War against what?

Bin Laden, the Taliban, terrorism, evil, poverty, tooth decay, boredom...what are allied forces fighting against in the war on terror?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

‘I don’t have a particular name affixed to what I’m going up against.’

So said lieutenant-general Dan McNeill, commander of US troops in Afghanistan, at the end of June 2002, after being asked the million-dollar question ‘what about bin Laden?’ once too often. ‘I’m not solely fixated on bin Laden’, said McNeill. ‘If [his capture] is incidental in our operations and we get to him, that’s fine.’ (1) One US commander claims that the real war on terror is against ‘something bigger’ than bin Laden, ‘something less knowable’.

It’s official: American forces in Afghanistan are fighting an enemy with no name. From President Bush’s declaration in January 2002 that the USA is fighting a ‘shadowy enemy dwelling in dark corners of the Earth’ to the US commander’s ‘something bigger’ than bin Laden, US forces seem to be up against an unknowable, unnameable, indescribable enemy. ‘Evil people’, said Bush in September last year, naming the enemy in the war against terrorism. ‘We will rid the world of evil [people].’

The more the war drags on, the more trouble US leaders seem to have pinpointing what America is fighting against. The war has moved from focusing on bin Laden to focusing on ‘evil dictators everywhere’; from ‘destroying terrorism’ in Afghanistan to ‘rebuilding hope’ across the third world; from bombing terrorist camps in Afghanistan to a ‘first strike’ policy that will target ‘over 60 nations’ to keep international terrorism in check. One left-wing US commentator argues that ‘what started as a war against one man… has turned into a war against the world’.

How did that happen? In the wake of 11 September, after initially declaring ‘war’ against persons unknown, American leaders talked up a clear public enemy who they were determined to destroy: Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. President Bush declared that bin Laden was ‘wanted: dead or alive’. ‘If he thinks he can hide and run from the USA he will be sorely mistaken’, said Bush in September 2001. ‘Those who make war against the USA have chosen their own destruction.’ (2)

But after months of failing to locate bin Laden, US leaders announced in March 2002 that he wasn’t such a big threat after all. ‘I truly am not that concerned about him’, said Bush on 13 March 2002. ‘Deep in my heart I know the man is on the run, if he’s alive at all.’ Bush brushed bin Laden off as ‘a person who has now been marginalised’ (3).

‘The goal has never been to get bin Laden’, said General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, on 6 April 2002. ‘The goal [in Afghanistan] was never after specific individuals’, claimed Myers, arguing that the ‘capture, killing and scattering’ of ‘mid-level al-Qaeda operatives’ was far more important than getting bin Laden’s head on a platter (4).

American leaders’ ever-shifting attitude towards the threat/non-threat of bin Laden revealed more about the failures of the war on terror than it did about the threat of bin Laden. The aims in relation to bin Laden have gone from getting him ‘dead or alive’ to bringing him to justice to dismantling his organisation to giving him the runaround as a means of foiling his dastardly plan to recognising he is no longer a threat and leaving him be.

One US commentator even argues that ‘[t]he enemy was never bin Laden the man, but bin Laden the symbol’. This is convenient, considering that bin Laden the man has eluded US forces since the start of the Afghan war in October 2001. Indeed, we know less about bin Laden the man now than we did on 11 September 2001. At least then we knew he was alive and in Afghanistan – now, according to US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, man in overall charge of the Afghan war: ‘[Bin Laden] is alive or dead. He’s in Afghanistan or somewhere else.’ (5) But bin Laden the symbol? ‘We’ve got him beat’, argues the US commentator. ‘Our actions have sent a message to all those for whom bin Laden is a symbol to look up to.’

