By Walden Bello
(A longer version of this piece was published on, the website of the Asia Society in New York, which granted permission to reprint it.)

Over eight months after the launching of the global war against terror, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US is caught in a relentlessly expanding conflict from which there is no easy withdrawal.

Trying to keep up the momentum of its war against terror after it declared “victory” in Afghanistan in early January, the US sent troops to the Philippines that same month to help hunt down members of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group that it alleged had ties with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.

The Philippines, an ex-colony, seemed to be a convenient choice as a site for expanding the war against terror as Washington debated from January to March a far more important question: whether or not to take out Saddam Hussein. But just as the faction favoring an invasion of Iraq appeared to have gained the upper hand, the brutal Israeli sweep into the West Bank threw a spanner on US calculations, which had rested on the assumption of political support from the pro-US Arab states.


Meanwhile, nearly three months after Washington’s designating the Philippines a “second front,” some 60 to 80 Abu Sayyaf bandits continue to elude 6,000 Filipino troops coached by 160 US advisers on the small island of Basilan..
Moreover, the realities of the Afghanistan campaign that filtered out after the ouster of the Taliban have punctured the triumphalist mood that reigned last December. The idea that Afghanistan vindicated a new strategy of warfighting based on the employment of massive precision-guided airpower with little commitment of ground troops is now less persuasive. Thousands of civilians apparently died owing to less than precise bombing, and scores of people allied to the United States were targeted and killed by US forces acting on bad intelligence. Relying on Afghan mercenaries to do the fighting on the ground for the US is now acknowledged by some in the Pentagon to have resulted in Osama bin Laden’s escape from the Tora Bora mountains. And when US troops did engage in close-quarters fighting with the Taliban/Al-Qaeda forces during “Operation Anaconda,” which took place in the Shah-i-kot area near Pakistan in early March, they were bloodied by an enemy that was supposed to be on the run. As retired US Colonel David Hackworth put it in a television interview, the results of Operation Anaconda were “not something that the Pentagon can be proud of.”
Though it has not achieved its prime objective of capturing bin Laden or dismantling the Al-Qaeda network, Washington still thinks it has the strategic initiative. It seems to be the case, however, that it has launched itself into a multi-front war of attrition where it cannot consolidate victory on any front.

The momentum is also being lost on the political front. As the military campaign lessened in intensity in Afghanistan, the United Nations was brought in to broker a political settlement that would usher in representative democracy while the European Union was dragged in to police the peace via a British-led armed contingent. It has become clear, however, that the centralized authority that had been forged by the Taliban has given way to the return of warlord hegemony in different parts of the country, and the role of the security force is increasingly to keep the ex-partners in the Northern Alliance from cutting each other’s throats. “Quagmire” is a word that is more and more frequently used in the US press to describe the Afghan situation. As Afghanistan slides into anarchy, Pakistan’s Gen. Musharraf has been destabilized and delegitimized by American pressure to take sides in the war against terror. The prestige of Islamic fundamentalists among the population is now probably greater than before September 11. Saudi Arabia is seething with discontent, and Washington faces the unpleasant prospect of having to serve ultimately as a police force between an increasingly isolated Saudi elite and a restive youthful population that regards bin Laden as a hero.

Washington’s tilt towards Israel has not helped in shoring up the legitimacy of its Arab allies, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, among their peoples. Israel is the great spoiler of the US effort to manage the Middle East, and it can get away with it because it can rely on its massive support in the US Congress to blunt pressure from the US executive, as the brazen Israeli moves to destroy the Palestinian Authority in defiance of Washington recently demonstrated.


Indeed, the Afghan fiasco and Israeli intransigence, it can be argued, have combined to make Washington’s strategic situation in the Middle East worse rather than better. Nor have there been any political or military gains in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia maintaining its distance from Washington and the US buildup in the Philippines turning out to be an open-ended commitment, like Vietnam. The introduction of US forces in Georgia and some of the Central Asian republics — the so-called “Stans” — may, on the surface, seem to be a strategic plus, especially when one takes into consideration the energy reserves of the area. However, with the failure to achieve decisive military or political victory on any front, Washington’s Central Asian deployments may actually be stretching US imperial power, with little real strategic gain.

Not surprisingly, there are voices in Washington that now question if the US has the troops and resources to engage in a multi-front war of attrition. An invasion of Iraq, even if it does oust Saddam Hussein, would merely exacerbate the dilemma of overextension, since once one goes into Iraq, there is, as in Afghanistan, no easy extrication from the massive political mess that would create. Paul Kennedy had a colorful phrase for Washington’s emerging dilemma: “imperial overstretch.”

One is tempted to say, in fact, that there is a historical parallel to the US’ indiscriminate creation of new fronts against terror, and that is the Japanese rampage through the Southeast Asia and the Pacific in the first six months of 1942. Large swathes of territory were gained, but at the price of overextending Japanese imperial power. By creating so many fronts, Japan ended up unable to concentrate its forces and attention on the few strategic sectors.

There are no clear winners so far in the so-called war against terror. But there are clear losers. The Taliban is one. The other big loser is liberal democracy in the United States. Not even the Cold War was presented in such totalistic terms as the “War against Terror.” Laws and executive orders restricting the rights to privacy and free movement have been passed with a speed and in a manner that would have turned Joe McCarthy green with envy. The United States was scarcely three months into the war when legislation had already been passed and executive orders signed that established secret military tribunals to try non-US citizens; imposed guilt by association on immigrants; launched a massive effort to track down 8000 young Muslim men; authorized the Attorney General to indefinitely lock up aliens on mere suspicion; expanded the use of wiretaps and secret searches; allowed the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings that aliens cannot confront or rebut; gave the Justice Department the authority to overrule immigration judges; destroyed the secrecy of the client-lawyer relationship by allowing the government to listen in; and institutionalized racial and ethnic profiling.

Americans have often prided themselves with having a political system whose role is to maximize and protect individual liberty along the lines propounded by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. That Lockean-Jeffersonian tradition has been severely eroded in the last few months, as Americans have been stampeded to giving government vast new powers over the individual in the name of guaranteeing order and security. Instead of moving to the future, America’s limited democracy is regressing in its inspiration from the seventeenth century Locke to the sixteenth century Hobbes, whose masterwork Leviathan held that citizens owe unconditional loyalty to a state that guarantees the security of their life and limb.
The extent to which efforts to curtail traditional liberties are facing acceptance was illustrated during a memorable Senate hearing when Attorney General John Ashcroft said that critics of the Bush administration’s security measures were fear-mongers “who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty [and] aid terrorists.” The fact that liberal, Democrat senators against whom these remarks were directed dared not respond shows how skillfully the conservatives have used the anti-terrorist struggle to win the real war at home, which is the war against liberals and progressives. It is only recently that significant Democrats have moved to speak against curtailment of civil liberties, and rather timidly at that.

To conclude, over six months after September 11, the US has failed to achieve a decisive victory in the war against terror and may now find itself in a situation of strategic overextension. The alienation that has fueled fundamentalism has, in contrast, gained in strength in the Middle East, greatly assisted in the last few months by Israel’s acts of impunity
against Palestinians. Southeast Asia is turning up into a strategic black hole swallowing up more and more American military manpower. But if there are no clear winners, there is, aside from the Taliban, a clear loser: civil liberties and democracy in the United States. And that is a pity.

*Walden Bello is the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South and a professor of public administration at the University of the Philippines.