President Barak Obama defined his vision on the war on terror and counterterrorism policy on May 23, 2013 and said that this war, like all wars, must end (1). However, he did not set out a timetable, and consequently the question arises regarding whether and how the president’s words translate into real policy and operational practice. Also, he did not mention that the secret war in over 70 countries around the world through NSA spying must end or if it would continue. How about the drone strikes and the violation of sovereign states through these strikes? How does Obama’s vision differ from the Bush-Cheney vision on the war on terror? More importantly, how does Obama’s administration confront the real source of Islamic terrorism and the root of this evil in Islamic school and military camps that are supported financially and sometimes logistically by Saudi Arabia? And finally, how should criticism from right-wing conservatives and left-wing utopists of Obama’s policy be examined?
Following the September 11 terrorist attack by Al-Qaida that changed the world forever, the Bush-Cheney administration claimed that the U.S. was in a state of ‘armed conflict’ or ‘at war’ with ‘a new kind of enemy.’ This was in contrast to Clinton’s administration decision, when the same terrorist group attacked the World Trade Center in 1993. The Clinton administration used military force in response to the Al–Qaida attack, but this reaction was a part of counterterrorism policy rather than putting the name ‘war’ on it. Later, the State Department designated this group as a foreign terrorist group in 1999 (2). At this point, the term ‘war on terror’ is unusual because the battlefield is unknown and this group or organization is an international network. In other words, the enemy is not identifiable. And moreover, when this organization is designated ‘a new kind of enemy,’ certain norms like Geneva Convention or the treaty of Westphalia cannot be applied in these confrontations. In this approach, the war on terror is an open-ended war, and if ‘The One Percent Doctrine’ (3) of Dick Cheney would be applied, the U.S. can attack at any time, in any country where the members of any terrorist organizations live, and capture the suspects or even torture the detainees, regardless of international conventions. This bullying policy is one of the reasons that strengthens anti-American sentiments in Arab and Muslim countries and legitimizes the slogans and violence of Jihadi organizations, especially among the masses.
Depending on Bush- Cheney’s political persuasion, the U.S. went to war that takes over a decade at costs totaling somewhere between 4 to 6 trillion dollars (4). As a member of the Illinois senate, Barak Obama had opposed the Bush-Cheney administration’s war against Iraq and spoke out against it in October 2002. He distinguished between the war in Afghanistan, which he portrayed as a ‘war of necessity,’ and the war in Iraq, which he portrayed as a ‘rash war.’ He said: I am not opposed to all wars. I am opposed to dumb wars. So far those of us who seek a more just and secure world for our children, let us send a clear message to the president. You want a fight, President Bush? Let us finish the fight with Bin Laden and Al- Qaida, through effective, coordinative intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color- coded warning. You want a fight, President Bush? Let us fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells. You want a fight, President Bush? Let us fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil. Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join. The battles against ignorance and intolerance. Corruption and greed. Poverty and despair. (5)
Let’s start with the war in Afghanistan, which Obama came to portray as a ‘war of necessity’ in October 2002. Despite some rhetorical changes, the Obama administration continued to insist that the U.S. was in a state of ‘armed conflict’ or ‘at war’ with Al-Qaida. The frontline in this war has been in Afghanistan. The Taliban, which overran most parts of Afghanistan before the tragic event of 9/11, is an extremist Sunni Islamic militia that was founded by Saudi Arabia and supported by Pakistani ISI (6). According to Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani Afghanistan expert, “between 1994 and 1999, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Pakistanis trained and fought in Afghanistan on the side of the Taliban” (7). It should be noted that on 25 May 1997 Pakistan officially recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and the following day Saudi Arabia extended its official recognition. Later the same week, the U.A.E. became the third country to confer official recognition (8). Nonetheless, the Afghanistan seat at the United Nation was still held by the representative of the government overthrown by the Taliban. One of the most important things is that the Arab fighters have played a leading role in the Taliban regime, and the regimes militias were trained in Bin Laden’s camps. One of these camps was in the Wazirestan region of Pakistan.
President Obama adopted a different approach from the Bush-Cheney administration and extended the U.S. focus to Pakistan where the core of Al-Qaida leadership was thought to be based. That decision had two advantages. First, it weakened the position of Al-Qaida and consequently the Taliban in most parts of Afghanistan. Second, the discovery and killing of Bin Laden, who had been living in Pakistan, severely weakened the Al-Qaida leadership. In his speech on May 23, 2013, President Obama pointed out:
What is clear is that we quickly drove Al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, but they shifted our focus and began a new war in Iraq. And this carried significant consequences for our fight against Al-Qaida, our standing in the world …. So after I took office, we stepped up the war against Al-Qaida but we also sought to change its course. We relentlessly targeted Al-Qaida’s leadership. … Today, Osama Bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants. … Today, the core of Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat.
