Book Review: The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke

9/11 Wars coverBy Babak Moussavi

It is a cliché to point out that the events of September 11th 2001 changed the world. Indeed, they did. The dust of the collapsing towers of the World Trade Centre may have settled long ago, but the aftermath is still felt acutely. Nearly 12 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, principally to root out and destroy the leadership of the al-Qaeda terrorist group that was harboured there by the Taliban regime, NATO troops are still in the country, and are still fighting the Taliban. Huge numbers of mostly innocent people have died, mainly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other parts of the Middle East and southern and central Asia, but also in Western capitals. What happened?

Jason Burke’s The 9/11 Wars is a good attempt to answer this question. At over 700 pages (of which nearly 200 pages are very detailed notes), the book offers a sweeping overview of the events that followed the attack on the Twin Towers. But Mr Burke is not trying to offer an account of the political wrangling that lay behind these decisions, meaning some apparently key political players in Western capitals are rarely even mentioned. Rather:

[the book’s] aim is to suggest a grubby view from below, rather than a lofty view from above. It is primarily about people rather than about power, particularly people for whom life has changed in ways that no one could have predicted a decade ago.

To be sure, this is a work of journalism, not history or political science. Mr Burke, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Guardian, prefers to describe the local conditions of the various theatres of what he has dubbed ‘the 9/11 wars’, rather than construct explanations for the events that constitute those wars themselves. What we read is extremely well-informed, but never pretty.

Ignorance is not bliss

In case we needed reminding, the mistakes made by the US and its allies – particularly the UK – in the 9/11 wars are myriad. The Bush administration was riddled with brazen ideologues – men such as Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, John Bolton and others – who believed their aggressive neoconservative agenda could reshape the globe in America’s interest. While not everyone in the Bush administration was a true neo-con, as Max Boot, a neo-con himself, has pointed out, too few believed in proper post-war planning, or in that deeply un-conservative concept known as ‘nation-building’. Too few, indeed, knew much in detail about the wider world. Unfortunately, these officials realised their ignorance much too late; for defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, there were a few too many “unknown unknowns”.

Iraq was not the first theatre of the 9/11 Wars, but it came to represent everything catastrophic about those years. It may be worth reviewing first, therefore.

It went downhill after that.

It went downhill after that.

The reasons behind the invasion of Iraq in 2003 are not examined in The 9/11 Wars in much depth – though Mr Burke does point out that the justification was often changed when it became expedient – but the policies enacted after the invasion occurred are. The early years, as is now well known, were marked by a toxic combination of ignorance, misunderstanding, arrogance, and ideology. Paul Bremer’s appointment as the head of the newly created ‘Coalition Provisional Authority’ was disastrous, and his three early decisions – to disband the 385,000 strong Iraqi army, to ensure radical de-Ba’athification, and to postpone elections indefinitely – ensured that the process of peaceful reconstruction would be “almost impossible”. So it proved. Swiftly making hundreds of thousands of often-armed Iraqis unemployed was never going to pass without trouble, nor was giving the impression that the occupation could last for generations – the reference for this being the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Mistreating prisoners of war, most infamously at Abu Ghraib prison, was also a catastrophic – and criminal – error. The collapse into civil war was swift, though as Mr Burke points out, people rebelled for a variety of reasons: personal, economic, ideological, sectarian, opportunistic or otherwise. Only after General David Petraeus’ team devised Field Manual 3-24, which advocated a complete revamp of counter-insurgency strategy, did the situation come under a semblance of ‘order’. By that point foreign insurgents had poured into Iraq whipping up a sectarian bloodbath, culminating in the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Petty criminals turned terrorist leaders like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born proponent of extreme violence who was at first reluctant to join al-Qaeda, had wrought untold terror, and provoked the Shia al-Mahdi Army, led by the young, firebrand cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, into retaliatory violence against Sunnis.

