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13 October 2003

How America makes terrorists of its allies

Kudair Abbass was happy to see the US army keeping the peace in Iraq - until troops killed his broth

By Lutz Kleveman

The day after US army soldiers in Iraq shot Yaass Abbass dead I realised why America was losing the war on terror. The 28-year-old truck driver from Fallujah, a centre of Iraqi guerrilla resistance west of Baghdad, had been innocent, but that was not the point. Nor was the sobbing of his five orphaned sons during the family’s mourning ceremony in a hastily set-up tent. Nor even the outrage of the tribal representatives who arrived to offer condolences, shrouded in white dishdasha robes and turbans. What struck me was the US air force Apache combat helicopter, which kept hovering above the tent, the engines’ roaring noise drowning out the men’s recital of verses from the Koran.

“The Americans treat us like animals,” said Kudair Abbass, one of Yaass’s brothers. When asked if he wanted revenge, he kept silent but his eyes, filled with tears and hate, gave a clear answer. And it had nothing to do with any loyalty to Saddam Hussein.

Where do local people stand in the war on terror? This is what I tried to find out on numerous journeys through the Middle East, the Caucasus and central Asia over the past two years. Certainly, the anti-terrorism struggle has had successes. Since 11 September 2001, no major terrorist attack has occurred on American or European soil. But Osama Bin Laden takes afternoon strolls in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands; in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban are on the rebound; and “liberated” Iraq sinks further into violence and lawlessness each day. There have been tactical mistakes, such as letting Bin Laden slip away from Tora Bora two years ago; but equally to blame are strategic failures, such as neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and making terrorist-sponsoring Saudi Arabia and Pakistan “allies” in a struggle against evil that they themselves support. Worse, in stubbornly going it alone against Iraq, the US has lost many allies in a war that cannot be won unilaterally.

The growing popular support some terrorists enjoy is too often ignored. Bin Laden and the Iraqi bombers can cause harm only so long as people give them shelter. And many Muslims do, because they see America’s war on terror as a crusade against Islam.

What makes a man a terrorist? On my travels, I met countless angry (mostly young) men who, with nothing to lose but their seemingly valueless lives, were prepared to fight for whatever their leaders told them was worth the fight. Among them were Kudair from Iraq, Ahmad from Uzbekistan and Kamal By from Afghanistan. Each demonstrates in his own different way why the Bush administration’s anti-terror strategy is going awry.

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“Yaass just wanted to get some gasoline in town,” his brother Kudair said. “The curfew was near but he did not care.” Then his old Volkswagen broke down and Yaass had to repair it in the dark. Around midnight, a US army Humvee patrol came driving towards him. The soldiers of an elite squad of the 3rd Infantry Division were in Fallujah following a series of guerrilla attacks. They were originally trained not as policemen, but to kill people. They were tired and aggressive. “They just shot my brother dead, for no reason,” Kudair exclaimed. As several witnesses attested, Yaass had been unarmed. “He was not a resistance fighter but a simple civilian who worked hard to feed his family.” Had the Americans offered any explanation for the killing? “Of course not. We don’t even exist for them. They have not liberated us, not us.” There seemed little point in asking Kudair what he would do if any guerrilla groups asked him to join their struggle.

Fallujah was only one destination on a four-week journey through post-Saddam Iraq that took me from Baghdad to the Kurdish areas in the north, the Shia cities in the south, and the Sunni triangle in the west. While the Kurds were unreservedly happy about having been liberated from the tyrant, any gratitude felt by Shias or Sunnis has long since been replaced by resentment that the heavy-handed military occupiers seem incapable (and unwilling) to embark on the necessary reconstruction effort. In Baghdad, there is still no regular supply of electricity and water, and crime is on the rise, an environment perfect for terrorists. The irony is that, by invading Iraq without clear ideas of what to do after a ceasefire, the Bush administration has created what it set out to destroy: a terrorist haven.

Iraq is not the only country where US anti-terrorist policies have backfired. In the ex-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, in central Asia, the brutal dictator Islam Karimov has become an ally of Washington’s in the war on terror, allowing American troops to set up a large and permanent US base on Uzbek soil during the Afghan campaign. In the capital, Tashkent, I met 20-year-old Ahmad. Over a cup of tea, the young man told me he had just been released from prison; he served three years for allegedly belonging to an Islamic terrorist organisation. “The guards beat me every day,” Ahmad said, “but I never stopped praying to Allah.”