Later in this speech, President Obama mentioned one of the most controversial realities that must be taken into consideration. He said, “Moreover, we have to recognize that these threats don’t arise in a vacuum” (9).
But it is pretty hard or even impossible to defeat terrorism, especially Islamic terrorism, with speeches and political maneuverings. In nuclear Pakistan in 2002, there were more than twelve thousands Islamic schools, some of them unregistered, with an estimated 1.7 to 1.9 million students. A 2008 estimate put this figure at over 40,000. (10). The so-called children of the Taliban have been brainwashed into thinking that this is not real life. Their real life comes later, after death. The culture of martyrdom is one of the most dangerous weapons in the world. Sabrina Tavernise, in her New York Times article “Pakistan’s Islamic Schools Fill Void, but Fuel Militancy” wrote: “The concentration of madrasas here in southern Punjab has become an urgent concern in the face of Pakistan’s expanding insurgency. The schools offer almost no instruction beyond the memorizing of the Koran, creating a widening pool of young minds that are sympathetic to militancy.” She continued: “In an analysis of the profiles of suicide bombers who have struck in Punjab, the Punjab police said more than two-thirds had attended madrasas” (11).
To overcome this threat, the Obama administration, as well as the international community, should focus on the Islamic school, the doubtful role of ISI (12) as the secret and real power in Pakistan (12), and the roles of four Arabic states as the financial supporters of Orthodox Islamic movements in the Middle East and South West Asia. President Obama said in Cairo: “Now, we also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why we plan to invest 1.5 billion dollars each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads …” (13). This statement indicates that his administration has been diagnosed with the core of the problem. However, it seems unlikely that these limited steps will lead to the ultimate cure.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and now a scholar at the Brookings Institute, said: “The [Pakistan] army has provided safe haven, arms, expertise and other help to Taliban. It briefly pretended to abandon Taliban to avoid American anger in 2001 misleading George W Bush” (14). He also alleged:
“By 2004 under the leadership of its then spy chief and today top general, Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistani’s intelligence service, the ISI, was deeply engaged in helping the Taliban again. It still is. The senior Taliban leadership including Mullah Omar is protected by the ISI in Quetta and Karachi”. One document that was obtained by Wikileaks from the United States Congressional Research service on March 27, 2007 confirmed such allegations. (15)
Wikileaks revealed a secret memo signed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2009, where Clinton wrote: “Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant such as Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e- Taiba – but the Saudi government is reluctant to stem the flow of money.” She also said “more needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for Al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist group.” Clinton continued: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide. Three other Arab countries are listed as source of militant money are Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates” (16). Wikileaks also obtained a document from the United States Congressional Service on September 14, 2007, “Saudi Arabia: Terrorist Financing Issues,” that reviews allegation of Saudi involvement in Terrorist Financing (17).
Qatar is another rich Arabian country in the Persian Gulf and an American ally that is alleged to support different terrorist organizations. One of the examples in this regard is the 9/11-commission report. It suggested: “Qatar’s current Interior Minister provided safe haven to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed during the mid- 1990s, and press reports indicate other terrorists may have received financial support or safe haven in Qatar after September 11, 2001 (18). The role of an Al-Jazeera Qatari broadcaster to stimulate the anti-American sentiment among Arab masses for more than a decade can not be underestimated or denied. It was the major base that broadcast the messages of Al-Qaida leadership after the devastating event of 9/11.
U.A.E., another U.S. ally, faces similar allegations. According to the report that the United States Congressional Research service provided and Wikileaks released, “during Taliban rule, this country allowed Ariana Afghan airlines to operate direct service, and Al- Qaida activists reportedly spent time there. Two of the September 11 hijackers were U.A.E. nationals and they reportedly used U.A.E. - based financial networks in the plot” (19).
Despite all the evidence that indicates the role of these countries in forming and supporting the Islamic terrorists, neither the Bush-Cheney administration, nor the Obama administration has condemned directly theses countries. On the contrary, President Bush called Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the axes of evil on January 29, 2002 (20), countries that had nothing to do with 9/11. Consequently, he diverted the international community’s attention from the Arab oil states.