The meeting convened by General Petraeus that eventually resulted in the new strategy – and the surprisingly successful ‘Surge’ – was telling, for it openly acknowledged disastrous instances of policy failure. These errors, which had been present in Afghanistan and recurrent in Iraq, are spelt out by Mr Burke:

The failure to secure borders, the raiding from big, heavily defended bases, the isolation from local people, the counterproductive emphasis on force protection, the cultural insensitivity, the chronic inability to understand local dynamics, the lack of sufficient troops to provide the security that could allow stability and economic development, the abuse and violence meted out to detainees…

A few, then.

Mr Burke is particularly strong on “local dynamics”. He evidently, and rightly, dislikes crude stereotypes about ‘Arabs’ or ‘Muslims’ which fail to take into account the very different local cultures that exist in the different loci of the 9/11 wars. Local and foreign insurgents in Iraq thought very differently to each other, as did those in Afghanistan. For example, in Falluja, a notorious hotspot in the Iraq War, foreign militants attempted to enforce their strict version of Islam on the town, which was completely alien to locals. Al-Zarqawi spent the summer of 2004 enforcing an alien personal code of conduct on the town’s residents, often “subjecting them to the sight (or experience) of spectacular public violence involving torture, beatings and videoed humiliation”. (These civilians later ended up being caught in the middle of the biggest pitched battle of the Iraq War. Pity their fate.) Eventually, Iraqi locals inevitably became hostile to the foreign insurgents, and this, Mr Burke argues, was another crucial turning point in the civil war. Such local dynamics were often lost on hapless Western leaders, officials, and commentators. This failure to understand the context in which they would be deploying troops was one of the many reasons for such terrible policy errors.

Af-Pak: the main theatre

Those conflicts that constituted the 9/11 wars may, arguably, have ended in the Middle East – though this does not mean it is entirely at peace – but they are still going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On 9/11 itself, Richard Armitage, the American deputy secretary of state, exclaimed to Pakistan’s ISI chief and ambassador that “History began today.” His claim was intended to show that Pakistan had been given a choice: to side with the US, or to continue to support the Taliban. Pakistan, under General Pervez Musharraf, who has just returned from self-imposed exile, officially opted for the former, thereby releasing itself of US sanctions and ramping up its aid receipts, but, as Mr Burke makes clear – as have many others, such as Ahmed Rashid – Pakistan’s policy was not entirely honest. The ISI, Pakistan’s key intelligence service, had viewed the Taliban as useful proxies, having trained the mujahedeen in the war against the Soviets, and preferred them to the Northern Alliance, who were viewed as much more hostile to Pakistan and its interests. The fear driving Pakistani officials was that an antagonistic regime in Afghanistan would be susceptible to influence by India, thus leading to Pakistan’s strategic encirclement. It was with India in mind that Pakistan kept its paramilitaries on the leash – such as the infamous Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which, in 2008, engaged in a gruesome terrorist attack on Mumbai. While Pakistan would claim to assist the US, therefore, all parties would find that the two states’ interests would not be entirely congruent.

Which side of Durand Line are we targetting today?

Can anyone spot the Durand Line?

Mr Burke makes clear that, during the course of the 9/11 wars anyway, such an alliance could hardly be expected to be easy, given diverging interests. And even though a political alliance was in theory sustained, the two countries did not fall in love with each other. By 2010, a survey by Pew Research found Pakistan to be a more conservative, nationalist, religious and anti-American country than before: 85% favoured sex segregation in the workplace; 80% favoured lashing thieves or amputating their hands; 78% favoured the death penalty for apostates; and almost two-thirds saw the US as an enemy. This was all after Mr Bush had left office, Osama bin Laden had been assassinated on Pakistani soil, and Barack Obama had stepped up US drone strikes on militants on both sides of the Durand Line that theoretically marks the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, relations have become so bad that Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States (and not related to the leaders of the Haqqani network), has suggested “breaking up” so that both countries can come to openly appreciate that their strategic interests differ and learn to co-operate on that more realistic basis. That is a grim acknowledgement that 12 years of American policy with respect to Pakistan – “perhaps the most important” theatre of conflict in the 9/11 wars according to Mr Burke – have failed.

