A Necessary New Direction for Xinjiang

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Armed police soldiers in the street of Urumqi on September 4, 2009 (Andrew An/Flickr Creative Commons

In the spring of 763 CE, eight years of rebellion came to an unceremonious end. The An Lushan Rebellion, started by its namesake, a Chinese general of Turkic descent, sought to carve a new dynasty centered in the Chinese capital of Luoyang to replace the corrupt and decadent Tang Dynasty. Although An Lushan was motivated by personal ambition and not by what we would now classify as ethno-nationalism, the immediate consequences of the rebellion were clear: the Tang turned their backs on the Silk Road-based cosmopolitanism that once defined their glorious empire in favor of homogeneity. The days of rich Persian merchants parading the streets of Guangzhou, of Turkic generals patrolling the northern deserts and of Chinese citizens exploring new cultures in art and expression were long gone. In its place was a new era of mistrust, where Uyghurs (the exact relationship between Tang Dynasty’s Uyghurs and today’s Uyghurs is disputed) were forbidden from wearing their ethnic dress and anti-miscegenation laws were promulgated. The weakened dynasty never regained its glory, leading to a long decline as corruption and rebellions weakened its ranks before ultimately falling in 907.

Recent attacks in Xinjiang, China’s western-most province and home to a prominent Uyghur community, and elsewhere threaten to force a similar pivot to intolerance in contemporary China. The knife attack in Kunming that left 33 dead and the recent market bombing in Urumqi have been met with predictably harsh government reactions. In a spectacular display of political theatrics, the Chinese convicted 55 people of terrorism charges in a mass trial, sentencing three to death and the others to incarceration in front of an audience of 7000.

Though many in the West may label the trial as a typically oppressive action by an authoritarian government, these measures are understandable. The Han majority’s faith in the central government’s ability to protect its own turf from domestic terrorism is waning. The Kunming attack is especially disconcerting, as it took place in a multicultural province where Islam is not the majority religion. To the average Han, the subsequent bombing in volatile Han-majority Urumqi would leave little doubt in the eyes of many Han Chinese that a new era of separatist action was upon them: a new War on Terror must be waged to protect China.

But the mass trial is already a serious blunder on the part of the government. The Uyghurs see the trials as nothing more than the latest in a string of alienating and marginalizing policies. A Han Party Secretary, who takes precedence over a largely symbolic Uyghur governor, rules in the supposedly autonomous Uyghur Province. In everyday life, Uyghurs experience economic marginalization, denial of opportunity and the destruction of homes and old districts in the name of economic progress. And now, the Uyghur community is being blamed for attacks that many had nothing to do with, harassed by security and facing the ire of their neighbors.

Americans of Middle Eastern descent faced similar experiences in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Faced with paranoia and a blind hate towards all things Islamic, many Americans faced levels of discrimination from stares at airports to having their fundamental rights blatantly violated. The collapse of trust between citizens took years to recover. However, mistrust and intolerance continue to this day, exacerbated by America’s interventions throughout the Muslim world.

If intolerance spurred by acts of terrorism caused American progress to stumble, then it is sure to threaten geopolitical stability for China, a country with relatively little experience in maintaining a society that is just to citizens of all ethnicities. Ethnic tensions boiled over in 2009 with the Urumqi Riots and relations now between the Han and the Uyghurs can only sour after these attacks and show trials. In the interest of maintaining stability and of ultimately expanding the role Xinjiang can play in China’s domestic and international politics, the Chinese government must resist giving in to short-term interests and sentiments and adopt a longer-term vision for Xinjiang.

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People fill the streets during the 2009 Urumqi Riots. July 7, 2009 (David Vilder/Flickr Creative Commons)

Traditionally, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has relied on top-down control to preserve stability. During the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, the CCP re-emphasized the fact that national reforms must proceed at the hands and whims of the government. The autonomous ethnic provinces of Xinjiang, Tibet, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Guangxi are, contradictory to their name, tightly controlled by the Central state.

However, this approach is no longer viable in Xinjiang. As the world decentralizes and new forces are unleashed on the stage of global politics, non-state movements and actors become better organized and more powerful. East Turkestan is once again in the spotlight because many Turkic minorities do not feel “Chinese,” thanks to cultural, political and economic isolation. “Ethnic harmony,” as promoted by the top-down government, hardly soothes a people without a home.

