Andreas Whittam Smith: Five years after September 11, the awful paradox of this futile 'war on terror' is clear

It has done more moral harm to the US and Britain than it has done physical harm to terrorists

The Independent

Published: 11 September 2006

It has been a long wait. Five years after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, it must finally be clear to most people that one part of the response devised by George Bush, and his enthusiastic ally, Tony Blair, was wrong, ineffective and counter-productive. Never before has a vivid, politicians' phrase, the notion of a "war on terror", been as mistaken. What exactly has been the gain from smashing rockets and bombs into civilian populations and from imprisoning and mistreating thousands upon thousands of innocent bystanders? War on terror has turned out to be war by terror. Wasn't that the avowed aim of Israel in Lebanon this summer? We shall pound the Lebanese infrastructure back to where it was 20 years ago, boasted one Israeli leader. Fight terror with terror. No thanks.

Surely we all see now that the job is best done by intelligence services, by specially trained police, by international co-operation between such bodies, by courts of law and by public vigilance. All this works much more effectively than it did five years ago. More or less. Civil liberties can be unduly restricted. And the bombers will still get through from time to time, as they did in London 14 months ago. But as somebody who lives and works in central London and who uses public transport daily, I don't feel particularly vulnerable.

Far from being defeated, the Taliban in Afghanistan is killing British soldiers with dismaying frequency. Whatever we may like to achieve there, the situation gives every appearance of being a war that cannot be won. In Iraq allied troops are stuck in heavily fortified camps while civil strife flames up all around them. In Lebanon this summer, Israel, encouraged by America and Britain, killed 932 Lebanese citizens, wounded a further 3,000 and sent nearly one million people fleeing from their homes, but it didn't defeat Hizbollah.

At least Mr Bush can make the claim that he has protected his homeland. In a speech last week he told his audience: "Over the past five years, we have waged an unprecedented campaign against terror at home and abroad. And that campaign has succeeded in protecting the homeland. At the same time, we have seen our enemies strike in Britain, Spain, India, Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, Jordan, Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries." In other words, the rest of us have paid the price for keeping America safe. That is indeed a curious fact. Since 9/11 the United States has not experienced a single terrorist attack nor even a close call but Britain is clearly in the line of fire. What is the reason for this discrepancy? It may be something as mundane as distance. Or it may be simply that the Muslim community in the USA is better integrated into American society than are British Muslims.

In condemning the "war on terror", I am not, five years later, being suddenly wise after the event. Lots of people saw immediately that the President's misuse of language was a pointer to an underlying policy confusion. There are many definitions of war. One is that "war occurs only between political communities, defined as those entities which either are states or intend, as is the case with civil war, to become states." Al-Qa'ida is not a state. Nor does it, in any practical sense, intend to become one.

Paradoxically the so-called war on terror has done more moral harm to the United States and Britain - and Israel in the case of Lebanon - than it has done physical harm to terrorist groups themselves. All military combat punishes civilians who happen to be in the way. That is inevitable. But never have the proportions been as out-of-whack as they have been in Iraq and in Lebanon. What was the ratio in Lebanon - 1,000 civilian refugees for every Hizbollah fighter killed?

The war on terror has also dishonoured us by bringing back torture. Detainees suspected of terrorist activities have been tortured to death in American custody. Interrogation methods used at Guantanamo Bay detention centre rose "to the level of torture" according to a general counsel of the US Navy.

As for this country, torture is encouraged when British officials take part in, witness or condone the interrogation under duress of UK suspects and others in US custody and in the custody of other countries, as has happened. President Bush has just confirmed that terrorist suspects were indeed held in prisons outside US territory. This so-called "rendition" by the American intelligence services, to which the British Government turned a blind eye, usually involves multiple human rights violations including abduction, arbitrary arrest, torture, detention and transfer without the processes of the law.

Contrast this with the Spanish reaction to the Madrid train bombings in 2004. A new government quickly withdrew its 1,300 troops from Iraq. It treated the horrific event as a great crime rather than as an act of war. Two years later, it has been able to bring five Moroccan nationals to trial for the attack. They are charged with 191 counts of murder and 1,755 attempted murders. Another 23 are charged with collaboration in the terrorist outrage. And this same Spanish government has just agreed to contribute 1,100 troops to the UN peacekeeping force being assembled in Lebanon. This strikes me as rational behaviour by a Western government.

It now requires only the political defeat of Mr Bush and Mr Blair for the futility of their "war on terror" policies to become the accepted wisdom. The American President may well pay a price in the Congressional election in November. Poor Tony Blair is already doing so. The Prime Minister had hoped to move on from Iraq, but he was never able to do so. Soon he will move out.

Neither Mr Bush nor Mr Blair's successors will carry on as before. The new leaders will know that they must withdraw from a failed policy as soon as they decently can. Historians will recognise this pattern. Nations tackle a new problem with old, well-tried methods, successful in the past, in this case with American military might. This first answer, as so often, proves ineffective and so, gradually and painfully, a better response is devised. This is exactly where we are now, five years down the road from 9/11.

This in turn means Europe becomes more important in combating terrorism. As American hard power has lost its cutting edge, European soft power appears more effective. The beginning of this can already be seen in the Lebanese crisis. The British public is ready for this change in emphasis. It is stoical but uncomprehending as British casualties mount in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has taken on board the humiliating idea that Mr Blair became George Bush's poodle. As a result, showing independence from the White House has become a political necessity for Mr Blair's successors. It is through Europe that we shall find the proper response to terrorism and nowhere else. As that insight takes hold, we shall at last make progress.