Before, After, and "What Happens Next" |
Michael Collins Dunn
Michael Collins Dunn, Ph.D., has been editor of The Middle East Journal, published by The Middle East Institute (www.mideasti.org) in Washington, D.C., since 1998, and also of The Estimate (www.theestimate.com), a biweekly newsletter on the region that he founded in 1989.
As is the case with all of the world's regions, any overview of the Middle East in 2001 must naturally be divided into two parts: before 11 September, and after. Yet, more than in most regions, in the Middle East at least some of what went before is related to what occurred that day, and what has come after.
The attacks on the United States transformed the U.S. role in the region, and also transformed all of the issues that divide and trouble the region as well: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the confrontation with Iraq, and various other issues relating to the internal stability and regional relations of individual states. The year saw the United States go to war in Afghanistan, a country which, if not strictly part of the Middle East, is certainly part of that "greater Middle East" that shades off into Central Asia. The attacks guaranteed, if nothing else, that the Middle East and the broader Islamic world will be regions of engagement--military, diplomatic, and otherwise--for the United States for some time to come.
The war on terrorism is, as President George W. Bush and others continually remind the American people, a new type of war. By late 2001 it already was clear that the war against international terrorism is not going to be a rhetorical war like the "wars" on poverty or drugs, but a real shooting conflict with real engagements, some conventional but many unconventional.
The "first phase" of this new type of war, the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda, is not the whole war (nor will its end mark the end of the overall war), but it is unlike other conflicts.
For the proponents of forward-deployed sea power, there are particular ironies. The U.S. Navy--along with the other services--found itself deeply engaged in a totally landlocked country that scarcely boasts even a lake of any size. A century after geopoliticians debated over Alfred Thayer Mahan's gospel of sea power--and Sir Halford Mackinder's emphasis on the geopolitical "pivot" of the Eurasian "heartland"--a maritime power was applying force from the sea directly into the heart of Central Asia.
But that is only one of the ironies; this new war in a landlocked country may do more to enhance the survival of carrier battle groups than any conflict at sea. In late November the United States was keeping three carriers in the Indian Ocean (one, USS Kitty Hawk, was being used as a special operations platform).
It has become almost fashionable to say that the world changed on 11 September. In many ways, however, and despite the unprecedented scale of the carnage, the world merely came home to America. In a lengthy series of attacks on U.S. targets--ranging from those against the U.S. embassy and Marine Barracks in Beirut in the 1980s through the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000--Middle Eastern controversies led to hundreds of American casualties through terror attacks.
The limited response, or what sometimes seemed to be a lack of response, to the earlier attacks may have encouraged the direct assault against the U.S. homeland on 11 September 2001. The attacks on New York and Washington differed in scale from anything that had gone before, but they were not totally unpredictable. In some ways the world did not change all that much. But the United States changed when the world of the Middle East came to America.
Bin Laden and His Network
Which does not mean, as some critics have charged, that if U.S. policy toward one or more countries of the Middle East--e.g., Israel, Iraq, Iran, Libya--had been different or more circumspect, 11 September would not have happened. The Osama bin Ladens of the world are anti-Western in principle and against any involvement, however benign, by the United States, or the West in general, in the region; the new intifada that broke out between Israelis and Palestinians in 2000 was not a direct cause of 11 September--for the simple reason that the terrorists had been going through pilot training for years. Understanding Osama bin Laden and his appeal to the Arab "street"--know thine enemy, in other words--is key to winning the war on terrorism. Even if bin Laden himself is removed from the scene, his network will take much longer to dismantle. To understand what produced him is not to empathize or excuse: It is essential, however, in knowing how to deal with him and/or his followers.
Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda movement displayed remarkable skills in appealing to various resentments against the West to curry support for their extreme vision. Bin Laden's relationship to mainstream Islam is somewhat like that of a doomsday cult to mainstream Christianity; in fact, it directly contradicts Islamic bans on targeting the innocent. Yet he managed to evoke sympathy in many--generally frustrated and angry--quarters of the Islamic world. Bin Laden has also demonstrated public relations skills that few terrorists in the past could have matched (Carlos the Jackal did not give interviews to CNN or to Al-Jazeera). Those skills, combined with his own inherited wealth and the proceeds of a number of businesses dedicated to supporting his cause, allowed him to build a sophisticated and technically savvy international network with cells throughout the world. Those cells are likely to remain in business for many years to come.
One reason that bin Laden proved to be more dangerous than most earlier terrorists was his international reach; another was his ability to form a sort of confederation of groups that despise the West and see themselves as fighting for Islam against its enemies.
