On May 17th, British parliamentarian George Galloway treated a sub-committee of the US Senate to a tirade which appeared to bemuse and amuse in equal measure. If we edit his testimony for shameless mendacity (e.g. presenting himself as a consistent opponent of the regime of Saddam Hussein), Galloway did make a couple of points which reflect the consensus of the anti-American left, namely that the current situation in Iraq is a “disaster” and that the root cause of the violence is the “occupation” of the country by US and allied forces. The implication, stated explicitly in a recent article by Jonathan Steele of the Guardian, is that withdrawal of the multinational forces would dampen if not terminate the insurgency. While the flaws in this argument are obvious, given that the prime target of the insurgency is now the elected government of Iraq and its employees, there is another question we should ask: what is the track record of those who want an immediate pull-out from Iraq in providing accurate analysis and timely advice? What would have happened, let’s say, if the US and its allies had followed their advice in October 2001, at the start of their campaign in Afghanistan?
Let’s start with Jason Burke, a British journalist who has made a name for himself by writing a book on Al-Qaeda. On October 21st 2001, one week after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, he wrote an article for the Observer with the unequivocal title “Why this war will not work”. He made the following predictions:
· the foot soldiers of the Taliban will not be troubled by the forces ranged against them
· the people of Afghanistan will rally behind the Taliban
· the deployment of British and American special forces would lead to a mass uprising against the invaders, while tarring the Northern Alliance as western stooges
· an American invasion force would suffer a similar fate to the Soviet army during its decade-long occupation of Afghanistan.
His advice to the US government was to initiate negotiations with the Taliban during a bombing pause in which the fate of Bin Laden could be discussed along with the “root causes” of terrorism, namely “poverty, repression and skewed policies in the Middle East."
Two weeks later, as the bombing of Taliban ground forces intensified, Burke penned a further article in which he ignored the doomed military campaign to focus instead on tales of “torture, treachery, and spies”, by which he meant US support for political opponents of the Taliban, such as Adbul Haq and Hamid Karzai. Noting that the Taliban had captured and hanged Haq, Burke made the following predictions:
- Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) would ensure that the Taliban “aren’t faced by any serious internal or external threat” (sic), even if this meant disobeying the orders of president Musharraf;
- Hamid Karzai and his followers would suffer the same fate Haq.
One week after publication of this article the Taliban had been swept from power by the Northern Alliance / US offensive, and shortly afterwards the Afghan opposition selected Hamid Karzai as the head of the interim government in Kabul. A master of the art of understatement might say that Mr Burke, in retrospect, has been less than accurate in his predictions. A more pertinent observation would be that US strategists might have profited from reading Burke’s articles by following the maxim “believe the opposite of what he says, do the opposite of what he recommends.”
But it would be unfair to single out Burke for ridicule because his analysis was typical of the anti-American left during the initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom. On November 2nd, 2001, the Guardian published an editorial entitled “How not to win a war”, which confidently asserted that “If ever there was a new, Vietnam-style quagmire in the making, Afghanistan must surely be it.”
In addition to making dire predictions which failed to materialise, the Guardian described the Americans as being “trapped in a B-52 mind-set”, which reflects a common theme among supercilious Europeans resentful of US power. In this model of international relations, the US is a dumb giant which knows how to flex its muscles but lacks understanding of complex political realities and local cultures, resorting to brute force when more subtle methods are required.
In a lecture on October 30th, 2001, Professor Sir Michael Howard, the eminent military historian, said that fighting terrorism by bombing Afghanistan was like “trying to eradicate cancer with a blow torch” and had put Al-Qaeda in a “win-win situation”. His comments received wide coverage in the British press, but were based on a lamentable misunderstanding of US policy. As Colin Powell had repeatedly stated in the fall of 2001, military action was just one element of the War on Terror, which would also be prosecuted through police work, intelligence sharing, cutting off sources of funding and – yes – diplomacy and coalition-building. The military campaign in Afghanistan was an essential and urgent action to remove the only regime in the world which was allowing its national territory to be used as a safe haven and training camp for Al-Qaeda. And as CNN terrorism expert Peter Bergen noted, the removal of this safe haven was a major blow against the terrorists.
The antiwar press in Britain, however, was sane and rational when compared with the Asia Times, which describes itself as “a quality Internet-only publication” that looks at issues “from an Asian perspective”. Many of its articles, nonetheless, are written by authors whose names have a decidedly un-Asian ring to them, such as Pepe Escobar, a tawdry hack who styles himself as a “roving” international correspondent. In addition to flirting with 9-11 conspiracy stories, Escobar had no doubt whatever that the real objective of the military campaign in Afghanistan was to enable the construction of an oil pipeline from central Asia to the coast of Pakistan, thereby giving the US access to a vital non-OPEC oil source. Three years later the pipeline was triumphantly unveiled: unfortunately for “Pipeline Pepe” its route does not pass anywhere near Afghan territory, as indicated by the map helpfully printed in his article.
