While many may feel that the latest contribution by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, An Enemy We Created, has come ten years too late for those who lost their lives unnecessarily in Afghanistan, I have come away from the book with a different sort of pessimism; that we have not learnt any of the lessons from that period. Indeed, the book has made an extremely important contribution by lucidly and eloquently debunking the myth that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were oftentimes the same entity, but unfortunately, the story has not ended with that analysis being realised globally.
When I wrote my own book, Rules of the Game, I wanted to present a worldwide view of counter-terrorism policy post 11 September 2001. The book attempted to prove the theory that ill-conceived policies travelled the length and breadth of the globe, all in the name of a new national/international security paradigm. Rather than learning lessons of where they had gone wrong, the US and its allies were sharing ‘best practice’ techniques in how they could circumvent the rule of law.
When Operation Enduring Freedom began, we saw refugees fleeing from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where those who were foreign were picked up by security agencies, sold to the Americans, rendered back into Afghanistan and then finally on to Guantanamo Bay where they were declared enemy combatants. Fast forward six years, and we saw a hideous doppleganger appear in the Horn of Africa, where foreign refugees fled from Somalia to Kenya, only to be detained, rendered back to Somalia and then on to Ethiopia, where they were classified as ‘enemy combatants’ and kept in chicken wire cages similar to those at Camp X-Ray. The standard for counter-terrorism detention had been set by the US, and the rest of the world was able to take its marker from there.
Unfortunately it is not just the practices that are problematic in terms of the way the US has conducted its global counter-terrorism projects – it is the rhetoric that is established concurrently with any action. In their work, Alex and Felix have highlighted the important role that rhetoric has played in both damaging and solving the conflict in Afghanistan. One of the quotes they begin their concluding chapter with, by Hillary Clinton in January 2010, highlights how important that rhetoric is, and how quickly it can change when faced with prospect of bringing about real solutions,
‘[The United States is] not going to talk to the really bad guys because the really bad guys are not ever going to renounce Al Qaeda and renounce violence and agree to re-enter society. That is not going to happen with people like Mullah Omar and the like.’
Except, the US State Department is now being forced to open those very channels, for they are beginning to understand that their previous perception of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is not only unworkable, but completely unrealistic. In 2012, we have already seen channels opening up to the senior leadership within the Taliban, and have seen the release of their commanders from Guantanamo Bay, with the intention of engendering a spirit of communication.
Superficially, it may seem that the US has learnt from some its mistakes. However, current experience in the Horn of Africa is only proving to be a permutation of the same strategy. The rhetoric has all been about how al-Shabaab are linked to Al Qaeda, both ideologically and operationally. However, even before the rise of al-Shabaab, those same statements were being made about the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Much like the situation in Afghanistan, the UIC brought a brief period of stability to an area that was beset with conflict. The US-backed Ethiopian invasion only served to create a crisis that has now divided the country even further. The Americans would have us believe that this is all ideological and that they have been fighting the same enemy from the very beginning, but the reality on the ground is far different and even more complex.
While the US is not unknown for creating enemies, what is particularly alarming about the situation in the Horn of Africa is that they have replicated all of the mistakes they made in Afghanistan.
While Alex and Felix are correct about ‘the enemy we created,’ it is time that we reflect on the enemy we continue to create. By refusing to learn the lessons of history, we prohibit the chance of progress in the future. It would be a great tragedy if, in 2017, we were writing about how the US has opened negotiations with al-Shabaab in Eritrea, a possibility that seems increasingly plausible.