Two flight-suit moments

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 24, 2018


Jordanian protesters hold up pictures of Jordanian King Abdullah and Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, during a rally in Amman. - Reuters

Female protesters, with pictures of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who was brutally killed by the Islamic State, during a rally in Amman. -- Reuters

Much has changed from George W Bush’s ‘mission accomplished’ moment to King Abdullah’s vow of vengeance — but not for the better

Jordan’s King Abdullah was in the US bargaining for aid when he heard about the grisly death of combat pilot Muazz al-Kassasbeh. Negotiations for the Jordanian pilot’s release had been underway since his capture by the Islamic State (IS) while flying a sortie over Syria on December 24. A hostage swap seemed feasible till the video of al-Kassasbeh’s immolation came to light.

Abdullah reached into a familiar repertoire of Wild West movies for a response. Clint Eastwood seemed just right, with his 1992 film Unforgiven, set in a time when frontier justice prevailed. Within hours, Jordan executed two terrorism convicts, one of them an Iraqi woman, allegedly a failed suicide bomber from a series of attacks in the Jordanian capital in 2005.

Abdullah arrived back in his country soon after, heralded by an increased aid pledge from the US. As Jordan’s air force geared up for a series of bombing raids on IS operational bases, Abdullah had himself portrayed in the media in combat flight-suit, signalling he was personally in charge.

Abdullah’s display of military machismo stirred mixed memories. Early in his two-term presidential tenure, as he launched the “global war on terror” (GWOT), George Bush was prone to invoking the vocabulary and spirit of the gunslinger from the Wild West. He had a brief moment of triumph, which he has since been desperate to live down: a bravura strut in a flight-suit across the deck of a US aircraft carrier, the backdrop emblazoned with a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.

Twelve years on, it needs to be asked: what precisely has been accomplished between the two flight-suit moments? It all began at a memorial service for the victims of 9/11, an occasion for Bush to claim the legitimacy denied by a deeply contentious election outcome. The event, held at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, saw the closest thing in recent times to a proclamation of holy war. “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others,” said Bush: “It will end in a way, and at a time, of our choosing.”

As the GWOT metastasised from the pursuit of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, to Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction, to something akin to a video game played on remote consoles, forces on the ground mutated. What was imagined to be a small band of terrorists under al-Qaeda franchise became an army with a spectrum of skills to handle battlefield and guerrilla engagements. The US was being pulled into a war without end.

Early suspicions about the IS being sustained by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Emirates were met with elaborately simulated outrage. The connections, though, began to emerge as the army led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — alumnus of the US torture and detention centre at Camp Bucca in Iraq — notched up one improbable victory after another.

British journalist Patrick Cockburn has, in a recent book, argued that “key decisions that enabled al-Qaeda to survive and later to expand, were made in the hours immediately after 9/11”. Every trail the hijackers left that day led to Saudi Arabia. The official inquiry indeed found that al-Qaeda was financed primarily by the Gulf countries and “particularly” Saudi Arabia. Far from demanding an explanation, Bush facilitated “an exit of senior Saudis, including bin Laden relatives” from US territory, when air traffic was otherwise paralysed. “Most significant,” says Cockburn, “twenty-eight pages of the 9/11 Commission Report about the relationship between the attackers and Saudi Arabia were cut and never published”.

“If you break it, you own it.” Just days before Bush launched his invasion of Iraq, Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State, warned him about the law of unintended consequences. The chaotic aftermath of Bush’s war has no owners, only perhaps a surfeit of witch remedies that promise to worsen the disease.

The invasion led to an enormous accretion to the strategic influence of Iran, till then kept in check by Iraq’s Ba’ath regime. In the ensuing chaos, sectarian identities hardened and Sunni Muslim tribes mobilised to wage full-scale war against Shi’a dominance. As Syria erupted in civil war in 2011, US allies and proxies, notably Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, stepped in, competing zealously to bring down the Bashar al-Assad regime.

IS was nurtured within this rapidly expanding arena of political meltdown by generous infusions from the Gulf potentates. With promises of heightened US aid, Jordan has now joined the fight against forces it has been partially responsible for creating. Jordan is now assured of aid totalling $1 billion, or $150 per capita. Of this, some two-thirds could be viewed as reward for being an Arab state formally at peace with Israel, and the rest as incentive for taking on the IS.

For its part, Israel continues to benefit from US aid that could range from $3.5-6 billion a year, or over $550 per capita — at the lower end — for each of its Jewish citizens. Despite its peace with Jordan, Israel fights on the other side of the emerging regional conflagration. On January 19, Israel bombed frontline positions in Syria, killing an Iranian general and top personnel of the Lebanese Shi’a political party Hezbollah, then engaged in logistical support for al-Assad’s besieged army in its battle against the IS.

As enemy of an enemy, the IS is Israel’s friend — a friendship that dare not speak its name. The al-Assad dynasty, despite all past favours rendered, is an obstacle Israel needs to clear. While seeding chaos across the region, Israel is in retreat behind a security fence against acts of resistance from a people held in captivity for generations. Its Saudi allies have just contracted with the French company EADS — builder of Airbus planes — to fence off the border with Iraq. In the centenary years of World War I, the Arab state system, a legacy of that act of imperial perfidy called the Sykes-Picot agreement, is in danger of unravelling. Those authoring the chaos either sit at a safe distance or seek protection behind walls.

(Sukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study Shimla)

Published on February 13, 2015

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