Dr N. Janardhan
Program Manager, Gulf-Asia Relations
Editor, 'Gulf in the Media'
As the United States and the Bush administration ratcheted up the rhetoric about "Islamic extremism" and the "continuing terrorist threat (still) confronting the nation" while commemorating the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it is worth noting how Washington invited trouble not only due to its insensitive policies in the Middle East, but also due to the shortcomings of its intelligence units. These intelligence failures range from raising alerts about prospective threats to assessing crises situations and making appropriate suggestions to overcome them.
The outcome of these failures, combined with political manipulations, has led to many knee-jerk reactions from the most influential external actor in the Middle East, causing more harm than good to itself, the Muslim community, the region, and the world at large.
Rather than go back too much in time, the 9/11 attacks could serve as a contemporary and unforgettable starting point. Many theories and even more evidence have done the rounds outlining how 9/11 could have been averted. Though it is easier to castigate on hindsight, there is no doubt that there were systemic failures on the part of the US intelligence community.
American experts have pinpointed reasons for the 9/11 intelligence catastrophe, as well as the larger flaws in the system -- from bureaucratic obstacles and regulatory constraints to agencies' rivalries, lack of resources, and poor coordination in sharing information.
US intelligence officials had several warnings that terrorists might attack the country -- even using airplanes as weapons -- well before the 9/11 attacks, according to a report by two congressional committees. The findings of a joint inquiry by the House and Senate intelligence committees released in September 2002 pointed out that the US intelligence had information in 1998 that a group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosives-laden airplane into the World Trade Center.
Citing further evidence, the report said that in July 2001, a briefing prepared for senior government officials warned of "a significant terrorist attack against US and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties ... (it) will occur with little or no warning."
And yet, the attack occurred and was followed by the invasion of Afghanistan under the banner of the US-led war on terror, and heightened the Middle East conflict, rubbed Muslims worldwide on the wrong side through repeated slurs on Islam, and led to the invasion of Iraq as well.
In a scathing report on the intelligence community in April 2005, a presidential panel -- the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction -- determined that the intelligence community was "dead wrong" in its assessments of Iraq's WMD capabilities before the US invasion. "This was a major intelligence failure," it said.
The invasion of Iraq, aimed at thwarting 9/11-like attacks that claimed 3,000 lives, has left as many as 43,846 Iraqis and 2,642 US soldiers dead as of 31 August 2006.
Further, a US Senate Intelligence Committee report released on 8 September 2006 added that there was no evidence of formal links between Iraqi ex-leader Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda leaders prior to the 2003 war, which was one of the major justifications for the invasion.
Ahead of the invasion, former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz had predicted that the invasion of Iraq would be greeted with "bouquets" of flowers from grateful Iraqis. However, the war, aimed at thwarting 9/11-like attacks that claimed 3,000 lives, has left as many as 43,846 Iraqis and 2,642 US soldiers dead as of 31 August 2006.
And, that's not all. Despite recent and repeated assertions by the US military officers on the ground that Iraq is facing a real threat of civil war, the Bush administration is still trying hard to put up a positive spin.
The war against terror has already cost the US about $450 billion, and according to Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, the real cost of the Iraq war is likely to be between $1 trillion and $2 trillion. Imagine what that money could have done if it had been spent on a war against poverty!
Soon after the invasion of Iraq, the drive to "democratize" the region was initiated. In announcing its intention to float the Greater Middle East Initiative in June 2003 without consulting the countries at the receiving end, the US administration started on the wrong foot as was evident from the angry reaction of the leaders and people in the region.
A classic example of the US assessment of democracy going awry was the marginalizing of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a way of encouraging more moderate leaders. The process not only stalled the Middle East peace process, which is so closely linked to many key developments in the region, but landed Hamas in the driving seat, thereby pushing back the conflict resolution process further.
More recently, a combination of American and Israeli intelligence failure encouraged the disproportionate attack on Hezbollah and Lebanon to teach the paramilitary force, Iran and Syria a quick lesson. While the war ended with the death of 1,500 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, severely damaged Lebanese and Israeli infrastructure, displaced about one million Lebanese and 500,000 Israelis, the reason for the outbreak of the war -- the kidnap of two Israeli soldiers -- still remains unresolved.
In the latest war on terror, the Bush administration has set its eyes on Iran. As if ignoring President Mohammed Khatami's overtures for talks in 2003, which partially contributed to the collapse of the reformers and rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad weren't enough consequences of intelligence failure, Washington appears to be again headed in the wrong direction over Tehran's nuclear program.
In August, a US Congressional Intelligence Committee report said the US lacks reliable intelligence on Iran's weapons capability, including its possible plans to develop a nuclear bomb. Far from being a positive assessment, the report questioned whether the US can engage in effective dialogue with Iran, which is nothing but a pressure tactic to keep the military option open.
Nearly 2,500 years ago, ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tsu highlighted the drawbacks of intelligence when he said: "What is called 'foreknowledge' cannot be elicited from spirits, or gods, or by analogy with past events, or from calculations. It must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation."
The most persistent question in the debate since 9/11 has revolved around "humint" (human intelligence) versus "sigint" (signals intelligence). The US military and intelligence services are known to have the world's most sophisticated technology. Last year, the annual budget for the US intelligence community, including the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation, was $44 billion. With such expensive machinery failing to provide intelligent information, the US should perhaps try revisiting Sun Tsu. More importantly, the US should begin to intelligently invest in ending the war on terror and beginning a dialogue among civilizations.