So Al Qaeda is "almost defeated", is it? Major gains against Al Qaeda. Essentially defeated. "On balance, we are doing pretty well," the CIA’s boss, Michael Hayden, tells The Washington Post. "Near strategic defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for Al Qaeda globally – and here I’m going to use the word ‘ideologically’ – as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam." Well, you could have fooled me.
Six thousand dead in Afghanistan, tens of thousands dead in Iraq, a suicide bombing a day in Mesopotamia, the highest level of suicides ever in the US military – the Arab press wisely ran this story head to head with Hayden’s boasts – and permanent US bases in Iraq after 31 December. And we’ve won?
Less than two years ago, we had an equally insane assessment of the war when General Peter Pace, the weird (and now mercifully retired) chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said of the American war in Iraq that "we are not winning but we are not losing". At which point, George Bush’s Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said he agreed with Pace that "we are not winning but we are not losing".
James Baker, who had just produced his own messy report on Iraq then said – reader, please do not laugh or cry – "I don’t think you can say we’re losing. By the same token, I’m not sure we’re winning". Then Bush himself proclaimed, "We’re not winning; we’re not losing." Pity about the Iraqis. But anyway, now we really, really are winning. Or at least Al Qaeda is "almost" – note the "almost", folks – defeated. So Mike Hayden tells us.
Am I alone in finding this stuff infantile to the point of madness? As long as there is injustice in the Middle East, Al Qaeda will win. As long as we have 22 times as many Western forces in the Muslim world as we did at the time of the Crusades – my calculations are pretty accurate – we are going to be at war with Muslims. The hell-disaster of the Middle East is now spread across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, even Lebanon. And we are winning?
Yes, we’ve bought ourselves some time in Iraq by paying half of the insurgents to fight for us and to murder their Al Qaeda cousins. Yes, we are continuing to prop up Saudi Arabia’s head-chopping and torture-practising regime – no problem there, I suppose, after our enthusiasm for "water-boarding" – but this does not mean that Al Qaeda is defeated.
Because Al Qaeda is a way of thinking, not an army. It feeds on pain and fear and cruelty – our cruelty and oppression – and as long as we continue to dominate the Muslim world with our Apache helicopters and our tanks and our Humvees and our artillery and bombs and our "friendly" dictators, so will Al Qaeda continue.
Must we live this madness through to the very end of the Bush regime in Washington? Is there no one in that magnificent, imperial city who understands what "we" are doing out here in the Middle East? Why on earth does The Washington Post even give room to the fantasies of a functionary from the CIA, the very organisation that failed to prevent 9/11 because – if we are to believe what we are told – a phone call in Arabic about crashing planes into the twin towers hadn’t been translated in time? Are we going to bomb Iran? Is this what we are waiting for now? Or is it to be another proxy Iranian-American war in Lebanon, fought out by Hezbollah and the Israelis? And does Mike believe Al Qaeda is in Iran?
Israel continues to build settlements for Jews – and Jews only – on Arab land. And Washington does nothing. Illegal though these settlements are, George Bush goes along with it. They fuel anger and frustration and a righteous sense of grievance – and Washington will not prevent this outrage from continuing. I open my Arab papers each morning to find new reasons why the Bin Ladens of this world will not go away.
Take the story that came out of Gaza this week. Eight Palestinian students won grants from the Fulbright scholarship programme to study in the United States. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that it was in the interest of America to bring these young Muslim people to the land of the free. But no. Israel won’t let them leave Gaza. It’s all part of the "war on terror" which Israel claims it is fighting alongside America. So the US State Department has cancelled the scholarships. No, it’s not worth turning yourself into an Al Qaeda suicide bomber for such a nonsense. But it would be difficult to find anything meaner, pettier, more vicious than this in yesterday’s papers.
Does Mike Hayden read this stuff? Or is he, like most of Washington, so frightened of Israel that he wouldn’t say boo to a goose? Doesn’t the CIA realise – or imagine – that as long as we allow the Middle East to fester under a cloak of injustice, Al Qaeda will continue? Why are our forces – and this is a question I was asked in Baghdad – in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria (yes, US special forces have a base near Tamanraset), Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Tajikistan? (Yes again, French bomber pilots are based at Dushanbe to fly "close air support" for our lads in Afghanistan.)
And as long as we have stretched this iron curtain across the Middle East, we will be at war and Al Qaeda will be at war with us. This new iron curtain, by the way, starts up in Greenland and stretches down through Britain and Germany, through Bosnia and Greece to Turkey. What is it for? What’s on the other side? Russia. China. India.
These are questions we do not ask; certainly they’re not the kind of questions that The Washington Post would dare to put to Mike and his chums at the CIA. Yes, we huff and we puff about democracy and freedom and human rights, though we give little enough of them to the Muslim world. For the kind of freedom they want – the kind of freedom that allows outfits like Al Qaeda to flourish – is freedom from "us". And this, I fear, we do not intend to give them.
Mike Hayden may think the Muslim world is "pushing back" Al Qaeda’s "form of Islam", but I doubt it. Indeed, I rather suspect Al Qaeda is growing stronger. Mike says they’re defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But are they defeated in London? And Bali? And in New York and Washington?
This article was first published in The Independent on 1 June, 2007.
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