Middle East

Another Gulf War, another al-Qaeda
By Ahmad Faruqui

Arguing that there is a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, the administration of US President George W Bush convinced Congress last October about the need to invade Iraq as an act of self-defense. A slender majority of Americans now believe that Iraq was behind the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, and support such a war with or without United Nations approval. Unfortunately, this link is a mirage. The real link between al-Qaeda and Iraq is very different.

It is a fact of history that the US decision to prosecute the Gulf War in 1991 spawned al-Qaeda. From the very beginning, Osama bin Laden's refrain has been that Western forces on Arab soil have compromised Arab sovereignty and polluted Islam's holy lands. Al-Qaeda played on these grievances to recruit radical young Arabs to its cause. By pointing out the pro-Israel bias in US foreign policy, bin Laden gave his message a grassroots appeal on the Arab street. Through the clever use of historical symbols, he has sought to position himself as a modern-day Saladin who would wrest control of Jerusalem for the Muslims.

Right after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Bush referred to the war against terrorism as a "crusade". His critics were quick to exploit what was probably an inadvertent misuse of the term. The term played right into the theme that bin Laden had been laying out for years. The Arab world remembers well the words that British General Allenby, a descendent of the English Crusaders, uttered when he entered Jerusalem on December 9, 1917, "The Crusades have ended now!" Similarly, it has not forgotten either the content or the tone of the statements made by French General Henri Gouraud when he entered Damascus in July 1920. Striding to Saladin's tomb next to the Grand Mosque, Gouraud kicked it and exclaimed, "Awake Saladin, we have returned. My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent."

During an interview with CNN in 1997, Osama bin Laden said the ongoing US military presence in Saudi Arabia was an "occupation of the land of the holy places". In February 1998, notwithstanding the fact that his only formal education is in economics, bin Laden issued a fatwa calling for Muslims to kill Americans and their allies. Only highly learned clerics can issue such a fatwa, which is a binding religious ruling on their followers. However, three other militant groups, including Islamic Jihad in Egypt, moved quickly to endorse the ruling. The World Islamic Front (a grouping of dozens of Islamic militia) issued a statement: "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies - civilians and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim." It was published three months later in the London newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.

It is a comment on the depth of anti-American sentiment in the region that bin Laden has been able to call his violent campaign of terror against civilian Americans a jihad, even though Muslim clerics have said such a terrorist campaign cannot be interpreted as a jihad under Islamic law.

It is useful to recall that the Gulf War in 1991 was waged by the United States to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It had United Nations support, and the forces that went in to fight the armies of Saddam Hussein comprised a large coalition of troops drawn from several Muslim and Arab nations, in addition to the US, Britain and Australia. Even then, al-Qaeda was able to portray that war as a crusade, giving credence to Samuel Huntington's theory about an inevitable clash of civilizations.

This new war has proved profoundly unpopular around the globe. It has been opposed by the 116 nations who belong to the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League, in addition to several key European nations.

The war will be fought largely with US troops, with assistance from Australian and British troops. Neither Arab armies nor any Third World armies are likely be in the "coalition of the willing", belying the allegation that Iraq poses a threat to its neighbors. It is likely to lead to a significant rise in anti-Americanism in the Arab world.

A just-released survey by Professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland provides a disturbing commentary on Arab public opinion. Telhami, who holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, interviewed 2,620 men and women in five Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. The respondents were asked to state their opinions on major foreign-policy hypotheses that have been advanced by the Bush administration.

The overwhelming majority of respondents felt that war with Iraq would worsen the chances for peace in the Middle East. Most pessimistic were the respondents in Saudi Arabia, where 91 percent concurred with the statement, and least pessimistic were those in Jordan, where the percentage was 60 percent. When asked whether the war would lead to less terrorism, more than three-quarters of the respondents disagreed. The Saudis were in greatest disagreement, with 96 percent saying that the war would lead to more terrorism. The Egyptians had the most positive position on this topic, but even then 75 percent felt it would lead to more terrorism. When asked if the war would improve the chances for democracy in the region, respondents disagreed strongly, with 95 percent of Saudis leading the way but even in Jordan, 58 percent disagreed. The survey uncovered significant negative attitudes toward US foreign policy. Only 4 percent of the people in Saudi Arabia had a favorable opinion of US foreign policy, followed by 6 percent in Morocco and Jordan, 13 percent in Egypt and 32 percent in Lebanon.

