common goal – Washington has been forced to concede that it must change its tactics. The alliance of what Iraqis are calling “the Saddam network” with radical Islam is betting on a “Lebanonization” of Iraq.
The Bush administration for its part is now saying that it will leave the country – or considerably reduce its military deployment – after the first democratic elections, promised by proconsul L Paul Bremer for Spring 2004. The deadly message seems to have hit home: the latest attacks have smashed any channel of communication that might benefit American plans and simultaneously demonstrated the powerlessness of the occupying force. But as far as the American-appointed governing council is concerned, for the moment the verdict is still open. It may be the first step towards really representative government – although all major decisions are ultimately taken by Bremer. Or it may represent the beginning of communal fragmentation – opening the doors for a civil war.
Whatever the spin, George W Bush’s decision of asking the United Nations to issue a mandate for a multinational stabilizing force in Iraq is viewed in the corridors of the European Union as concrete proof that the arrogance and incompetence of the neo-conservatives led them to a quagmire. Diplomats warn that Bush, as he appeals for help, will try simultaneously to dictate his conditions to the UN. So “old Europe” – France and Germany, plus Russia – is caught in a dilemma: how to help this American adventure that has been condemned from the beginning? An EU diplomat sums it all up, “We cannot allow Iraq to sink into horror and abjection just because we want to punish George W Bush. But at the same time we cannot just bow our heads and march into this mess the Americans themselves created, and now want to get rid of.”
The EU, meeting in Riva del Garda, Italy, this past weekend, remains deeply divided. Great Britain and Spain support Washington’s proposal to the UN, France, Germany and the Scandinavians are against it. As Anna Lindh, the Swedish foreign minister puts it, “You cannot have a situation where the US remains in control over what happens in Iraq and at the same time others have to move in and take care of security and reconstruction.”
UN blue helmets – which in fact are little else than mercenaries – may eventually be offered the honor of trying to clean up the mess. So in the corridors of the European Union inevitably there’s great sadness about what is ultimately the UN’s irrelevancy and lack of independence: “The fact is the UN simply cannot do anything against the will of the US. The maximum the UN can aspire to is to clean up the empire’s mess,” says another diplomat. Most Iraqis – who, let’s not forget, are among the most well-educated people in the Arab world after the Palestinians – share exactly the same view.
As Tariq Ali stresses, “For the US, the main thing in Iraq is to push through the privatization of Iraq’s oil, to achieve the liberalization of the Iraqi economy and to get the big US corporations in there. They are not too concerned as to how the country will be run. We are witnessing imperialism in the epoch of neo-liberal economics and the ‘Washington consensus’. Why rebuild hospitals and recreate the state health service in Iraq when you are dismantling it in your own countries?”
It’s all there in Executive Order 13315, signed by Bush on August 28 and conceived to “expand the scope of the national emergency declared in Executive Order 13303 of May 22”. By “blocking property of the former Iraqi regime, its senior officials and their family members, and taking certain other actions”, the Executive Order in fact places Iraq’s state assets under total control of the US Treasury. It is by all means the institutionalization of the looting of Iraq, under the banner of “Iraqi reconstruction”. Without any Iraqi being consulted, the Executive Order implies that what benefits the Iraqi people benefits the US. With this Executive Order duly signed, the Bush administration shouldn’t have any problems if it is forced to hand over a little control of Iraq to the UN.
If somebody should take the fall for most of the current, ghastly chaos in Iraq, one has to look no further than American proconsul L Paul Bremer. On May 23, as Bush issued his first Executive Order seizing control of Iraq’s assets, Bremer for his part signed a decree which simply dismantled the huge Iraqi army – with more than 400,000 officers and soldiers. Furious with this decision, a great deal of them subsequently fell or are falling right in the lap of the Iraqi resistance movement. The decision was of course made in Washington, possibly by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself. The official spin was that it should signal the end of the former government. Instead, it bolstered the resistance. European intelligence analysts comment that this may have been perversely what the Pentagon had in mind: to force the elusive nexus between the “remnants of Saddam’s regime” and Islamists related to al-Qaeda.
As Asia Times Online has described (The plot thickens – Aug 23) , the Iraqi resistance works as myriad cells operated by former soldiers of Saddam’s army, each of them responding to a higher official with good military training. All obey to a Central Command, a sort of clandestine joint chiefs of staff. Crossing Iraqi information with European intelligence information, it’s possible to determine that the bulk of this “invisible” army is composed by at least three different groups – all of them autonomous in military as well in financial terms:
- The Iraqi mujahideen. Composed of non-members of the Ba’ath Party, plus jihadis who have combat experience in Afghanistan and Chechnya and who come from different Muslim countries. Practically everybody has guerrilla training. This group may have up to 7,000 fighters.
- Al-Ansar (the Partisans). These are the famous “remnants of the Ba’ath Party” the Pentagon is so fond of talking about . All the leaders have been personally chosen by Saddam. They are spread out all over Iraq. No manuscript messages, no radio, no satphone: the cells communicate only through oral messages.
- Al-Muhajirun (the Emigrants) . These are a few members of the Iraqi elite, plus Ba’ath Party officials, especially military strategists. They are the hard core of the new Iraqi regime Saddam dreams of – if and when the Americans leave.
Ali Hasan al-Majid, the notorious Chemical Ali, recently arrested, was in theory the general director of the Saddam resistance, or what the Iraqis themselves are calling the “Saddam network”. Former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, captured in Mosul on August 19, was the head of al-Ansar. But Izzat Ibrahim, the former commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forcers, and leader of the mujahideen, is still on the loose. Ibrahim was the main enforcer of the Islamization of Iraqi society for these past 10 years. He is the absolute key connection between the regime and prominent Islamists in the wider Arab world. If he is arrested, this would be the closest that the Pentagon will get to finding a link between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda.
At least 100,000 former members of the Iraqi security services, especially the Mukhabarat, all of them unemployed, are roaming the Sunni triangle. Mohammed Khtair al-Dulami, head of the branch specialized on explosives, poisoning and other special operations, has not been arrested yet. Former Mukhabarat agents are acting as go-betweens for resistance fighters interested in buying loads of weapons from all sorts of dealers operating in the black market.
In a startling development, Washington was forced to swallow its own propaganda and start recruiting hundreds of real “remnants of Saddam’s regime” – the feared Mukhabarat – to try to at least to identify the more than 40 different groups that compose the resistance. Members of the American-appointed interim governing council could not be but furious. This is not only a sensational case of sleeping with the enemy, but it also painfully highlights how the Americans simply have no access to ground intelligence.
The Mukhabarat was one of the four branches – the best organized and the most feared – of Saddam’s security services. It was specialized in foreign relations. The Pentagon is particularly interested in working with agents familiar with Syria and Iran – also as an additional way to continue to demonize both countries. The Mukhabarat was officially dissolved by Bremer in early summer, as well as the ministries of information and defense. They are back – paid in dollars, and chasing Iraqis again. When Iraqis knew about it, is was one more nail in the coffin of the discredited American democratic “vision”.