We are now in the eighth year of a very long war. It is longer than both the First and the Second World War, as long as the major period of combat in Vietnam, a third of the length of the Napoleonic wars. It is as complex, as multidimensional, as polyvalent as any of these conflicts. It lacks overarching narratives and is chaotic and diffuse.
This war is also currently anonymous. This should not surprise us either. Few conflicts are named while they are ongoing, particularly wars as complex as this one. Those at Bosworth would have been surprised to know they were fighting in the Wars of the Roses, those fighting at Castillon that they could claim to be veterans of the Hundred Years’ War. However, after yet another week dominated by news about another scare — this time a Nigerian-born Yemeni-trained al-Qaeda-linked aspirant bomber who apparently tried to bring down an American passenger jet — it is worth trying to take a big step back and look at the whole course of this conflict. At the very least, this might help us determine where we are and what we can expect from the future.
Looking back, we can distinguish five acts. Act One started with the immediate spectacular event of 9/11 followed by the war in Afghanistan. Act Two was the relative lull — almost a phoney war — in 2002 and early 2003. There were bombs in Tunisia, Indonesia and elsewhere, a series of scares and fighting in Afghanistan, but the apocalyptic scenarios that many had feared were not realised. Perhaps, some began to think, the world had not changed as much as had been thought.
Then came the invasion of Iraq and Act Three. This saw a major intensification of what had hitherto been a conflict relatively restricted in physical extent and scale and it looked as though the pessimists had been right. A tide of radicalisation and political consciousness crashed across the Islamic world. As Iraq plunged into savage chaos, bombs went off across the Middle East. Eventually, the wave of violence washed into Europe with attacks in Spain and in the UK.
At the same time, there came a sharpening of communitarian divisions, emotions and rhetoric. Language was intemperate, full of fear and outrage. When French urban youth rioted, it was a European “intifada”. When an obscure Danish newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, crowds whipped up by rabble-rousing clerics poured on to the streets screaming of western campaigns to humiliate and divide Muslims. These were the darkest days so far seen.
Act Four, however, saw something more positive. For, even in the worst of the chaos, various trends were heading in a more positive direction. Key among them was public opinion in the Islamic world.
There was a riptide running against the wave of violence. As each successive bomb had gone off, tens of millions of people had turned away from such atrocious acts. This did not mean that they were no longer angry at America, Israel, the West or all the other subjects of their grievances. It did not mean that they accepted the Western model of globalisation. But it did mean that they no longer saw the tactics of al-Qaeda as a legitimate way to resolve problems. One of the best examples was Jordan where, before the bombing of hotels in the capital Amman of November 2005, polls showed nearly two-thirds of locals had confidence in Osama bin Laden “to do the right thing in world affairs”. After the blasts, the level dropped to 24%.
In Turkey, only 3% backed bin Laden by 2005, down from 15% three years earlier. The same phenomenon could be seen in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. While the violence and its victims remained abstract, it could be supported. When it meant your policemen, your soldiers, your neighours killed and your economy ruined, that was very different.
Improvements were seen in Iraq in 2007. New troops ordered in by President Bush in a radical new strategy arrived when three critical developments were already well under way.
First, the Shi’ites had largely taken much of the physical and political territory that could be taken from the weakened Sunni minority with relative ease and so the civil war was running out of steam. Second, Shi’ite militia groups that had been fighting the Sunnis and the Americans had been critically weakened by a massive breakdown in discipline and organisation which meant they lost legitimacy with the poor populations they were supposed to be both representing and protecting. Third, and most significant, the Sunni communities in provinces like Anbar had turned against al-Qaeda-affiliated militants. Forced eventually to decide between their own interests and the international militants’ ideology and aims, the tribes had chosen the local over the global. They rejected the “freedom” brought on the back of a tank by the Americans. But they also rejected the world view, equally disrespectful of local cultural context, of al-Qaeda. Things in Iraq took a very relative turn for the better.
In Europe, too, more sophisticated, better organised and better resourced security services, a better understanding of the problem, a more sensible public debate and a new British government prepared to drop the ideologically charged language of its predecessor all consolidated the new more positive evolution. The centre had held.
The climb away from the nadir of the middle of the decade was slow but steady. As 2009 turns to 2010, support for bin Laden in the Muslim world continues to decline and violence is at a level which is worrying but is no longer perceived as an existential threat to our societies.
What will Act Five bring? The most obvious answer is Afghanistan.
While attention was focused on other sub-conflicts of the war, the Taliban were allowed to re-establish themselves in large parts of the country they once ran. This year will see more fighting as American troops surge there. But they, along with British forces, are scheduled to be withdrawn in 2011. Western people are tired now of this apparently unending conflict and want, if not peace, then at least lower levels of commitment.
The surge and the combat that will undoubtedly accompany it may well turn out to be the dead cat bounce of this long war. It is almost possible to imagine a day when news from the multiple fronts of this conflict no longer dominates bulletin after bulletin.
Will that mean that this conflict will eventually get a name? It is winners who name wars on the whole and it is difficult to see many candidates for that title right now. Al-Qaeda has lost many of its key leaders and has achieved few of its core aims. The complex phenomenon that is contemporary Islamic militancy remains as disunited as ever, there has been no general uprising of the Islamic masses, the establishment of an Islamic caliphate hardly looks imminent, nor has the west been weakened in the way that was hoped.
The only governments overthrown in the Islamic world were deposed by the west. And costly though 9/11 undoubtedly was, the financial crisis arguably did more economic damage than all the efforts of Islamic militants over the decade.
The fact that America has been able to pay for the grotesque strategic error of the war in Iraq and a 10-year conflict in Afghanistan all while financing a huge security industry at home reveals the extraordinary resilience of the US economy.
In Europe, too, though civil liberties have suffered, the problems that looked to be looming in 2005 or 2006 have not materialised. After its military and diplomatic checks in Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain may well have finally to renounce its inflated self-image as a power that “punches above its weight” on the world stage, but, more generally, western societies and political systems appear likely to digest this latest wave of radical violence as they have digested its predecessors. Nor has the Middle East suffered the meltdown that some predicted.
But then it is difficult to say that the West has won either. The threat remains. Few of its root causes have been dealt with and any improvements are fragile. In December 2004, when President Bush had just been re-elected and was preparing his triumphal second inauguration, the official quadrennial intelligence review by American agencies had predicted “continued US dominance”. The same agencies reported in 2009 that the US would soon no longer be able to “call the shots” alone, as its power over an increasingly multipolar planet begins to wane. If this is a victory, then America cannot afford many more like it.
Losers in this conflict are not hard to find, however. They are the huge numbers of men, women and children who have found themselves caught in its multiple crossfires: the victims of 9/11, 7/7 and Madrid, those who died in sectarian killings in Baghdad, in badly aimed American missiles strikes or in suicide bombs in Afghanistan, those executed by al-Zarqawi, those simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, the casualties of this chaotic matrix of multivalent, confused but always lethal wars.
But losers don’t decide what to call wars. If there is one prediction that one can make with reasonable certainty it is that no one is likely to find an appropriate name for this particular conflict soon. It is a tragedy in five acts and currently without a title. – guardian.co.uk