Britain’s Seven Covert Wars

October 14, 2016
Published in the Huffington Post, 18 October 2016
by Mark Curtis

Britain is fighting at least seven covert wars in the Middle East and North Africa, outside of any democratic oversight or control. Whitehall has in effect gone underground, with neither parliament nor the public being allowed to debate, scrutinise or even know about these wars. To cover themselves, Ministers are now often resorting to lying about what they are authorising. While Britain has identified Islamic State (among others) as the enemy abroad, it is clear that it sees the British public and parliament as the enemy at home.

Britain began training Syrian rebel forces from bases in Jordan in 2012. This was also when the SAS was reported to be ‘slipping into Syria on missions’ against Islamic State. Now, British special forces are ‘mounting hit and run raids against IS deep inside eastern Syria dressed as insurgent fighters’ and ‘frequently cross into Syria to assist the New Syrian Army’ from their base in Jordan. British special forces also provide training, weapons and other equipment to the New Syrian Army.

British aircraft began covert strikes against IS targets in Syria in 2015, months before Parliament voted in favour of overt action in December 2015. These strikes were conducted by British pilots embedded with US and Canadian forces.

Britain has also been operating a secret drone warfare programme in Syria. Last year Reaper drones killed British IS fighters in Syria, again before parliament approved military action. As I have previously argued, British covert action and support of the Syrian rebels is, along with horrific Syrian government/Russian violence, helping to prolong a terrible conflict.

Hundreds of British troops are officially in Iraq to train local security forces. But they are also engaged in covert combat operations against IS. One recent report suggests that Britain has more than 200 special force soldiers in the country, operating out of a fortified base within a Kurdish Peshmerga camp south of Mosul.

British Reaper drones were first deployed over Iraq in 2014 and are now flown remotely by satellite from an RAF base in Lincolnshire. Britain has conducted over 200 drones strikes in Iraq since November 2014.

SAS forces have been secretly deployed to Libya since the beginning of this year, working with Jordanian special forces embedded in the British contingent. This follows a mission by MI6 and the RAF in January to gather intelligence on IS and draw up potential targets for air strikes. British commandos are now reportedly fighting and directing assaults on Libyan frontlines and running intelligence, surveillance and logistical support operations from a base in the western city of Misrata.

But a team of 15 British forces are also reported to be based in a French-led multinational military operations centre in Benghazi, eastern Libya, supporting renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar. In July 2016, Middle East Eye reported that this British involvement was helping to coordinate air strikes in support of Haftar, whose forces are opposed to the Tripoli-based government that Britain is supposed to be supporting.

The government says it has no military personnel based in Yemen. Yet a report by Vice News in April, based on numerous interviews with officials, revealed that British special forces in Yemen, who were seconded to MI6, were training Yemeni troops fighting Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and also had forces infiltrated in AQAP. The same report also found that British military personnel were helping with drone strikes against AQAP. Britain was playing ‘a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program’. In addition, the UK spybase at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire facilitates US drone strikes in Yemen.

Britain has been widely reported (outside the mainstream media) as supporting the brutal Saudi war in Yemen, which has caused thousands of civilian deaths, most of them due to Saudi air strikes. Indeed, Britain is party to the war. The government says there are around 100 UK military personnel based in Saudi Arabia including a ‘small number’ at ‘Saudi MOD and Operational Centres’. One such Centre, in Riyadh, coordinates the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen and includes British military personnel who are in the command room as air strikes are carried out and who have access to the bombing targets.

The UK is of course arming the Saudi campaign: The British government disclosed on 13 October that the Saudis have used five types of British bombs and missiles in Yemen. On the same day, it lied to Parliament that Britain was ‘not a party’ to the war in Yemen.

A secret ‘memorandum of understanding’ that Britain signed with Saudi Arabia in 2014 has not been made public since it ‘would damage the UK’s bilateral relationship’ with the Kingdom, the government states. It is likely that this pact includes reference to the secret British training of Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia, which has taken place since mid-2015. Operating from a desert base in the north of the country, British forces have been teaching Syrian forces infantry skills as part of a US-led training programme.

