America’s Fatal Fallacy
Obama praises the execution of Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour as an “important milestone” to peace, but his successor promises to become far more brutal.
“The terrorists are fighting freedom with all their cunning and cruelty
because freedom is their greatest fear – and they should be afraid,
because freedom is on the march.” – George W. Bush
Endless hopes were pinned on Barack Obama when he entered the Oval Office in 2009. Hardly anyone back then had seriously considered it possible that Obama would trump the belligerence even of George W. Bush, who was seemingly hated by the world over (and by whom the opening quotation was uttered) and would bomb nearly twice as many Muslim countries as his unspeakable predecessor.
Killing for Peace and Prosperity
On May 23, President Obama announced the killing of Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour through a drone strike in the Afghan-Pakistani border region. “Today marks an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan,” Obama said bizarrely praising the extrajudicial execution of Mansour.
“This is a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said condemning Obama’s “important milestone” in the strongest terms. The attack took place on Pakistani soil, and Islamabad was neither involved in the planning nor informed about it in advance—which is why the U.S. drone attack, in fact, must be considered illegal.
In an Orwellian manner, Obama further mocked the Afghan people: “After so many years of conflict, today gives the people of Afghanistan and the region a chance at a different, better future.” As if out of the blue the Taliban would lay down their arms now.
Although Mansour’s execution was the first time in history that a head of the Taliban could be taken out, its positive impacts must be heavily contested. Even a U.S. official told Voice of America that “there will be little battlefield impact” as a result of Mansour’s death.
‘Fasten Your Seat Belts, We Will Take Our Revenge!’
Just two days after Obama’s “milestone” statement, the Taliban announced their new leader: the cleric Haibatullah Akhundzada, who belongs to the old guard with his two decades of service and represents the utmost extremist wing of the Taliban (although such a distinction may sound grotesque to Western ears).
While his murdered predecessor Mansour has been described as “reclusive,” “softly-spoken,” “smart and composed,” a “man of quiet words” and as a “strong proponent of peace talks,” the rather unknown Akhundzada is deemed “extremely hardline,” a former Taliban official reports—”even by their standards.”
Akhundzada is a disciple of the radically puristic Islamic school of Wahhabism, which the Royal House of Saud and the Islamic State also adhere to. “That is where the danger is,” the former Taliban official continues, “that he can take the movement closer to the ideology of Islamic State militant group.”
Akhundzada was Chief Justice of the Shariah Courts during the Taliban rule between 1995-2001, issuing countless fatāwā, he gave his blessings to almost as many atrocities. Likewise, he is deemed the secret mastermind of the blowing up of the 1,500 year-old Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2001, which were condemned as “idolatrous images.” Thus, Akhundzada is certainly an extreme radical who will most likely dwarf his predecessor in terms of brutality.
For a demonstration of power and Akhundzada’s own profiling, analysts expect a massive wave of violence in his initial period of leadership. Likewise, an anonymous Taliban source told Al-Jazeera that under the new leader the terrorist group has pledged to take bloody revenge for Mansour’s killing. The foreign forces and Afghan government “should now fasten their seat belts as the attacks will continue (and) we come out stronger than before.”
The appointment of their new boss, in fact, was accompanied by an attack in Kabul, for which the Taliban immediately claimed responsibility. A suicide bomber blew a bus with court employees to pieces and claimed the lives of ten people.
Without the senseless—and first and foremost illegal—drone murder of Mansour, a comparatively halfway-moderate and not an ultra-radical “Stone Age mullah” would still be at the head of the Taliban today, and 10 court employees and random civilians in Kabul would still be alive.
Given the outlined developments only of the three days following Mansour’s execution, Obama’s ramblings of an “important milestone” are nothing but pure mockery and a slap in the face to the Afghan population, which he had promised “a different, better future” only a few days earlier.
A Dead Leader at the Head
The original Taliban leader—and close ally of the recently killed Mansour—Mullah Mohammed Omar was on the U.S.’s Most Wanted list for 15 long years. In 2013, he finally died—whether he was killed by a U.S. drone strike or passed away due to tuberculosis has not yet been determined with certainty.
The remarkable trait with regard to Mullah Omar’s case, however, is that it took two full years before his death came to light. Not only were the U.S. intelligence community and the world public at large kept in the dark until 2015, with the exception of a handful of individual leaders, but not even any single fighter among the Taliban foot soldiers had any ideas about the death of their longtime chief.
Despite a dead leader at their head, the renowned Brookings Institution noted that “the 2015 fighting season between the Taliban and Afghan security forces is turning out to be the bloodiest on record since 2001.”
Apparently, the only real consequence of decades-long leader Mullah Omar’s death is that the U.S. government can strike off his name from its Most Wanted list and luckily save the US$10 million of bounty on Omar’s head.
If Mullah Omar—the legendary one-eyed founder of the Taliban, the ruler of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the “Commander of the Faithful“—can be dead for two whole years unnoticed by the international community and even by his fellow brethren, it is quite a strong clue for the second possible scenario that can occur when a terrorist leader is executed: it makes, quite simply, no practical odds whether a terrorist leader is dead or alive.
