JUAN COLE, professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, gave a public lecture on "Wrong Turns in the War on Terror" at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey on Feb. 27. His talk was part of a year-long project at The Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis entitled: "Planetary Perspectives: Thinking about world history in an era of globalization."
While Cole does not deny that terrorism is a problem, he argues that the U.S. has addressed it in the worst way possible, and not only during the Bush II administration. During the Cold War, Cole explained, the Reagan administration abandoned containment and adopted the more aggressive policy of rollback to destroy the Soviet Union and its Third World clients. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Saudis developed private paramilitary forces—at Washington's insistence and with generous U.S. funding. To help them raise additional funds, the Saudis turned to "the unusually pious son" of a prominent businessman. Osama bin Laden returned to Jiddah after the Afghan war, but kept his data base of volunteers and donors. That data base, Cole noted ironically, is the literal meaning of "al-Qaeda."
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, bin Laden offered to use his base to get Saddam out, but, again under pressure from Washington, the Saudis opted instead to allow U.S. troops to be stationed in their country. This, Cole said, enraged bin Laden, who decided that the U.S., like the Soviets, was a neo-imperial power. He went to Afghanistan, whose ruling Taliban Cole characterized as clients rather than hosts of al-Qaeda, and launched attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa and, in Yemen, on the USS Cole. These attacks Professor Cole described as blowback of the Reagan administration's devotion to paramilitaries and rollback.
After 9/11, Cole asserted, the U.S. had no choice but to go to war in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda training camps. When bin Laden and Mullah Omar seemed to be trapped in Tora Bora, however, the U.S. military, rather than going in themselves, sent in Afghan tribes who, Cole suggested, had too much respect for bin Laden to finish the job. He also thought it possible that, even at that early stage, U.S. military resources already were being diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq.
In Cole's opinion, al-Qaeda is a criminal cartel that is more into power than money. Therefore, he said, capturing al-Qaeda requires police work rather than a war. Instead, however, the U.S. got rid of the Taliban and re-empowered the war lords, making it likely, he predicted, that al-Qaeda will come back funded by drug money.
It also is important to understand how the Muslim world feels about al-Qaeda, Cole emphasized. In secular Turkey and as far away as Indonesia, he pointed out, bin Laden is more popular than George W. Bush. Cole identified the cause as anger about Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians. Muslims everywhere are concerned by Israel's creeping colonization that accelerated throughout the peace process, he said, but this anger is dismissed by U.S. policy-makers and not understood by the American public. After 9/11, Cole argued, the U.S. should have put more energy into solving the Israel/Palestinian problem. Instead Bush decided to unleash Ariel Sharon, saying "a little chaos can be a good thing." Now the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a prime recruitment tool for extremists.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the many mistakes that ensued, such as disbanding the Iraqi army and the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib, are further pretexts for global anti-U.S. activity, Cole maintained. Not only have none of the pre-invasion excuses about weapons of mass destruction stood up, he pointed out, but neither do the more recent ones, such as saving Muslim countries. Cole concluded by stating what should be obvious: that the majority of Muslims are not afraid of Islam.