In Afghanistan, the public was told that British forces withdrew at the end of 2014. However, British forces stayed behind to help create and train an Afghan special forces unit. Despite officially only having ‘advisors’ in Afghanistan, in August 2015 it was reported that British covert forces were fighting IS and Taliban fighters. The SAS and SBS, along with US special forces, were ‘taking part in military operations almost every night’ as the insurgents closed in on the capital Kabul.

In 2014, the government stated that it had ended its drone air strikes programme in Afghanistan, which had begun in 2008 and covered much of the country. Yet last year it was reported that British special forces were calling in air strikes using US drones.

Pakistan and Somalia
Pakistan and Somalia are two other countries where Britain is conducting covert wars. Menwith Hill facilitates US drone strikes against jihadists in both countries, with Britain’s GCHQ providing ‘locational intelligence’ to US forces for use in these attacks.

The government has said that it has 27 military personnel in Somalia who are developing the national army and supporting the African Union Mission. Yet in 2012 it was reported that the SAS was covertly fighting against al-Shabab Islamist terrorists in Somalia, working with Kenyan forces in order to target leaders. This involved up to 60 SAS soldiers, close to a full squadron, including Forward Air Controllers who called in air strikes against al-Shabab targets by the Kenyan air force. In early 2016, it was further reported that Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose troops operate with UK special forces, was saying that his troops were ready with Britain and Kenya to go ‘over the border’ to attack al-Shabaab.

The RAF’s secret drone war, which involves a fleet of 10 Reaper drones, has been in permanent operation in Afghanistan since October 2007, but covertly began operating outside Afghanistan in 2014. The NGO Reprieve notes that Britain provides communications networks to the CIA ‘without which the US would not be able to operate this programme’. It says that this is a particular matter of concern as the US covert drone programme is illegal.

The Gulf
Even this may not be the sum total of British covert operations in the region. The government stated in 2015 that it had 177 military personnel embedded in other countries’ forces, with 30 personnel working with the US military. It is possible that these forces are also engaged in combat in the region. For example, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, has said that in the Gulf, British pilots fly US F18s from the decks of US aircraft carriers. This means that ‘US’ air strikes might well be carried out by British pilots.

Britain has many other military and intelligence assets in the region. Files leaked by Edward Snowden show that Britain has a network of three GCHQ spy bases in Oman – codenamed ‘Timpani’, ‘Guitar’ and ‘Clarinet’ – which tap in to various undersea cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf. These bases intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic on behalf of Western intelligence agencies, which information is then shared with the National Security Agency in the US.

The state of Qatar houses the anti-IS coalition’s Combined Air Operations Centre at Al Udeid airbase. The government says it has seven military personnel ‘permanently assigned to Qatar’ and an additional number of ‘temporary personnel’ working at the airbase. These are likely to be covert forces; the government says that ‘we do not discuss specific numbers for reasons of safeguarding operational security’.

Similarly, the government says it has six military personnel ‘permanently assigned’ to the United Arab Emirates and an additional number of ‘temporary personnel’ at the UAE’s Al Minhad airbase. Britain also has military assets at Manama harbour, Bahrain, whose repressive armed forces are also being secretly trained by British commandos.

Kenya and Turkey
Kenya hosts Britain’s Kahawa Garrishon barracks and Laikipia Air Base, from where thousands of troops who carry out military exercises in Kenya’s harsh terrain can be deployed on active operations in the Middle East. Turkey has also offered a base for British military training. In 2015, for example, Britain deployed several military trainers to Turkey as part of the US-led training programme in Syria, providing small arms, infantry tactics and medical training to rebel forces.

The web of deceit
When questioned about these covert activities, Ministers have two responses. One is to not to comment on special forces’ operations. The other is to lie, which has become so routine as to be official government policy. The reasoning is simple – the government believes the public simply has no right to know of these operations, let alone to influence them.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told parliament in July that the government is ‘committed to the convention that before troops are committed to combat the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate the matter’. This is plainly not true, as the extent of British covert operations show.

