The war on terrorism must be ended

25 June 2018

The war on terrorism must be ended

Since 2001 the Netherlands has supported all sorts of intervention wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. Those conducted under the leadership of the US and NATO have, according to their own statements, been aimed at defeating global terrorism. It began in Afghanistan, where after seventeen years of fighting, no end to the conflict is in sight.

Sadet Karabulut

On the contrary, the Taliban and other armed groups have grown stronger and are able to commit ever more attacks. Despite this, Dutch military presence was, during 2017, prolonged by another year. The present Dutch government, known as Rutte-III (as it's the third government headed by Mark Rutte) even decided last week, after a request from President Trump, to send some sixty additional troops to the country, where they will likely stay for three years. Anyone who considers the goals of this intervention and its results, the hundreds of billions of euros which have been spent on this war and the many hundreds of thousands of refugees deaths which have resulted and are resulting from it, will surely ask him- or herself what makes the government so enthusiastic about this war, which has in the meantime come to seem permanent.


Since 2003, with a pause of a few years, war has raged in Iraq. What began with lies about the presence of weapons of mass destruction and links between dictator Saddam Hussein and Al Qa’ida, culminated in 2014 in the rapid rise of Islamic State (ISIS). Once again the reaction was western bombing raids, this time on Iraq and later also Syria. The war in Iraq too shows no sign of coming to an end. The country is extremely unstable. Minorities are marginalised and oppressed, fuelling the breeding grounds of terrorism. Despite the poor results, western countries remain by their own account committed to the war as a means to defeat terrorism and bring stability, not only in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria but beyond, in countries like Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and Libya, where regular drone attacks take place.

It must be said that after seventeen years of war, terrorism and the threat of terrorism have increased enormously. On the basis of figures from an American university, the same country's Cato Institute calculated that in the year 2000 there were in existence thirteen foreign terrorist organisations inspired by Islamic ism, a figure which had grown to forty-four by 2015. In 2000 those thirteen groups counted 32,000 fighters, while in 2015 this had more than tripled, to 110,000. Globally the number of attacks rose during this period by a factor of eight, to almost 50,000.

Europe too saw more terrorism. France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Spain and our own country have been confronted since 2001 by bloody attacks, often committed by young people raised on those countries' own soil. Tensions between different groups in the population have grown rapidly. Foreign policy has increasingly become domestic policy. That there are young people in our society who will take this bizarre, obscurantist step of affiliating to a murderous group in another country is illustrative. Growing insecurity at home and abroad should surely make national and international leaders reconsider their chosen security strategy.

That chosen strategy is one of unending war, in which leaders promise to defeat terrorism by deploying their armed forces. Despite the collapse of the ISIS caliphate and the death of Osama bin Laden, it must be concluded that this approach has met with abject failure.

Not only have there since 2001 been a great deal more terrorism and threats of such, death and destruction on an immense scale have been brought about by the US and its allies in the name of the fight against terror. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees and devastated towns have also been its results. Moral red lines have been crossed, furthermore, as in Guantánamo Bay, and international law has been violently transgressed, including by the illegal invasion of Iraq, an act supported by the Netherlands.

It is undeniable that the military approach to terrorism is a major explanation for these adverse results. The bizarre reality is that the 'War on Terrorism' feeds on itself. Reckless military interventions are changing countries where jihadists had little or no presence into safe havens for them. And every drone or F16 attack which kills civilians – and there are many – motivates the next generation to take up arms against the west, a conclusion shared by western intelligence services.

The attacks which follow, particularly those against the west, are then used by supporters of endlessly waged war to justify continuing the fight, launching yet more bombing raids and exposing yet more soldiers to danger. It's a vicious circle.

Continuing on this same path, as President Trump, with Dutch support, is doing, means war without end, permanent war. Apart from the military industries and certain oil giants, who since 2003 have lined their pockets in Iraq, this fight knows only losers. So it must be ended, the madness stopped. The Netherlands could make a start on this by sending no new military mission to Afghanistan and bringing to a close ongoing missions in Iraq, Syria, Mali and Afghanistan.

The question of what to do then is not easily answered. But what's certain is that when western countries no longer create innocent victims in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, jihadi organisations will be deprived of their most important argument in recruiting people willing to commit violent attacks.

Having said that, the terrorist threat to the west will not suddenly disappear from the face of the earth. Too much has happened. Military interventions have alienated entire generations in the Middle East and beyond from the west and pushed some individuals to act in ways which are unacceptable. This includes some individuals in western countries whose background involves immigration from the region where the War on Terror is being fought.

Action must of course be taken to counter this. That's principally a domestic affair. Adequate funding for effective deradicalisation programmes is needed, as it is for the police and intelligence services. It's also important that the exclusion of immigrant communities, as well as discrimination and racism, are effectively combated, as these also provide a breeding ground for terrorism. At the same time it's important that undesirable financing from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere which pays for the propagation of radicalised, bigoted ideas – and which runs to billions of euros a year – is curbed.

After seventeen years of war and no result, what's principally of importance is that the role of the armed forces in relation to foreign policy must be greatly reduced. It's bizarre that western policy makers, and above all the Americans, are convinced that they can deal effectively with complex problems in far-off lands, such as terrorism and dictatorship, using military means. While the extent to which governments in the west can affect their own societies has been reduced with the rise of neoliberal thought during the final quarter of the last century, a comparable malleability of countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq – ‘nation building’ as it's known – has been embraced. This way of thinking must be abandoned. After seventeen years of war, it would be well to exercise a certain discretion.

