Updated: Lessons still unlearned from Global War on Terror

9/11: Lessons unlearned from GWOT (of which Afghanistan is one tragic part)

Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them…. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.  (President Bush, September 20, 2021)

We will never be able to recover from the pandemic, let alone equip ourselves for meeting the global threats to humanity’s very survival now bearing down on us, if we don’t stop digging the holes that got us into this mess in the first place.

And, on the foreign policy front, no hole is bigger than the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Western governments, including our own, have “gone along to get along” for far too long.

So we begin today’s blog with a look back at the causes, costs and consequences of the US-led war on terror. In this regard, we are particularly indebted to Arab Digest, one of the most authoritative commentaries on the Middle East available today, for their seminal article entitled: 9/11: Twenty Years On (arabdigest.org, 9 September 2021). They have kindly allowed us to reproduce it in PDF format for non-subscribers.

Some of the costs of the GWOT

According to the latest report of  Brown University’s Costs of War project:

  • 900,000 US military members, allied fighters, opposition fighters, civilians, journalists and humanitarian aid workers have been killed so far as a direct result of the GWOT, whether by bombs, bullets or fire…
  • 400,000 of the direct deaths were civilian, with many more dying indirect deaths due to disease and displacement.
  • 38 million is the number of war refugees and displaced persons.

See also the report by the Institute for Policy Studies, State of Insecurity: The Cost of Militarization Since 9/11 (Koshgarian, Siddique & Stiechne, ips-dc.org, 2021), including this key finding:

Twenty years after 9/11, the response has contributed to thoroughly militarized foreign and domestic policies at a cost of $21 trillion over the last two decades.

IPS points out that, in addition to the “colossal” financial costs of militarization, we must not forget “another set of costs”, the opportunity costs of investing so heavily in militarization at the expense of social and economic investments.

Assessing the results of the GWOT

 As Arab Digest acknowledges, there have undoubtedly been some “victories”, including the defeat of the ISIS caliphate, the early routing of Al Qaida in Afghanistan, the death of Osama Bin Laden and the small number of jihadi attacks on the US mainland since 2001.

But the GWOT has been an epic failure if the measure is reducing, not increasing, terrorism:

In 2001 it was restricted to a small handful of militant groups operating out of hideouts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Today it has proliferated into dozens or hundreds of such groups around the world, better armed, financed and organised than ever before.

Al Qaeda alone is currently active in Gaza, Sinai, the Maghreb, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, East Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Kurdistan. It controls territory in Mali, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and intermittently in Egypt. The Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan. ISIS remains a continuing threat in Syria and Iraq.

A willful blindness to the underlying causes of the 9/11 attacks

Perhaps the most important part of the Arab Digest commentary is its examination of the causes behind the 9/11 attacks, a subject that was deemed off limits once then President Bush had pronounced the only acceptable reason:

They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

Arab Digest comments:

Proponents of the GWOT argue 9/11 was an unprovoked attack by suicidal terrorists aimed at humiliating the West and undermining its values and democracy.

However, as Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden explained several times, the reason the US was targeted was because of its treatment of Arabs and Muslims in the region, because of US support for the occupation of Palestine and, above all, because of US support for the regime controlling Saudi Arabia.

Arab Digest describes this as a “basic misunderstanding”, while others, including Ceasefire.ca, may be more inclined to call it wilful blindness. In any event, the result is the same:

The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq simply poured fuel on the fire and created more Jihadis.

Note that seeking to identify legitimate grievances that may have motivated the 9/11 attackers is not meant as any kind of justification for their unspeakable violence. The point being made here is that a misunderstanding of, or a wilful blindness to, those causal factors contributed to a dangerously counterproductive response.

Blowback Phenomena

 Another salient part of the Arab Digest analysis is the impotence of the “mass surveillance model” to enable democracies to “distinguish between a devout and peaceful believer and a murderous fanatic among their own citizenry”. With the onset of unprecedented terrorist attacks in London, Paris and elsewhere, the result was catastrophic for Western democracies:

Islamophobia exploded, political campaigning descended into anti-Muslim bigotry, and trust between Muslim communities and Western establishments was badly eroded, further driving radicalisation.

For a detailed, and ultimately hopeful, look at how this played out in the USA, see: How the War on Terror Created the “Muslim American” (Moustafa Bayuoumi, the nation.com, 9 September 2021).

GWOT undermines, not upholds, Western democratic values

And here we come to the heart of the Arab Digest analysis — the failure, when tested, of the USA, and the rest of the West that dutifully followed it — to stand up for the very “values and democracy” they asserted were under threat from Islamist terrorists:

The GWOT has done just the opposite.