He also found ways to tap into the frustrations of many young Muslims with quite different local agendas. For a Palestinian in a refugee camp, those frustrations are aimed at Israel and blamed on U.S. support for Israel; to many Arabs in the Gulf the frustrations are aimed at conservative local regimes and reflect sympathy for allegedly starving Iraqis--again, the United States is blamed for their condition. In Egypt, the frustrations against government restrictions on political freedom can also be channeled into blaming the United States for its support of the Egyptian government. In Pakistan, Kashmir--rather than the Middle East and the United States--may be the perceived issue and India, the perceived enemy, but the result is the same: In each situation the frustrations with a local government and/or preoccupation with a local issue are channeled and broadened into anti-American or anti-Western antagonisms.
Bin Laden's own principal contributions to establishment of the al Qaeda terrorist network were his money and his public relations skills. The successes of the operational side of the network were usually attributed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who was one of bin Laden's closest confidants. After Zawahiri's Egyptian Jihad organization effectively merged with bin Laden's in 1998, the al Qaeda operations became more dramatic, escalating to the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and on the USS Cole in 2000, and culminating (or at least reaching their pinnacle to date) with the attacks of 11 September.
One piece of evidence that Zawahiri and another Jihad leader, Muhammad Atef (reported to have been killed in a U.S. raid in Afghanistan), were the operational leaders comes from Egypt itself: Zawahiri and the Jihad Organization were charged in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, but Zawahiri was then seen as a peripheral figure and served only a few years in prison. Jihad carried out other spectacular assassinations against senior Egyptian officials during the late 1980s and early 1990s. About 1993, though, when Zawahiri left Egypt, those spectacular attacks ended. (Another organization, Al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya, has continued with other types of attacks, particularly against Western tourists.) Zawahiri's departure seems to have marked an end of skillful operational planning, further attesting to his probable role as a planner.
Precisely because the organization is essentially a confederation of differing groups--many of which, like Egyptian Jihad, had long histories before joining with bin Laden--dismantling the network will be difficult. This is why President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and other U.S. officials call for patience in what they consistently warn will be a "long war."
War and the Peace Process
Before 11 September, the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli response had preoccupied most Middle East specialists, and events appeared to be in a clearly downward spiral. After the new intifada broke out in the fall of 2000, the peace process--which had seemed so close to success at Camp David in July of 2000--quickly disintegrated. The election in Israel, in early 2001, of a hard-line government under Ariel Sharon hardened both sides into positions that seemed to allow little room for a return to the negotiating table, even though an international commission headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell did propose an outline plan for a cease-fire, various confidence-building measures, and a resumption of talks.
The efforts to achieve a cease-fire, under a plan put together by U.S. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, kept falling apart, though, with Israel insisting on a minimum of one week without any violence whatsoever before it would return to the table. The Palestinian Authority claimed it was doing all that it could to stem the violence, but Israel insisted that the Palestinians were in fact encouraging violence as a means of achieving their political goals.
The impasse was perhaps sustained a bit because the new U.S. administration of George W. Bush made clear in its early days that it would not pursue the active engagement of Palestinians and Israelis that had characterized President Bill Clinton's last year in office. Some charged that the United States, the participation of which has usually been essential to any brokering of Israeli-Palestinian disputes, was treating the problem with "benign neglect." Defenders of the Bush administration's approach claimed to be waiting for the right opportunity to break the impasse.
Ironically, 11 September may have opened up some new opportunities in this most intractable of all Middle Eastern disputes. This is not unprecedented: In 1990-91 the United States put together a coalition, which included many Arab countries, to liberate Kuwait from Iraq, committing itself at the time to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue when the war was won. It did so, and one result was the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, which led indirectly to the 1993 Oslo Accords and the widely publicized Yitzhak Rabin-Yasser Arafat handshake on the White House lawn.
Before 11 September, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was reportedly preparing a speech in which he would call explicitly for the creation of a Palestinian state--with full guarantees of Israel's security--and push for an implementation of the Mitchell Committee's plan. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Powell's speech was put on hold so that it would not be seen as having been influenced in any way by the attacks. When the speech was finally given by Powell, however--on 19 December 2001, in Louisville, Ky.--it was cautiously welcomed by both sides.