Bush has expressed a hope that this war would lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former foreign minister of Israel, finds much that is troubling in this assertion. "The president's bellicose rhetoric and his intention to invade an Arab country and dismantle its regime by force, however despicable that regime may be, while pretending to ignore the Palestinian tragedy provides a platform for unrest throughout the region."

Once hostilities commence, it is likely that Iraqi civilian casualties will occur on a large scale. According to published accounts, the US will fire more than 3,000 cruise missiles on Iraq within the first 48 hours, an amount that exceeds the entire number fired in the Gulf War. More casualties will occur as US forces fight their way into Baghdad, fueling resentment on the Arab street.

While the US has sought to portray this campaign as a war of liberation, so have others in the past. When British forces marched into Baghdad 86 years ago, their commanding general assured the people of Iraq, "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators." Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude proclaimed, "O people of Baghdad, remember that for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have endeavored to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions." Three years later, Iraqis were in open revolt against British rule. This led an exasperated Winston Churchill - the architect of Britain's Iraq policy - to say that the crown was spending millions for the privilege of sitting atop a volcano. Similarly, the new Gulf War will be seen as a colonial war of the 19th-century genre. Historians may well call it "a war to end all peace", an appellation they have used to capture the strategic myopia of World War I.

The incoming prime minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Badawi, worries that "a war against Iraq would be seen in the Islamic world as unfair, and if it causes Muslims to join the extremists, then moderate Muslim governments would be threatened everywhere". Georgetown University's John Esposito, an expert on Islam, has voiced his concerns about the wisdom of pursuing knee-jerk military action against Muslim states. Esposito says an example was the US strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan in the wake of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa. The target in Sudan, a factory that the Sudanese government contended was manufacturing only pharmaceuticals, is widely thought to have been a mistake, though the US government has only indirectly acknowledged that was the case. "The risk is that in the rush to respond and retaliate, which is understandable, we may end up hitting the wrong targets and the wrong people," Esposito said. "It's the opposite response that we need."

There is a strong chance that the second Gulf War will succeed in accomplishing the very opposite of what Bush has sought to achieve. The US president has made a virtue of regime change, and has compared the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II to what he is about to undertake in Iraq. However, 21 contemporary historians from Europe and North America have termed this concept "a pick-and-mix history of regime change". In a letter to the Financial Times, they say that Iraq cannot be compared to either postwar Germany or Japan since it differs from them in its endowment of natural resources, borders, institutions, religion, political culture and ethnicity. In other words, it is likely that post-Saddam Iraq will be even more chaotic and dangerous than Iraq under Saddam.

The United States is making rapid strides against al-Qaeda. As a result of Pakistani cooperation, it has apprehended or killed many of its key leaders and appears to be rapidly closing in on the top two. With the capture of the third man, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the organization may have lost its operational capability to mount "spectacular" acts of terrorism. However, all of this will come to naught once the US invades Iraq.

It is likely that this war will add new credibility to grievances about loss of Arab sovereignty. It will complicate the resolution of the Palestinian problem, leading to a rise in anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world. In a fulfillment of the law of unintended consequences, it may spawn a second generation of terrorists even more determined than al-Qaeda to evict US forces from the Middle East, thus defeating the very purposes for which it is about to be fought.

Speaking at Tufts University, former US president George Bush Sr said that any military action against Iraq should be backed by international unity. He said the case against Iraq this time was weaker than in 1991, and urged his son to build bridges with France and Germany, rather than to bear grudges. Instead of listening to the neo-conservatives in the administration, Bush Jr should have taken a few moments to reflect on his father's advice. Not only would this have been a patriotic thing to do, it would also have been very Christian. And it may have led to a safer America.

Ahmad Faruqui, PhD, an economist and defense analyst based in San Francisco, writes frequently on the Middle East and South Asia. He is the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.

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Mar 20, 2003



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