Terror and the west: A decade of misjudgment

Editorial: If there is one lesson to be drawn from the past decade, it is that a military superpower no longer has effective supremacy

The revelation in this newspaper that the kidnap of five British men in Iraq in 2007 was masterminded by Iran's Revolutionary Guard caps an unhappy week, the last of a parlous decade. The kidnap had two motivations – to bargain for the release of the Shia cleric Qais al-Khazali, and to prevent Peter Moore, the only British hostage to have survived, from installing a computer system that would have prevented millions of dollars of international aid from falling into the hands of Shia militia groups in Iraq. This story should serve as the epitaph for the invasion. Far from stabilising, or spreading democracy, the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and Iraq proved combustible. But the follies of the old decade are set to last into the new one.

Ten years ago, when Tony Blair hosted a bizarre entertainment to open the Millennium Dome, things looked different. Financiers thought they had created an economy that defied the laws of gravity and basic accountancy. Generals thought invasions were quick and painless. Scientists were optimistic that global warming could be contained. Mr Blair emerged from the Dome brimming with optimism. So much so that he said he wanted to bottle it. The events that followed punished judgments like these.

The trigger to the decade's woes did not come out of the sky over Manhattan and Washington in 2001. There were many precursors, but they were ignored or misinterpreted. Like the bombings in Madrid and London, these attacks brought the best out of ordinary people – witness the heroism of the New York firefighters – and the worst out of their governments. Al-Qaida's attacks may have looked and felt like a declaration of war (the Guardian said so in its headline) but that, in retrospect, was the least appropriate reaction.

The inability to see how non-state actors functioned across state borders, and the continuing belief that a malign sponsoring state must be pulling the strings in the background, led to the deaths of innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians. Terrorists were conflated with insurgents. Anti-terrorist operations became invasions and wars. Consequently, neither anti-terrorism nor counter-insurgency succeeded. Osama bin Laden was allowed to slip the net around his bunkers in Tora Bora, but his leaving card was a conflict that lasts to this day.

The chaos continued this week. The suicide bomber who struck a remote base used by the CIA in southeastern Afghanistan appears to have used a stolen uniform from the Afghan national army. The alternative is even worse: that the army's ranks are infiltrated by the Taliban. And the generals advising President Barack Obama are still slow to respond in the right way. Like a judo throw, the Taliban (still mostly lightly armed) are using the kinetic force of the lumbering military machine to tip it over. Meanwhile, almost 10 years after 2001, midair horrors continue. Al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen have ended the decade as al-Qaida central started it, by trying to crash airliners landing in the US. But if Yemen becomes the next target of the US drones, where next?

If there is one lesson to be drawn from all this, it is that a military superpower no longer has effective supremacy. The next decade must see the re-establishment of a co-operative international system that was badly damaged by the unilateral endeavours of Britain, America and their few committed allies. Western military powers, especially weakening ones, should bend all their efforts into transforming and supporting international institutions such as the United Nations and the international criminal court. The idea that governments in London and Washington should handpick a general secretary of the UN for his weakness, as they did the current one, is absurd; that was perhaps the greatest error of a decade strewn with mishap and misjudgment.


The GuardianTramp

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