New Internationalist

Sustainable security

Issue 392

Chris Abbott argues that the ‘long war’ is the wrong war on terror.

Despite clear evidence of the disastrous effects of Western foreign policy, particularly in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, the Bush Administration and its allies remain focussed on projecting their influence across the globe and securing access to resources such as oil. This is increasingly undertaken through the global ‘war on terror’ (more recently referred to in the US as the ‘long war’) which relies on a misunderstood and exaggerated perceived risk of the threat from al-Qaida and international terrorism, without addressing the underlying causes of that terrorism.

However, the US State Department’s own figures show that the number of US citizens killed each year by international terrorism is rarely more than a couple of dozen.1 Even in 2001, which as a result of the 9/11 attacks saw the highest death toll from international terrorism on record, a US citizen was still over five times more likely to die from HIV/AIDS than from a terrorist attack. Three years on, and in 2004 the USA spent only $1.6 billion fighting HIV/AIDS globally but a massive $52 billion combating terrorism.

This is despite the fact that any realistic assessment of the various threats facing the world does not suggest that al-Qaida and international terrorism are the key causes of current global insecurity.

any realistic assessment of the various threats facing the world does not suggest that al-Qaida and international terrorism are the key causes of current global insecurity

Marginalization

Globally more than a billion people must try to survive on less than $1 a day and almost half of the worlds 2.2 billion children live in poverty. Each year ten million people die of hunger and hunger-related diseases. Across the world, some 100 million children who should be in school are not – three-fifths of them girls. Almost two billion people live in countries where regimes do not fully accommodate civil and political freedoms, and about 900 million people belong to ethnic, religious or linguistic groups that face discrimination.2 There is a clear and present danger: a complex interplay of discrimination, global poverty, Third World debt, infectious disease – the haves and the have nots – global inequality and deepening socio-economic divisions, that are key elements of current global insecurity. While overall global wealth has increased, the benefits have not been equally shared, with a very heavy concentration of growth in relatively few parts of the world.

Addressing these issues could help alleviate some of the root causes of anti-élite action, political violence and international terrorism, much more than any ‘war on terror’ ever could. Whatever their philosophy, the political aim of terrorist groups can only be achieved if they have the support of those whom they claim to represent. That will depend on how deep and enduring are the grievances of those people, and the group’s ability to tap into this underlying reservoir of discontent and marginalization.

It is a sad fact that if people are faced with oppression and lack of opportunity (whether real or perceived) it creates a sense of marginalization that may make some more likely to turn to radical and violent movements under certain circumstances – as witnessed in Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere. The combination of current economic and demographic trends with continued improvements in education and modern communications technologies, such as satellite television and the internet, indicates that this perception of marginalization is likely to increase rather than decrease.

The ‘war on terror’

This global trend remains unrecognized by most of the world’s political élites. The ‘war on terror’ is distracting them from the fundamental causes of insecurity, and the need to address global poverty and injustice has not made it on to the national security agenda of many countries. Instead, the current US Government and its allies have chosen a geopolitical ‘war on terror’ as they pursue their New American Century. Since 9/11 this has cost the US Government an estimated $357 billion in military operations, reconstruction, embassy costs and various aid programmes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for enhanced security at military bases around the world.

The human cost has been infinitely higher. In Iraq, now on the brink of civil war, well over 40,000 civilians3 and thousands of Iraqi military and police have been killed as a result of the invasion. To date the US has suffered over 2,500 military fatalities in Iraq, with 18,000 thousand troops wounded in action4 and a similar number evacuated because of non-combat injuries and severe physical or mental health problems. In Afghanistan, while the Taliban may have been ousted from power, more innocent civilians were killed as a direct result of military action there than died in the 9/11 attacks that prompted the US-led invasion. In the two conflicts, the number of civilians seriously injured is likely to be in the region of one hundred thousand, and tens of thousands have been internally displaced.

the alleged pre-war link between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaida has become a self-fulfilling prophecy

Furthermore, the alleged pre-war link between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaida has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that treating Iraq as part of the ‘war on terror’ has only spawned new terror and created a combat training zone for paramilitaries and jihadists, as well as becoming al-Qaida’s greatest recruitment tool. If extended to Iran, the implications of intervention would be disastrous. This is not the way to curb recruitment to terrorist organizations or address anti-Western attitudes – as post-9/11 attacks in Islamabad, Karachi, Djakarta, Bali, Mombassa, Riyadh, Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid, London and Amman suggest (as well as numerous failed attacks across the Middle East, Europe and the US). Moreover, as the July 2005 attacks in London may have demonstrated, these actions risk increasing support for al-Qaida and their associates among Islamic communities in Western countries, thus creating a truly transnational phenomenon. This is made even more likely by the harsh counter-terrorism and immigration laws enacted by some countries, which are creating a legacy of fear and disillusionment in many Muslim communities, particularly among young people. As the Defense Science Board (an advisory committee to the US Secretary of Defense) concluded in September 2004: ‘Muslims do not “hate our freedom”, but rather they hate our policies.’5

