Harry van Bommel: Learning from the failed ‘War on terrorism’

8 June 2016

Harry van Bommel: Learning from the failed ‘War on terrorism’

In March the Internationale Spectator published an interesting article on the Netherlands’ foreign policy by Han ten Broeke, Member of Parliament and foreign affairs spokesman for the governing centre-right party, the VVD. The article is, however, way off beam when it degenerates into an apologia for the disastrous military action carried out under United States leadership since the attacks of 9/11.

In his article, ‘Ten rules of thumb for a realistic foreign policy’, the VVD spokesman says that “power politics and pragmatism in international relations produce more than does a moral view of international relations.” Power politics has of course a place, even an important place, in the broad palate of instruments available to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And it doesn’t need saying that a pragmatic attitude in foreign policy regularly delivers more than if everything is approached on the basis of a conviction that a certain policy pursued by another state must be condemned, especially if this is coupled with a misplaced belief that one’s own standards and values are superior. Countries must, moreover, be taken to task for serious abuses of human rights, and the reality shows us that that people are more receptive to such criticism when it’s backed up by power. That’s unfortunate, but true.

So far, so good. Ten Broeke’s article is, however, way off beam when it degenerates into an apologia for the disastrous military actions carried out under United States leadership since the attacks of 9/11, actions that, moreover, were repeatedly, and sometimes entirely without debate, supported by the Netherlands. A person who, after fifteen years of the War on Terror, has the gall to assert that “the Americans… have time and again provided solutions” and “it (is) the Americans who have, in the interests of the West, contained these terrorist organisations”, has missed a few important lessons, lessons which should give a lead in shaping foreign policy, certainly in relation to the Middle East.”

In my answer to Ten Broeke’s article I’ll concentrate principally, on account of its enormous importance and the necessarily limited length of my response, on the ‘War on Terrorism’. For that reason this article does not present an all-inclusive overview of what the SP’s foreign policy stands for. I leave out of the picture, for example, the conflict in Ukraine and the intensifying tensions with Russia, that during the campaign in the runup to the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement were much discussed. That goes also for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on which my party has for decades held a clear position. Respect for human rights, that is quite rightly a cornerstone of Dutch foreign policy, I also fail to give the attention it deserves. From this critique of the ‘War on Terrorism’, this article offers an insight into a number of fundamental changes which my party wants to see. To begin with, however, I would like to deal with a few points concerning other aspects of Ten Broeke’s article.

National interest comes first

Despite postmodern fantasies, the nation state is indeed far from having disappeared and the national interest remains the most important motivating force behind foreign policy. This explains why, after years of effort on the part of the europhiles, a European foreign policy, not to mention a European army, has to this day failed to emerge. What’s missing is a European nation.

Although foreign policy should not of course limit itself to the area on the borders of the European Union, it’s clear that more emphasis is being placed on this region. The conflict in Ukraine and the wars – for the most part civil wars – in the Middle East call for such attention, moreover. These regions now have greater influence on developments in the Netherlands and the EU, not least because of the streams of refugees and of the radicalisation of our young people.

Another obvious truth is that the Netherlands is a relatively small player on the world stage. Our foreign policy can sometimes make a small contribution to the finding of a solution to complex problems in faraway countries, but can often do no more than that. Possibilities are limited, so priorities have to be set and choices made.

It’s interesting to consider as well that a foreign policy which proceeds from reality is by definition going to be inconsistent. This is the case because there are no standard solutions in a world of limitless complexity. What works in one country doesn’t work or is even counterproductive in another. Foreign policy for this reason also has to fit the circumstances. It’s human work which, on pain of a lack of effectiveness, must adapt to local conditions.

To the extent that Ten Broeke's article on the ten rules of thumb is an elaboration of these issues, it is useful to read. This is not least because it undermines sometimes naïve, potentially dangerous notions about foreign policy. But maintaining the view that the ‘War on Terrorism’ is a success and can therefore be continued is, to put it mildly, peculiar.

Combatting terror

The ‘War on Terrorism’ started in October, 2001 with the American attack on Afghanistan. To this day more than 10,000 NATO military personnel remain in the country, including a number from the Netherlands. The fact that the new forces holding power in Afghanistan have to rely for their continued existence on the West’s support – military as well as financial, moreover – itself demonstrates the failure of Western efforts there. In addition, violence has risen constantly in Afghanistan in recent years and the Taliban is taking control of ever more territory. Al-Qaida is just as successful, despite the death of Osama bin Laden five years ago, while for more than a year ISIS has also been on the rise in Afghanistan.

After Afghanistan came Iraq, in March 2003. Numerous lies were needed before this war could be sold to the public. One such was that Saddam Hussein’s regime was in cahoots with Al-Qaida. The fact of the matter is that only during the occupation of Iraq did Al-Qaida-like organisations shoot up like mushrooms from the ground. One notorious group was the organisation led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which has been active since 2004 under the name Al-Qaida in Iraq and which directed its attentions towards the struggle against the new, Shi’ite rulers in Iraq and the foreign occupying force. After Zarqawi’s death in 2006, his group was joined by similar organisations and ISIS was born.

In 2011 a civil war broke out in neighbouring Syria, a conflict which has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives. With the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt fresh in the mind, western leaders rushed to take sides - against the Syrian regime. The rebels could count on support, including military support, and in this insufficient attention was paid to the distinction between moderate and radical fighters.

In addition it appears that so-called allies of the West, principal amongst which were Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are providing large-scale military aid as well as other forms of support to radical jihadist fighters. Everything and anything seems to have been permitted in order to bring about a rapid regime change in Syria. The chaos created in the country was reason for ISIS to broaden its field of operations: Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was as a consequence a fact. In the last few years in particular ISIS has captured a large area of territory in both countries.