A Naïve Wishful Thinking
Something similar applies to the former public enemy No. 1. The supposed death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 (who was, by the way, never officially accused of the September 11 attacks by the U.S. government, due to the absence of evidence) is shrouded in countless myths.
Only a few hours after the assassination of bin Laden by Navy SEALs special forces in north Pakistani Abbottabad—which was no less shrouded in myths—in social sciences the debate on the question commenced regarding whether the death of the terrorist godfather bin Laden will have any appreciable impact on the al-Qaida network at all. Massive doubts about the U.S. government’s quasi-religious dogma of ‘leadership decapitation weakens the whole group’ dominated the debate from its outset.
Bin Laden’s death “won’t cause those who espouse extremism to suddenly change their minds,” even a high US Colonel concedes the strategical nonsense of this kind of operations on the day of the execution. “Those who were committed to violence yesterday remain committed to violence today,” Col. Maraia concludes.
The much hoped-for weakening of global terrorism by bin Laden’s death remained only little more than a naïve, wishful thinking. The subsequent massive strengthening of regional al-Qaida offshoots – Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia and especially AQAP in Yemen – decentralized and decreased the power of Al-Qaida headquarters in the heartland of Afghanistan-Pakistan, however, this represented by no means an overall weakening of the network. It was rather a fatal terrorist export to the entire Middle East.
The Execution of Terrorist Leaders: ‘Highly Counterproductive’
The question remains whether the senselessness of executing terrorist leaders—as previously outlined with three cases—is merely an accumulation of individual examples, or whether they might yet follow a general pattern?
The endless list of executed leaders of Al-Qaida, Taliban & Co.—whose executions certainly every time were a “milestone”—however, casts doubt on whether the strategy of the U.S. government proved to be successful and if global terrorism declined as a consequence of “leadership decapitation”.
In addition to a variety of indicators—that all know only one direction—it is mainly the bare number of people killed by terrorism that mercilessly crushes this assumption: between 2002 and 2014, the annual number rose by an unspeakable 4500 percent. Thus, in the glorious years of the “War on Terror” a 45-fold increase of terror fatalities occurred, despite killing countless terrorist leaders one after another.
In a remarkable study of the University of Chicago from 2009, the PhD student Jenna Jordon explored the same issues. Jordan studied 298 cases since 1945, and examined the impact on the structure and the overall future of terrorist organizations after their leaders were executed.
Jordan’s research suggests that small and young terrorist groups, indeed, seem to be negatively affected by and are more likely to collapse after the liquidation of their leaders. But for decades-old groups counting thousands of members such as the Taliban the exact opposite case is true. Extrajudicial executions as the recent one of Mansour are “highly counterproductive,” Jordan concludes.
As an explanation the by now graduated scientist states that “going after the leader may strengthen a group’s resolve, result in retaliatory attacks, increase public sympathy for the organization, or produce more lethal attacks.” In other words: the execution of their leaders strengthens the terrorist group at all different levels.
Jordan closes in an unambiguously clear manner: “Overall, this study shows that we need to rethink current counterterrorism policies.”
In Foreign Policy, the renowned law professor Rosa Brooks addresses the question of why the U.S. government adheres so relentlessly to the policy of executing terrorist leaders that is so obviously doomed to failure. She’s seeking answers in the anthropological school of thought.
Since the dawn of human societies, their members performed certain rituals—so-called apotropaic magic—by which the gods should be appeased and misfortune averted: ritual offerings, the noise magic of New Year’s Eve, the use of holy water during baptism, exorcisms, rain dances, grotesque faces carved into pumpkins at Halloween.
Due to lack of rational explanations Brooks is now putting the U.S. policy of “terrorist leadership decapitation” in this very line of ritual pacification of the societal psyche:
“We modern Americans don’t believe in demons, rain dances, or the efficacy of sacrificing children or goats. We’ve developed our very own 21st-century magic rituals—and we call them ‘counterterrorism programs.’”
America’s Fatal Fallacy
When the head of Yemen’s al-Qaida offshoot al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, was killed by a U.S. drone in summer 2015, Obama’s spokesman praised the murder with the words, Wuhayshi’s death “brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”
The question arises whether the Obama administration actually believes this baloney when even a first-class hawk like Juan Zarate—top counterterrorism advisor to former President George W. Bush—concedes that the murder of AQAP chief Wuhayshi has “little relevance”, and on the contrary, would rather strengthen the terrorist groups in Yemen.
The “War on Terror” is an endless fatal fallacy, a logical circularity. It feeds on itself.
Due to its medial omnipresence, we probably might be no longer aware of the fact that the term “War on Terror” itself is an oxymoron: violence ludicrously should be erased by more violence.
The way is the goal, and the actual goal of defeating the terror, however, has become so abstract. It continues to play a fundamentally important role for the moral legitimacy of the whole adventure, but a practical relevance has long been gone.
The United States as the self-proclaimed terrorist hunter No. 1 went astray a long time ago, far away from any reason.
The question may appear extremely naïve, but: Why does the U.S. carry on and on, and kill one alleged terrorist leader after another, although this approach evidentially is either not effective at all, or has time and again extremely adverse, bloody effects?
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