The government must be prepared to accept that unless some bottom-up policies are allowed to flourish, minorities’ animosity towards the CCP will grow. This mistrust is the basis of the violence and independence movements that fuel those seeking East Turkestan today. The government must take extra care that in curbing terrorism they do not foster the next generation of anti-Han minorities.

In order to achieve a truly stable Xinjiang, China must allow the local population to represent their own localities. Although people’s elections for their own mayors are largely symbolic, since real power resides with the Party Secretary of a region, the Party can still exercise more sensitivity by cultivating talented Uyghurs and allowing them political leeway. Too often, the frontier is seen as a stepping-stone for power-hungry Han officials eager for promotion to the capital. They quickly set to work bulldozing buildings, displacing people and building apartments that no local person can afford, calling it economic progress.

In a broader perspective, as China seeks to reconstruct the Silk Road and once again extend its influence over the steppes, it cannot fully strengthen continental relations without a strong Xinjiang. A strong Xinjiang requires a strong citizenry of Uyghurs, Han, Kazakhs and other ethnicities free to express themselves and honor their heritages while also feeling included in the Chinese state and its destiny. A strong Uyghur citizenry will be eager to serve and represent the country and, since four out of the five Central Asian countries share Turkic cultural and linguistic backgrounds, can find themselves uniquely positioned to build strong ties between their home country and Central Asia. It only makes sense that the Chinese government should actively cultivate and develop the region and its people, to truly make Urumqi into a gateway to Central Asia rather than a slogan claiming it as such.

To truly bring Xinjiang into China’s fold and give the Uyghurs a home in a Chinese nation, “ethnic harmony” is not enough. Acceptance of heterogeneity is the ultimate solution. As radical an idea as it might sound considering the tense environment of contemporary China, it is an idea present even in the annals of Chinese history. Taizong (ruled 626 – 649 CE), the second Tang emperor, is still considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. Taizong himself was not fully Chinese, having been born a quarter Turkic and his wife, the Empress Zhangsun, fully Turkic. He understood the importance of a diverse China, and actively encouraged foreign trade and interaction, even going so far as to promote any man of talent, regardless of whether he was ethnically Chinese or not, thus ushering in an era in which Chinese ships and porcelain could be found as far west as the Horn of Africa and where the influence of the realm could be felt all across the vast steppes into Central Asia and the golden city of Samarkand.

Both the Uyghurs and Han yearn for a stable Xinjiang. For China to truly achieve a prosperous and flourishing society, Xinjiang and the Uyghur community must also be empowered. Reactions to terrorism mustn’t repeat the same mistake of the Tang after the An Lushan Rebellion. Diversity and openness, as in the Taizong years, must be favored over intolerance and marginalization.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

No, America’s War in Afghanistan Was Not Worth It

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Nathaniel Haas argues against America’s War in Afghanistan in this “Face Off” edition (Photo by author). Please see J.T. Blakely’s “Face Off” article for a counter opinion.

Mousa: “This is Afghanistan…Alexander the Great try to conquer this country… then Genghis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people… you wish to hear?

Rambo: “Um-hum.”

Mousa: “Very good. It says, ‘May God deliver us from the venom of the Cobra, teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan.’”

-Rambo III, 1988

Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War 1839-42

“Afghaunistan (1839-1842),” a lithograph by Lieutenant James Rattray, shows the British army before its “total annihilation” near Kabul during the first Anglo-Afghan War. (The British Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).

With the full withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan set to be completed by the end of 2016, Barack Obama is gearing up to join Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Lord Auckland and Leonid Brezhnev in a club that appears to add a new member every few decades: the club of world leaders who have miserably failed to successfully reshape Afghanistan, a country that historians have come to call “the graveyard of empires.” Reflecting on this withdrawal, it is clear that America’s War in Afghanistan has not been worth the cost, measured in terms of the loss of human lives, financial resources and international credibility.

American engagement began with airstrikes in October 2001. By May 2003, President Bush declared the end of major combat and NATO assumed the responsibility of managing the transition to a civilian Afghan government. In 2004, for the first time, Afghanistan democratically elected Hamid Karzai, who subsequently announced a partnership with President Bush on the War on Terror. He opened bases in Afghanistan to US soldiers in exchange for training the Afghan national army.

In 2006, violence erupted again. In December 2009, Obama announced a troop surge, which sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and officially stamped his application to the graveyard of empires club.