The many faces of al-Qaeda

Mr Burke, who previously wrote a book examining al-Qaeda, also explains the debates about strategy that occurred within the organisation – or network, or even “methodology” – itself. Indeed, al-Qaeda had always incorporated “three elements, a physical base, the vanguard or leadership element and a free-floating worldview and ideology.” But within this fluid framework, there were very different views on how to ‘succeed’. One ‘thinker’ was Abu Musab al-Suri whose motto was ‘nizam la tanzim’ or ‘system not organisation’. He envisioned a “broad, self-organising popular uprising that would have no leaders, no organisation but simply like-minded highly motivated activists ‘swarming’ together for specific attacks,” on targets that perpetrators and supporters would deem to be legitimate. Mr Burke points out that for al-Suri, the 9/11 attacks themselves were actually a “catastrophic strategic error” for it later, through the US response, resulted in the deaths of many al-Qaeda leaders, militants, and sympathisers.

The notorious Zarqawi. A saviour of no-one.

The murderous Zarqawi. A saviour of no-one.

On the other side, there was the notorious al-Zarqawi, who came to embody the face of the Iraqi insurgency, and who was responsible for many of the attacks on Iraq’s Shia community that whipped up the sectarian slaughter. Whereas al-Suri was wary of having a great attachment to territory – having experienced first-hand the destruction of the town of Hama when Syrian President Hafz al-Assad crushed the Islamist revolt in 1982 (plus ça change…) – al-Zarqawi believed establishing physical enclaves to be the key goal of any militant movement. Al-Zarqawi also believed his group to be takfiri, giving it the right to designate people as kufr – non-believers. This was often applied to local Iraqi Muslims (and especially Shias) who followed their own local customs, not those of the foreign fundamentalists. For al-Zarqawi, however, “it was not enough merely to try to engineer a righteous community, but territory needed to be defined, seized, sacralised, Islamised and purged.”

Al-Qaeda was peppered with internal differences, therefore, and speaking of it as a single entity is often misleading. Neither al-Suri nor al-Zarqawi were close to bin Laden, and it is hard to know how much they approved of their colleagues’ actions. In any case, Mr Burke suggests that al-Qaeda is today a weakened force. While at one point it was able to inspire horrific attacks, even in European capitals, whipping conservative commentators into ignorant and often bigoted diatribes about immigrants, ghettoes and the end of Christendom, Mr Burke argues that al-Qaeda is now badly damaged, partly through its alienation of Muslims, but also militarily, through the controversial drone campaign, and is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Al-Suri was captured by the Pakistanis and handed to the Americans in 2005, and al-Zarqawi was killed in an air strike in 2006. Osama bin Laden, who remained the “pre-eminent leader of the global jihad”, was killed in 2011. Interestingly, Mr Burke also tells how in August 2009,

Hamas launched a bloody military operation against one of a number of emerging pro-al-Qaeda groups … If anyone in the region was benefiting from the polarisation caused by the previous years’ violence it was the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, not the extremists loyal to, or inspired by, bin Laden.

This was demonstrated by the phenomenon that became known as the Arab Spring. Mr Burke’s book came out just as this was breaking, meaning The 9/11 Wars does not examine it extensively, but he does point out that the fiery suicide of one young, angry street vendor in Tunisia, committed with no intention of hurting anyone else, was able to achieve so much more than any of the more vicious suicide attacks committed by followers of al-Qaeda.

Is it over?

The 9/11 Wars is a dense, well-researched book, and Mr Burke delves deeply into each issue he covers, having seemingly interviewed a plethora of participants in each of the various conflicts, ranging from innocent civilians, to militants, to Western officials. It is an excellent resource for understanding the conflicts that he terms the 9/11 wars, as well as the surrounding debates.

One wonders, though, whether his notion of the 9/11 Wars is too narrow. Are they just the conflicts that started after 9/11 (as history began on that day, apparently) or should they not include the festering troubles that, in their own way, contributed to the event itself. The long-running Israel-Palestine conflict is an obvious one in this category, which Mr Burke seems to steer away from examining, despite frequently mentioning that al-Qaeda would exploit it for political gain. The US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay too deserves more attention, not just for its awful mere existence, but also because of its radicalising effect.