Similarly, it was first reported in May that British troops were secretly engaged in combat in Libya. This news came two days after Fallon told MPs that Britain was not planning ‘any kind of combat role’ to fight IS in Libya.

There are many other examples of this straightforward web of deceit. In July 2016, the government issued six separate corrections to previous ministerial statements in which they claimed that Saudi Arabia is not targeting civilians or committing war crimes in Yemen. However, little noticed was that these corrections also claimed that ‘the UK is not a party’ to the conflict in Yemen. This claim is defied by various news reports in the public domain.

British foreign policy is in extreme mode, whereby Ministers do not believe they should be accountable to the public. This is the very definition of dictatorship. Although in some of these wars, Britain is combatting terrorist forces that are little short of evil, it is no minor matter that several UK interventions have encouraged these very same forces and prolonged wars, all the while being regularly disastrous for the people of the region. Britain’s absence of democracy needs serious and urgent challenging.
twitter – @markcurtis30

Posted in General | Comments Off on Britain’s Seven Covert Wars

After an inspiring meeting, what next?

Last night’s meeting and rally – “York Stands Up To Racism” was very large (around 175 attendees) and inspiring. We hope those of you who attended felt the same way. But the meeting was a beginning rather than a culmination. What comes next is the important thing as we look to build the anti-racist counter offensive against the Trump / Hard Brexit agenda locally, nationally and internationally.

Last night was about building for the March 18th national demonstration “Refugees and Migrants Welcome – Stand Up To Racism” in London. You can still buy your coach tickets from York or Scarborough here

Whether you can get to London or not, there are plenty of activities over the next few weeks in which you can get involved:

Monday 20th Feb: One day without us: Defend EU workers protest.

St Helens Sq., 12.30 to 1.30

Monday 20th Feb: Stop Trump’s state visit.

St Helens Sq. 17.00 to 18.00

Saturday 25th Feb: SUTR campaign stall

10.00 pm to 12.00 Bishopthorpe Road shops

Saturday 11th March: SUTR campaign stall

1.0 pm to 3.00 pm Parliament Street Fountain

We hope to see you on the coach to London and on the events above.


York Stand Up To Racism

You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups “York SUTR” group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to
To post to this group, send email to
To view this discussion on the web, visit
For more options, visit

Posted in General | Comments Off on After an inspiring meeting, what next?

Stop the War national conference

Stop the War national conference

Stop the War’s AGM for members and delegates
9.30am – 5pm Saturday 22nd April 2017
Arlington Conference Centre
220 Arlington Road

This year’s national conference, which is Stop the War’s annual general meeting for members and delegates, is taking place against the background of a 16-year long war in the Middle East and a dangerous and bigoted new US President.

• US President Trump’s aggressive, belligerent and bigoted policies, including the travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, are galvanising millions of people to stand up against him.

• Britain continues to be militarily involved in at least seven countries both through bombing campaigns authorised by parliament and through covert military actions.

• The refugee crisis, largely a result of Western military interventions, is continuing to afflict millions of people.

• New threats are developing, including a bellicose stance of the Trump administration towards Iran and China.

The conference will discuss how the anti-war movement should respond in the next 18 months. If you want to be part of this important planning and action conference, please make sure you book early to secure your place.

All individual members with up-to-date subscriptions can register for the conference. The date for the new members to join and attend the conference is 1 March 2017. Join now so you can attend the conference.

Details about proposing motions and nominations for the steering committee meeting are available here.

Register on Eventbrite.

Posted in General | Comments Off on Stop the War national conference

Understanding Your Enemy: Donald Trump and IS

Paul Rogers
30 January 2017

One of the concerns of Oxford Research Group over more than thirty years has been to explore conflicts and tensions as viewed by the parties directly involved. If seeking to do so involves areas of fundamental disagreement this can be subject to considerable criticism, a case in point being any attempt to see the world from an al-Qaida or Islamic State (IS) perspective. Even so, ORG would argue that it is a necessary task, and there are a number of ways of going about it.