13,000 Afghan soldiers, 3,440 coalition soldiers and almost 20,000 civilians have died to date in Afghanistan. Accounting for the future cost of medical care and fighting, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government study estimated the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan combined at $4-6 trillion.

Less quantifiable in terms of dollars and body counts, but equally as significant is the cost of the war on the United States’ image in the world. The Karzai regime’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would allow continued US presence in the country after 2014, speaks to the lack of credibility in the American war machine, namely due to the use of drones and night raids that have a dismal history of civilian casualties. These problems make it not only impossible to negotiate with Afghanistan, but will also directly hamper allied cooperation in the future.

The United States should also commit to end the indefinite detention of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and abroad, which was established during the first months of the War in Afghanistan. Guantanamo Bay and covert rendition programs have come to be seen by Americans and our allies as the most egregious manifestation of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy. The Germans may have raised a diplomatic fuss over the tapping of Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone, but I would bet her data plan that they took much more seriously the unlawful detention and alleged torture of Turkish citizen Murat Kurnaz, a German resident who was captured in Kabul by US forces.

The kicker is that for all of the aforementioned costs, we have gained almost nothing.

As the Taliban launches its spring offensive and begins to control larger territories, the thousands of Afghani citizens who have been displaced over the past ten years say little progress has been made. Gaetan Drossart, the chief of the Kabul branch of Medecins sans Frontieres, has treated such refugees for years and observed the violence that has gripped the country. “The truth is there is no such success story at all,” Drossart told RT. “The international forces are leaving the country so they need a reason and they need also a rationale to explain to their population why now they can leave.”

Beyond the Taliban, Afghanistan will continue to suffer from the potent attacks of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network. In a book out this year, Anand Gopal, who covered the war for the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote in her book, No Good Men Among the Living: America the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, that the War in Afghanistan was misguided from the start. Though almost no insurgencies existed in mid-2002, the war, through faulty alliances with Afghani drug lords and power brokers, created the very enemies it sought to eradicate. Haqqani and his network were two of them. “By classifying certain groups as terrorists, and then acting upon those classifications, the U.S. had inadvertently brought about the very conditions it had set out to fight,” Gopal commented.

When this counter-terrorism evolved into a full-fledged counterinsurgency and nation building, the war efforts in Afghanistan fell prey to the concept known as mission creep – the phenomenon where a mission of limited scope morphs into one much more complex. Though the most tangible accomplishment of the war is the establishment of the Afghan National Security Forces and the success of a democratic election that will be completed by the end of the year, proponents of the war should ask themselves: couldn’t we have done that in the first 6 months of conflict? Did it really take 12 years (the longest war in American history), a few trillion dollars and over 2,000 soldier lives to train 350,000 Afghani soldiers and hold an election? We aren’t even out of the woods – the instability and accusations of corruption in the election to select President Karzai’s successor demonstrates it has come at too high a price.

Three-star Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, whose 35 years of experience culminated in extensive work in Afghanistan and Iraq, is publishing the first after-action report on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the book, aptly titled “Why We Lost,” Bolger argues that the mission creep described above sacrificed the key gains made within the first six months of each war. Like the Gulf War, Bolger argues that after the removal of the hostile government (in Afghanistan’s case, the Taliban), the United States should have packed up and gone home. Instead, perpetual war and nation building that will take decades longer than the US (and the public) is willing to commit to have created more enemies than friends.

The failure in Afghanistan certainly won’t kill the American empire, but like Rambo, America hasn’t escaped Afghanistan unscathed. Afghanistan, like Vietnam, has exposed the limitations of the US war machine for all to see, and made the leaders and nation behind it less credible in the process. That doesn’t bode well going forward—just ask Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s mentee: “You expect sympathy? You started this damn war, now you’ll have to deal with it.”

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

 

America Won and Lost the War on Terror

The World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 by “Marc AuMarc” via flickr (creative commons)

As the horrific events of September 11, 2001 fade ever-further into the recesses of public memory, it would be prudent to analyze where we find ourselves today in the intractable conflict – known as the “Global War on Terror”– borne out of 9/11. Two analyses, from Stratfor and the Foreign Policy Research Institute, respectively, have done this admirably well, and provided the backdrop for this article’s analysis.

Stratfor: Gauging the Jihadist Movement, Part 4: Franchises and Grassroots (Part of a Series)

Foreign Policy Research Institute: The Three Versions of Al-Qaeda- A Primer

During the Bush years, the United States effectively neutralized the trans-national threat posed by al-Qaeda, and the Obama Administration delivered the symbolic final blow with the Abbottabad raid, leading to Osama bin Laden’s death.