So if bin Laden the man is no longer the enemy and bin Laden the symbol has been defeated, who or what is the target of the ongoing war on terror? Since January 2002, US leaders have expanded their search for ‘the enemy’ beyond Afghanistan, taking their war on terror to other ‘rogue nations’. In his State of the Union address on 30 January 2002, Bush named Iraq, Iran and North Korea an ‘axis of evil’, claiming that ‘these are very dangerous regimes [and] action is going to be required.’ (6)

American website SatireWire joked in February 2002 that, ‘Bitter after being snubbed for membership in the “Axis of Evil”, Libya, China and Syria today announced they had formed the “Axis of Just as Evil”‘ (7). Satire became reality in early May 2002, when US under-secretary of state John Bolton doubled the size of the axis of evil to six, including Cuba, Libya and Syria (but not China) alongside Iraq, Iran and North Korea (8). This confused Cubans in particular, who were receiving former US president Jimmy Carter in the same week, to discuss ‘improving relations’ and breaking down trade barriers between Cuba and the USA.

By early June 2002, the number of enemy states to whom America would ‘take the war on terror’ had risen tenfold – from the six axis of evil states to ‘up to 60 countries that could be developing weapons of mass destruction’ (9). In a speech to graduates at the West Point Military Academy in New York state on 3 June 2002, President Bush said that ‘terrorism cells in countries that make up close to one third of the globe must be actively sought and dismantled’. ‘We must take that battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge’, said Bush – unveiling his pre-emptive ‘first strike policy’, which would hit potential terrorists before they had a chance to hit the USA.

In his war against a third of the globe, Bush said he would target not only ‘terrorist nations’ and nations that ‘support terror’, but also ‘nations [that] oppose terror but tolerate the hatred that leads to terror’. In short, it’s a war against nations’ attitudes as well as their actions and words. In nine months, the war on terror has expanded from destroying al-Qaeda to targeting Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Libya and Syria, to targeting 60 nations and their bad attitudes.

According to one US military official, the enemy is even more widespread than Bush lets on: ‘[Terrorist networks] are everywhere, from Brussels to Bagram’, he says, and apparently London is the ‘intelligence capital’ of a dispersed al-Qaeda (10). Does this mean Brussels and London will be on the receiving end of some of Bush’s pre-emptive action?

Even within this dark, disturbing third of the Earth that allegedly harbours US-hating terrorists, the Bush administration has difficulty pinpointing the enemy. According to Donald Rumsfeld, in some of these states the threat is so well-hidden that US forces may even have to deploy nuclear weapons to reveal (and destroy) it. As one report points out, ‘Rumsfeld’s Nuclear Posture Review, completed at the end of last year, stated that “new capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets”’.

The notion of an enemy threat to America ‘deeply buried’ and hidden away reveals much about America’s state of mind – where ‘shadowy enemies’, in the words of President Bush, are busy plotting further attacks, unseen and unknown by US forces. (Of course, the claim of deeply buried targets invisible to the naked eye also gets over the perennial problem of providing evidence of ill intent before attacking another state.)

The expansion of the threat of war to cover more and more states says little about those states themselves (54 of which the Bush administration hasn’t even named yet), but tells us a lot about the war on terrorism. The war launched in the wake of 11 September was as much about finding a sense of purpose and mission for the US government, as it was about actually finding bin Laden. As spiked editor Mick Hume argued at the end of last year: ‘In effect, Bush was seeking to export America’s internal malaise on to Afghan soil.’ (11)

With the announcement of an axis of evil in January 2002, the Bush administration was trying to externalise its problems further outwards. The expansion of the axis of evil to cover 60 states suggests that the less success America has in Afghanistan, the more it needs to expand the war further and further. As US leaders are already discovering, this is a dangerous tactic. It is easy to indulge in war talk and to puff out your chest, but not so easy to deal with the consequences on the ground – and already divisions and tensions are intensifying in Iran, North Korea, Iraq, the Philippines and some of the other rogue states denounced by Bush.

Listening to US leaders over the past six months, it seems that the unnameable, unknowable enemy in the war on terror is everywhere – and nowhere. The evil forces that would attack and undermine America are present in ‘up to 60 nations’ and everywhere from ‘Brussels to Bagram’ – but on the ground in Afghanistan, where an actual war is taking place, there is no sign of bin Laden, Muhammad Omar, or any of the other al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders that allied forces have spent nine months searching for. Indeed, many now question how coherent or big an organisation al-Qaeda actually is.

