By Justin Dewaele
On Wednesday, October 19th PROSPECT hosted its quarterly CONNECT presentation along with the International Affairs Group, the topic of which was ‘Rethinking the War on Terror.’ The event aimed to address aspects of the decade-long American venture that are typically overlooked by the media and public discourse, including Islamophobia in the United States, the efficacy of the United States’ strategy in eradicating terrorism, the effects of drone attacks on military strategy, and whether or not the United States will work to mitigate cultural divides with Middle Eastern countries.
The panelists were Michael Provence, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Middle East Studies Program at UC San Diego, John Armenta, a former member of the Psychological Operations branch of the U.S. Army and a Ph.D. student in Communication at UCSD, and Joshua Rich, an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Officer in the U.S. Navy who served in Afghanistan and is currently a graduate student in International Relations at University of San Diego. All of the panelists drew upon their own experiences with the so-called War on Terror to answer the questions and provide commentary that often ran in parallel, but nevertheless engaged and unsettled the audience.
John Armenta’s commentary was informed by the belief that while the United States’ policy in the Middle East has been deeply misguided and flawed at times, the mission to eradicate the Middle East and Central Asia of Al Qaeda and the Taliban was necessary for the United States’ national security. In his response to the first topic of Islamophobia, he claimed that the fear and discrimination against Muslims have ruined our ability to fight the War on Terror effectively. The propagation of Islamophobia, he said, wastes precious time, labor and money. Armenta cited the New York Police Department’s tracking of people with “ancestries of interest”, in other words Arab Muslims, as a strategy that diverts resources from better and less biased analyses that could more effectively minimize terror threats. When asked about drone attacks, Armenta said he believes the strategy of using drones makes war too cheap and too easy. This is because, Armenta says, no longer does a head of state have to consider American lives that will be at risk when deciding whether or not to bomb an area. He only has to consider the cost of the drone, which is a relatively inexpensive instrument of war.
Joshua Rich chose to take a non-scholarly and mainly anecdotal approach to addressing the topics, employing only his firsthand experiences in the military and his strategic knowledge instead of his experience as a student and scholar. Rich relayed some of his day-to-day interactions with Afghanis and Muslims while deployed in Afghanistan, making note of the immense strides the military has come in cultural awareness since 2001. Rich said his military officers went to great lengths to educate soldiers about the culture of Afghanistan, and that their training was supplemented by instruction from scholars on the region. This training informed his peaceful interactions with Afghans on a daily basis and the strong bonds he formed with them. Rich posited that the Army had been effective in attacking the finances and infrastructure of the Taliban, similar to how the FBI dismantled Al Capone’s organization in the 1930s. This marked a great improvement from U.S. strategy in Vietnam, where the marker of success was how many of the enemy was killed. Rich admitted that tactical mistakes were made during the war, and that it would have been better to focus on Afghanistan instead of Iraq, but Rich believes positive changes are being made in Afghanistan and that some good will come out of the conflict.
Dr. Provence’s analysis throughout the talk was broad and polemic, lambasting the War on Terror as a massive fallacy and a draconian reaction to what was an attack by a criminal organization using a scheme devised by nine men. Provence began his first response by referring to Rich’s accounts to elucidate “the challenge of being a bigot at close range.” By this, Provence meant to demonstrate that perceptions of Islam and the Middle East are constructed by the people in power and are only effective among those people who do not experience American foreign policy firsthand. He then brought the audience’s attention to the fact that there is no mention of the War on Terror by any of the current presidential candidates, and that it has more or less been swept from public discourse. This development, he asserted, is due to the failure of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the embarrassment that it has caused the United States.
When asked how effective the United States’ policy has been at eradicating terrorism in the region, Provence answered that the premise of our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are fundamentally erroneous, and thus an analysis of their effectiveness cannot get to the truth of the matter. The lingering effects of the wars, he continued, are overwhelmingly depressing. As a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, one million Iraqis were killed and five million fled the country, which amounted to the largest refugee crisis in Middle Eastern history. Those who have benefited from the war, according to Provence, are limited to people like the engineers in Poway who build the drones for launching missile attacks who get to send their children to top notch schools as a result of the tax dollars coming in to support these activities. Those who hold stakes in big defense contractors have benefited immensely from the wars but, Provence stated, the consensus will be that the War on Terror was a tragedy and a massive failure.
Photo Courtesy of Krittika Patil
This article has been altered from its original form.