Much already had happened, though, between 11 September and the Powell speech. Initially, after President Bush had issued his "for us or against us" declaration, many of the parties to various regional disputes began insisting that their adversaries were part of the terrorist international: Ariel Sharon tried to link Yasser Arafat to bin Laden, India pointed to Pakistan as a supporter of Kashmiri terrorists, and so on. Such responses were predictable, but the United States maintained its focus on the immediate perpetrators of the outrages in New York and Washington: Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan. The Bush administration knew that it needed as many Muslim countries on board as possible for effective operations in a landlocked country so far from the closest international waters.
Whether the astounding early successes in the war in Afghanistan lead to a new opportunity for the United States in brokering the Israeli-Palestinian dispute depends, to be sure, not only on the final outcome of Phase One, but also on what happens next. Obviously the United States must be seen as a clear winner in Afghanistan if it is to have any chance for success in pushing for a genuine peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Just as obviously, there must be as little ambiguity as possible about what has been won--and, of course, terrorism probably can never be eliminated altogether. It is not an organization, but a strategy of protracted conflict that any movement might adopt.
From the start, key Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan were supportive, if in some cases cautiously so, of the U.S. effort. Most existing regimes have faced domestic radical Islamist challenges of one sort or another, but most also are nervous about supporting an open-ended campaign. If the next target of the antiterrorism campaign turns out to be Iraq, as some analysts and commentators have been urging, it would cause the United States far more serious problems with Arab allies than it faced during the Gulf War or during the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
The Strangeness of the Taliban
Much media coverage was given to the rejoicing in Kabul after the Taliban withdrew. Afghani men shaved their beards, and Afghani women were allowed to return to school and work. Although not all of the Taliban leadership had been killed or captured, the loss of so many major cities in such a brief time was an early indication that the Taliban regime was crumbling, with the remnants retreating into the mountains as a guerrilla force--which also was quickly defeated. The speed of the collapse was such that some U.S. critics who were initially complaining that the war was going too slow were two weeks later warning that it was moving too fast and that it would not be possible to complete political arrangements for an effective post-Taliban regime before the Northern Alliance and other coalition forces rolled into Kabul.
One need have few illusions about the so-called Northern Alliance (it calls itself the United Front), which played a key role on the ground--primarily because of U.S. air support, though. The Alliance's occupation of Kabul in 1992-96 was notorious for its interethnic bloodshed. But other Alliance commanders (in Heart, for example) governed well. And in wartime one cannot always choose allies based on character references: After all, the United States and Great Britain fought alongside Josef Stalin to defeat Adolf Hitler.
What the rapid collapse did help call attention to was the very strangeness of the Taliban regime. It was never just an "ultraconservative" Islamic movement, but one with a particularly circumscribed and very narrow view of the world. Its prohibition on schools for girls is unknown anywhere else in the Islamic world; so were its bans on television and (bizarrely) kites. It grew out of a strange symbiosis of conservative Pashtun tribal traditions--male-dominated, suspicious of outsiders--and radical jihad theology in some Pakistani religious schools ("Taliban" means students). Its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, took a traditional title, "Commander of the Faithful," of the medieval Muslim Caliphs. If a similar movement emerged in a Christian country it would certainly be called a cult.
It had few friends. Only three sovereign nations ever recognized it as the government of Afghanistan: Pakistan, which helped create the Taliban, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Saudi Arabia and the UAE broke relations before the war started. Iran, which to many U.S. eyes also seems to practice an extreme form of Islamic conservatism, was one of the Taliban's worst enemies. Iranian women may have to wear headscarves, but they can receive a formal education, and they appear on television; besides, the ultra-rigid Sunni Islam of the Taliban always considered the Shi`ism of Iran to be heresy, if not actual unbelief.
It was a very strange, brittle government--if one can really call it a government, with only a few of its ministries actually functioning--and it came in recent years to depend on a foreign legion of Arab fighters--Pakistanis, Chechens, Kashmiris, and other non-Afghans who came to Afghanistan primarily to train in Osama bin Laden's terrorist training camps.
It has sometimes been said that bin Laden essentially took over and hijacked the Taliban regime. Those who pointed to the long Afghan resistance against Britain in the two Afghan wars of the 19th century, and in the 1980s war against the Soviets, as a sign that the Taliban could fight on for years seem to have overlooked the degree to which the Taliban came to depend on the non-Afghan fighters. If, as Mao Zedong famously said, the guerrilla swims like a fish in the sea of the people, these Arabs and other non-Afghanis--those who survive the final battles, in any case--may receive little welcome or succor, let alone swimming rights, among the fierce tribes of the Afghan mountains.