One is to use a degree of fiction, and one recent attempt to do so has been the series of “Letters from Raqqa”. Ten of these have been published in the Open Democracy web journal and cover a period of a little over two years, the most recent one being on 8 December last, reflecting on the Trump election phenomenon and looking forward to further advances for anti-Muslim populist parties in Europe in 2017. As I have written elsewhere, for IS these are both the worst of times and the best of times.

The letters are written as if coming from an IS supporter working in Raqqa and therefore give an entirely different view of the conflict when compared with the typical analysis from western perspectives. In doing so, they use a wide variety of sources, both published and oral, to try and get inside the thinking of a well-educated, intelligent but utterly committed IS supporter.

Using such a “writer” has a particular problem in that the very idea of an intelligent western-educated person being in such a position does not fit with the common need to see IS supporters as essentially insane. There is, though, abundant evidence that plenty of them are at least tri-lingual and with postgraduate qualifications. They may have motives that are difficult to understand and they may be considered unbalanced but that makes it even more important to attempt to do just that.

There is a particular need to assess and understand the motives of IS at present for two quite different reasons. One is that there is growing evidence that IS has already factored into its strategy the loss of Mosul some time in the next few months and is even considering moving on beyond its previously core emphasis on the creation of the Caliphate based in Raqqa. It now intends to go “underground” engaging in long-term disruption, both in Iraq and the immediate region and also in the western countries of the “far enemy” including the UK.

The second is that the incoming US President Donald Trump has made it clear since taking office that destroying IS and other extreme Islamist paramilitary movements will be a priority for his administration, should be a key mission for the other 27 member states of NATO, and may be the basis for a closer strategic relationship with Russia. This is an approach that is also demonstrated by the appointment of three hawkish retired generals to his cabinet (Pentagon, Homeland Security and National Security Advisor) and by the intention to increase military spending.

Moreover, his actions in the first few days in office are confirming that much of his campaign rhetoric will be followed through into office. Obamacare will be rescinded, a wall will be built on the Mexican border, the Trans Pacific Partnership will be ended and the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines will go ahead. Perhaps most significant in the current context will be plans to implement further entry restrictions on people from the Middle East, not least refugees from several conflicts in which the US is as an active participant.

As my letter-writer (an imagined IS analyst of Western politics) puts it in one of his letters a year ago, as the US primary elections got under way:

“As far as the contenders are concerned, what we would like most would obviously be a Trump victory – even better than having Farage sharing power with Cameron in London! […]

So put it together – America goes more hardline, the wars intensify, the refugee flows grow, Europe turns its back as anti-Muslim feelings increase, and community disorder and violence become the order of the day. The end result? Many thousands more recruits to our cause.

Perhaps you can understand why someone like me is quietly optimistic.”

All of Trump’s actions indicate a high level of personal self-belief with most if not all of his hardline campaign ‘proposals’ likely to be put into effect given the make-up of both of the Houses of Congress. In this context it is therefore reasonable to conclude that the war against IS will be intensified abroad, and the marginalisation of Muslims (chief among many other groups) within the US homeland will be exacerbated.

It may seem an appropriate way forward from the point of view of the US military and the Trump administration, yet the war against “extreme Islam” has now been under way for more than fifteen years, has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, the displacement of millions of people and multiple failed or failing states. Any idea that defeating IS and other movements though relying on military action should be treated with great caution – it has not worked so far and there are few signs that this will change.

In such circumstances it is even more important to make the effort to understand the motives and attitudes within IS. The letters with a brief introduction to each, mainly concerned with putting them in the context of when they were written as they frequently refer to contemporary events, have been published as a single document recently on Open Democracy and may be of interest to ORG’s readers.

Image credit: Day Donaldson/Flickr

About the Author
Paul Rogers is Global Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group and Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. His ‘Monthly Global Security Briefings’ are available from our website. His new book Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threats from the Margins will be published by I B Tauris in June 2016. These briefings are circulated free of charge for non-profit use, but please consider making a donation to ORG, if you are able to do so.

Copyright Oxford Research Group 2017.

Some rights reserved. This briefing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Licence. For more information please visit

Posted in General | Comments Off on Understanding Your Enemy: Donald Trump and IS

Our Annual General Meeting 2017

York Against the War

Our Annual General Meeting will be held on Thursday 2nd February 2017, 7.30 pm, at the Sea Horse Hotel 4 Fawcett Street, York, YO10 4AH.