This has implications for the organisation of the armed forces. The results of permanent war offer no justification for maintaining an expeditionary army that can perform far from home in the most intense spectrum of violence, as is currently the case, as can be seen from, amongst other things, the purchase of the US Joint Strike Fighter. A strong increase in the defence budget, though supported by a broad political consensus, is even less justified. Politicians who advocate investing billions in military equipment are unable to show that the army can offer a counterbalance to a threat such as that posed by Al Qa’ida. Terrorism will not be bombed into oblivion. On the contrary, it feeds on the violence of war.

This does not mean of course that the armed forces will not still have a number of important tasks to fulfil, beginning with the defence of our own territory, but beyond that too actions could be undertaken, under the right circumstances. For example, UN peace operations which aren't in reality veiled war missions and fulfil all the criteria of legitimacy, proportionality and efficacy, can be supported. The task of the armed forces is to build peace.

At the same time as we reject the belief that military intervention can solve complicated problems on the other side of the world, we must re-evaluate diplomacy. History does not reveal how it might have turned out if things had been done differently, but what might have happened had the UN arms inspectors in Iraq early in 2003 had been given enough time to confirm that the country did not have any weapons of mass destruction? Would Iraq not then have been spared an illegal invasion and not been – as can now be said – destroyed? Would more than a million deaths have been avoided? Would ISIS not have come into being? Would horrifying attacks not have occurred in Europe? The answers to these questions are unknown.

From such considerations follows the conclusion that the UN must be strengthened. The war against Iraq, pursued without a UN mandate, and the NATO war in Libya, when a UN mandate for the protection of the population was misused to justify ‘regime change’, have done great damage to the UN. Recent illegal military actions, for example Turkey's attacks on the north of Syria from January 2018 and the US/French/British attack on the same country a few months later, demonstrate that the UN's crucial principles remain under enormous pressure.

Every form of illegal action, of action outside the aegis of the UN, must be prevented. At the same time means must be sought to give the UN more legitimacy, for example by broadening the Security Council so that it better reflects the world's population. The UN Security Council, which remains a product of the victorious powers in World War Two, must be democratised.

Instead of ever more violence, the countries against which the US and its allies have launched successive air-raids, have need more than anything else of humanitarian aid. It is unacceptable and hypocritical for 'coalitions of the willing' to be prepared to spend billions of dollars – that's the old-fashioned billion, with 12 zeros, not 9 – on this senseless warmaking, while time after time giving inadequate responses to the requests for aid from the United Nations, when the amounts needed represent the merest fraction of the cost of the War on Terror.

Reconstruction can also provide an important means of resistance against jihadist groups. Take Iraq. The Iraqi army and militias loyal to it have, with extensive western support, bombed to rubble large parts of the area controlled by ISIS. As a result of this violence, millions of people have fled and are now housed in camps for those who have lost their homes. These are for the most part people with a Sunni background, the same religious current from within which ISIS had in the recent past recruited thousands of fighters. If the position of the Sunni community in Iraq does not improve, this could cause further problems in the future. For this reason, inclusive political administration is necessary, as are respect for human rights and the active reduction of poverty and inequality.

This was the doom scenario on the mind of national newspaper NRC Handelsblad columnist and Middle East expert Carolien Roelants when she wrote that “the manner in which the fight is being conducted will in time help to ensure a comeback for ISIS or extremists otherwise named.” Against the same background, Chris Woods, head of monitoring group Airwars, warned during a hearing in the Dutch Parliament at the end of 2017 that Al Qa’ida 3.0 was in the making – implying that ISIS is Al Qa’ida 2.0.

In addition to stopping the bombing, it's equally important to halt the supply of additional weapons. In a country such as Syria, where during the horrendous struggle since 2011 more than half a million people have already lost their lives, while millions have been forced to flee their homes, almost everything is in short supply, from clean drinking water to medical supplies. But one thing is emphatically not: weapons. Yet more weapons, whether from Russia, Iran or the US or countries such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia, mean yet more violence. If there is one thing that Syrian civilians and civilians in other countries torn apart by armed conflict need, it's fewer weapons, an arms embargo. Fuel a conflict from outside with armaments, and you will often simply prolong it.

The refugee crises, made worse by western involvement in the region, also demand a serious approach. The more than 68 million people who have fled their homes across the globe are generally accommodated in the same region where those homes are to be found. That's to be preferred, but camps are bursting at the seams. A country such as Lebanon, where one in three inhabitants is a refugee, can carry no more. For this reason the west must take its responsibilities and accept refugees from war, providing generous finance for reception centres in situ.

If the west wants to regain any credibility in the Middle East, then it's of great importance that respect for international law be restored. This means that illegal invasions such as that of Iraq in 2003, when the UN and all that it stands for were shoved aside, are out of the question. But it means also that those responsible for breaches of human rights and wars of aggression must be held accountable. It is unacceptable that those responsible for war crimes and torture aren't being punished.

After seventeen years of war, what’s needed is a change of direction. It's time for peace. Or let's put it this way, so that President Trump can also understand it: make peace great again!

Sadet Karabulut is a Member of Parliament for the SP, and the party’s parliamentary spokeswoman on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development Cooperation.


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