It is now almost two years since a coalition under United States leadership began a bombing campaign against ISIS, with Dutch support. It’s still rather early to draw up a balance sheet, but what can be said is that driving back ISIS is going a great deal more slowly than was originally hoped. At the same time the attraction of ISIS for radicalised youth has grown in both the region itself and in Europe. Furthermore, outside the core area in Iraq and Syria ISIS is winning ever more terrain.

A new enemy

An example of this is Libya. After months of air raids by NATO, Colonel Gaddafi’s regime was brought down at the end of 2011. Since then, heavily armed rebel groups have been ruling the roost in the country, fighting each other to the death. Any central authority has entirely disappeared, and Libya has descended into anarchy.

Against this background ISIS, with thousands of fighters under its command, was able to seize a coastal strip several hundred kilometres in length. Although military intervention in Libya in 2011 was not presented as part of the ‘War on Terrorism’, ever more voices were raised in western countries in favour of launching new air raids on the country, this time against ISIS. The Americans have already begun bombing.

On top of these openly military interventions, part of the ‘War on Terrorism’ has from the very start played itself out in the shadow-world of the secret services, amongst which is the CIA. In Yemen, for example, drone attacks have been carried out for years against alleged terrorists. These attacks have been hugely stepped up under the presidency of Barack Obama. Experts on Yemen observe that the increase in drone attacks has its corollary in the growth of Al-Qaida in this Gulf State.

The growth of Al-Qaida, ISIS and similar groups is above all disastrous for the Middle East, but in Europe too we are finding ourselves increasingly affected. It began in March 2004 with the massive attacks on a number of trains in Madrid, in which more than 190 people lost their lives. In the summer of 2005 came the bombing of the London Underground, which added another fifty to the death toll.

Both attacks were carried out by Al Qaida sympathisers. In the Netherlands in the same period we had the murder of Theo van Gogh, which occurred late in 2004. November of last year saw the attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people, then in March it was the turn of Brussels, bringing a further thirty plus deaths. These attacks were carried out by ISIS, which took advantage of the opportunity to warn of renewed attacks, attacks which will certainly follow these warnings, quite possibly in the Netherlands.

If anything can be deduced from this brief overview, it’s that the ‘War on Terrorism’ has produced far more – and far more radical – enemies than it has eliminated. In 2016 there are more – and moreover better organised - Al-Qaida-like organisations than was the case in 2001. Terrorist attacks are growing in a frightening way the world over. The last fifteen years have most clearly demonstrated that jihadist organisations are thriving in the chaos which is repeatedly the result of western military adventures, whether in Afghanistan, in Iraq or in Libya. This chaos is at the same time contributing to an important extent to the present flow of refugees into Europe.

In fact, these radical organisation then provide the occasion for sending even more bomber planes, as is illustrated by Iraq and Libya. In Iraq the coalition, under the leadership of the United States, is fighting against ISIS, itself a result of the earlier occupation of the country. As for Libya, it’s perfectly possible that in the short term western allies will intensify the struggle against ISIS, which without the chaos, chaos provoked in part by NATO, would likely have failed to gain any foothold in the country.

War without end

In that the ‘War against Terrorism’ produces more enemies than it rids us of, what we’re dealing with in fact is a war without end – a permanent war which is by definition impossible to win. The war has become self-supporting. War is no longer the exception, but the norm. It is therefore no surprise that however far into the distance you look, no end to the ‘War against Terrorism’ is in sight. More enemies have simply been added, both there and here.

This is the start of the learning of lessons, including by members of the VVD. The most important lesson is this: western military interventions often go wrong. This means that the role of the armed forces in foreign policy, which since 9/11 has in the West taken a leading role, should be reduced. That has implications, too, for NATO. Defending the alliance’s territory is of great importance, but we should give up the idea of NATO as a global police officer. As long as the United States continues to hold to its militarised foreign policy in the Middle East, it’s clear that the Netherlands should offer it no support.

For our own credibility it’s also essential that war crimes are condemned, for example in the context of the EU, including those committed by our allies, such as the recent attack by the United States on a hospital run by Doctors Without Frontiers in Kunduz in Afghanistan, or the illegal drone attacks in Pakistan, which regularly kill civilians. This applies of course as well to war crimes committed by western allies, such as those of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Israel in Gaza. Staying silent on such crimes, while other countries in the region whose relations with the West are less friendly – for example Iran – can certainly count on facing severe criticism, can easily and with some justice be regarded as hypocritical.

The fact that military interventions in distant countries are often counterproductive does of course have implications for the organisation of our armed forces. Participating in the entire spectrum of violence, a policy which is currently being maintained – as is shown by, amongst other things, the purchase of the Joint Strike Fighter – is certainly not an obvious choice. Fifteen years of war must be weighed in the balance when it comes to the many calls for a steep increase in the defence budget. Proponents of such a rise fail to show, for obvious reasons, how our army can offer a counterweight against threats of the kind posed by ISIS.

Diplomacy must, therefore, be given more space. History does not reveal its alternative course, but what would have happened if the arms inspectors in Iraq early in 2003 had been given more time to confirm that the country had available to it no weapons of mass destruction? Would Iraq then not have been invaded in an illegal fashion and, as has happened since, been destroyed? Would hundreds of thousands of deaths have been avoided? Would there now be no ISIS? Would horrifying attacks on Europe never have occurred? Would it have resulted in victory for the UN, now in limbo? Would fewer refugees have come to Europe? We’ll never know, but it’s important that such questions are given serious attention.

At the end of the 1960s John Lennon sang ‘Give Peace a Chance’. After fifteen years of the ‘War on Terrorism’ that is, in my view, still not such a crazy idea.

This article first appeared, in the original Dutch. In the Internationale Spectator.

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