Published on Sunday, September 8, 2002 in the Observer/UK
Why 'Blowback' is the Hidden Danger of War
by Peter Beaumont
CIA officers have a name for intelligence or military operations that rebound on those prosecuting them. They call it 'blowback', a concept neatly described by Peter Bergen in his book Al Qaeda Holy War Inc.
It goes like this. In the 1980s America pumped $3 billion through Pakistan to support the Islamists fighting the Soviet Union which - in those days - represented 'the evil empire'. Anxious to avoid being fingered by the Russians, the spooks let the Pakistani intelligence services decide who got the cash. And, despite the best of intentions, some of the money ended up with groups who were as inimical to the United States - by reason of the presence of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia post-Gulf war - as they were to the Russians for invading Afghanistan.
The Russians were baddies so Islamist freedom fighters were, their American paymasters decided, the plucky good guys. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were beneficiaries of this woolly thinking because America forgot to check the small print when it wrote its blank check.
In the world post-9/11, 'the evil empire' has been replaced by the 'axis of evil' and the Cold War by the War on Terror. What has not changed, however, is the way in which major foreign policy challenges are framed in the US as a Manichean struggle - as Tristram Hunt described it in our Comment pages last week. It is still good versus evil, black versus white.
It is this that opens the risk of a new blowback. For while it is easy to dismiss the warnings of the Islamic world that an attack on Iraq would - in the words of the Arab League's general secretary Amr Moussa - 'open the gates of hell' as being alarmist and unrealistic, the danger is in the tiny fractures that could accumulate towards a future catastrophe.
It is probably true that, in the first instance at least, the successful removal of Saddam Hussein would be welcomed - however reluctantly and discreetly - by neighboring regimes. It is probably true too that the region would not descend, as some contend, into immediate chaos.
The real danger is in the subtle displacements of mood, invisible beneath the surface in an Islamic world already angry at what it perceives as American hostility to Islam and support for Israel. It is the danger of unwittingly inspiring a new bin Laden. It is the danger of a new blowback.
Indeed the cause of that first blowback that led ultimately to 9/11 has far from disappeared - the presence of US servicemen and women in Saudi Arabia, a consequence ironically of the first Gulf war, which acted as a catalyst for jihadist groups.
It is this complex chain of relationships between the first US-led war against Iraq - and the consequences born of it in Afghanistan that means we should be skeptical of anyone who says they can predict the future for a volatile and fracturing region even with the best of intentions.
For just as no one predicted the bin Laden phenomenon, who can predict what will be the fallout of a new Gulf war?
But if this kind of blowback is unpredictable in any real sense, the risk of it is not unquantifiable, say analysts. Indeed, as past conflicts have shown, the degree to which an operation is in danger of rebounding is proportional to how legitimate it is perceived to be among those who live in and near the theatre of that operation.
Blair and Bush may believe Saddam Hussein requires a moral crusade to remove him. But if they cannot persuade ordinary Iraqis and other Arabs of their case - and they are failing in that task even at home - then the risk of blowback must be very high.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002