There seems to be a fantasy enemy, against whom Bush and co can make grand pronouncements and big bad threats – and a real enemy, which has continuously eluded American and British forces in Afghanistan. A fantasy war on terror, where America and its allies look strong and determined – and a real war in Afghanistan, where the war aims change on a weekly basis and where operation after operation ends in failure.

This lack of direction on the ground, far away from Bush’s war talk, was best captured by the ‘recommitting ceremony’ that US forces held at Bagram airbase. It was carried out by US colonel Frank Wiercinski at the end of May 2002, where he got soldiers together in a formal gathering to ‘recommit ourselves today to what we are doing’ (whatever that might be). ‘We are here on a war against terrorism, a scourge against all free, liberty-loving people’, explained Wiercinski, calling on his soldiers to ‘restate their commitment’ to those aims (12).

But in a war with real aims, soldiers wouldn’t have to ‘recommit’ themselves to their mission. A war with a clear enemy that soldiers were busy seeking and destroying would win soldiers’ commitment through action and goals rather than through formal ceremonies. In the absence of a definable enemy against which they can all unite and fight, it seems the US army needs other ways to keep up soldiers’ morale.

Indeed, in the same week that colonel Wiercinski got his troops to re-swear their allegiance, some US troops complained that the Afghan war had become ‘hellishly boring’. ‘When I think of war, I think of World War II’, said one US marine. ‘[But] this seems like we’re sitting around waiting for something to happen.’ According to one report, ‘Like athletes who have trained for months to play in a championship game, only to watch from the sidelines, many younger infantrymen are yearning for one big battle to test their mettle’ – quoting one soldier as asking ‘When are we going to get a mission?’. US commanders are keen for their troops to ‘recommit’ to ‘the mission’, but cannot provide a real mission for them to fight in.

US and British troops have joked that ‘the biggest enemy in Afghanistan is boredom’, and that their ‘real war is with the excruciating heat’. ‘The enemy?’, says one British Royal Marine. ‘The enemy here is the sun and sickness.’ Some Royal Marines have even declared war on tooth decay in Afghanistan:

‘[Royal Marines] arrived in the province of Khost poised for what commanders said might well be fierce combat. Instead it has been Zulu Company’s soft-spoken dentist who has occupied the frontline for hearts and minds. “We have advanced units out front. Kids run up to us asking politely for water and sweets, sometimes holding a sore tooth. That is when we jump in”, he said. The team uses all the stealth tactics learnt back home, homing in on what fighters call “the real enemy – tooth decay”.’ (13)

Battling tooth decay might sound like little more than a distraction for forces with nothing else to do – but the Marines have seriously presented it as a way of combating the enemy. ‘…[W]e are essentially winning hearts and minds, and doing the same thing as killing al-Qaeda’, said a Royal Marine commander.

When mending kids’ teeth is seen as another way of ‘killing’ the enemy – whoever, whatever or wherever that enemy might be – you know that the war on terror is going nowhere fast.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Why the marines messed up, by Brendan O’Neill

America’s axis-tential crisis, by Brendan O’Neill

The strange battle of Shah-i-Kot, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Where’s Osama? And how much should we care?, Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, 27 June 2002

(2) Where’s Osama? And how much should we care?, Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, 27 June 2002

(3) Bin Laden Doesn’t Concern Bush?!, The New American, 8 April 2002

(4) No large anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan looming, Gen Frank says, Associated Press, 5 April 2002

(5) Osama bin Laden: Dead or alive?, Romesh Ratnesar, Time, 1 July 2002

(6) State of the Union address, George W Bush, 29 January 2002

(7) Angered by snubbing, Libya, China, Syria form Axis of Just as Evil, SatireWire, February 2002

(8) US expands ‘axis of evil’, BBC News, 6 May 2002

(9) ‘”Terror war must target 60 nations”, says Bush’, James Doran The Times, 3 June 2002

(10) Terror network fragmented, but it’s also ‘everywhere from Brussels to Bagram’, Jonathan Weisman, USA Today, 26 June 2002

(11) How did we get from Manhattan to Kabul?, by Mick Hume

(12) Troops in Afghanistan asked to recommit to fighting terrorism, Associated Press, 27 May 2002

(13) Troops get to root of Afghan decay, Philip Smucker, Daily Telegraph, 5 June 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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