The Agenda will include:
Treasurer’s Annual Report
Election of Emergency Committee
Future Meetings & Stall

Everyone Welcome


Posted in General | Comments Off on Our Annual General Meeting 2017

Help us to break the special relationship

Newsletter – 26 January 2017
Help us to break the special relationship

Today Theresa May goes to Washington. Any civilised or sensible government would be breaking links with President Trump but our PM is rushing to be the first foreign leader to meet him. As Trump’s aggressive foreign policy – which has already led to further bombing in Syria and Iraq – becomes ever clearer it is urgent that we end the special relationship now.

Stop the War Convenor Lindsey German said: ‘Trump wants to increase military spending and the level of nuclear weapons. He also support torture. The special relationship has never benefited the people of Britain. With this president it will be positively harmful and should be ended.’

Thousands have already signed our petition calling for the end to the special relationship.
Sign the petition now
Circulate it online and in your community, workplace, college (you can download a copy here).
Organise a street stall this weekend calling for an end to the special relationship
Set up an anti-war meeting where you are – contact us at for help with speakers, titles, publicity.
Join Stop the War now

Posted in General | Comments Off on Help us to break the special relationship

York Stands Up to Racism




Posted in General | Comments Off on York Stands Up to Racism

Towards a Sustainable Security

19th December 2016

One of the priorities for Oxford Research Group in 2017 will be the development and piloting of a Sustainable Security Index. Thanks to a generous new three-year grant from our long-time supporters at the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation, we are now well on our way to launching this important tool for popularising the concept of Sustainable Security and mapping the practical policy action required of states to build and sustain real human security.

The Index project will develop a data analysis and visualisation tool that tracks and maps the net impact that each country has on global common security. It will do this through the collation and presentation of a large body of data, much of it sourced from other research organisations. This will range from data on military expenditure, arms exports and involvement in foreign conflicts, through quantity and quality of development aid, to net contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, ecological footprint and respect for democracy and human rights at home and abroad.

The envisaged benefits of the Index include popularisation of the concept of Sustainable Security, easy visualisation of state performance, and the development of state champions of Sustainable Security which can be lauded for their progressive international policy approaches. It will also allow ORG and other think tanks and NGOs to think through what joined up policies are necessary for countries to make the transition towards responsible global citizenship.

In 2017, as much of the world doubles down on ‘national security’ policies and ever less sustainable approaches to the environment and conflict management, we think such an Index has never been more valuable.
We are seeking co-funding to maximise the impact of the Index. If you or a trust or foundation you know of would be interested in contributing to the costs of such an important project, please contact Richard Reeve, Director of the Sustainable Security Programme to find out more details.

Image credit: Pixabay

Posted in General | Comments Off on Towards a Sustainable Security

Trump Time: Time to End the Special Relationship

Written by Chris Nineham on 04 January 2017. Posted in News & Comment.

The election of President Trump should throw Britain’s toxic relationship with the US into severe questions says Chris Nineham.

‘Any hopes that, as president, Trump might dial down global tensions vanished weeks ago’

The ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, announced by Winston Churchill soon after World War Two, has been toxic from the start. It is a collaboration that has always demanded unswerving support for US superpower aspirations. But the price keeps getting higher.  Thatcher’s partnership with Ronald Reagan involved turning Britain into an offshore nuclear missile launchpad and provided a transatlantic power base for the neoliberal economics that has wreaked such havoc around the world. The Chilcot report made it official that Tony Blair’s ‘I will be with you whatever’ relationship with George Bush was a ‘determining factor’ in Britain’s lead role in the catastrophic war on Iraq.

Working closely with Donald Trump could be one step worse. Any hopes that, as president, Trump might dial down global tensions vanished weeks ago. His apparent commitment to isolationism is contradicted by warlike rhetoric against Iran and China and his promises to escalate against Isis. His commitment to US military hegemony is unambiguous: ‘our military dominance’ he insisted recently ‘must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody’. Trump has it in for China in particular, and rails against what he regards as China’s economic robbery of the US, ‘we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country, because that is what they are doing. It is the greatest theft in the history of the world.’ Many commentators have written off such comments as election rhetoric.