It is worth noting that some on British left did support Operation Enduring Freedom. American readers will be familiar with the writings of Chistopher Hitchens – to his name we should add John Lloyd, Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee, who seemed genuinely perplexed that her colleagues could be so indifferent to the fate of Afghan women under the misogynist tyranny of the Taliban. In an article published on October 31st 2001, she solved this puzzle for herself when she observed that the anti-American left “might rather see America humiliated than Afghans liberated”. The quick and crushing victory in Afghanistan meant that Toynbee did not have to wait long for vindication, and she did not shrink from reminding those who had predicted a disaster on the scale of Vietnam of how wrong they had been:
Just remember what they said: the Taliban was different, this was not war as we knew it. Romantic Victorian paintings of British defeats were dusted down to warn of the mythic Pashtun warrior spirit. Old film of Russian conscripts dying in the Afghan snow was shown to foretell the worst. The Pashtuns were not men, but a rare breed of fighting machine, welded to their guns and tanks, hard as their rocky land. The jihad martyrs would fight to the terrible end. Defeat was not in the vocabulary of martyrs heavenbound for their 70 celestial virgins. Fractious rogues of the Northern Alliance could never beat God-driven maniacs. Bombing would do no good, as the crafty guerrilla army would flit from cave to cave. Bombing would kill thousands of civilians without touching this will-o-the-wisp foe. Well, it was all bunk. They were ordinary men after all. Religious delirium may seize small groups, but faced with a choice between this life or the next, even the devout cling to their mortal coil. So they fled.
Returning to the situation in Iraq, opponents of Operation Iraqi Freedom believe that their stance has been justified by the failure to discover WMDs and the on-going violence in central Iraq. But more reasonable opponents of the war also understand that Iraq’s elected government now deserves their support and will require help from US and allied troops until its own security forces are strong enough to defeat the insurgency. The anti-American left, however, has revealed its true colors by continuing to treat the Iraqi government as a puppet of the US and the presence of the multinational force as an “occupation” of the country. As in Afghanistan, the humiliation of America is more important than the fate of the people.
In some cases, this anti-Americanism has led to quite open support for the insurgents and terrorists whose activities have perpetuated the suffering of the Iraqi people. On January 12th 2005, the Asia Times published an article about Sadr City (the densely populated Shia suburb of East Baghdad) by Michael Schwarz, a Marxist professor from the State University of New York. Schwartz constructed a virtual parallel universe of disinformation and propaganda based on the following core assertions:
- Sadr City was a “liberated zone” under the control of Muqtada al-Sadr’s “Mehdi Army”
- the Mehdi Army had instituted a form of self-government which had broad support among the local population
- similar developments had occurred in Sunni Arab towns such as Fallujah, which would co-exist peacefully as “nascent city-states” if left alone by the US military and Iraqi government forces.
In fact, the climate in Sadr City as of January 2005 was one of peaceful campaigning prior to the eagerly awaited national elections due at the end of the month. The Muqtada militia had surrendered its heavy weapons several months before in a deal brokered with the interim government, and its supporters were campaigning for their own party list, the Independent Nationalist Elites and Cadres, which ended up winning only three seats in the 275-member assembly – so much for its broad popular support.
As for Schwarz’s depraved characterisation of insurgent-controlled Fallujah, the reign of terror that had existed in this “liberated zone” was revealed to the world after the insurgents were driven out in November – not local self-government or a “nascent city state”, but a base for fanatical terrorists intent on spreading mayhem throughout Iraq.
The current situation in Iraq is that of an elected government seeking to establish control over its national territory with the assistance of US and allied forces acting with its consent and under a United Nations mandate. This government has been recognised by all of Iraq’s neighbours, including regimes in Iran and Syria which are antagonistic to the US. The insurgents now fighting the Iraqi government draw their popular support almost entirely from within the Sunni Arab community, who are 20% of Iraq’s population. Even within this minority, support for the insurgency is declining as more Sunni Arabs choose to participate in politics and join the Iraqi security forces. The insurgents have no unified political program, and ever more of their attacks are terrorist outrages, often carried out by foreign jihadists who have no compunction about murdering and maiming innocent Iraqis.
The insurgents are gradually being defeated. Their former strongholds in Samarra, Fallujah and Haifa Street (in Baghdad) are now under the control of Iraqi government and coalition forces. Their only hope is for a premature withdrawal of the multinational force, before the Iraqi army and police are strong enough to defeat them unaided. Their only means of achieving this is by generating media coverage in the US that will undermine public support for the mission being carried out by the troops. The anti-American left is a de facto ally of the terrorists and insurgents now operating in Iraq. It spreads their propaganda, it shares their hatreds and it supports their main aim: the humiliation and defeat of America.
The author is a British academic of Iranian descent who lives in London.