[This ZNet article is part of our Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published October 9, 2002.]
B1. Do and did anti-war critics care about the tragedy of 9-11?
Every outward manifestation that one can use to judge, says the answer is yes. Speeches, talks, interviews, and essays all evince horror at the events, pain for those who suffered, fear that it might recur and take more innocent lives. But what characterizes anti-war critics such as ourselves and those with views like ours is that our solidarity, sympathy, pain, and anger is not limited to a single day’s events or to a single nation’s tragedy. Iraq has lost civilians for a decade to U.S. policies. The sum total is equivalent to at least a hundred days like 9?11 in a country with about one seventh the population of the U.S. So yes, anti-war activists care about the tragedy and also the injustice of the attacks on 9?11, but we also care about the tragedy and injustice of attacks and more general policies of our own government against civilians elsewhere.
B2. Do anti-war critics care about the safety of the American people, beyond the level of rhetoric?
Anti-war critics, to our knowledge, care about the well being and fulfillment of all people ?? which certainly includes people’s safety. So, if 3,000 Americans die in an assault, and if there are ways to make any such future assault less likely, or less effective, and those ways don’t involve grave sacrifices of freedom or other untenable costs, surely anti-war critics would support them.
By the same token, however, roughly 50,000 people a year die in the U.S. in industrial accidents and due to diseases produced by work in unsafe workplaces. Anti-war critics tend to be horrified by these deaths too, and to feel that any actions that can reduce these horrible results should also be undertaken, unless they have unjust and dangerous effects that outweigh the benefits. So one might reasonably ask, not only about anti?war activists, but also about the newsmakers and political and corporate elites, are they really concerned about the lives of innocent Americans, as they claim, or are they only exploiting fear and anger at 9?11 to advance agendas they hold for other reasons?
If the anti-war movement had the power to enact legislation to reduce U.S. civilian deaths, they would no doubt act with haste in numerous ways. First and most important would be pushing through health and safety legislation, health care legislation, anti-poverty legislation, and so on. Anyone who cares about innocent American civilians dying would do that. Second, regarding death by terrorism, these activists would make changes in U.S. policy that would both make it more just and humane, and, at the same time, reduce the anger and even hatred at the U.S. that current policies induce around the world. This would reduce the pressures that produce terrorism. Third, they would withdraw U.S. participation in and support for terrorism, thereby greatly reducing its prevalence. And, fourth, they would certainly also make changes in defense procedures and information dispersal aimed at making terrorist acts harder to undertake. In contrast, the government and its supporters ignore the first three means of reducing future American fatalities — because those methods are contrary to their greater interests in profit and power. They do pursue the fourth option, clumsily, and without much promise of success, and often counter-productively, again, because that’s the mode of implementation that does most good for their top priority ?? their power and wealth.
For example, when the Bush administration proclaimed war in Afghanistan as its prime approach to protecting Americans, anti-war critics argued that this approach would be of little value and might even drive more people to terrorism. And sure enough, the New York Times reported on June 16, 2002, based on conversations with senior government officials: "Classified investigations of the Qaeda threat now under way at the FBI and CIA have concluded that the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States, the officials said. Instead, the war may have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area." Where careful police work can be effective against al Qaeda-type threats, as it has been in Germany, Spain, and elsewhere, bombing has had negligible positive benefit, as might be expected given that the terrorists did most of their planning not in Kabul or Kandahar but in Hamburg, Germany, and Paterson, New Jersey.
Far from being bizarre, therefore, the anti-war view was in fact similar to that of hardheaded mainstream realist international relations specialists. Thus Stephen Walt has noted "Military power is not necessary to wiping out Al Qaeda. It’s a crude instrument, and it almost always has effects you can’t anticipate. We’re seeing that now. We didn’t get Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. We’re killing civilians. We’re killing friendly forces. This is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds of people around the world. When your village just got leveled by an American mistake, the conclusions you draw will be rather different from what we’d want them to be." (Quoted in Nicolas Lemann, New Yorker, 9/16/02.) What Walt fails to note is the other reasons why U.S. policymakers might prefer using bombs, even to the extent of blowing up villages and risking mass starvation and thereby creating great hatred for the U.S., rather than pursuing the alternative of following and enhancing international law and reducing just grievances of populations around the world.
B3. Do U.S. crimes justify attacks on U.S. civilians?
No, of course not. Just as the crimes of a leader of another country, or of another country’s government, do not justify attacks on their civilians.