The group he belonged to was a Sufi religious order which, he insisted, had nothing to do with terrorists such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, blamed for several deadly attacks in the late 1990s. “But maybe in the future my brothers and I will have to defend ourselves and fight,” he said. I asked Ahmad how he felt about the arrival of American anti-terror troops in Uzbekistan. “They only make things worse. They don’t help us, the people, but only the government. I hate America.”

Ahmad’s angry words reflect many central Asians’ deep suspicion of US motives in their region. The Caspian Basin harbours the greatest untapped oil reserves in the world, which could help industrialised countries decrease their dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East. In this new great game that pits the US against Russia, China and Iran, the Bush administration has used the war on terror to expand its military presence and political influence in central Asia.

Cynicism over America’s energy imperialism could ultimately decide the outcome of the war on terror. The impoverished people of the region, disgusted with the US alliances with their corrupt and despotic rulers, increasingly embrace militant Islam and virulent anti-Americanism. At the end of the cold war in 1989, America was admired and loved by the Soviet-oppressed peoples of eastern Europe not only as the leader of “the west” but as the champion of democracy, civil liberties and cultural progress. Young Czechs, Poles and Hungarians, even if they had never heard of the Bill of Rights, craved American rock music and blue jeans. Since the current Bush administration turned the 11 September terror attacks into an excuse to pursue policies seen by many as arrogant, aggressive and imperialist, the change in perception could not be more drastic. The US has lost most of its cultural attractiveness in the ex-Soviet countries of central Asia and their neighbours, and is widely hated for its politics.

Many have come to realise that the democratic and liberal values Americans enjoy at home are often missing from US foreign policy. They resent the immoral opportunism with which Washington courts the region’s dictators, such as Karimov, Azerbaijan’s Heydar Aliyev, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. Such alliances serve short-term interests but in the long run are likely to exacerbate the problem.

In Afghanistan, too, the Bush administration has made Faustian pacts. Two years after Operation Enduring Freedom, most of the country has sunk back into chaos and anarchy, ruled by warlords who defy Hamid Karzai’s weak central government. The Taliban and the mujahedin of the radical Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are staging a violent comeback, drawing US and allied troops deeper into counter-insurgency warfare. The only flourishing business is the export of opium and heroin which, according to UN statistics, has increased twentyfold since the fall of the Taliban.

Kamal By, a poppy farmer whom I met in the lawless north-east province of Badakhshan, reached under his shalwar kameez, pulled out a sticky lump of recently harvested opium and whispered: “This stuff is good – the dealers on the bazaar are wild about it. They give me $350 per kilo.” Farmers in his village have little choice but to grow poppy. Other crops yield a fraction of the profits and, said Kamal By: “The warlords force us to grow poppy. We have to pay them the ushr, one-tenth of our profits. In the west, you are upset about the opium we produce. But where do the weapons come from with which the warlords suppress us here?”

In search of temporary allies against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the CIA still bankrolls Afghan warlords, including some notorious heroin dealers. Compounded by Washington’s failure at postwar nation-building, this exacerbates chaos and civil strife, once again creating a breeding ground for terrorism instead of obliterating it. The US is repeating mistakes of the 1980s, when the CIA supported Islamic radicals such as Hekmatyar and a certain Osama Bin Laden in the anti-Soviet jihad.

The stories of Kudair, Ahmad and Kamal By reveal the myopia of US tactics. Final victory in the war on terror cannot be achieved by military means alone; it also demands political and economic measures that target the social roots of terrorism. B-52s and cruise missiles inspire fear and hatred, but building more roads, schools and hospitals would win hearts and minds.

Why do so many people hate America? “They hate our freedom and democracy,” said President Bush. That may be true of a few, but most America-haters have better reasons.

In late March, right after the invasion of Iraq, I asked Richard Perle, a leading pro-war voice in Washington, if the rise of anti-Americanism, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, threatened the war on terror. “I don’t see why bringing freedom to the Iraqi people would inspire people to take up arms against the United States,” Perle replied. “Frankly, I don’t see why our success in the war on terror is dependent on the goodwill of the Afghan or the Pakistani population. I think there will be a sharply reduced danger of terrorism after this war.”

Sadly, wishful thinking alone rarely guarantees success.

Lutz Kleveman is the author of The New Great Game: blood and oil in central Asia (Atlantic Books, £16.99; E-mail:

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