But on top of his hawkish foreign affairs selections of personnel, his provocative phone call to the President of Taiwan has raised fears that this is a serious policy position. According to Bonnie Glaser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, ‘that phone call was pivotal in their thinking about Trump, this is the most sensitive issue for the Chinese….Trump would like to have a more level playing field in the economic realm and most people expected to see tensions in the trade and economic aspects of the relationship, but increasingly it appears that there will be friction in other areas as well. And this has really unnerved the Chinese’.

There are deeper reasons to think that Trump’s stance reflects something more structural. In the run-up to the election the US foreign policy establishment was united in the belief that the Obama years of limited direct interventions and focus on drone attacks and proxy wars had been a failure. The message was the US needs to toughen up. This reflected the fact that the US faces the biggest threats to its global power since the Second World War.

The Dangers of Decline

US influence in the Middle East and North Africa is at a low point. The wars of the last fifteen years have all had disastrous outcomes. Iraq and Libya are failed states over which the US has diminishing control.  Despite high levels of US covert intervention in Syria, and its avowed aim of regime change, the outcome has not been as it wished. Instead, Russia has intervened decisively in Syria and bolstered its position. The US has had to stand by and watch as talks between Turkey, Russia, the Syrian government and some sections of the opposition have taken place without it.

In the Asia Pacific, China is pushing for political influence commensurate with its economic position. In terms of purchasing power, China is now level with the US. In the words of Carol Gluck from Columbia University, ‘we are undergoing a shift in the shape of the world order…probably China will be the next dominant economic power.’ China is rearming rapidly and the the US foreign policy establishment generally is not in a mood to conciliate. Despite the changing balance of power, the US is still behaving as if China should not be allowed to assert itself.

Making Matters Worse

To compensate for setbacks elsewhere and to try and hem Russia in, the US and its allies have developed an aggressive posture in Eastern Europe. Britain has been at the forefront, despatching 800 troops to the Baltic states at the end of last year to join thousands of other NATO troops concentrating on Russia’s borders. But such a policy can only increase great power tension, contributing to a sense of global insecurity: As John Sawers, former MI6 chief puts it:

‘We have been living through a period since the Cold War when America has been the dominant power in the world…what we have seen in the last few years is a China that is a more assertive, a Russia which is much more prickly and unpredictable and finding that using its military power is advantageous to it. I think we are going back to the world of great power rivalry and that must give rise to the possibility of miscalculations, conflicts, clashes and conceivably war. So this is quite a dangerous moment.’

Trump’s pumped up bigotry and reactionary attitudes across the domestic policy spectrum are more than enough cause for concern. But to have someone as xenophobic and unpredictable as Donald Trump in the White House at such a time of tension can only add to anxiety. The anti war movement is joining and supporting the protests against Trump around inauguration day, but we should be going further. Collaboration or support for US foreign policy at this moment should be unthinkable. We need a concerted campaign to demand that our government finally ends its alliance with the US and that we start to forge a new foreign policy.

Unlinked quotes are from BBC Radio 4 programme New World: Axis of Power broadcast on Tuesday 4 December. Available here.
Source: Stop the War Coalition

Posted in General | Comments Off on Trump Time: Time to End the Special Relationship

Endless War?

By Walden Bello*
September 2001
Focus on the Global South
Available at <>

The assault on the World Trade Center was horrific, despicable, and unpardonable, but it is important not to lose perspective, especially a historical one. For a response that is dictated primarily by fury such as that now displayed by some American politicians, while understandable, is likely to simply serve as one more proof for Santayana’s dictum that those who do not remember history are bound to repeat it.

