Osama bin Laden’s statement Sunday after the first Allied air strikes was mostly what one would expect, the usual denunciations of the United States and “the chief infidel Bush,” but did contain two curious passages: “Our nation has undergone more than 80 years of this humiliation…”; and: “When the sword reached America after 80 years…” Eighty years? 1921? Is he saying that this whole thing is Warren G. Harding’s fault?
Bin Laden is talking about the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres imposed on the Turks after World War One, which detached their Arab provinces and spelled the end of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had ruled the region for 600 years or so, and brought varying degrees of political harmony under the Sultanate and religious unity under the Caliphate. The 1920 treaty did away with the political order, and the Caliphate was banned by Kemal Ataturk in 1924. The European powers saw to the disposition of the Arab lands, the route to British India was secured from Russian expansionism, France was given an interest in Syria, and the Mideast oil supplies were safe.
Old news? Well, we are dealing with people with long historical memory. Ayman Zawahri, leader of the Egyptian Jihad, stated Sunday that his group “will not tolerate a recurrence of the Andalusia tragedy in Palestine.” (The Andalusia tragedy is the end of Moorish rule in Spain in 1492.)
So the World Trade Towers had to come down because some psychopath can’t come to grips with the end of World War I? Basically, yes. In bin Laden’s universe, that was when everything started to go wrong. Viewed in that context, his plots against the Saudi and Jordanian monarchies make perfect sense. They are products of this original sin, the establishment of the political order of the Middle East by the Allied powers 80 years ago. The founding of Israel (“the Zionist entity”) is an echo of the same Western interference. Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait in 1991 was an attempt to right things — Kuwait was part of the same administrative division as Iraq within the Ottoman Empire, so it is only just that it be reclaimed. Hence, Western opposition to Saddam’s invasion is a key event to bin Laden. He mentions this specifically in his 1998 fatwa against Americans, and also in his most recent statement in which he says there will be no peace until, among other things, “and all infidel armies depart from the land of Mohammad,” i.e., Americans leave Saudi Arabia.
It is important to understand these dates and events to comprehend the adversary we face. Bin Laden looks back to what he believes was a golden age in which Western influence in the Mideast was minimal and there was no interference in Muslim affairs by “atheists.” If he and his followers could recreate that environment, they could construct a theocratic utopia after the blueprint of Taliban Afghanistan. The main impediments to that vision are the Arab monarchies and autocracies that do business with the west. Bin Laden must first drive out the infidels who prop up these regimes, then topple them and replace them with pure Islamic states (that is, Islam ala Osama).
Those who see poverty at the root of all conflict should note well that Osama bin Laden and the members of Al Qaeda are the products of affluence. The September 11 suicide hijackers were more familiar with the discos of Berlin than the slums of Ramallah. We are not dealing with politicians who can be bought off with an increased minimum wage and comprehensive national health care plan. These are idealists violently promoting a comprehensive and exclusive worldview. Bin Laden said Sunday, “These events have divided the world into two parts: a part that espouses faith and is devoid of hypocrisy, and an infidel part, may God protect us from it.” As an Al Qaeda spokesman put it, “There are only two sides and no third one. Either you chose the side of faith of that of atheism.” There can be no compromise; this is war to the death.
The scope of the current war is vast. It is not a struggle against one demented man, or one radical regime. It is a war against an idea, an ideology antithetical to our way of life and to the western conception of freedom. Afghanistan is the nerve center of this ideology, a state that has supplied safe haven to its theorists, and a test bed for its practitioners. But the tendrils of this network reach far; to Indonesia, the Philippines, western China, Chechnya, the Balkans, Nigeria, and Colombia to name a few. It is a global web tied to organized crime, narcotics, and arms smuggling. Its lifeblood is money, much of which is obtained through illegal activity. But it also does commerce in mercenaries, and supplies tactical training and ideological indoctrination. This is not the type of threat our national-security apparatus is organized to defeat, but it is the one with which we must now come to grips.
The United States doesn’t formulate 80- or even eight-year strategies. Our approach to problems is to wait until they get serious, go in, fix them, and leave. We thought we did this in Iraq in 1991; clearly we did not. Likewise with Afghanistan — after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989 we were done with that country and let it fall into chaos. We figured our friends the Pakistanis would take care of it, and they certainly did. Their answer was the Taliban, which gave Afghanistan more stability than it had seen in years. True, it was the stability of the graveyard, but that served Pakistan’s interests. And when it became clear that serious problems were developing in Afghanistan, the Clinton administration responded by placing sanctions on Pakistan for engaging in nuclear testing and feebly launching cruise missiles into the Afghan mountains. The single most significant diplomatic move in the current conflict was lifting the sanctions and detaching Pakistan from the Taliban. The Afghan regime has no hope of survival without its Pakistani patrons, and without the Taliban the Al Qaeda network has no cover. One hopes that when the smoke clears and Afghanistan is liberated the United States will not revert to its traditional regional attention deficit disorder.
The opening shots of this war were not fired Sunday, but the instant President Bush responded on September 11. The United States is now formulating a new type of warfighting strategy. Military force is a necessary and powerful part of the solution, but there are important roles to be played by law enforcement, intelligence, diplomacy, international financial agreements, covert operations, foreign aid — almost every tool at the disposal of the government must be utilized to win this struggle. It will take time, steady leadership, and strategic vision. Bin Laden may die tomorrow — inshallah — but we have a long way to go.