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The Consequences of Siege Mentality

I would like to thank Mike Innes and the CTLab for publishing Brian William's fascinating account of the Guantanamo Bay trial of Salim Hamdan. It is quite clear to me from this account that the prosecution did not properly vet the Hamdan case. He clearly was not a member of the Al Qaeda terrorist elite. Nor did he fit the profile of an al Qaeda terrorist elite. Brian’s account implicitly highlights a variety of societal ills that have accompanied the metaphorical War on Terrorism.

I believe one of the most underappreciated results of the tragic events of 11 September 2001 has been the very significant onset of a siege mentality that has ultimately impacted on nearly all aspects of social, political, military, psychological, and legal life in the United States.

Consider for a moment, Daniel Bar-Tar’s suggestions as to the consequences of a siege mentality:

  • Threats are defined in fairly simple and “manageable” terms and threatened societies have a tendency to develop negative feelings towards the unexpected and foreign as xenophobia and chauvinism become entrenched throughout society (e.g., terrorist threat color codes; you are either “with us or against us”; “coalition of the willing”).
  • Societies develop the lack of trust of others and become “extremely sensitive to any information and cues transmitted by other societies that may indicate negative intentions” (e.g., Iraqi WMD; the Patriot Act).
  • Societies react to cues and peruse course of actions without consideration of international behavioural codes. The ends can justify the means when dealing with an adversary (e.g., Abu Ghraib, renditions, secret prisons and torture).

This siege mentality was implicitly highlighted by the Hamdan case. I do not think I am overstepping bounds when I say that even fairness and legitimacy in our justice system has become clouded by fear.

The fear of attack that accompanies such a siege mentality is especially problematic in that it blurs the differences between insurgents and the civilian population where insurgents reside. This has become a truism in parts of Afghanistan, especially in the South. “Force protection” takes on a life of its own and people scurry to avoid convoys that are viewed in threatening ways by one and all. Embassies become fortresses. Soldiers become prisoners of their Forward Operating Bases and all people can become labelled potential enemy combatants. No one can be trusted.

Thus the very thing we are trying to win from the population, trust and confidence, is left behind and replaced by scepticism and fear. I saw this dynamic every where I went during a recent seven week research trip to Afghanistan.

Since 9-11, the convenience of lumping all enemies together into one group called “terrorists” has been counterproductive and produced tunnel vision in our analysis. There are obviously many people engaged in military activities or support services for combat operations in Afghanistan (such as Hamdan) that are not necessarily terrorists and clearly linked in no way to 9/11. Our inability to recognize deeper structures of Al Qaeda and Taliban has led to problems we have today such as a misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan. At times fighting a counter-terrorism battle when we should be fighting a counterinsurgency is at the crux of our problems. Not recognizing the symbiotic relationship between Taliban, Al Qaeda, and rural civilians has led to a failed counterinsurgency strategy.

In Afghanistan we have seen a deployment of violence for political ends, in ways that include (but which are not neatly contained by the term) terrorism; the Taliban have long practiced violence which has straddled the division between terrorism and insurgency with the extraordinary power of religiously-informed ethnic identity. And, despite an understandable tendency for western governments to highlight the terrorist complexion of their enemies’ campaigns, this combination of different forms of violence is very commonly what we actually face when dealing with terrorism across much of the world. An effective response to this challenge requires honest recognition of such a reality. The Taliban exemplify the way in which ethno-religious nationalism can intersect with violent struggle and points to the political importance of historic tensions between nation and state, and the significance of fierce opposition towards foreign rule.

Thomas H. Johnson is Research Professor and Director of the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies, Dept. of National Security Affairs, at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

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