Asymmetric Responses To Asymmetric Attacks
The war waged against the Taliban and al Qaeda was certainly an unconventional one, by U.S. standards. U.S. ground forces were limited to missions carried out by U.S. Marines and/or by U.S. Army special operations forces using Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other atypical systems to provide support to Northern Alliance cavalry charges. This approach reflected the attention given by the Marine Corps in recent years to the challenges of asymmetric warfare. Clearly, there have been few instances of an "asymmetric" attack as clear cut for the textbooks as those of 11 September, in which commercial airliners became weapons of mass destruction.
The first phase of Operation Enduring Freedom marked an intriguing blend of conventional warfare--aerial bombing, primarily--with the emergence of quasi-guerrilla allied forces (the Northern Alliance), the use of Marines and special operations forces, and covert-intelligence operations--along with psychological warfare operations and the provision of food aid to Afghan refugees. Phase One was, in some ways, an "asymmetric" response to the asymmetric attacks, not a conventional invasion of Afghanistan like that launched by the Soviet Union in 1979.
Of course, other types of nonmilitary responses to 11 September were underway: the effort to freeze terrorist funds, to identify the "cover" organizations behind the al Qaeda operations, and to round up cell members in Western Europe and the countries of the Middle East. The degree of intelligence cooperation taking place was not obvious to the outside observer, nor should it be. But it was clear that even many countries with which the United States has few interests in common (e.g., Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan) were cooperating in either overt or silent ways.
One lingering question is whether the breadth of the antiterrorist coalition can be sustained after the Afghanistan phase of the war is over. The United States has made clear that it intends to pursue and root out international terrorism (i.e., terrorism with a "global reach"--as opposed to, say, local secessionist movements) and that the targets will include countries that are state supporters of terrorism. The first state supporter of terrorism to be attacked was Afghanistan. But, as noted earlier, the Taliban regime was a very strange entity indeed--not so much a state as a cult occupying and controlling the remnants of a failed state. But what happens after the Taliban and al Qaeda have been completely neutralized in Afghanistan?
The Next Phase
Clearly, if Osama bin Laden were to survive the war in Afghanistan--there were conflicting reports as of the end of December--the United States would continue to pursue him and the other leaders of his movement. But if they do not survive, then clearly the next question is where the war on terrorism goes after Afghanistan. If elements of al Qaeda are in, or escape to, Somalia, an easy example, they presumably will be dealt with. But Somalia is another failed state. The broader and more open-ended definition of the term "war on terrorism" raises other and much more difficult questions when it comes to taking on functional states rather than failed ones.
President Bush has said that countries that continue to support terrorism will themselves be targeted, but that statement has been qualified as including only those nations backing terrorism with a global reach. The United States probably is not about to go after the Irish Republican Army or the Basque ETA in Spain, neither of which cause major international problems. This is, however, where definitions become somewhat slippery.
Terrorism, broadly defined to mean, for example, attacks against civilian targets to induce terror, is a tactic that has been used by many national independence movements throughout history. During Israel's war of independence, and before that, the Irgun and Lehi ("the Stern Gang") were regularly denounced by Great Britain as terrorist, and some of their attacks, such as one on the King David Hotel, would seem to fit anyone's definition of terrorism as untargeted bombings aimed at civilians. But the leader of Irgun (Menahem Begin) and one of the Lehi leaders (Yitzhak Shamir) both became prime ministers of Israel. Many other world leaders (Nelson Mandela, for example) have been branded as terrorists by the regimes they fought.
A clear definition of terrorism therefore becomes a critical prerequisite in pursuing an open-ended war against terrorism. Some states friendly to the United States do not, for example, consider Hizbullah in Lebanon to be a terrorist organization in the usual sense, despite its presumed involvement in the attacks on the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut in the 1980s, because it was a Lebanese group attacking official government targets on Lebanese soil. The United States does list Hizbullah as a terrorist organization, but at the same time maintains reasonable diplomatic relations with at least one nation, Syria, on its list of state supporters of terrorism, and engaged at least two others (Sudan and Iran) in a limited way in the campaign against the Taliban. (Another country, Libya, also offered to help.)
The Iraq Question
Even before the first air strikes against the Taliban, the most frequently mentioned candidate for the next target was Iraq. Since Desert Storm more than a decade ago, U.S. relations with Iraq have been hostile in the extreme. U.S. and British aircraft continue to deny Iraq the use of airspace over its northern and southern regions, and bomb Iraqi air-defense sites when the "no-fly" zones are violated or there are other Iraqi provocations (such as targeting U.S. aircraft). Tight U.N. sanctions remain in place, and U.S. vessels stop ships at sea to enforce the sanctions. All of which is why so many people believe that the unfinished business of removing Saddam Hussein should be included on the U.S. "things to do" agenda.
