On Terror And War

Michael Albert & Stephen R. Shalom

The following essay
was written in mid November just after the retreat/collapse of the Taliban when
many people were feeling that current events had dramatically changed the
morality of what has been done in Afghanistan, calling into question much of the
analysis and assessment that has been offered by critics of the war. Here are
some of the questions we were asked and our brief replies.

1. You
have expressed skepticism that Osama bin Laden was involved in the September 11
attacks. Are you still skeptical?

Actually, what
we and other advocates of democratic judicial values argued was not bin Laden’s
innocence, but that evidence regarding his involvement was not presented. On
November 14—more than five weeks after the bombing began—British Prime Minister
Tony Blair declared that the evidence “now leaves no doubt whatever” that bin
Laden was responsible. But isn’t the evidence supposed to precede, not follow,
the punishment? In any event, Blair’s evidence, even at this point, is not
decisive. The only real additions to Blair’s earlier dossier are quotes from an
unpublicized bin Laden video—that Britain doesn’t have a copy of, but has
knowledge of, reports the Los Angeles Times (15 November 2001)—that are
not given in context and fall short of an admission. Bin Laden’s guilt seems
very likely, but the point is not to convince Blair or one allied government or
another or even us, but public opinion in the Muslim world. Despite Washington’s
initial promise to present evidence publicly, it has yet to do so.

Not only did we
never dispute the possibility that bin Laden was involved in some way, we
instead offered an explanation of why he might very well have been involved,
what he was seeking, etc. We suggested that his motive, were he responsible, was
probably to draw the U.S. into a massive response, destabilizing the region, a
result that still may occur.

More to the
intent of the question, if, when a vigilante mob tries to lynch someone, it
turns out that their suspect actually was guilty, that doesn’t make the mob’s
actions any less vigilante. This is true even if the mob doesn’t kill a great
many people (mostly victims, not culprits) in the process of going after their
suspect, as has been occurring in Afghanistan.

Critics of the war have warned about mass starvation, genocide, and catastrophe.
Weren’t these warnings exaggerated?

No. We, and
other opponents of U.S. policy, indicated that human rights and aid
organizations warned that the bombing could lead to a million or even millions
of deaths. We pointed out that ignoring this warning, regardless of whether the
horror came to pass or not, was an absolutely devastating commentary on our
ruling and media elites, and on others as well. That remains the case. We also
urged that it was a priority to pressure the U.S. to stop the bombing, stop the
war, and aid in averting this catastrophe. That is still the priority.

As to what
damage has already been done, no one knows. What has happened, for example, to
the large fraction of the population that has fled to the heavily-mined
countryside? What will be the future effects, for example, of losses in grain
planting that was disrupted in October? When eyes turn away, who will be there
to assess it?

For a country
to embark on a policy that puts a million or more innocent civilians at risk for
political purposes is mass-scale terrorism. If the catastrophe is averted that
will certainly be a reason to celebrate, but it won’t be a reason to praise
those who risked disaster in the first place. Playing Russian Roulette is still
stupid, even if you don’t end up blowing your head off. Shooting a gun with a
bullet in a random chamber at someone else is immoral, whether or not you end up
committing murder.

At the current
time prospects are still very unclear. Yes, the U.S. could cease hostilities and
assist food distribution, thereby reducing the prospect of catastrophic
starvation. But the U.S. seems intent on rejecting any military let-up, and any
pressure we can bring to bear on this course of action is as much a priority now
as it was last week. Aid agencies warned that the crucial factor was how much
food could be gotten in place before the winter snows and that the bombing
interfered with getting the food in. Whether enough time now remains and whether
the necessary effort is made before the snow arrives remains the critical

3. Some
have been critical of the U.S. food drops. But weren’t these helpful before we
were able get food in by land?

No. The food
drops were pure public relations, perhaps doing more harm than good. While left
critics of the war certainly argued this, they did so by quoting the World Food
Program, the Red Cross, and others aid agencies, and even the Financial Times,
all of whom issued scathing denunciations of this propaganda tool. Nothing has
changed about that. What has now occurred is that the Northern Alliance has
occupied Kabul, and what’s left of the Taliban has retreated, it appears, to the
mountains, virtually without a fight, under the weight of the most powerful
non-nuclear bombs ever created, perhaps with the intention of waging an ongoing
guerilla war from outside the main cities.

The end to
major fighting in the north may well have humanitarian consequences. But what
does that lead us to conclude about the morality of U.S. actions? Suppose the
Taliban were to issue a proclamation declaring “we left the cities for the
mountains so that the bombing would halt and food aid would get to our fellow
citizens. We have sacrificed our hold on power to avert starvation among our

Would we take
that seriously? It would be true that their having left the field of battle
created the conditions mentioned in the question. It would be true that it was a
choice on their part and that they could have instead fought on into the winter,
etc. Nevertheless, we would deduce, based on our knowledge of their past
policies, that they made the choice for their own strategic concerns, not out of
concern for those suffering hunger. When the U.S. claims to care about the
Afghan poor, we should not relinquish our critical faculties, just as we
wouldn’t were the Taliban to make the claim.

incidentally, that every indication suggests that the Taliban retreat was as
much a surprise to the Pentagon as to everyone else. Just two days ago Secretary
of Defense Rumsfeld was warning that, though victory wouldn’t take years, it
would take months (which, he observed, meant that he had 23 months in which to

4. Do you
still think we’re targeting civilians in our bombing?

We never
thought or stated that the bombing was targeting civilians per se. We did say
that the direct violent affects on civilians were predictable. U.S. military
planners know how often their smart bombs miss and how often their cluster bombs
fail to detonate, thereby laying future death traps across the land.

