Savage Decade

By Deepak Tripathi

The inaugural decade of the new century will be remembered for two phenomena above all: the savagery of human nature, and the United States, the world’s sole hegemon, going rogue, and taking other nations with it. As we were about to leave the twentieth century, and many in the West were enjoying unprecedented prosperity, the prospect of a clash of ideologies was becoming a reality. Instead of the ‘menace’ of communism, the neoconservatives and the religious Right in the United States had found another enemy in radical Islam. It was one of the supreme ironies that the confrontation would be between President George W Bush and the ideology that his father George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan had promoted in their fight against Soviet communism when they were in the White House during the last phase of the Cold War.

Having seen off the ‘Soviet threat’, the hegemon that emerged victorious had a fatal belief in its own destructive power. In refusing to learn lessons from the past, it invited worse. The new confrontation was not going to be between two equals, aware of the certainty of mutual destruction in the event of an all-out war. The primary characteristic of the new confrontation would be its lack of symmetry, making it more brutal. For when combatants are not equals and mutual destruction is not certain, the dominant side becomes vulnerable in other ways.

Overwhelming power leads to impudence and disregard for law and reason. Institutions that are there to protect the innocent and the weak begin to lose their meaning. In a world without restraint, the underdog is often depicted as evil and brutality becomes the norm. With too much power comes the belief that it is easy to crush the ‘enemy’. But the underdog has strength in numbers, paving the way to atrocities on all sides. All of this has been witnessed in the savage first decade of the new century.

To view al Qaeda and the many nationalist movements in the Islamic world as one ‘enemy’ during the ‘war on terror’ has been an historic miscalculation. The project under the presidency of George W Bush to crush nationalism in the Middle East has exacted a high price from the West. But countries in the region have paid a price even greater. Al Qaeda’s terrorist violence has been answered by the terror of American military power. The lives of millions of people have been destroyed or blighted. In 2010, a year after Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency, the initial euphoria has evaporated and gloom has set in.

Unlike the Cold War that ended in the 1980s, the United States has no superpower rival in the new century, and the balance of threat of mutual annihilation is absent. Instead, one side in the new conflict has overwhelming destructive power and has become insolent. The underdog is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice – in acts of suicide attacks. Fear has lost its deterrent quality. Death is no longer an unwelcome prospect for a growing number of people living without hope. And for an alarming number, the rationality in martyrdom has replaced the rationality in survival. Humans are at their most dangerous when they no longer fear death.

Iraq Hubris

In the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation wrote a commentary titled ‘The Long War Against Terrorism’. A retired lieutenant-colonel in the US Army, and a leading neoconservative ideologue, Carafano began with these words: "Two years down the war on terror. How many more to go? We don’t know." [1] Boastfully, he argued that America’s ‘long war’ against terror was similar in scope and duration to the Cold War. The military establishment, delighted with the enlargement of the Pentagon budget following the return of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary in the Bush administration, jumped at the term. It gained currency in the war lexicon within a few months. In 2006, Rumsfeld invented a phrase of his own, describing it as ‘a generational conflict akin to the Cold War’, likely to go on for decades. [2]

These assertions were based on flawed thinking, and comparisons with the Cold War were not relevant. America’s victory over the Soviet Union was achieved not by bombing the Soviet state out of existence, but by draining the Soviet economy and resolve through an arms race and regional proxy wars. America’s ‘enemy’ in the new century is a ghost army of guerrillas, with little else to lose except their lives. And they are only too willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. The hegemon, in possession of the most sophisticated war technology, decided to confront this loose army of guerrillas equipped with little more than light weapons, explosives and simple timing devices, able to move at will across frontiers.

