By Zachary Toillion
During the Obama administration, the U.s. has conducted a judicious amount of military action, often in nations that Congress never authorized. More specifically, America has staged military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia–six predominantly Islamic nations that have significant jihadist elements.
Gone are the days where wars were formally declared between two enemy states. Conventional warfare, where two nations met on the battlefield in accordance with the laws of war, have vanished. Since 9/11, the wars that the U.S. have engaged in have all been against radical militant Islam–an elusive target that knows no borders. As a means to this end, the U.S. has engaged in military campaigns that have deposed long time oppressive regimes in the Middle East, including the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. While few dispute these dictators had committed atrocities, many have been puzzled by the resurgence in violence after their ouster.
This brings up an uncomfortable truth about the Middle East. When the US topples a government, it creates a power vacuum which often elevates the most extreme voices. In fact, this type of situation is seen even in instances without U.S. intervention, the most notable example is Egypt.
In Egypt, longtime President Hosni Mubarak was ejected from power after largely peaceful protests forced him to resign after the story went global. At the time, it was a tremendous victory for those who opposed the draconian policies of Mubarak and who wanted Egypt to become a secular democracy focused on equality. For a brief moment, Egypt served as a symbol of hope for all oppressed nations. Through civil disobedience, and mass demonstration over the series of months, it appeared the forces of positive reform had won.
After Mubarak was forced to resign, Egypt elected Mohammed Morsi as its President in its first legitimate election in over 30 years. Unfortunately, the revolution in Egypt proved to be a messy, long struggle. Morsi’s political party was the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational political party whose motto is “Allah is our objective; the Qur’an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish.” Upon entering office, Morsi immediately gave himself dictatorial powers including the right to legislate without judicial review. Protesters against Morsi’s power grab were demonized just as they were under the reign of Mubarak. As a result, Morsi was eventually deposed as President through a military coup about a year after his election.
Like Egypt, Libya has experienced similar growing pains after the toppling of their leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Unlike Libya, the United States shares some responsibility for its current state. In 2011, President Obama announced the US would intervene in Libya to help aid protestors of Muammar Gaddafi. Soon thereafter the US coalition formed, and immediately began to help rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi in the hopes we would have a new regional partner. Since that time chaos has ensued resulting in the deaths of four Americans, including the assassination of our former Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. In 2014, Islamist rebel groups took control of 11 airliners, as well as anti-aircraft weapons prompting the neighboring countries of Egypt and Tunisia to ground all flights going over Libyan airspace. Egypt also didn’t rule out sending in ground troops of it’s own to help stabilize Libya.
In Yemen, the United States has authorized a series of drone and airstrikes that amounts to nothing less than a covert war. Since 2009, more than 1000 in Yemen have been killed by a staggering 113 strikes. This under-the-radar war’s most recent strike happened on August 9th, 2014. The strikes have built animosity toward the United States because of the many documented cases where innocent civilians were killed there. The most high profile case of this phenomenon is the assassination of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, a 16 year old child with American citizenship and no affiliation with Al Qaeda. In Somalia, an airstrike was conducted against the terrorist group Al-Shabab to neutralize their leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, in early September 2014. This latest strike was part of a long term series of air strikes conducted by the United States since 2007.
Truthfully, the United States has been at war with most of the Middle East for some time. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has fought two protracted ground wars. In Iraq, American forces occupied the country for nearly 9 years at the cost of 150,00 lives. In Afghanistan, the 13 year war has left a total of 60,000 dead. The total cost of both conflicts thus far is $6 trillion and counting as of February 2014. In Pakistan, the US conducted an operation that killed Osama Bin Laden in May of 2011 and since 2009, the United states has conducted 315 airstrikes within Pakistan.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the US policy of looking the other way has come at the cost of American lives. Saudi Arabia is an American ally, and an ally we rely heavily on for oil. Saudi Arabia routinely commits atrocities as vile as groups like ISIS, but rarely do we hear the international condemnation that is reserved for terrorist groups. Saudi Arabia is a literal Islamic state, governed by Sharia law-the exact type of state ISIS seeks to create in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, a person can be sentenced to death for adultery, burglary, blasphemy, “sorcery”, drug smuggling, and practicing homosexual. In the first half of August alone, the Saudi Arabian government executed 19 of its citizens, with at least eight being beheaded.
Saudi Arabia has also served as a vital state for potential terrorists. The basis for our invasion of Afghanistan was that it functioned as a staging ground for terrorism, namely the 9/11 attacks. In reality, most of the funding for the 9/11 attacks came from private hands in Saudi Arabia, as did 15 of the 19 hijackers. Now, as the United States confronts ISIS, we are yet again at odds with a group that gets most of it’s funding from affluent Saudis sympathetic to ISIS’s proclaimed goals.
Much of the anger directed at the US has been focused on the method in which we conduct warfare. Increasingly, the US has become reliant on drones to neutralize enemies. While this helps save American lives, often times kills innocent civilians in the process. This makes it much easier for terrorists to demonize the United States by claiming the US has kowling executed civilians. In Afghanistan alone, the number of airstrikes averaged 700-1000 monthly at the height of the surge in 2010.
These US led interventions have lead the world of radical Islam to target us even more. Propagandists for jihadist groups now have adopted talking points from mainstream American political discourse to sell their extreme message. Groups like ISIS point out that President Obama was elected on bringing a peaceful end to war and closing Guantanamo, and has yet to do either. As mentioned earlier, other groups have excoriated the US for killing civilians in drone strikes, bringing political instability to the Middle East, and using torture.
Militant Islam takes these grievances, and uses them as a recruitment tool to get more people to join their cause- a cause that is predicated on combatting western power and imposing their radical political and religious beliefs on the rest of the world. It is this potent mixture of religious fundamentalism and disapproval of American foreign policy that served as the basis for 9/11 to begin with. Osama Bin Laden cited American intervention in the Middle East as a central motivating factor behind the 9/11 terror attacks, and openly stated his goal was to break America’s economy. He devised the plan from an earlier conflict in Afghanistan that took place in the 1980s. During this time, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With the backing of the CIA, a militant group of Islamic fundamentalists known as the Mujahideen fought the Soviets for 10 years. Bin Laden was a central figure in the financing of the Mujahadeen and later commented that his fight against them contributed to the Soviet Union’s downfall, stating, “We, alongside the Mujahideen, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt.”
The blowback from air strikes, backing the wrong regional states and groups, and our other military actions could harm our own soldiers. While it is true Afghanistan combat troops will be withdrawn by December 2014, 9,800 will remain there serving as “residual forces”. In Iraq, the President has deployed nearly 2,000 military advisors. There is little doubt that these Americans will be tremendous targets for terrorists at odds with the west.
The United States has a lot of reflection to do. We are more than willing to look the other way when our close ally Saudi Arabia routinely commits human rights abuses against it’s own citizens. We turned a blind eye to Israel’s illegal settlements, covert nuclear arms development, and targeting of Palestinian civilians. In the tinderbox of conflict that is the Middle East, we must learn to develop a universal standard of how we treat states that abuse and slaughter their own citizens. We must understand that our drone strikes have an affect on our own national security, and most of all we should realize their alternatives to traditional militarism. War has changed, and so must United States policy.