The way forward

It is important to understand that the al-Qaida movement is not an organization in the traditional sense: it is more an ideology about freeing Muslim lands and cleansing a corrupt world through religious violence.6 Furthermore, far from sleeper cells in every country, it is more realistic to think of al-Qaida as a ‘consortium’, a kind of network of networks, sharing a radical worldview but with individual ‘member’ groups and associates working independently of top-down leadership from Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida; often fighting for different local objectives, but in the ‘style’ of al-Qaida. Terrorist organizations and ‘rogue states’ are not isolated phenomena that can be defeated on a case-by-case basis using military force, thereby regaining control and maintaining the existing world order. Al-Qaida and the like are more of an indicator, a ‘symptom’, of a longer-term trend. It follows that policies to control such developments will need to go beyond the traditional, if often effective, methods of counter-terrorism to include determined efforts to address the underlying divisions. In short, government efforts against terrorism need to recognize the genuine causes of that terrorism and must not contribute to the problem in themselves.

What is ultimately needed is recognition by governments that current security measures will be ineffective in the long-term and that a radical rethink of what is meant by ‘security’ is long overdue

Violent groups often grow out of local conditions to address grievances, whether local or global, which they feel cannot be dealt with through the political system available to them. Radical philosophies may offer these people an explanation of what is happening around them, and suggest violent actions that make sense from within an environment of marginalization. These groups, whether religious or secular, old or new, must be brought into the political process wherever possible – no matter how painful that route may be at times. By genuinely addressing the root causes of political violence and bringing groups into dialogue, violence can be stopped. In the short-term, security strategies that demand increasing levels of social control and a loss of civil liberties may keep the instability and violence at bay, but will only serve to intensify them in the long-term. However, the continuing problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the failure to control the growth of movements such as al-Qaida, may well create a sense that a sustainable alternative to the current US-led ‘control paradigm’ is long overdue.

The main feature of such a ‘sustainable security’ approach is that it does not attempt unilaterally to control threats through the use of force (‘attack the symptoms’), but rather aims to resolve co-operatively the root causes of those threats using the most effective means available (‘cure the disease’). The approach is preventative, in that it addresses the likely causes of conflict and instability well before the ill effects are felt, rather than waiting until the crisis is underway and then attempting to control the situation though military force, at which point it is often too late.

Such an approach might include:

  • Rapid coalition troop withdrawals from Iraq, replaced by a UN stabilisation force, with US recognition that a client state cannot be sought there.
  • The closure of Guantánamo Bay, the cessation of ‘extraordinary renditions’, and the observance of the Geneva Conventions on detainees.
  • Sustained aid for the reconstruction and development of Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • A genuine commitment to a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and third-party brokerage of the wider Arab-Israeli confrontation.
  • A firm and public commitment to a diplomatic solution to the current crisis with Iran.
  • An opening of political dialogue with terrorist leaderships wherever possible.

What is ultimately needed is recognition by governments that current security measures will be ineffective in the long-term and that a radical rethink of what is meant by ‘security’ is long overdue. However, this is unlikely to happen without pressure from below, as governments are all-too-often focussed on their own narrow interests. Therefore, NGOs and the global civil society will need to co-ordinate their efforts to convince governments that this new approach is practical and effective, and is the only real way to ensure security.

A new linking between the peace, environment and development movements will be necessary for this. We must now work together and recognize that we all have an urgent responsibility to embrace a sustainable approach to global security, while there is still time to make a difference.

  1. US Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism (reports from 1995-2003) http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/.
  2. United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Human Development Report 2004 http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2004/.
  3. http://www.iraqbodycount.org.
  4. http://icasualties.org/oif/.
  5. Defense Science Board, Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication (Department of Defense, September 2004) p.48.
  6. Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (London: Penguin Books, 2004).

Chris Abbott is co-author, along with Paul Rogers and John Sloboda, of Global Responses to Global Threats: Sustainable Security for the 21st Century published by Oxford Research Group. http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk

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