In The Art of War, believed to have been written in the sixth century BC and still regarded as one of the most influential works about war strategy and tactics, the Chinese general and military theorist, Sun Tzu, said:

Warfare is the way of deception. Therefore, if able, appear unable.
If active, appear not active.
If near, appear far.
If far, appear near.
If they have advantage, entice them.
If they are confused, take them.
If they are substantial, prepare for them.
If they are strong, avoid them. [3]

‘Shock and Awe’, the post-Cold War doctrine written at the United States National Defense University in 1996, was designed to paralyze the enemy and achieve rapid dominance by overwhelming force in battle. The truth is rather different. Provided the enemy removes himself and recovers from the effects of high-altitude bombing and missile attacks, in time he will improvise tactics to fight an effective guerrilla war that a conventional army will find difficult to sustain. A great military power wants rapid victory. The underdog prefers a long war. This, and not merely the use of overwhelming power and lightning speed, is the essence of Sun’s doctrine of warfare.

Gabriel Kolko, a historian of the Left, observes that while most European nations and Japan have gained insights from the calamities that have so seared modern history, the United States has not. [4] "Folly is scarcely an American monopoly," says Kolko, "but resistance to learning when grave errors have been committed is almost proportionate to the resources available to repeat them." The United States is by no means the only major power that refuses to learn from past mistakes. When countries with overwhelming destructive power fail to prevail in war, they are disposed to employing even more firepower. But the record of this tactic against guerrilla forces is not one of success.

Contrary to the initial belief in George W Bush’s administration, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became nasty, brutish and long. They show few signs of ending in the new decade. In 2007, the US National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq had admitted that ‘the term "civil war" accurately describes key elements of Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence … and population displacements’. [5] The specter of failure loomed large at the end of the Bush-Cheney presidency. From that unpleasant reality arose the military surge in the final phase of the Bush administration.

More than 20,000 additional US troops were deployed, mostly around Baghdad, the scene of the worst conflict. [6] While American reinforcements defended the Iraqi capital, Washington’s proxies in the Sunni Awakening movement were used to suppress al Qaeda violence in Anbar province covering much of Iraq’s western territory. This twin approach was the last chance for George W Bush to claim success in reducing the escalating violence. With a Shi’a-dominated regime in Baghdad and a Sunni Awakening movement unhappy at the prospect of US withdrawal, Iraq remains a highly unstable country.

Politicians crave success. When an unpleasant reality threatens success, a politician seeks to create an illusion, or at least a new reality that will make it possible to claim success. For this, success must be redefined and the politician’s own conduct shown to accomplish the goal. Enoch Powell, one of the most controversial British politicians of the twentieth century, said, "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and human affairs." [7] It is the worst nightmare for any politician and the utmost is employed to avoid this risk.

In October 2002, Obama, aspiring to become a member of the US Senate in Washington, gave a speech at the Federal Plaza in Chicago. [8] It was a defining address that would set him apart all the way to the presidency in 2008. In a move to demonstrate that he was not just some anti-war politician, he repeated a critical sentence again and again: "I don’t oppose all wars." He reminded Americans that his grandfather signed up for war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and fought in General Patton’s army, ‘in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil’.

In the same vein, Obama reminded that, after the 9/11 attacks on America, and upon witnessing the dust and tears, he supported the Bush administration’s ‘pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance’. Indeed, he pledged that he himself would ‘take up arms to prevent such tragedy happening again’. To fellow Americans, Obama said, "I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances." Thus began his mission to establish himself as a future commander-in-chief. It was also the beginning of a more subtle political stance that would take him to the White House seven years later.

While he did not oppose all wars, he was against a ‘dumb war’ – which America went for without thought and preparation. At a time when Democratic lawmakers in Washington had decided to go along with the ‘war on terror’ of the Bush administration, and a large number of them supported Bush in his determination to open another front against Iraq, Barack Obama was constructing a different platform. He described the gathering campaign to invade Iraq as a cynical attempt by ‘armchair weekend warriors’ to impose their own ideological agenda, ‘irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne’.

