How America makes terrorists of its
Monday 13th October 2003
Kudair Abbass was happy to see the US army keeping the peace in
Iraq - until troops killed his brother for violating the curfew.
Now, like so many in the region, he wants revenge. By Lutz Kleveman
The day after US army soldiers in Iraq shot Yaass Abbass dead
I realised why America was losing the war on terror. The 28-year-old
truck driver from Fallujah, a centre of Iraqi guerrilla resistance
west of Baghdad, had been innocent, but that was not the point.
Nor was the sobbing of his five orphaned sons during the family's
mourning ceremony in a hastily set-up tent. Nor even the outrage
of the tribal representatives who arrived to offer condolences,
shrouded in white dishdasha robes and turbans. What struck me
was the US air force Apache combat helicopter, which kept hovering
above the tent, the engines' roaring noise drowning out the men's
recital of verses from the Koran.
"The Americans treat us like animals," said Kudair
Abbass, one of Yaass's brothers. When asked if he wanted revenge,
he kept silent but his eyes, filled with tears and hate, gave
a clear answer. And it had nothing to do with any loyalty to Saddam
Where do local people stand in the war on terror? This is what
I tried to find out on numerous journeys through the Middle East,
the Caucasus and central Asia over the past two years. Certainly,
the anti-terrorism struggle has had successes. Since 11 September
2001, no major terrorist attack has occurred on American or European
soil. But Osama Bin Laden takes afternoon strolls in the Afghan-Pakistani
borderlands; in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban are on the rebound;
and "liberated" Iraq sinks further into violence and
lawlessness each day. There have been tactical mistakes, such
as letting Bin Laden slip away from Tora Bora two years ago; but
equally to blame are strategic failures, such as neglecting the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and making terrorist-sponsoring Saudi
Arabia and Pakistan "allies" in a struggle against evil
that they themselves support. Worse, in stubbornly going it alone
against Iraq, the US has lost many allies in a war that cannot
be won unilaterally.
The growing popular support some terrorists enjoy is too often
ignored. Bin Laden and the Iraqi bombers can cause harm only so
long as people give them shelter. And many Muslims do, because
they see America's war on terror as a crusade against Islam.
What makes a man a terrorist? On my travels, I met countless
angry (mostly young) men who, with nothing to lose but their seemingly
valueless lives, were prepared to fight for whatever their leaders
told them was worth the fight. Among them were Kudair from Iraq,
Ahmad from Uzbekistan and Kamal By from Afghanistan. Each demonstrates
in his own different way why the Bush administration's anti-terror
strategy is going awry.
"Yaass just wanted to get some gasoline in town," his
brother Kudair said. "The curfew was near but he did not
care." Then his old Volkswagen broke down and Yaass had to
repair it in the dark. Around midnight, a US army Humvee patrol
came driving towards him. The soldiers of an elite squad of the
3rd Infantry Division were in Fallujah following a series of guerrilla
attacks. They were originally trained not as policemen, but to
kill people. They were tired and aggressive. "They just shot
my brother dead, for no reason," Kudair exclaimed. As several
witnesses attested, Yaass had been unarmed. "He was not a
resistance fighter but a simple civilian who worked hard to feed
his family." Had the Americans offered any explanation for
the killing? "Of course not. We don't even exist for them.
They have not liberated us, not us." There seemed little
point in asking Kudair what he would do if any guerrilla groups
asked him to join their struggle.
Fallujah was only one destination on a four-week journey through
post-Saddam Iraq that took me from Baghdad to the Kurdish areas
in the north, the Shia cities in the south, and the Sunni triangle
in the west. While the Kurds were unreservedly happy about having
been liberated from the tyrant, any gratitude felt by Shias or
Sunnis has long since been replaced by resentment that the heavy-handed
military occupiers seem incapable (and unwilling) to embark on
the necessary reconstruction effort. In Baghdad, there is still
no regular supply of electricity and water, and crime is on the
rise, an environment perfect for terrorists. The irony is that,
by invading Iraq without clear ideas of what to do after a ceasefire,
the Bush administration has created what it set out to destroy:
a terrorist haven.
Iraq is not the only country where US anti-terrorist policies
have backfired. In the ex-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, in central
Asia, the brutal dictator Islam Karimov has become an ally of
Washington's in the war on terror, allowing American troops to
set up a large and permanent US base on Uzbek soil during the
Afghan campaign. In the capital, Tashkent, I met 20-year-old Ahmad.
Over a cup of tea, the young man told me he had just been released
from prison; he served three years for allegedly belonging to
an Islamic terrorist organisation. "The guards beat me every
day," Ahmad said, "but I never stopped praying to Allah."