Instead of universal values it introduced Abu Ghraib, black sites, extraordinary rendition and Guantánamo Bay. It saw Western governments double down on exactly the same Arab regimes that caused the jihad phenomenon in the first place.

The influential moderate Muslims in MENA who could have been speaking up against Jihad were all executed or jailed, while the occupation of Palestine spread.

Arab Digest reaches the obvious, but still fiercely resisted, conclusion that:

As long as the GWOT continues, and the root causes of Jihadist extremism go unaddressed, the more Jihad will spread.

So who are the winners of the GWOT?

 Arab Digest writes:

Twenty years on from 9/11 the winners of the GWOT are the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups, along with Arab autocrats in countries such as Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE.

Winners too are the autocratic opponents of the West globally including China, Russia and Iran.

The other big winner is the military industrial complex for whom an endless war on terror is simply very good business.

In the view of Ceasefire.ca, “winners” perhaps overstates the benefits to China, Russia and Iran (in regional influence and a destabilised West),  given their own concerns about violent extremism and their manifest need to reach accommodation with the West on a range of economic and security issues.

Postscript: the toll on human rights

In the comments section of the Arab Digest article, European Council for Foreign Relations Visiting Fellow Helen Lackner highlights an “additional loser” in this forever war, human rights:

Everywhere in the ‘free world’, we have lost rights to privacy, our freedoms of speech and expression have been significantly curtailed.

Mainstream political discourse has shifted to the right towards authoritarianism including additional state powers restricting the rights of individuals and civil society, preventing the expression of dissent and increasing surveillance.

For an ongoing, striking example of the obliteration of fundamental legal rights, see: 20 years after 9/11, mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed still awaits trial. What went wrong? (Ken Dilanian, nbcnews.com, 7 September 2021). The subhead provides the answer:

It’s all about how the justice system at Guantanamo was set up… to fail.

Closer to home, the long fight for justice for Omar Khadr, imprisoned in Guantanamo as a young, grievously injured Canadian teenager, is a chilling reminder of the immense cruelty and arbitrariness of American actions in the name of the war on terror.

For subscribers, the full Arab Digest article is available here and, as noted above, with the kind permission of the editor, it is available here in PDF format. We urge readers who have the means to do so, to consider taking out a subscription to this invaluable source of analysis.

For more on the refusal of the American foreign policy establishment to honestly face up to its colossal errors, Afghanistan being the latest in a long line of catastrophes, see the Ezra Klein podcast of 31 August, entitled The Foreign Policy Conversation Washington Doesn’t Want to Have (nytimes.com).

Whither Canada?

Perhaps the highlight of our resistance to all things American in relation to GWOT was Canada’s refusal to formally participate in the 2003 U.S.-led illegal invasion of Iraq (although Canadian military on secondment in the USA were not recalled). But, as our blogs have catalogued over the years, we over-compensated with our enthusiastic embrace of the 2001 military action against Afghanistan and the woefully misguided ISAF-led engagement in Kandahar province, not to mention our leadership role in the Libya debacle, our Syrian air campaign and our highly questionable military training efforts in Iraq. At home we vastly increased spending on national security and augmented the powers of our intelligence agencies.

We turn now to an excerpt from a Rideau Institute presentation to the 2015 Annual Conference of the Canadian Defence Association and Institute which includes the following:

UN Security Council Resolution 1373, passed unanimously in the wake of the September 11th attacks on the United States, unambiguously treats terrorist acts as criminal activity. A companion declaration, also adopted unanimously, affirms the need for a “sustained, comprehensive approach” “in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and international law” and including “efforts to broaden the understanding among civilizations and to address regional conflicts and the full range of global issues, including development issues….

We call on the Government of Canada, post-election, to give renewed priority to rule of law solutions to addressing terrorism, in the broader context of enhanced attention to root causes and diplomatic peacemaking.

A lesson still unlearned: leading by example

 We cannot defend democratic values and promote human rights at home or abroad by trampling all over them in the name of fighting terrorism.

And we certainly cannot promote a rules-based international order (the same one we constantly accuse China of undermining) by ignoring international law whenever we believe our security, or our economic interests, are better served by setting them aside.

For a further analysis of the hypocrisy and opportunism that underpins the GWOT, see” The War on Terror: 20 Years of Bloodshed and Delusion (Tariq Ali, the nation.com, 7 September 2021).

Ali ends his article with this grimly ironic but devastatingly accurate question:

Where will freedom and democracy strike next?

Whither Canada?

 In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

Putting aside our international legal obligations in favour of our economic self-interest, and a faulty American geostrategic calculus, is exactly what Canada is doing with our continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia, despite the extreme repression of this absolute monarchy at home, its ongoing complicity in war crimes in Yemen, and its pivotal role in fomenting the violent extremism underpinning the 9/11 attacks.