Just six weeks after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, President Bush announced that ‘the United States and our allies have prevailed’ in Iraq. [9] A banner in the background loudly declared – ‘Mission Accomplished’. However, persistent conflict, the subsequent civil war and disintegration of Iraqi society shattered early illusions of a quick victory and an ever grateful Iraqi nation. There were no more illusions to entertain, but reality – an awful reality of violence and chaos. For public figures who had supported sending troops to Iraq, it was a heavy burden to carry. For Bush administration officials, it became a nightmare.

Those who expected a dramatic shift in American policy after the Bush-Cheney administration were soon disappointed. Obama had already established that he was no anti-war politician, rather one with a much more cautious disposition and considerable intellect. These qualities had given him a more focused approach and a certain facility to articulate. The original justification for the Iraq War that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction had long been discredited. Five years after President Bush announced that America and its allies had prevailed in Iraq, the occupation forces had been unable to suppress the insurgency. A vicious civil war had not only caused much loss of life and property, but also polarized the country. Millions of Iraqi refugees had fled to Jordan, Syria and to other destinations. [10]

Afghanistan: Obama’s War

On war, Obama was more nuanced. Iraq was ‘a war of choice’, part of the reason why Afghanistan was neglected and why America could not go after Osama bin Laden as aggressively as it should have. [11] As a consequence, America ‘paid an extraordinary price in blood and treasure’ and fanned the anti-American sentiment that ‘actually makes it more difficult for us to act in Pakistan’. Despite this, ‘we have to, as much as possible, get Pakistan’s agreement before we act’. However, America should ‘not hesitate to act when it comes to al Qaeda’.

Afghanistan thus became Obama’s war, just as Iraq had been Bush’s. And the scene was set for a rapid American ‘surge’ and an escalation of conflict in a country that had suffered neglect for almost seven years. In July 2008, nearly four months before he was elected, candidate Obama pledged to reinforce the US occupation forces by 10,000 troops. [12] In February 2009, after a review of US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama sanctioned reinforcements on a bigger scale for Afghanistan. [13] He appointed General Stanley McChrystal, a counterterrorism specialist, Commander of the occupation forces in Afghanistan. [14] Pilotless drone attacks became more frequent across the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, killing militants and civilians in greater numbers.

The findings of an opinion poll conducted by the Gallup Organization in Pakistan were published in August 2009. [15] Almost 60 percent of Pakistanis thought the United States was the greatest threat to their country. About 18 percent viewed India as a threat and 11 percent the Pakistani Taliban. An even bigger majority of two-thirds opposed US military operations in Pakistani territory. These were depressing results for a country that was pouring billions of dollars into Pakistan and Afghanistan every year.

August 2009 was a bad month for the occupying powers in Afghanistan. Presidential elections were held amid widespread intimidation by men with the gun and fraud by power brokers. Despite an attempted news blackout, it emerged that voting was low outside Kabul because of Taliban threats and general indifference. [16] As few as ten percent of Afghans went to polling stations in many areas. The occupation forces, in particular American and British troops, took a high number of casualties during the summer of 2009, as the Taliban consolidated their hold in the south and penetrated new areas north of the capital.

Russia’s ambassador in Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, who was the senior KGB officer in Kabul in the 1980s, made some insightful remarks as the Obama presidency approached. In the Russian ambassador’s view, the American enterprise in Afghanistan faced grim prospects if Washington failed to learn from mistakes made by the Soviets when they occupied the country. [17] Kabulov said the Americans ‘had already repeated all our mistakes’ since overthrowing the Taliban regime in 2001. The United States underestimated the resistance, showed an overreliance on air power and failed to understand the Afghan ‘irritative allergy’ to foreign occupation. Even worse was the belief that sweeping into Kabul was all that was necessary. Another flaw was to think that sending more troops would turn the tide of the war.