Similarly, Iran hardly gets a mention, despite its central position between the theatres of conflict. Its nuclear programme may have been worth discussing; or the fraudulent 2009 elections and the crushing of the ‘Green movement’; or even – or especially – Mr Bush’s foolish and counter-productive concept of the ‘Axis of Evil’ – the utterance of which made sure that the US missed its best chance of engaging constructively with the Islamic Republic, which had a mutual loathing of the Taliban, and which at the time had a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.

Mr Burke’s book is excellent at examining the wars that did take place as a result of 9/11 though. It ends fittingly, albeit depressingly, by pointing out that the overall winners are hard to find, but the losers are obvious: the hundreds of thousands who perished. Mr Burke uses generally conservative estimates, gathering data from reputable sources, concluding that perhaps 250,000 people have died so far in the 9/11 wars. A stark way of pointing out, perhaps, that terrible mistakes can have terrible consequences.

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3 comments
  1. senex72 said:

    bmousavi is much to be thanked for drawing attention to this able account of the apparently bungling ineffectiveness of American power overall, let alone any pretence of its pursuit of social justice.

    Would it be too farfetched to see this as highlighting the eclipse of US delusions about a One Superpower World? 49 millions of American people apparently cannot earn enough or have enough savings to feed themselves,its economny is gradually being overhauled by other centers of development, the $US is a vast, depreciating debt that seems set to lose its role as the ‘global currency’, its banks are bankrupt and endlessly corrupt,it has not really won a war since 1945 and so on. Like the blinded Polyphemus (“famous one”)of Greek legend it staggers about searching in delusion for false targets, no longer alone but surrounded by ever-mounting opposition roused by its lack of the elementary requirements of a good host (the most Polyphemus could come up with was an offer to a guest to’eat you last of all’).

    Accepting this crude broad-brush sketch, I wonder if the most important post 9/11 development has not just happened? The BRICS conference, setting up the foundations of their own version of an IMF and World Bank system to work alongside the US-dominated one; and another straw in the wind perhaps: Putin’s apparently unrehearsed order to mobilise the Black Sea fleet for drills as he flew home from South Africa?

    The search for Justice might well gain strength in a world with couter-vailing powers, provided we can handle any troubles from excessive alliance with the the Americans and disentangle ourselves as they (like Rome and UK before them) begin to realise their world has changed.

    • Thanks senex72, and I’m glad you liked the review – it’s a book worth reading.

      Whether or not American decline can be inferred, the book does show that power superiority alone does not yield successful strategic outcomes. The gritty policy and contextual detail cannot be missed, or massive blunders will be made. An intuitive point, really, but in the days of neo-con hubris, it was sadly one that was not grasped.

      Not sure what to make of the BRICS and whether they will actually manage to engage in genuine multilateral co-operation given their fundamental differences, and diverging interests. They were initially lumped together by a Goldman Sachs executive who was speculating about emerging markets, rather than hypothesising about political alliances. But we will see!

      • senex72 said:

        Yes: I think China/Russia trade ties have just been strengthened, they have cooperated on Syria to check US actions, these may be straws in the wind.
        Or maybe the scene isn’t about national interests anymore, but about the power of those few who seem to be holding secret tax-free deposits in 30 or so “havens” like the Virgin Islands that exceed several times over the US GDP. – so as long as the inconvenient citizen votes can be sidetracked (referendums re-run, technocrats parachuted in, regulators corrupted and complicit etc.)or overcome, then national governments no longer act in rational national interest, but are run from the shadow economy by placemen and the party-political plutochracy.
        How could a government not run by men facilitating the huge US dollar tax-rip off in Afghanistan be achieved of its own accord? How can surface acceptance of the crazy economics of austerity, and the public blame of the old,sick and poor for domestic crisis be engineered otherwise? Why does no-one seem to notice that a fraction of 1% seem to own most of the wealth and all of the influence? that UK social mobility has frozen in thirty years? Why is the politics of redistribution titled “wasteful government expenditure”; why does the government claim to increase spendinbg and output by reducing the tax-rate on the wealthy with their higher propensity to save at a time of low investment spending?

        Perhaps my foolish hope, but I dream that the emergence of the BRICS might give voting populations the chance to potentially change sides (like the Cold War did)and through that regain some influence.

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