America’s terrible decade

2011-09-09 00:00

AFTER the massive violence and killings of the past decade — in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere — the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this Sunday might be a suitable moment­ to take stock.

A good place to start might be to try to understand the motives of the men who flew the hijacked planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Why did Muhammad Atta and his Al-Qaeda­ colleagues feel such intense hatred for America that they were prepared to sacrifice their lives in order to punish it?

The American response to the devastating attacks on its heartland was, alas, wholly predictable. The trauma was so painful that the overwhelming instinct of most Americans was not to understand the terrorists but to kill them. The outrage was so great that it blanked out the need to ask further questions.

But 10 years have passed and the catastrophic consequences for America and the world of George W. Bush’s belligerent response to 9/11 are now clear for everyone to see. It may, therefore, be useful to probe the motives of the attackers if only to inquire whether a change of Western policies might not be necessary to prevent a similar attack happening again.

What were the origins of Al-Qaeda? This militant Muslim group was a product of the proxy war the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought in Afghanistan in the eighties. In league with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, America recruited, armed and trained tens of thousands of Muslims to fight the Soviets. Young men, attracted by the opportunity to wage jihad against the godless Russians, by the manly adventure and also no doubt by the money, were drawn into the conflict from a great belt of countries stretching from Central Asia to Algeria­. Yemen alone provided some 25 000 of these volunteer fighters in the cause of Islam, which came to be known as the mujahidin.

Not only did America’s secret war expel Soviet forces from Afghanistan, it also contributed mightily to bringing down the whole Soviet system in 1989-91. It was the final decisive battle of the Cold War.

America’s mistake was to abandon the mujahidin, once they were no longer needed. Thoughtlessly, it dropped them. Funding dried up. Thousands of alienated and jobless youths, often unwanted back in their own countries, turned against their own governments, as in Algeria and Yemen for example, creating mayhem. Some turned violently against America. Their names and personal details had been entered into the database of a fervent opponent of the Soviets: Osama Bin Laden. The creation of Al-Qaeda was a direct result of America’s war to destroy Soviet power in Afghanistan.

Some of the mujahidin then turned also against Saudi Arabia, their former paymaster, particularly when the kingdom in 1991 invited half a million American soldiers on to its territory — a territory Muslims consider sacred — to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The first Gulf War was a highly controversial affair. Many Muslims were outraged by the destruction of Iraqi forces, as well as by the punitive sanctions imposed on Baghdad after the conflict, which were said to have resulted in the death of half a million Iraqi babies.

But these were not the only reasons for Al-Qaeda to hate America. Another compelling reason was America’s blind support for Israel as it continued to oppress and dispossess the Palestinians.

After Kuwait was freed, president George H .W. Bush, the 41st American president, did make an attempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of the old principle of land for peace. He advised Israel to abandon its expansionist policies, freeze settlement building and give the Palestinians a chance to build a state of their own. With these ambitious aims, he convened a peace conference at Madrid in 1991, arousing Arab hopes that America could truly be an honest broker.

But Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s hard-line prime minister at the time, was not only determined to continue settlement building. He also demanded that America give Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees to absorb more Jewish immigrants. As George H. W. Bush collapsed under pressure from Israel and its American friends, Shamir got his way.

Pro-Israeli lobbies then contributed to Bush’s subsequent defeat by Bill Clinton at the 1992 presidential elections. Subservience to Israel undoubtedly contributed to stoking the fires of hatred for America.

When America was shaken to the core by the attacks of September 11, 2001, an Israeli politician like Benyamin­ Netanyahu immediately recognised that the strikes against America were “good for Israel”. It allowed hard-line Israelis like him to say that the Palestinians were terrorists exactly like the ones who had attacked America. Israel and America were in the same boat, Netanyahu argued — victims of Islamic terror. The poison of Islamophobia spread throughout America and infected several European countries as well. It is no accident that the monstrous Norwegian killer, Anders Behring Breivik, has declared an unbounded love for Israel and its anti-Palestinian policies.

When Barack Obama assumed office on January 20, 2009, as the 44th president of America, he knew what needed to be done. He had to throw off George W. Bush’s disastrous legacy and chart a new course. One of his very first acts was to appoint George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy charged with relaunching the moribund Arab­-Israeli peace process by insisting on a freeze of Israeli settlement building. In Cairo on June 4, 2009, Obama pledged that America was not, and would never be, at war with Islam — words which awakened immense hope throughout the Muslim world.

But that hope has given way to an equally immense disillusion. Obama has failed to rescue America from the baleful influence of the pro-Israeli neo-cons and other fanatical and deluded conservatives. He has been defeated by Netanyahu and by America’s pro-Israeli lobbies even more resoundingly than George Bush senior was defeated by Shamir a generation earlier.

Instead of a new beginning, Obama has had to assume Bush’s terrible legacy as his own: U.S. military operations continue to kill or displace Muslims in large numbers in different parts of the world. Men and resources continue to be squandered on unwinnable wars (according to Noam Chomsky, the Iraq and Afghan wars have cost America $4,4 trillion). The shameful prison at Guantánamo remains open.

Meanwhile, Israel’s land grab in the Palestinian territories continues unchecked. America’s inability to rein in its tiny Israeli ally is one of the wonders of international politics. Seeing their country being gobbled up before their eyes, the despairing Palestinians are this month planning to seek UN recognition of their statehood. But America has indicated that it will veto any such move in the Security Council. What remains of America’s standing in the Arab and Muslim world will suffer a further blow.

Such is the ground from which terrorism springs. — Agence Global.


• Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).


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