An Iraqi-Kurdish fighter at a checkpoint west of Arbil. Photo: Getty
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The first “war on terror” was a failure. Do we really need a sequel?

Just because there are no good options in Iraq doesn’t mean we have to pick the worst option.

It’s difficult to disagree with the verdict of Barack Obama. The Isis terrorists, the US president declared in a televised address on 10 September, “are unique in their brutality . . . They enslave, rape and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. In acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists – Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff.” (On 13 September, they also beheaded the brave British aid worker David Haines.)

Isis, in other words, is evil. Scum. The worst of the worst. Unique, to borrow Obama’s phrase, in its brutality. Nevertheless, it isn’t difficult to disagree with the solution proffered by the president and his new neocon pals. “We are at war [and] we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win,” declaimed Dick Cheney, the former US vice-president. “What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?” asked the pundit William Kristol.

Forget for a moment the legality of bombing Iraq without congressional approval, or bombing Syria without UN approval. Put to one side, also, the morality of dropping bombs from 5,000 feet on towns in northern Iraq that are full of civilians.

The bigger issue is that military action might make us feel better about ourselves and it might even “degrade” Isis but it won’t “destroy” it (to use Obama’s preferred terminology). How will dropping bombs destroy the hate-filled ideology behind the terrorist group? How will air strikes prevent foreign fighters returning home to the west to carry out revenge attacks? How will killing innocent Iraqi Sunnis “in the crossfire” stop Isis from recruiting new and angry fighters from inside Iraq’s Sunni communities? How will cruise missiles produce an inclusive government in Baghdad, one that heals the long-standing rifts between Kurds, Shias and Sunnis and encourages the Sunnis to turn their backs on Isis, as they did on al-Qaeda in 2006 and 2007? How will despatching drones help generate a national civic identity that makes Iraqis feel united as a single people, rather than part of a patchwork of warring tribes and sects?

If bombing “worked”, Iraq would have morphed into a Scandinavia-style utopia long ago. Remember, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama is the fourth US president in a row to appear live on television in order to announce air strikes on Iraq.

Remember also that the US and its allies have been dropping ordnance on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya, among other countries, since 2001. Yet, today, the Taliban is resurgent in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while al-Qaeda is opening new branches of its terror franchise in India; Libya is in chaos, with Islamist militias vying for control and the government in exile hiding out on a Greek car ferry; and US air strikes in Yemen, according to a former US embassy official in Sana’a, generate “roughly 40 to 60 new enemies for every [al-Qaeda] operative killed by drones”.

“It’s hard to think of any American project in the Middle East that is not now at or near a dead end,” said Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in July. Why? “The United States seldom resorts to diplomacy in resolving major differences . . . Coercive measures like sanctions and bombing are much more immediately satisfying emotionally than the long slog of diplomacy.” Or as the economist and senior UN adviser Jeffrey Sachs recently tweeted, “US has a one-note foreign policy: bomb.”

Once again, we are confronted with the myth of redemptive violence, the belief that the application of superior western air power is ultimately just, noble and necessary. Wanting vengeance for Foley, Sotloff and Haines, not to mention the thousands of unnamed Syrians and Iraqis slaughtered by Isis, is understandable. Vengeance, however, is no substitute for a viable strategy.

As Richard Barrett, the former MI6 head of counterterrorism, warned me in a recent interview, it’s a mistake to see air strikes as a “tool that is going to solve the [Islamic State] problem . . . It’s just reaching for a hammer because it is a hammer and it’s to hand.”

So what’s to be done? First, just because there are no good options in Iraq doesn’t mean we have to pick the worst option: a tried, tested and failed option. Yes, air strikes can keep Isis fighters away from Erbil but they cannot eradicate Isis.

Second, there is a range of political steps that must be taken – from guaranteeing Sunni participation in the new Iraqi government to cracking down on the oil sales worth $100m a month that fund the Isis reign of terror. Then there is the regional cold war that has helped fuel the hot wars in Iraq and Syria. Getting Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran to a negotiating table, Richard Barrett explained, would have “much more impact [on Iraq] than flying out and dropping bombs”.

We can’t talk to Isis but we can talk to Saudi Arabia (and, for that matter, to Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates). And, yes, to Iran, too. The Iranians can put pressure on the dysfunctional Shia-led government in Baghdad; the Saudis can do the same with the disaffected Sunni tribes that have allied with Isis.

Instead, Obama, with David Cameron in support, prepares for a new, US-led, three-year military campaign, across two countries, against the thugs and gangsters of Isis, even though 13 years of the so-called war on terror – stretching from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iraq to Yemen, Libya to Somalia – have produced only more war and more terror. Do we really want a sequel?

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer. He works for Al Jazeera English and the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?