The Moral Equation

The scale and consequences of the World Trade Center attack are massive indeed, but this was not the worst act of mass terrorism in US history, as some US media are wont to claim. The over 5000 lives lost in New York are irreplaceable, but one must not forget that the atomic raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 210,000 people, most of them civilians, most perishing instantaneously. But one may object that you really can’t compare the World Trade Center attack to the nuclear bombings since, after all, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were targets in a war. But why not, since the purpose of the nuclear bombings was not mainly to destroy military or infrastructural targets, but to terrorize and destroy the civilian population? Indeed, the whole allied air campaign against Germany and Japan in 1944-45, which produced the firestorms in Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo, that killed tens of thousands had as its central aim to kill and maim as many civilians as possible.

Similarly, during the Korean War, terror bombing of civilians was the policy of the US Air Force’s Far Eastern Bombing Command, which was instructed to pulverize anything that moved in enemy territory. After indiscriminately dropping 1400 tons of bombs and 23,000 gallons of napalm, the unit commander, Gen. O’Donnell, uttered his famous lines: “Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name. Just before the Chinese came we were grounded. There were no more targets in Korea.”

During the Cold War, mass elimination of the enemy’s civilian population, alongside the destruction of his armed forces or industry, was institutionalized in the strategy of massive nuclear retaliation that lay at the center of the doctrine of Deterrence. In Indochina, where the US was frustrated by the fact that combatants and civilians seemed indistinguishable, indiscriminate killing of civilians was a central component of the American war. In the air war, US forces detonated 13 million tons of high explosive from 1965 to 1971, or the energy equivalent of 450 Hiroshima nuclear bombs. In the “counterinsurgency war” on the ground, 20,000 civilians were systematically assassinated under the CIA’s Operation Phoenix Program in the Mekong Delta.

But must not such actions against civilians be judged in the context of a broader strategic objective of sapping the enemy’s will to fight and thus bring the war to a conclusion? But then how different is this justification from the terrorists’ aim to change the foreign policy of the US government by eroding the support of the country’s civilian population?

The point is not to engage in a “maleficent calculus,” as the 19th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham would have called this exercise, but to point out that the US government hardly possesses the high ground in the current moral equation. Indeed, one can say that terrorists like Osama bin Laden, an ex-CIA prot?g?, have learned their lessons on the strategic targeting of the civilian population from Washington’s traditional strategy of total warfare, where damage to the civilian population is not simply seen as collateral but as essential to achieving the ends of war.

The Clausewitzian Calculus

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center assault, the perpetrators of the dastardly deed have been called “irrational” or “madmen” or people that embody evil. This is understandable as an emotional reaction but dangerous as a basis for policy. The truth is the perpetrators of the deed were very rational. If they were indeed people connected with Osama bin Laden, their goal was most likely to raise the costs to the United States of its maintaining its current policies in the Middle East, which they consider unjust and inequitable, and this was their way of doing it. They very rationally picked the targets and weapons to be used, paying attention not only to maximum destruction but also to maximum symbolism. The choice of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon as the targets, and American and United Airlines planes as the delivery vehicles doubling as warheads, was the product of cold-blooded thinking and planning. The loss of their own lives was factored into the calculation. What we saw was a rational calculus of means to achieve a desired end. In the view of these people, terrorism, like war, is the extension of politics by other means. These are Clausewitzian minds, and the worst mistake one can make is to regard them as madmen.

Pearl Harbor or Tet?

One metaphor that the Washington establishment has used to capture the essence of recent events is that of a second Pearl Harbor, with the implication that like the first, the September 11 tragedy will galvanize the American people to an unprecedented level of unity to win the war against still unidentified enemies. The other side, one suspects, operates with a different metaphor, and this is that of the Tet Offensive of 1968. The objective of the Vietnamese was to launch massive simultaneous uprisings that, even if defeated separately, would nevertheless add up to a strategic victory by convincing the other side, especially its civilian base, that the war was unwinnable. The aim was to rob the US of the will to win the war, and here, the Vietnamese succeeded.

The perpetrators of World Trade Center assault are operating with a similar calculus, and, despite the current jingoistic talk in Washington, it is not certain that they are wrong. Will the American people really bear any burden and pay any price in a struggle that will persist way into the future, with no assurance of victory, indeed, with no clear sense of who the enemies are and of what “victory” will consist of?