Fighting an insurgency requires a difficult balance. Too few soldiers impede the ability to secure territory in a country of vast mountainous terrain such as Afghanistan. And determined insurgents will find many more targets when reinforcements are sent to subdue them. This is likely to be the case as the 30,000 or more extra American troops ordered by President Obama in December 2009 begin to arrive in Afghanistan in the New Year. Regimes installed by external powers, and seen as obedient to their masters, often end up being viewed as corrupt and weak. Afghan communist rulers installed by the Soviet Union had this fate in the 1980s. In the early twenty-first century, the US-installed government of President Hamid Karzai could not avoid that image.

When an occupation force carries out military operations at will, causing significant numbers of civilian casualties, and the leadership of that country can do little except complain, it is a recipe for disaster. As Afghanistan became Obama’s war, 2009 turned out to be the bloodiest year in terms of military fatalities among US-led coalition troops. [18] The credibility of the presidential election giving victory to Karzai lay in tatters. And the enterprise to create a centralized state in Afghanistan appeared doomed.

In a country without national infrastructure and system of distribution, self, family, clan, tribe and ethnic group form the basis for daily life, protection and long-term survival. With no effective central government, he who can provide these to a community – a village elder, tribal chief or warlord – will command popular following. To be the provider, he must have means of coercion, taxation and distribution. But the hegemon, full of belief in its own invincibility, is reluctant to appreciate the consequences of relying on force alone. Coercion leads to resistance, which necessitates even greater coercion and violence replicates.

External intervention fuels war, and upsets the balance of forces locally. This, in turn, attracts more external forces. Increasingly, these external forces begin to dictate the scale and course of events, but the unacceptability of this trend among local players hinders the creation of new institutions and their functioning. Violence replaces law as the primary means of maintaining order. Expectations on all sides are altered and violence becomes a way of life. Actors acquire a habit of using coercion, and citizens expect solutions to be found through violence. That few intervening powers can grasp this lesson is a tragedy.

– Deepak Tripathi, a former BBC journalist, reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Sri Lanka and India during his 23 years with the corporation. His book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan (Potomac Books, Incorporated) has just been published and is available from Amazon and other bookstores. He contributed this article to Contact him at:, and visit:


1. James Carafano, ‘The Long War against Terrorism’, Heritage Foundation, September 8, 2003. [accessed January 11, 2010]

2. ‘Rumsfeld Offers Strategies for Current War’, Washington Post, February 3, 2006.

3. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter 1: Calculations.
4. Gabriel Kolko, ‘The Age of Perpetual Conflict’, Defense and the National Interest, February 3, 2006. Quoted in: The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2006).

5. See Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead (Washington: D.C.: National Intelligence Estimate, 2007).

6. ‘Bush Will Add More than 20,000 Troops to Iraq’, CNN, January 11, 2007.

7. See Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), 151.

8. ‘Barack Obama’s 2002 Speech against the Iraq War’, October 2, 2002.

9. See ‘Transcript: Bush on the USS Lincoln’, ABC News, May 1, 2003.

10. ‘Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon’, International Crisis Group Middle East Report No. 77, July 10, 2008, 3–33.

11. Senator Obama’s remarks during the Democratic presidential debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 5, 2008.

12. Juan Cole, ‘Obama is Saying the Wrong things About Afghanistan’,, July 23, 2008.

13. ‘Statement by the President on Afghanistan’, February 17, 2009.

14. See ‘Profile: Gen. Stanley McChrystal’, BBC News, May 11, 2009.

15. Gallup Poll in Pakistan for Al Jazeera, August 9, 2009.

16. Ben Farmer and David Blair, ‘Afghanistan Election: Low Turnout as Voters Fear Taliban Attacks’, Daily Telegraph, August 20, 2009; Carlotta Gall, ‘Intimidation and Fraud Observed in Afghan Election’, New York Times, August 22, 2009; Paul Rogers, ‘Afghanistan: The Point of Decision’, openDemocracy, July 27, 2009.

17. John Burns, ‘An Old Afghanistan Hand Offers Lessons of the Past’, New York Times, October 19, 2008.

18. For annual figures since 2001, see

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