But there are two problems. The first is that there has been no direct credible evidence of Iraqi involvement in the events of 11 September. One Iraqi agent in the Czech Republic had met with Muhammad Atta, the leader of the hijackers. Iraqi connections also have been traced to Ramzi Yousef, involved in earlier plots, and so on. Some of these bits of "circumstantial evidence" may derive from the fact that international terrorist plotters tend to travel in the same circles, and to obtain false passports from the same forgers. Moreover, Saddam Hussein is not suicidal (he is not seeking martyrdom, as bin Laden's followers were, and are). He is unlikely, therefore, to personally back a mass-murder attack against the United States, knowing that such an attack would make his own destruction inevitable.
Nonetheless, many argue that, even if Saddam was not involved in 11 September, he has backed international terrorism in the past and needs to be removed. But that is the second problem. The United States already has imposed sanctions on Iraq and enforced a virtual blockade, closed most of Iraq's airspace, and isolated it internationally; in 1991 the U.S.-led coalition convincingly defeated the Iraqi Army. The United States also has supported and funded Iraqi opposition groups, but with disappointing results. The question then becomes, what else can or should the United States do?
There seem to be really only two alternatives: a massive bombing campaign accompanied by attacks by local anti-Saddam ground forces (similar to the Northern Alliance attacks in Afghanistan), or an invasion by U.S. and allied forces. The first option is problematic if only because the Iraqi opposition does not exist as an armed resistance "force in being" the way the Northern Alliance did in Afghanistan. The two main Kurdish parties in the autonomous Kurdish region are well-armed, but they tend to fight each other, not against Saddam Hussein.
That leaves invasion--which may be easier said than done. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are on record as opposed to taking any action against Iraq in the war on terrorism. Where, then, would an army invade from? Kuwait's extremely short border would not be much help; Iran, however much it hates Saddam, is unlikely to allow the U.S. Army and/or a coalition army on its soil. Syria and Jordan share borders with Iraq, but are unlikely to offer them as jumping-off points. In other words, without a major, overt, new Iraqi provocation--which Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait clearly provided--it is hard to see the United States persuading regional powers to support an invasion.
Which would leave what the United States can do through bombing and covert action--and perhaps, enhanced efforts to build up a genuine Iraqi opposition force. But all of those things take time. And the more time that passes the more difficult it will be to muster international support for a march on Baghdad.
Moltke said that war plans never survive the initial contact with the enemy; as the war on terrorism evolves its interim objectives may change, so the way the war is fought also may change as well. One danger is that the Untied States itself might suffer the political and diplomatic equivalent of collateral damage if the regimes of some countries friendly to the United States fall to radical elements as a result of the war on terrorism. But the upheavals in the "Arab street," which many predicted when the war began, had simply not materialized as of late December. There were some initial violent demonstrations in Pakistan, but the government had succeeded in controlling them, and later was much more concerned about the possibility of a war with India.
It is possible, of course, that there will be no collateral damage, but collateral gains. As noted earlier, Desert Storm provided the leverage for the United States to press for the Madrid Peace Conference, which opened the door to the Oslo Accords.
At year's end there was reason to believe that both Israel and Palestine had become increasingly concerned about the new round of violence, but were unable to find a way out of it. The U.S. success against bin Laden might conceivably open the door to realistic compromises.
There are other possible fallout benefits from the initial U.S. successes. At least behind the scenes, Iran and the United States have found themselves fighting a common enemy, the Taliban, and cooperating in the United Nations in the plan to build a new Afghanistan. More than two decades after the Iranian Revolution, there are some pro-Western voices in Iran (but they are not the only voices). So there may be room for progress.
The United States is clearly opening up some new avenues of cooperation in Central Asia as well. And many of its friends in the Middle East--Egypt and Saudi Arabia perhaps most of all--have been reluctant at times to cooperate in some areas of concern to the United States; their reluctance stems mostly from fear of their own radical elements. If those elements are now seen to be weaker than before, the reluctance may diminish or cease altogether.
But war is unpredictable. Not all of the battles ahead will be won, and there may be more horrors ahead for the American homeland as well, particularly if other weapons of mass destruction are already in, or come into, the hands of the al Qaeda survivors. This new kind of war may not end in 2002. Given the nature of the challenge, it may never end completely. For better or worse, the course of events is likely to become much more clear in the first several months of the new year.