The bombing on Tuesday of the UN headquarters in Baghdad was the latest evidence that America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one.
Of course, we should be glad that the Iraq war was swifter than even its proponents had expected, and that a vicious tyrant was removed from power. But the aftermath has been another story. America has created - not through malevolence but through negligence - precisely the situation the Bush administration has described as a breeding ground for terrorists: a state unable to control its borders or provide for its citizens’ rudimentary needs.
As the administration made clear in its national security strategy released last September, weak states are as threatening to American security as strong ones. Yet its inability to get basic services and legitimate governments up and running in post-war Afghanistan and Iraq - and its pursuant reluctance to see a connection between those failures and escalating anti-American violence - leave one wondering if it read its own report.
For example, the US commander in Iraq, General John Abizaid, has described the almost daily attacks on his troops as guerrilla campaigns carried out by Baathist remnants with little public support. Yet an increasing number of Iraqis disagree: they believe that the attacks are being carried out by organised forces - motivated by nationalism, Islam and revenge - that feed off public unhappiness.
According to a survey this month by the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, nearly half of the Iraqis polled attribute the violence to provocation by US forces or resistance to the occupation (even more worrisome, the Arabic word for "resistance" used in the poll implies a certain amount of sympathy for the perpetrators). In the towns of Ramadi and Falluja, where many of the recent attacks have taken place, nearly 90 per cent of respondents attributed the attacks to these causes.
Why would ordinary Iraqis not rush to condemn violence against the soldiers who liberated them from Saddam Hussein? Mustapha Alani, an Iraqi scholar with the Royal United Services Institute in London, gave me a possible explanation. Even in the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war, most Iraqis (other than Kurds and Marsh Arabs) did not have to worry about personal security. They could not speak their minds, but they could count on electricity, water and telephone service for at least part of the day.
Today, they fear being attacked in their bedrooms; power, water and telephones are routinely unavailable. As Alani put it, Iraqis today are not so much concerned about democracy - they just want assurance that their daughters won’t be raped or their sons kidnapped en route to the grocery store.
As bad as the situation inside Iraq may be, the effect that the war has had on terrorist recruitment around the globe may be even more worrisome. Even before the coalition troops invaded, a senior US counter-terrorism official told reporters that "an American invasion of Iraq is already being used as a recruitment tool by al-Qaeda and other groups". Intelligence officials in the United States, Europe and Africa say that the recruits they are seeing now are younger than in the past. The occupation has given disparate groups from various countries a common battlefield on which to fight a common enemy. Hamid Mir, a biographer of Osama bin Laden, has been travelling in Iraq and told me that Hezbollah has greatly stepped up its activities not only in Shiite regions but also in Baghdad.
While there is no single root cause of terrorism, my interviews with terrorists over the past five years suggest that alienation, perceived humiliation and lack of political and economic opportunities make young men susceptible to extremism. After some time on the job, it is hard for them to imagine another life. Several described jihad to me as being "addictive".
Thus the best way to fight them is to ensure that they are rejected by the broader population. America’s task will be to restore public safety in Iraq and put in place effective governing institutions that are run by Iraqis. It would also help if we involved more troops from other countries, to make clear that the war wasn’t an American plot to steal Iraq’s oil and denigrate Islam, as the extremists argue.
The goal of creating a better Iraq is a noble one, but a first step will be making sure that ordinary Iraqis find America’s ideals and assistance more appealing than al-Qaeda’s.
Jessica Stern - columnists,
Jessica Stern is the author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill.