Monday, June 3, 2013

On Blowback

Professor of International Studies at Harvard, Stephen M. Walt, reported in 2009 that, since 1980, the US has caused the death approximately 1 million Muslims in the Arab World. This was the number given to us 4 years ago. It has risen substantially since then.

Let that sink in for a second.

When we talk about blowback, pushback, retaliation, it is often with an innate disassociation from it. To suggest that terrorist attacks are a response to perceived injustices is to side with the terrorists. There is no rationale for what they have done; it is merely a facet of their existence. So the narrative goes.

And yet, we stand here, in a period of 33 years, with now well over a million corpses on our hands; the majority civilians. From drone strikes in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to incredibly harsh economic sanctions in Iran, going back to Desert Storm, 90s sanctions on Iraq, and more.

When the 9/11 Commission Report specifically called out 9/11 as a response to American policy in the Middle East region, it was glossed over. When a murderer in Woolwich beheads a man and claims it is retaliation, the idea is laughed at.

Farea al-Muslimi was one of several Pakistani witnesses who spoke at the US Senate's very first hearing on drones, back in April. As is customary of the current world, before the hearing even went about, his words and ideas had spread across the internet. On his Twitter account, he Tweeted about mixed feelings for the US; a country who provided him the best years of his life in high school, and much more opportunity, security, and freedom than his home country of Pakistan. He told his villagers, friends, family the same, and the overwhelming sense of the US from those he knew in Pakistan was one of positivity.

And then, it all came shattering down in one quick missile strike.

Several civilians died. A terrorist target did too - one who was very public and made frequent stops to government buildings, where a collaborative arrest with Pakistani officials would seem possible - and just like that, opinions changed. The US was not a beacon of hope to Farea's villagers. It was now a source of fear.

Little is known about the villagers who live with the fear of drone strikes. US drones are often operated in rural, militant stronghold areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan; places where troops are rare and journalists are rarer. What we do know from those who have ventured in is that the drone campaign provides a nearly limitless source of recruiting material for terrorists. Doctors and journalists have reported men, women, and children suffering from PTSD, living in fear due to the 24/7 buzzing of drones high above, wondering if their home or village is next. It becomes a rallying cry for disillusioned young males, an easy route for groups like Al-Qaeda to recruit new soldiers. The story sells itself.

But, as with many things Middle East policy, the roots of hostility towards the US, the UK, and other countries, goes back decades. British Colonialism from their Imperial heydays carved up the Middle East much like European powers did in Africa. They oversaw and controlled areas in the early 20th century much like they did with India or Malaya.

It was hoped that the fall of colonialism would lead to the fall of western interference, but it was too much to hope. Perhaps we will never know exactly how much influence the possibility of oil has wielded over western powers. Certainly, it's hard to quantify. What we do know is that when Iran democratically elected a new government in 1951, lead by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, oil began to tighten its grip. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company - now known today as BP - complained to Britain about Iran's legislative passage to nationalize the oil industry. And so, into motion went a UK and US lead coup, to overthrow the elected government, and replace it with a prime minister vetted by the two countries, who would not continue the policy of oil nationalization. History can debate if the man the west picked, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was a good leader or not, but it is impossible to deny that no country in the world would like a coup instigated by foreign powers, to overthrow an elected PM and replace with one of "their own." And now, to this day, our UN-based economic sanctions do what they do in every other country; much like North Korea, they only hurt those who need money the most. The rich and powerful suffer little from rapid inflation, costs of goods fluctuations, or a shrinking economy - they are protected by the amount of their wealth. But the average citizen, just trying to make it by, now sees their cost of living too high, the food too expensive, and jobs too hard to come by.

To say that this is the only interference is, of course, silly. From massive military support of Israel, who continues to evict Palestinians to create new settlements, even to the chagrin of their largest ally, the US, to the Iran-Iraq War, to Somalia, and more; military policy from the US has been hands-on in the region for decades now.

And that leads us back to today. Where drone strikes have killed over 3,000, about a third of them being civilians. Where years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have left little but shells of countries, the former overrun by corruption, drugs, and violence, and the latter barely hanging on to any security by a thread, with sectarian violence bubbling and threatening to spill over to all time highs. And now, politicians like John McCain beg Washington to throw their hands in even farther.

Over one million Muslims dead. Decades of colonialism, interference, and more. Years of torture under President Bush, the same torture we admonished the likes of the Vietcong and Imperial Japan for.

Is blowback really a surprise?

Is the fact that when you mix poverty, religion, and contemptible actions by foreign militaries, you get people willing to strike back all that odd?
In India, they struck back against Imperial Britain. In China, they struck back against Imperial Japan. And yet, those were rather closed end cases. The UK left India largely to its own devices once it left. Same with Japan and China. It is not hard to see the major difference between these countries and countries like Iran and Iraq. It starts with an "o" and rhymes with "boyle."

And here we are, in 2013, ignoring Pakistani calls to end our drone strikes. We ignore their claims to sovereignty, their attempts to dissuade us, and fire away. We use drones in Yemen. In Somalia. In countries we are not at war with and probably never will be, and often, with little support, or even the opposite thereof, to our use of drones. We have uncorked a sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, and then threw our hands up and merely wondered how a country could be so "violent" or "wrong" and why we should bother to try to fix it. You do not open a gladiator rink and then question why the gladiators fight.

Until the US takes a good hard look at its policies in the Middle East, we will be doomed to our same mistakes. We will continue to do terrible, terrible things to a region of the world that has been on the receiving end of over a centuries worth of military and economical command from western powers. And when a bomb goes off in Boston, or New York, or London, the narrative will be the same.

"Why do they hate us?"
"Why do they kill civilians?"
"What did we do to them?"
"Why can't they leave us alone?"

Today, in all likelihood, a missile will be fired from a US military drone in Pakistan. It will kill people. And across the world, in a city, or a village, a Pakistani civilian will cry, and weep, and wonder.

"Why do they hate us? Why can't they leave us alone?"

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