Terrorism is most frequently defined as attacks on civilians undertaken for political purposes. Terrorism is wrong if it is blowing up a small bomb in a pizza parlor or on a bus. It is wrong if it is blowing up a larger bomb in a large bus station. It is wrong if it is a plane used to take out a huge skyscraper. And it is wrong if it is a massive air force pummeling the civilian population and infrastructure of a society, or if it is sanctions denying a society the means to sustain the life of many of its citizens. Terrorism is wrong when carried out by disgruntled individuals, groups, or whole armies and governments. And it is wrong regardless of whether the motives would be worthy were the means different, or whether the motives are themselves horribly unjust, or just insane.
B4. Do you believe that al Qaeda is seeking legitimate goals through improper means?
We haven’t talked to anyone in al Qaeda. And there is no reason to believe simple propaganda statements. We can’t know for sure, therefore, their motives, but we can do our best to try to understand within the limits of available information.
Many of the terrorists were no doubt recruited based on their anger at the U.S. and their desire that U.S. policies should change. Some were likely concerned about policies out of true concern for suffering constituencies, such as Iraqis or Palestinians. Others might have been more concerned about less concrete matters, such as the intrusion of U.S. culture and troops in their lands. But, if we are talking about al Qaeda’s leaders, those who plan and direct al Qaeda’s events, it seems tremendously unlikely that they were or are motivated or even in the slightest degree moved by a desire to aid the Palestinians, the Iraqis, or any other suffering population. This is clear from the trivially simple insight that their actions could not possibly have been expected to have a positive impact on such constituencies.
On the other hand, a plausible motive consistent with their actions over a span of twenty years is that they want to drive American soldiers out of Muslim lands and overthrow the governments there in favor of their version of radical Islamism. 9-11’s purpose, in that context, would have been to induce the U.S. into a massive response, hoping to entwine it in a battle which could be won by al Qaeda (a tremendous degree of miscalculation, there), or to so destabilize the Middle East that elements closer in ideology to al Qaeda and the Taliban would rise in prominence and power, perhaps even to take over additional states. This motive is not implausible and has not yet failed, and one doesn’t know what the outcome will be if there is war in Iraq and a spillover effect. On the assumption that al Qaeda’s motive for 9-11 was inducing chaos in the Middle East that might be taken advantage of by allied fundamentalists, they are no doubt now hoping for a U.S. invasion and all manner of mayhem, not caring any more about the human suffering and loss than do Rumsfeld or Bush.
No, in our view al Qaeda is not only using immoral and disastrous means, it also has immoral and disastrous intentions. On the other hand, Bush seems hell bent on virtually the only approaches that could conceivably bring on al Qaeda’s long?term success.
B5. Did 9-11 show that the left was wrong about terrorism?
What the left has said about terrorism remains compelling: (1) that many of the governments most actively proclaiming campaigns against terrorism are themselves guilty of supporting or committing terrorism on a vast scale (for example, U.S. backing for Indonesia in East Timor or for Salvadoran death squads or for Turkey’s war against its Kurdish minority); (2) that military force is not the best means for eradicating terrorism and that attempting to address the underlying causes offers much better prospects of success; and (3) that terrorism is often used by states as an excuse for foreign and domestic policies pursued for reasons unrelated to the terrorism.
At the same time it is true that the left, like most everyone else, was surprised by the scale of 9-11. Though the potential for mass murder is still heavily on the side of state terrorists, the gap is narrower than previously assumed.
B6. "Which was the court where these guys could be summoned?" asks Todd Gitlin. "Were subpoenas to be dropped at the mouths of the caves of Tora Bora?"
Well, yes, they were. And then brought in by armed UN troops, perhaps, as well (assuming, that is, that a case for culpability could be made). The Afghan government could also be entreated to hand over culprits, and so on.
But suppose it is ascertained that bin Laden and various others were responsible, and that they were in Afghanistan, but that they couldn’t be reached directly. Does it then follow that the United States should simply bomb the country, no matter the risk to civilians? Our thinking on this is straightforward. Suppose someone commits a heinous crime in the U.S. and then disappears into Omaha. We know he is there. We know he did it. If we can’t get at him directly, do we just bomb until Omaha is no more? Winding up, by the way, with no evidence at all that anything was accomplished vis-Ã -vis the presumed culprit?
B7. Anti-war critics called for the 9-11 attacks to be treated as a police matter. But don’t the same anti-war critics want to disband the CIA, etc., which would have been the ones who would have handled a police matter?
