By Shakeb Ayaz
The New York Times journalists Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper on 2 August wrote that Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death in a targeted US drone attack “puts the focus back on Al Qaeda”. Earlier, a United Nations (UN) Security Council report said that as of now al-Qaeda does not pose “an immediate international threat” from its safe haven in Afghanistan, but it is a “dangerous group” in the long run.
The two NYT writers and the UN report may have rightly focused on the notorious group, its affiliates, and Zawahiri due to some of their future terror plans, the world over. However, it’s also important to see his killing in the context of the US’s efforts to uphold the global and domestic order. Pre-emptive strike doctrine, military interventions, and the targeted assassination of state or non-state actors by drone operations after 9/11 have been the hallmark of such an order.
Russian invasion also called a pre-emptive action by President Vladimir Putin, has already killed thousands and destroyed many eastern Ukrainian cities. Moscow says it aims to avert or pre-empt an alleged NATO attack on Russia from Ukrainian soil. The Washington-controlled order is being put to test with this, and Chinese aggression and optics in Taiwan and Japan following the visit by US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
The doctrine of the pre-emptive strike
President Barack Obama after the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, announced, “Justice has been done”. Similarly, President Joe Biden too, after Zawahiri’s killing said, “Justice has been delivered”. The US, for the first time, adopted the doctrine of pre-emptive strike in 1998, codenamed “Operation Infinite Reach” under President Bill Clinton, and rained cruise missiles to hunt down al-Qaeda terrorists hiding in Khostprovince in Afghanistan after multiple terror bombings at US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in which 224 people, including 12 US citizens, were killed.
The US, since then, has always struck at will and implemented the doctrine, which sustained its global dominance as the key military power, whenever it felt its national and international interests were being challenged.
Post-Cold War dynamics
The US was a solo military and economic power, without any global competitor in international politics, during the Bill Clinton era (1993-2001) when the first such military strike was ordered in 1998. The Cold War had recently ended in 1991 with the disintegration of the erstwhile USSR.
In the initial post-Cold War decade, under Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999), the Russian economy saw a negative GDP growth as per World Bank data at -5 percent in 1991, -14.5 percent in 1992, -12.5 percent in 1994 and -5.3 percent in 1998 before jumping to 6.4 percent in 1999 and its military spending hovered between 4.4 percent of GDP in 1992 to 2.7 percent in 1998. Therefore, Moscow’s influence was merely a pale shadow of the Soviet Union.
China was still economically and militarily building itself and needed the support of the US and its western allies to enter the WTO, which it did in 2001, only to later emerge as an economic giant rivalling the US. As per World Bank data, China’s GDP in 2001 was 1.34 trillion and that of the US was 10.58 trillion. In 2021, the Asian giant stood at 17.73 trillion, and the US at 23 trillion.
By 2030, or even 2028, China’s GDP is predicted to race ahead of the US. Immanuel Wallerstein, an American economic historian, and Italian economist Giovanni Arrighi, both world-systems theorists, have demonstrated that new world orders may only emerge on the back of sustained economic expansions. Steven Pifer in an article published in Brookings on 5 February 2016 warned the US to “pay attention” as “Russia is upgrading its military” flushed with money from booming oil prices during 2004-2014. A “weak budget” prevented the Russian military from modernising between 1991 and 2005.
Invasion of Iraq
Against the backdrop, the US, even in 2003, remained unrivalled militarily, economically, and politically in the world. Therefore, it took the pre-emptive doctrine to the next level under the presidency of George Bush, who attacked Iraq in March amid unproven and false “fears” of President Saddam Hussain having Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and his alleged involvement in 9/11 attacks. Despite the UN’s disagreements, the US struck, and with its allies, unilaterally decimated a fairly politically stable country, which, in the aftermath, continues to grapple with ISIS terrorism. An article re-published in Brookings, by Bruce Riedel, on 17 September 2021, said President Bush was “obsessed” with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain.
The US forces later killed the dreaded terrorist Abu Bakr Baghdadi in Syria in 2019. As per a report in The Washington Post, the CIA through its drone programme killed over 2000 militants and civilians between 2001 and 2011. Globally, between 2010 and 2020, in over 14,000 US drone strikes, about 8,000-16,000 militants, civilians, and children were killed, says a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Pentagon decimated many top Taliban extremists through drone attacks, and the world was in awe of the precision striking. The killings of extremists served a twin purpose; they ensured “security” for American interests, but most importantly, they created a world order where US dominance would remain unchallenged.
Not only individual terrorists but the policy of unilateral military interventions ended up violating the sovereignty of many UN member states, such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The US struck against Iranian-backed militias in Syria in February 2021, prompting the Assad regime to ask the superpower to not follow “the law of the jungle”. Iran’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani, was assassinated unprovoked by the US in Baghdad, in a clear violation of international law.
Every strike consists of a political message for American citizens and international citizens alike—that the US reserves the right to violate the sovereignty of any nation-state if its perceived interests are harmed. Russia, too, is now following suit by attacking NATO’s unofficial ally Ukraine, and China is threatening to decimate Taiwan.
All these acts and actions have created a global order, undermining the UN. The trial and execution of Osama, Baghdadi, and Zawahiri as per any UN mandate, besides strengthening international law, might have also revealed uncomfortable truths about great powers. And their past associations[i] of being Cold War allies with some of these extremists.
Creation of a new domestic order in the US
The doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, interventions, and targeted killings established a new domestic order at home simultaneously. Backed by a set of military actions they ensured the US government or state is respected at home by its citizens and feared beyond its borders. The Bush administration “misled” 69 percent of Americans to believe that President Saddam was responsible for the twin tower terror attacks, and 82 percent believed that he assisted terrorist bin Laden.
An elaboration of the US approach would imply that the preemptive strike doctrine had two target audiences: The US citizens to rouse nationalistic sentiments during local elections and, in particular, to prove to other nation-states or anti-American individuals that the US is the global hegemon. A Pew national survey of 2015 says that 58 percent of US citizens approve of the US conducting drone strikes to target extremists. A study published on 5 May 2022, by Paul Lushenko, Cornell University and Sarah Kreps, Talbott Center at Brookings find that 73 percent of Americans associated drone strikes with a feeling of national superiority. In the post-Cold War decades, Americans, have struck at will. They chose their targets, decided on their enemies, and rained cruise missiles or drones, with or without the sanction of the United Nations. Both, Republicans’ and Democrats’ dispensations followed similar policies.
The emergence of revisionist states
Russia and China have grown militarily, diplomatically, and economically in the last two decades. Both bilaterally resolved border disputes through diplomacy during 2003-08. They jointly played a crucial role in founding and expanding the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). On 4 February, less than three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, both Moscow and Beijing, during President Putin’s visit to China vowed to further work for a “polycentric global order”. The ‘War on Terrorism’, during the last two decades, that took the US air and land forces to many nations, including, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya among others, also sustained its global order, and control over geopolitics and energy resources. However, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to take control of Kabul created an impression of a weakening of that order. Earlier, Russian intervention in Syria spoiled Washington’s regime change plan in Damascus, weakening its grip in the region. Now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the neutrality of many Asian and African nations, including India, contributed to an unfavourable global perception. In addition, China violating Taiwan’s sovereignty in ‘retaliation’ to a visit by a US top official and firing missiles into Japanese territories has really put the Washington-controlled global order to the test.