Canada “named and shamed” again in UN Expert report on arms exports and Yemen conflict

The 2020 Government of Canada report on our military exports, released in June of this year, indicates that, once again, Saudi Arabia is the largest non-US destination of Canadian military exports, accounting for $1.311 billion, or 67% of these sales.

In an 8 September 2021 article entitled Canada urged to stop fuelling war in Yemen with Saudi arms sales, UN Report says, Globe and Mail Senior Parliamentary Reporter Steven Chase writes:

Canada for the second year in a row is named as one of the countries helping fuel the war in Yemen by a panel of experts monitoring the conflict for the United Nations and investigating possible war crimes among combatants.

The report in question is the advanced, unedited version of the Report of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (10 September 2021).

Paragraph 85 of the Report of the Group of Eminent Experts states inter alia that:

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates [also a destination of Canadian military equipment]… have been responsible for human rights violations including arbitrary deprivation of life, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, gender-based violence, including sexual violence, torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, [and] the recruitment and use in hostilities of children….

Paragraph 19 of the Report states that:

Notwithstanding the strong recommendations … in its previous reports, third States, including Canada, France, Iran (Islamic Republic of), the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America, continued their support of parties to the conflict, including through arms transfers….

As the Group has previously noted, arms sales are fuel that perpetuates the conflict.

Canada is not only in flagrant breach of the UN Expert Group call to suspend arms export to countries engaged in the Yemen conflict, but is also in continuing violation of its obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty as past blogs, like the one noted above, have catalogued at length. In the words of Project Ploughshares Executive Director Cesar Jaramillo:

This is no longer a question of whether Canada may be unknowingly facilitating the commission of human-rights violations. This is a matter of Canada being disturbingly close to complicity in war crimes.

And the only defensible course of action for Ottawa is the immediate and long-overdue cancellation of arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

For a painstakingly detailed review of these continuing violations, see the new Special Report by  Amnesty International Canada and Project Ploughshares entitled “No Credible Evidence” – Canada’s flawed analysis of arms exports to Saudi Arabia (ploughshares.ca, August 2021).  And for international coverage of Canada’s continuing shame, see: Canada violating int’l law by selling arms to Saudis: Report (Aljazeera.com, 11 August 2021).

In the view of Ceasefire.ca:

True championing of a rules-based international order, human rights and democratic norms must be based first and foremost on leadership by example, including scrupulous adherence to international law, which provides one standard for all, strict limitations on the use of force, and the right to security of all states.

Election call

We call on all federal parties to signal their commitment to these fundamental principles for Canada’s international diplomatic and defence engagement in support of a rules-based international order going forward.

President Biden’s confrontational foreign policy

Jeffrey Sachs, in a recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe entitled America’s confrontational foreign policy failed. It should pursue a cooperative global foreign policy (jeffsachs.org, 3 September 2021), quotes President Biden’s “summary of the world scene” as he sought to justify his exit from Afghanistan:

The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation. We have to shore up America’s competitive[ness] to meet these new challenges in the competition for the 21st century.

In Sachs’ view — and the view of Ceasefire.ca — here is what he should have said:

All countries — including the United States, members of the European Union, Russia, China, Iran, and, yes, Afghanistan — are destabilized by the COVID-19 pandemic; the effects of the climate crisis (floods, droughts, hurricanes, forest fires, heatwaves); widening income inequality further dividing the haves and have nots; the upheavals of digital technologies; and the dangerous political influence of plutocrats.

All of these are shared problems across the globe, and all require intensive global cooperation rather than confrontation.

Sachs concludes:

America’s mortal enemies are not China, Iran, and Russia. Our real enemies are the common scourges facing humanity today. Global problems cannot be solved by individual nations alone.

President Biden continues to assert that he wants to cooperate with China on global challenges, initiating on 9 September only his second phone call with President Xi Jinping since taking office.  The bland official readout of their call belies the relentless U.S. demonization of China and its inevitable impact on the prospects for even limited cooperation on urgent global challenges.

See for example the comments by newly confirmed Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Bonnie Jenkins, speaking at a September 6, 2021 NATO seminar, where she states:

As we are all keenly aware, both Russia and China are engaged in extensive, destabilizing nuclear buildup that poses new threats to collective security and endangers the international rules-based order….

The PRC is also implementing Military-Civil Fusion, or MCF, a national-level strategy to bootstrap itself towards global military and economic dominance.

The US itself is pursuing the modernisation of all three legs of the nuclear triad at an estimated cost of $1.7 trillion over 30 years.