By the end of the Bush Presidency, it was clear that the al-Qaeda core was decimated and unable to coordinate even its own communications, not to speak of spectacular, large-scale attacks that could pose threats to the lives of civilians in Western countries. By this measure – the destruction of al-Qaeda’s C4 (command, control, communications, computers) – the United States won the War on Terror. President Bush, having learned the fate of premature declarations of victory after the famous speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, wisely chose not to declare victory over al-Qaeda in his Farewell Address. But by all realistic and meaningful measures concerning domestic security and the fate of the al-Qaeda core, the American intelligence and military machine had achieved strategic dominance over its foe. President Obama’s expansion of the drone war was often seen as an overextension of the War on Terror past its critical objectives, which is an inaccurate critique when considering the broader picture in that it served the purpose of pursuing al-Qaeda’s remnants further rather than dealing knockout blows. But for strategic purposes, the war had already been won.

But in another sense, it is evident that the United States lost the War on Terror. Many in the young, untested Obama Administration assumed that President Obama’s chief purpose in continuing America’s newly-renamed “Overseas Contingency Initiative” was to mop up the remaining hives of terrorist activity, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in new areas, such as Yemen and Somalia.

It turned out, however, that al-Qaeda as a movement was far more resilient than al-Qaeda as an organization. As the central command nucleus dwindled away, more local, practical offshoots were rising up in various regions of the world. When the media uses the name “al-Qaeda” today, they really mean one of al-Qaeda’s splinter or affiliate groups, chief among them the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and their Sub-Saharan counterparts al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. These are not all necessarily former al-Qaeda commands that split off; some are jihadist groups which have worked with al-Qaeda in the past and now carry on the war.

The function and purpose of these groups is all very clear: to bring about the establishment of Emirates in their local regions, be that through de facto rule during chaotic times (as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has done very well) or through the overthrow of local governments (as most splinter groups have been attempting). This is exactly in line with al-Qaeda’s mission statement as expressed so many years ago in Osama bin Laden’s Letter to America: “The removal of these [American-backed, non-sharia] governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Umma, to make the Sharia the supreme law…” and it reveals a new phase of America’s War on Terror. Today, rather than facing a single, silent, unified foe whose cells and operations stretched across nations, whose capacity was to bring world-shattering destruction upon the West, the United States now faces a broad, loose ideological movement composed of dozens of independent groups, each with the purpose of local disruption and ascension in mind. The only apparent counterattack is a broad mix of the failed counterinsurgency doctrines of the last decade, and a total deprivation of liberty in afflicted areas to neutralize all possible threats.

None of these groups can threaten the American homeland in the way the old al-Qaeda did, yet all of them can threaten American interests in ways the old al-Qaeda never could. Moreover, it is not our fight; it is the struggle of the peoples among whom the new jihadists fight to determine the destiny of each corner of the Muslim world. No matter how much America has done in the past, there is only so much she can do today and into the future. At some point, local communities must figure out what they want on their own accord.

The present US-jihadist war will not end until the historical forces presently bringing about the decay of the Greater Middle East have run their course or have been contained. It should be the purpose of US policy to adapt to this new reality, without, as was the Bush folly, elevating it to primacy as America’s primary foreign policy arena. The age-old American imperatives of maintaining a liberal world order and managing regional balances of power are as important today as they ever were, and those benchmarks are unlikely to change anytime soon. The War on Terror should be viewed as an integral part of US policy towards the Greater Indian Ocean region, completely coherent within US diplomacy, and development politics. To that end, US policies and planning should be redesigned with a more unified vision in mind.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

America’s Reign of Terror?

Victims of drone attacks readied for burial in Miranshah, North Waziristan.

Victims of the January 23, 2009 American drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan readied for burial. A recent Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch report criticizes President Obama’s drone policy for killing innocent civilians and under-reporting collateral damage. (Creative Commons/Mohammad Mujitaba)

Between September 1793 and July 1794, the National Convention of France operated a “Reign of Terror” defined by the mass execution of potential counterrevolutionaries in the name of national peace. One of the proponents of governing through terror, Maximilien Robespierre, argued: “terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible [and that] the government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” In other words, the government may suspend the inalienable rights of its citizens in times of crisis. The ends (peace) justify the means (terror).

