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Blowback in the War on Terror
The west has lost credibility by failing to adhere to international law and human rights norms in its promotion of security
Can the war against global terrorism be won? Or do two badly bent prongs in America's anti-terrorist campaign, in Afghanistan and Iraq, suggest that the war is unwinnable, in part because the US has engaged in unrealistic realpolitik, flouted international law and disregarded human rights?
Anyone saying that human rights should inform political and military strategies is likely to be dismissed as a crank. Know-alls would probably advise the crank that politics and war are arts of the possible - or impossible - and that the end justifies the means, etc.
But the charter of the United Nations, signed soon after the end of the second world war in Europe in June 1945, is a reminder that international law and human rights are intrinsic to peace and security.
That does seem a far cry from the deliberate cold-shouldering of human rights and international law since the US mounted a global anti-terrorist campaign in September 2001. "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time," revealed an American counter-terrorism official in 2004, "you probably aren't doing your job." But political cynicism and inhumane warfare have yet to show signs of a successful anti-terrorist war, rather the opposite. Increasing Taliban violence in Afghanistan, where the war against terrorism started, the mess created by the illegal Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and the talk of western "exit strategies" and "retreat", bear this out.
The anti-Taliban war was rightly legitimised by the UN security council in 2001. But it is now in trouble. Part of the reason is America's misjudgment that terrorism could be quashed by joining forces with Pakistani generals who are contemptuous of human rights and train Taliban and al-Qaida extremists. Not surprisingly, Nato's anti-terrorist offensive been hobbled by the spread of Taliban thuggery in Afghanistan - and into north-western Pakistan. Unfortunately, there have also been reports of American personnel - and their counterparts in the Afghan government - using excessive force, carrying out arbitrary detentions and mistreating Afghans in custody. And a poorly conceived and coordinated campaign has reportedly resulted in more civilians being killed by indiscriminate Nato bombing than by Taliban militants.
At another level, since the end of the cold war, nothing has raised scepticism about the effectiveness of international law as much as "Iraq". During the early 1990s many westerners - and the UN - justified armed, humanitarian intervention aimed at stopping human rights abuses by states. But who intervenes when an illegal invasion by the US, the world's most powerful democracy and the unchallenged leader of the west, results in the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqis and the displacement of more than 4 million, Guantánamo Bay, the hell of Abu Ghraib, secret prisons, and when the freely elected American president seeks to legalise the use of torture as an instrument of state policy? That question, unanswered by western political pundits, accounts in considerable measure for charges of cultural and political imperialism against the west. Indeed, the west has lost credibility as a force for building security through adherence to international law and human rights norms.
Terrorists have to be fought with guns. But it is hard to see what western interests have been advanced by coming together with Pakistani dictators fomenting terrorism and by an unlawful invasion of Iraq.
That being the case, is it not time for the west to place human rights high on its agenda again, and to make the effort to practise what it preaches? Given the disorder in Iraq, Afghanistan, and northwest Pakistan, caused by the unrealistic cynicism that law and human rights are dispensable in war, it might be worthwhile to take a cue from the UN charter and try to reconcile international law and human rights with security. Terrorists can only make headway with a measure of local support or connivance. To win over ordinary Afghans and Iraqis, Nato and American forces must respect human rights and local sensibilities. Extremists are not popular, in Afghanistan or Iraq, but they can only be routed by western soldiers who are gentlemen.
Anita Inder Singh is a professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008