The group he belonged to was a Sufi religious order which, he
insisted, had nothing to do with terrorists such as the Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan, blamed for several deadly attacks in the
late 1990s. "But maybe in the future my brothers and I will
have to defend ourselves and fight," he said. I asked Ahmad
how he felt about the arrival of American anti-terror troops in
Uzbekistan. "They only make things worse. They don't help
us, the people, but only the government. I hate America."
Ahmad's angry words reflect many central Asians' deep suspicion
of US motives in their region. The Caspian Basin harbours the
greatest untapped oil reserves in the world, which could help
industrialised countries decrease their dependence on oil from
the volatile Middle East. In this new great game that pits the
US against Russia, China and Iran, the Bush administration has
used the war on terror to expand its military presence and political
influence in central Asia.
Cynicism over America's energy imperialism could ultimately decide
the outcome of the war on terror. The impoverished people of the
region, disgusted with the US alliances with their corrupt and
despotic rulers, increasingly embrace militant Islam and virulent
anti-Americanism. At the end of the cold war in 1989, America
was admired and loved by the Soviet-oppressed peoples of eastern
Europe not only as the leader of "the west" but as the
champion of democracy, civil liberties and cultural progress.
Young Czechs, Poles and Hungarians, even if they had never heard
of the Bill of Rights, craved American rock music and blue jeans.
Since the current Bush administration turned the 11 September
terror attacks into an excuse to pursue policies seen by many
as arrogant, aggressive and imperialist, the change in perception
could not be more drastic. The US has lost most of its cultural
attractiveness in the ex-Soviet countries of central Asia and
their neighbours, and is widely hated for its politics.
Many have come to realise that the democratic and liberal values
Americans enjoy at home are often missing from US foreign policy.
They resent the immoral opportunism with which Washington courts
the region's dictators, such as Karimov, Azerbaijan's Heydar Aliyev,
Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev and Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf.
Such alliances serve short-term interests but in the long run
are likely to exacerbate the problem.
In Afghanistan, too, the Bush administration has made Faustian
pacts. Two years after Operation Enduring Freedom, most of the
country has sunk back into chaos and anarchy, ruled by warlords
who defy Hamid Karzai's weak central government. The Taliban and
the mujahedin of the radical Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are
staging a violent comeback, drawing US and allied troops deeper
into counter-insurgency warfare. The only flourishing business
is the export of opium and heroin which, according to UN statistics,
has increased twentyfold since the fall of the Taliban.
Kamal By, a poppy farmer whom I met in the lawless north-east
province of Badakhshan, reached under his shalwar kameez, pulled
out a sticky lump of recently harvested opium and whispered: "This
stuff is good - the dealers on the bazaar are wild about it. They
give me $350 per kilo." Farmers in his village have little
choice but to grow poppy. Other crops yield a fraction of the
profits and, said Kamal By: "The warlords force us to grow
poppy. We have to pay them the ushr, one-tenth of our profits.
In the west, you are upset about the opium we produce. But where
do the weapons come from with which the warlords suppress us here?"
In search of temporary allies against the Taliban and al-Qaeda,
the CIA still bankrolls Afghan warlords, including some notorious
heroin dealers. Compounded by Washington's failure at postwar
nation-building, this exacerbates chaos and civil strife, once
again creating a breeding ground for terrorism instead of obliterating
it. The US is repeating mistakes of the 1980s, when the CIA supported
Islamic radicals such as Hekmatyar and a certain Osama Bin Laden
in the anti-Soviet jihad.
The stories of Kudair, Ahmad and Kamal By reveal the myopia of
US tactics. Final victory in the war on terror cannot be achieved
by military means alone; it also demands political and economic
measures that target the social roots of terrorism. B-52s and
cruise missiles inspire fear and hatred, but building more roads,
schools and hospitals would win hearts and minds.
Why do so many people hate America? "They hate our freedom
and democracy," said President Bush. That may be true of
a few, but most America-haters have better reasons.
In late March, right after the invasion of Iraq, I asked Richard
Perle, a leading pro-war voice in Washington, if the rise of anti-Americanism,
particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, threatened the war on
terror. "I don't see why bringing freedom to the Iraqi people
would inspire people to take up arms against the United States,"
Perle replied. "Frankly, I don't see why our success in the
war on terror is dependent on the goodwill of the Afghan or the
Pakistani population. I think there will be a sharply reduced
danger of terrorism after this war."
Sadly, wishful thinking alone rarely guarantees success.
Lutz Kleveman is the author of The New Great Game: blood and
oil in central Asia (Atlantic Books, £16.99; [http://www.newgreatgame.com]).