We have previously discussed the action–reaction dynamic propelling much, if not most, of China’s own build up, significant but still dwarfed by the US and Russian nuclear arsenals.

National security experts like former US Secretary of Defense Bill Perry assert that current US plans are excessive, unnecessarily costly and risky. In a recent article, he writes:

Last week, legislation was introduced in the US House of Representatives to address the misguided nuclear modernization strategy the US is currently employing and chart a safer, more cost-effective course for our modernization efforts — one that is predicated on deterrence rather than dominance.

RI President and former Disarmament Ambassador Peggy Mason comments:

Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Bonnie Jenkins professes to be serious about arms control discussions with China to reduce nuclear risks. A good starting point would be to acknowledge that each side has legitimate security concerns about the  nuclear weapons modernisation plans of the other.

Whither Canada?

In light of the ongoing NATO review of its Strategic Doctrine, we call on all federal parties to affirm support for the all-party consensus recommendation of the Standing Committee on National Defence in their 2018 NATO report for Canada to “take a leadership role within NATO in beginning the work necessary for achieving the NATO goal of creating the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons”.

Reducing nuclear risks now should be the first priority. 

CNANW 2021 Election call to Canadians

Canadians care deeply about nuclear disarmament and want Canada to step up this country’s engagement on this critically important issue.

For Canadians interested in letting federal candidates know how concerned they are about meaningful progress toward nuclear disarmament, see the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW) 2021 Election Call here.

Afghanistan update: a brilliant UN peacekeeping proposal

Our final entry in today’s blog is an examination of a brilliant, out-of-the box UN peacekeeping proposal for Afghanistan from a leading expert, Lise M. Howard, whom readers might recognize as one of the panelists in the Rideau Institute co-hosted series of webinars on  the future of UN peacekeeping.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times in an opinion piece entitled A U.N. peacekeeping mission could make all the difference in Afghanistan. Here’s why (29 August 2021), Howard urges the UN Security Council to:

negotiate a large, multinational U.N. peace observation mission not led by the West.

Outlining the verification, mediation and de-escalation benefits of such a mission, Howard notes:

A large, multinational observer mission could be organized by the U.N.’s Department of Peace Operations. The U.N. already has a diplomatic presence, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, that coordinates the various United Nations agencies that continue to operate in Afghanistan.

The most interesting and innovative part of her proposal is the leadership role proposed for China:

Since China shares a border with Afghanistan, and has direct national security interests in preserving peace there, it could serve in a leadership role. China already has an 8,000-strong peacekeeping standby brigade. Pakistan, which also borders Afghanistan, has served in leadership roles in U.N. peace operations for decades, and has thousands of well-trained observers.

Note that China is the second largest financial contributor, after the USA, to the UN peacekeeping budget and is tenth in the list of the top ten UN troop and police contributors.

Howard underscores the need to follow UN procedure, calling for troops from “dozens of nations”, with no one dominating and with patrols in “mixed-nation units” in order to remain impartial and be seen to do so.

She goes on to catalogue the solid track record of UN peacekeeping since the end of the Cold War, as well as the risks of instability that would come with “doing nothing”.

Coming back to the issue of Chinese leadership, she urges American policy makers to look past the “painful” symbolism because the alternative is much worse:

in weighing the likelihood of tremendous bloodshed on the horizon versus supporting China acting through the U.N. to prevent violent conflict, the choice is clear. If China is willing to step up, it must be supported.

History shows that peacekeeping missions are a post-conflict nation’s best hope to consolidate its fragile peace. We owe the people of Afghanistan no less.

For those who wish to learn more about the current role of China in UN peacekeeping, see: China’s pragmatic approach to UN peacekeeping (Richard Gowan, brookings.edu, 14 September 2020).

Whither Canada?

The federal party leaders have championed solidarity with the Afghan people in their hour of need. Support for a UN peacekeeping mission under Chinese leadership not only responds to that need but offers a brilliant opportunity for demonstrating positive, constructive engagement with China on the shared goal with the West of a stable Afghanistan.

 Election call

We ask all federal parties to publicly support our call on the Government of Canada to engage actively with the UN in support of a UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan under Chinese leadership.  

Photo credit: Canadian Armed Forces images (Afghanistan 2004)

Tags: 2021 UN Expert Report on Yemen, Arab Digest, blowback, Brown University Costs of War Project, Canadian military exports, Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW), China, former US Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, Global War on Terror (GWOT), Guantanamo, Helen Lackner, Human rights, Institute for Policy Studies, international law, jeffrey sachs, Lise M. Howard, nuclear weapons modernization, Omar Khadr, rules-based international order, Saudi Arabia, Tariq Ali, UN peacekeeping, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Bonnie Jenkins