The media are full of news about the creation of an alliance against terrorism, conveying the impression that coordination among key states combined with the outrage of citizens everywhere will give a Washington-led coalition an unbeatable edge. Perhaps in the short run, although even this is not certain. For the problem is that, as in guerrilla wars, this is not a war that will be won strictly or mainly by military means.

The Underlying Issues

If it was bin Laden’s network that was responsible for the World Trade Center attack, then the underlying issues are the twin pillars of US policy in the Middle East. One is subordination of the interests of the peoples of the region to the US’ untrammeled access to Middle East oil in order to maintain its high-consumption petroleum-based civilization. To this end, the US overthrew the nationalist government of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, cultivated the repressive Shah of Iran as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf, supported anti-democratic feudal regimes in the Arabian peninsula, and introduced a massive permanent military presence in Saudi Arabia, which contains some of Islam’s most sacred shrines and cities.

The war against Saddam Hussein was justified as a war to beat back aggression, but everybody knew that Washington’s key motivation was to ensure that the region’s most massive oil reserves would remain under the control of pro-Western elites.

The other pillar is unstinting support for Israel. That Arab feelings about Israel are so elemental is not difficult to comprehend. It is hard to argue against the fact that the state of Israel was born on the basis of the massive dispossession of the Palestinian people of their country and their lands. It is impossible to deny that Israel is a European settler-state, one whose establishment was essentially a displacement from European territory of the ethnocultural contradictions of European society. The Holocaust was an unspeakable crime against humanity, but it was utterly wrong to impose its political consequences–chief of which was the creation of Israel–on a people who had nothing to do with it.

It is hard to contradict Arab claims that it was essentially support from the United States that created the state of Israel; that it has been massive US military aid and backing that has maintained it in the last half century; and that it is deep confidence in perpetual US military and political support that enables Israel to sabotage in practice the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.

Unless the US abandons these two pillars of its policies, there will always be thousands of recruits for acts of terrorism such as that which occurred last week. And while we may condemn terrorist acts–as we must, strongly–it is another thing to expect desperate people not to adopt them, especially when they can point to the fact that it was such methods that targeted civilians as well as military personnel, combined with the Intifada, that forced Israel to agree to the 1993 Oslo Accord that led to the creation of the Palestinian entity.

Yet another reason why the strategic equation does not favor the US is that there are a great many people in the world that are ambivalent about terrorism. In contrast to Europe, there has been a relatively muted response to the World Trade Center event in the South. A survey would probably reveal that while many people in the Third World are appalled by hijackers’ methods, they are not unsympathetic to their political objectives. As one Chinese-Filipino entrepreneur said, “It’s horrible, but on the other hand, the US had it coming.” If this reaction is common among middle class people, it would not be surprising if such ambivalence towards terrorism is widespread among the 80 per cent of the world’s population that are marginalized by current global political and economic arrangements.

There is simply too much distrust, dislike, or just plain hatred of a country that has become so callous in its pursuit of economic power and arrogant in its political and military relations with the rest of the world and so brazen in declaring its cultural superiority over the rest of us. As in the equation of guerrilla war, civilian ambivalence in the theater of battle translates strategically to a minus when it comes to the staying power of the authorities and a plus when it comes to that of the terrorists.

In sum, if there is one thing we can be certain of, it is that massive retaliation on the part of the US will not put an end to terrorism. It will simply amplify the upward spiral of violence, as the other side will resort to even more spectacular deeds, fed by unending waves of recruits. The September 11 tragedy is the clearest evidence of the bankruptcy of the 30-year-old policy of mailed-fist, massive retaliation response to terrorism. This policy has simply resulted in the extreme professionalization of terrorism.

The only response that will really contribute to global security and peace is for Washington to address not the symptoms but the roots of terrorism. It is for the United States to reexamine and substantially change its policies in the Middle East and the Third World, supporting for a change arrangements that will not stand in the way of the achievement of equity, justice, and genuine national sovereignty for currently marginalized peoples.

Any other way leads to endless war.

*Executive Director of Focus on the Global South and professor at the University of the Philippines.



Posted in General | Comments Off on Endless War?