On September 14, 2001, the United States Congress expanded the constitutional powers of the executive branch to include the legal authority “to retaliate against any person, organization, or State suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks on the United States, but also against foreign States suspected of harboring or supporting such organizations. Finally, the President may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the States that harbor or support them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.” Post-9/11 national security laws have allowed for a permanent retaliatory war with unclear operational and legal boundaries.

The “Global War on Terror” certainly requires an extraordinary military response; the list of “legal” military responses has grown to include drone strikes and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) missions on potential terrorists in foreign states, states which Congress has not declared war on. The president may suspend the constitutional rights of citizens (by Amendments V and VI of the US Constitution ) and non-citizens (by Articles 3 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), in the name of peace. Once again, the ends justify the means.

Criticism of this “paramilitary arm of the administration” is well publicized. However, a new report released last week by Amnesty International in conjunction with Human Rights Watch has brought the Obama administration’s policy on global terrorism into the spotlight. The organizations claim that several drone strikes have been a “clear violation of international humanitarian law,” citing the failure to apply due process before applying the “capital punishment” administered by a Hellfire missile. Further, “Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions,” and that those responsible for ordering the aforementioned attacks (presumably President Obama and his military-intelligence team) should stand trial. (Note: The White House has challenged Amnesty International’s latest report, reiterating that all counterterrorism operations are “precise, lawful, and effective.”)

Drone strikes and JSOC missions are both morally and legally questionable as evidenced by the intentional killing of American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year old civilian living in Yemen, who was killed as punishment for his father’s (Anwar al-Awlaki) crimes and for who he might become—a terrorist made in his father’s image. Furthermore, these missions have a negative impact on America’s ability to effectively engage in diplomacy because of the anti-American distrust and resentment that grows in targeted regions.

I anticipate three defenses of President Obama’s drone policy and subsequent internal law and human right’s violations: (1) drone and JSOC strikes are effective in eliminating terrorist threats; (2) “terror” implies a murderous policy; and (3) war is ugly and why should the US government be indicted for trying to suppress terrorism? I would respond as follows:

(1) Yes, US drones possess deadly accuracy on selected targets and spare the endangerment of US troops in volatile regions such as the Afghani-Pakistani border. However, despite their precision, drone strikes, night raids, constant aerial surveillance—and most dramatically, the killing of innocent civilians—only fuel greater anti-American sentiment. Terrorism is as rampant and threatening as ever. Al-Qaeda and its global affiliates are expanding in spite of successful US operations to kill top commanders. America needs to “win hearts and minds”—drone strikes do not accomplish this goal.

(2) True, President Obama has never advocated the killing of civilians. In fact, he has publicly expressed regret about civilian causalities in war zones. But as in every conflict, civilians have died and the constant threat of a bellicose America is terrorizing people around the world. Exploded missile fragments can be found near kill sites in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan; to those finding these ordinances, the “Made in America” message is clear. Children in Pakistan have grown accustom to drone flyovers and are left wondering “am I next?” The CIA’s East African kill list has been contracted to Somali warlords. Perhaps the mother of all surprises has stemmed from Obama’s willingness to detain foreign journalists who speak out about errant American strikes. This is not a covert “Global War on Terror.” Citizens of Mali, Thailand, Panama, Yemen, and more than 70 other countries know all too well that they may become the next in a long line of unsuspecting victims, and from their perspective, America is to blame.

(3) Yes, war is ugly. Soldiers and civilians die at the hands of Allied and insurgent forces. Millions have been displaced. However, murdering—via drone strikes—over 400 innocent civilians in Pakistan is unacceptable, as is the murdering of American citizens abroad. And committing murder in the name of ending murder is nonsensical. But killing without oversight is undermining the very moral and legal fiber of the United States (not to mention bilateral relations with countries in which drone strikes have occurred) and international institutions such as the United Nations—the very institution established to end unchecked killing.

Civilians in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border refer to American JSOC forces as the “American Taliban.” In their eyes, America has become the very monster they promised to destroy. America has scarred and radicalized an entire generation, and as a result the number of “terrorists” will only grow. America’s “despotism of liberty against tyranny” must end, but how does a war like this end? Perhaps Yemeni political activist Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani’s advice is best: “In the fight against al-Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way, by killing, and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem. To truly fight al-Qaeda and similar groups, we must deal with the root causes of its growth—poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law…and drone strikes.”

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Update 11/4/13: correction made to the caption for accompanying photograph.