But the real
issue, from the beginning, was not the hundreds of civilians killed by bombs,
horrible as that is, but the tens or hundreds of thousands, or maybe more, who
might die quietly out of camera range. Some will be victims of the destruction
of what little civilian infrastructure there is in the country: for example,
electrical transmission from the power station at the Kajaki Dam has been
knocked out, creating (according to UN officials) the risk of massive flooding
and crop failures (Independent, 8 November 2001). Some will be driven
into the landmine-infested countryside. But the potentially most disastrous
effect of the bombing—as we have maintained, and as various aid agencies have
warned—has been to put huge numbers of people at risk of starvation. This
remains the case. We also said that the latter was the most heinous aspect of
the project—beyond that it was undertaken outside the law, specifically to
delegitimate the law, maintain military credibility, and propel a “war on
terrorism” whose purpose to no small degree is to organize domestic fear in
support of elite agendas: financial redistribution from poor to rich and
draconian social reaction against civil liberties.

There’s been lots of criticism of the Northern Alliance. But haven’t they been
pretty effective?

Criticism of
the Northern Alliance has been not that they are incompetent soldiers, but
social monsters, slightly different in kind from the Taliban, but small
improvement morally. Nothing in the past few days changes the historical record
of the Northern Alliance, and indeed, the first sketchy reports of executions
and looting in cities newly fallen under their control suggests that their
thuggish practices continue.

RAWA, perhaps
the foremost organization fighting for the rights of women in Afghanistan,
announced as the Northern Alliance entered Kabul, “The retreat of the terrorist
Taliban from Kabul is a positive development, but the entering of the rapist and
looter Northern Alliance in the city is nothing but dreadful and shocking news
for about two million residents of Kabul whose wounds of the years 1992-96 have
not healed yet. Thousands of people who fled Kabul during the past two months
were saying that they feared coming to power of the NA in Kabul much more than
being scared by the US bombing.”

Moreover, while
they are no doubt capable warriors, what has occurred has little or perhaps
nothing to do with their battlefield abilities, since there was no battle. The
Taliban essentially withdrew without a fight, apparently choosing to cede the
cities to continue the struggle from the mountains, depending on how much there
is left to them, under the onslaught of the bombing.

6. Since
anthrax probably has a domestic source and since the crash of American Airlines
Flight 587 probably was accidental, don’t your concerns about creating more
terrorists seem a little alarmist?

Not at
all—unfortunately. The assessment of this miserable and depressing prediction
against actual outcomes is in the future, not the present. It is similar to when
critics warned in the 1980s that supporting bin Laden and the Mujahideen would
have horrible future blowback ramifications. To say a week or two, or even a
year or two after that prediction that it was proved false would have been a bit
premature, obviously.

7. Aren’t
your worries about uprisings throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds (including
nuclear-armed Pakistan) rather exaggerated?

We and other
critics said that the policies undertaken in Afghanistan and proposed for the
rest of the world risked such destabilization. They did, and they still do. Does
anyone think that Pakistan’s stability is assured as the battle moves to the
southern Pashtun region of Afghanistan, a region with many cross-border ties to
Pakistan? If the U.S. decides to expand the “war on terrorism” to some new
defenseless venue (the Sudan) or perhaps a not entirely defenseless venue (Iraq)
the prospects of general social dissolution in the region will enlarge, again.

surveys in Arab and Muslim nations show extremely high levels of opposition to
the U.S. war, even in supposedly friendly states. Most people are not inclined
to heed bin Laden’s call to holy war, but as the U.S. pushes its dictatorial
allies to join Washington’s holy war, instability is likely to spread.

8. Isn’t
it time to celebrate the demise of the Taliban and return to healing our
country, setting aside the negative talk about U.S. criminality and the
opposition to U.S. policies?

If the Taliban
were finished as a social force, that would be something worth “celebrating” in
that the Taliban is a reactionary and violent organization impeding justice by
its very existence and practices. But, regrettably, it is quite possible that
they are off planning their next actions, not disintegrating.

As to setting
aside criticisms of the U.S., nothing could be less constructive.

First, to
continue to criticize and, more importantly, to pressure for an end to bombing
and undertaking food aid in all endangered regions is paramount. The alternative
is too horrible to contemplate.

addressing the just grievances of people throughout the Middle East and the
world regarding U.S. foreign policies is necessary, both on behalf of those who
suffer the impact of those policies, but also to eliminate the cause of support
for terrorism against the U.S.

Third, the
events in NYC, Washington, and Afghanistan, we are told by our government, auger
a larger project, a war on terrorism, whose character, as we can already see, is
to be like that of the Cold War. It will, if it actually transpires as intended,
marshal hate and fear through manipulation and misrepresentation into support
for policies that further enrich and empower the already rich and powerful.
Everyone, at some level, knows this. The average American is not surprised that
corporations and the government seek to use fear of terror to redistribute funds
upward by means of regressive tax reforms and boondoggle military spending, to
gut public programs, to stifle public debate by calls for patriotism from the
media, and to restrict rights by draconian legislation. But not as commonly
understood is that active dissent can curb these trends and can foster opposite
ones. Dissenters continuing to dissent and to make known the power of dissent
are absolutely essential now, as at any other time.              Z

Michael Albert is co-founder of South End Press and
Z Magazine, and
founder and sysop of Znet. He is author and co-author (with Robin Hahnel) of
numerous books, including
Moving Forward (AK Press), Parecon
(forthcoming, Verso) and
Trajectory of Change (forthcoming, South End

R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University and is the
author of numerous articles and books, including
Imperial Alibis
(South End), and
a textbook, Which Side Are You On?: An Introduction to