With the Bush statement on January 29, 2002 (21), and despite the international community’s disagreement on that issue, the war with Iraq raged. Senator Obama portrayed this as the ‘rash war’ (22). Later, as the president of the United States, he said: “and this [war] carried significant consequences for our fight against Al- Qaida, our standing in the world, and to this day our interests in a vital region.” He continued: “we ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home” (23). These statements may catch the global and American pubic eyes at first glance, but the reality is that the civil war, as well as the presence of Al-Qaida and other Jihadi organizations in Iraq, jeopardizes the region and international security. In this view, Iraq becomes a safe nest for the terrorists, like the southern part of Afghanistan as well as northern and tribal parts of Pakistan. The presence of the Islamic extremist elements in neighboring Syria and the continuation of bloody war in this country indicate that the war in Iraq expanded the presence and the influence of terrorists in the region.
It is true that the Iraq deception has continued into the Obama presidency, but it seems that Obama’s policy is not sufficient and that he tries to escape from the Bush-Cheney made mire. The current violence is a testimony to the failure of applied strategies in recent years.
The drone strikes are one of the most controversial aspects of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy. The Bush-Cheney administration started using drone strikes in Yemen in 2002 and in Pakistan in 2004. These strikes had been launched 49 times during this administration and killed some 365 members of Jihadi organizations. The numbers of these strikes rose dramatically under president Obama, and in 2010, 122 strikes were reported. According to this analysis:
The casualty rate in Pakistan for civilians and ‘unknown’ was around 40% under President Bush. It was come down to about 7% under President Obama. Only 58 known militant leaders have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, representing just 2% of the total deaths. In 2012, 2% of the drones’ victims were characterized as civilians in news report and 9% were described in a manner that made it ambiguous whether they are militants or civilians. In 2013, civilian casualties are at their lowest ever. That is partly the result of a sharply reduced number of drone strikes in Pakistan. (24)
In his speech on May 23, 2013, President Obama defended drone strikes and remarked: “to begin with, are actions are effective… [terrorist] plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives… Moreover, America’s actions are legal.” He also explained that “America cannot take strike wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultation with partners, and respect for state sovereignty” (25). However, Pakistan government time after time condemned drone strikes in its territory and the Peshawar High Court declared that the attacks were illegal, inhumane, and violated the United Nation charter on human rights and constituted a war crime (26). In her book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, Medea Benjamin warned: “In reality, the assassinations we are carrying out via drones will come back to haunt us when others start doing the same thing to us” (27). The evidence raises the suspicion that the continuation of these strikes is easy for a superpower like the United States of America, but also pointless.
The secret war of the U.S. through NSA spying is another contentious issue that attracts the attention of the international community. Since September 11, fundamental decisions have been made about the U.S. government’s role in both the country and the world. All of these decisions were kept secret, regardless of the Founder’s constitutional vision of individual freedom and a limited ‘servant’ government. These constant surveillances, control techniques, and spying methods were previously shown only in Hollywood fantasy movies. But today, even a strong American ally like Germany is not immune from this information theft, and in July 2013 the German government announced an extensive review of Germany’s intelligence services (28). The classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed operational details of a global surveillance mechanism run by the NSA. The types and varieties of these operations indicate that it is not only a war on terror, but rather a global war even against U.S. citizens.
In his speech on January 17, 2014 President Obama banned spying on the leaders of U.S. allies; nevertheless, he defended the important role of the NSA in today’s digital world to protect U.S. citizen and the innocent people around the world:
Those of us who hold office in America have a responsibility to our Constitution, and while I was confident in the integrity of those who lead our intelligence community, it was clear to me in observing our intelligence operations on a regular basis that changes in our technological capabilities were raising new questions about the privacy safeguards currently in place. … Now let me be clear; our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments- as opposed to ordinary citizens- around the world, in the same way that the intelligent services of every other nation does. We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective. But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners. (29)
Obama’s policy has received criticism across the political spectrum. The Progressives prefer Obama’s policy to the Bush-Cheney’s policy. Political organizer and strategist Robert Creamer stated, “it is critical that Americans recognize the sharp, qualitative difference between the Neocon policies that cost America so dearly and President Obama’s policies that have restored America’s leadership in the world” (30). Senator Saxby Chambliss said that Obama’s speech “will be viewed by terrorists as a victory, rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities. We are changing courses with no clear operational benefit” (31). Fox News claimed its national poll indicates that 77 percent of voters say the war is ongoing and should continue to be a top priority to the government (32). Other Republicans also attacked Obama’s policy and it seems that they are not going to abandon an existing tool of warfare. Paul Street, in his book The Empire’s New Clothes, said that Obama represented the Bush policy with language that is softer and is more acceptable to public opinion. He claims that “Obama has restored to off-the-book, so-called supplemental funding of the colonial Iraq and Afghanistan Wars – a deceptive war – financing methods that Bush pioneered and that candidate Obama said he would abandon” (33). And Noam Chomsky believes that in many cases, Obama is worse than Bush (34).
These critiques, and many others, are to some extent political and ideological, and indicate the status of different positions. One example that supports this idea is the difference between Obama as presidential candidate and Obama as President of the United States of America. During his campaign, Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay prison and sent the detainees to civilians’ courts or to their countries of origin. However, Obama as President could not fulfill his promise up to now. It does not reflect bad intentions on Obama’s part, but rather the national responsibilities, legal bureaucracy, and other barriers that he faced when he took office.
In an electoral process that started in 2007, millions of Americans invested their hopes in Barak Obama with the expectation that they would install an effective manager in White House, someone who would roll back the war and militarism. Not only Americans, but also peace lovers around the world had such hopes and dreams. They hoped that Obama’s vision and his emphasis on international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples would be highly useful in repairing America’s relationship with certain parts of the world in the wake of the Bush-Cheney disastrous policies. In the events of Obama’s presidency to this day, many efforts have been made and some changes have taken place. Nonetheless, the threat of Islamic terrorism and anti-American sentiments in Arab and Moslem countries remain to some extent.
To cope with terrorism, the United States, together with the world community, should focus on the roots of the evil and abandon double standards. Islam as a political ideology in 20th century emerged when the world was divided into east communist and west blocks. The lack of an alternative and an exemplar in the presence of two blocks from one side, and the use of Islam as a tool against communism by the west from the other side paved the way for the rise of Islamism. The only example among the countries with a Muslim population in the mid-twentieth century was Iran with its newborn democracy that could be an inspiration for other nations in that region. Unfortunately, the U.S.-British coup against this model and overthrown the democratic elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, suppressed this inspiration and disappointed people from Tehran to Cairo. I strongly agree with Stephan Kinzer, the American journalist and the author of the book All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, who argues:
The result of that coup was that the Shah was placed back on his throne… His tyranny resulted in an explosion of revolution in 1979 the event that we call the Islamic revolution. That brought to power a group of fanatically anti- western clerics who turned Iran into a center for anti- Americanism and, in particular, anti- American terrorism. The Islamic regime in Iran also inspired religious fanatics in many other countries, including those who went on to form the Taliban in Afghanistan and give refuge to terrorists who went on to attack the United States. The anger against the United States that flooded out of Iran following the 1979 revolution has its roots in the American role in crushing Iranian democracy in 1953. Therefore, I think it is not an exaggeration to say that you can draw a line from the American sponsorship of the 1953 coup in Iran, through the Shah’s repressive regime, to the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the spread of militant religious fundamentalism that produced waves of anti- western terrorism. (35)
From this perspective, the approach of the Obama administration is much more sophisticated than Bush-Cheney’s, the administration that wanted to export democracy to invaded countries, believed the Huntington’s theory of clash between civilizations, and repeated the totalitarian’s slogan: “You are either with us or against us.”
In order to defeat Al-Qaida and the Islamic terrorism, the Obama administration should leave aside the political gesture and target the roots of evil, even if the target is a U.S. ally. I believe that U.S. allies like Pakistan and the Arab oil-states cannot survive without U.S. assistance. That is why it is the best tool for Obama to put more pressure on them to cut funds and donors for Islamic groups, reduce or close down the Islamic schools in nuclear Pakistan, and instead provide funding for secular schools, democratize society in Arab world, and battle ignorance and intolerance, corruption and greed, poverty and despair. Moreover, a fair solution on the Israel-Palestine conflict based on the Oslo Accord and the Yitzhak Rabin legacy could reduce anti-American sentiment among Arab and Muslim messes. Obama’s speech on these issues in Cairo and at the National Defense University indicated that his administration has a better and more sophisticated understanding of these complex problems and challenges. But “action speaks louder than words,” and drone strikes, NSA spying, and violations of the freedom and privacy due every individual cannot possibly be the solution to bringing an end to the war.
Mainz, March 2014
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