The main point is that the attacks should not have been treated as a justification to endanger civilians in Afghanistan, to impose draconian laws and round up innocents in the U.S. or anywhere else, to push through all kinds of military budget policies, and so on. To deal with
the attacks should have meant to determine their source by way of evidence, and to then prosecute those responsible, using mechanisms of international law and its enforcement.
Critics of the CIA don’t reject gathering intelligence per se, they reject the CIA as an agent of corporate and geopolitical interests determining what information is worth having, and how it ought to be used. The CIA has a variety of roles: among them the overthrowing of governments that the United States doesn’t like, as in Chile or Guatemala. Certainly an organization with these responsibilities shouldn’t exist. There is nothing wrong with an international police organization, however, invested by the United Nations with responsibility for finding or proving culpability
and apprehending criminals — something like Interpol. In the absence of such an international organization, the police agencies of individual nations, including those of the United States, might be loaned to the UN.
One can debate whether or not in our current world there should exist an agency devoted to accumulating information about circumstances around the globe, and if so what kinds of limits should constrain it. Neither discussion, however, has much to do with how 9-11 should have been dealt with.
B8. That the usual rightwing fanatics supported the war in Afghanistan is not surprising. But should the fact that the war’s supporters included people who have been prominent and committed opponents of U.S. interventions abroad — such as Richard Falk — cause us to rethink our opposition.
Richard Falk’s opinions deserve serious consideration. We and Falk agree on condemning Bush’s militaristic, unilateral, and aggressive approach to the world, as well as on rejecting his attacks on civil liberties at home. We agree, as well, on condemning al Qaeda and its allies. We agree that countries that have been attacked, as the U.S. was, have the right to protect their citizens. Where we disagreed, at the time and in retrospect, is on whether it furthered the cause of international justice and security for the world’s most powerful nation to take it upon itself to reject alternative means of dealing with 9-11 and determine that it was permissible to place Afghan civilians at serious risk of harm. For our specific response to Falk’s arguments, see http://www.zmag.org/shalomjustwar.htm.
B9. Weren’t the anti-war people dead wrong, if not disingenuous, regarding the danger of starvation in Afghanistan during the U.S. war there?
During the period leading up to the bombing, and then during the period of the bombing itself, it wasn’t anti-war leftists, in the U.S. or anywhere else, who invented the idea that bombing was likely to lead to massive starvation of civilians: It was the food agencies, aid agencies, and UN agencies on the scene and responsible for dealing with the hunger. The claim of the anti-war movement was simple. In a context in which everyone with any degree of credibility on the topic agrees that bombing could have unimaginably horrific effects, it is vile to bomb, thereby displaying a willingness to decimate civilians at an untold level.
And bombing Afghanistan, and thereby displaying that willingness, is precisely what happened. Thinking that the bombing would extend much longer, the U.S. undertook it despite the unchallenged expectation that the impact on human lives would be huge.
The critique anti-war activists made was correct.
As to what in fact happened regarding starvation, we have virtually no idea. No one in the West with the means to count cares to do so. There is some suggestive data, however, that indicates that there were serious humanitarian consequences. Medicine without Frontiers reported a doubling of the child mortality rate between August 2001 and January 2002 (see the MSF report, 2/21/02). Michael Finkel reported in the New York Times Magazine (2/17/02) that in the single Afghan district of Abdulgan out of 15,000 residents, the total number of dead during the war "has to run into the 1,000s." An estimate in the Guardian (Jonathan Steele, 5/20/02) puts the indirect death toll at 20,000. Nakamura Tetsu, a Japanese doctor who heads an NGO that has worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for 19 years, has said that "tens of thousands" starved to death as a result of the bombing (http://zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=40&ItemID=2373).
B10. Michael Bérubé has written that the anti-war left argued, "to their shame, that the U.S. military response was even more morally odious than the hijackers’ deliberate slaughter of civilians." Is he right?
The only example Bérubé cites to support his charge is a statement early in the bombing that noted that the bombing risked starving huge numbers of Afghans (as humanitarian aid workers had warned) and that this would be a humanitarian crime greater than the crime of the World Trade Center attack. So the question becomes, how should we compare these two crimes: (1) proceeding with a course of action that is known ?? based on uncontested expert opinion ?? to involve a substantial likelihood of leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions of innocent people, and (2) deliberately slaughtering thousands of people? Even if we judge intended killing to be morally worse than killing from indifference, given the at least thousand?fold difference in the orders of magnitude involved (1) seems worse. Our moral condemnation would be lessened only if the Bush administration knew that the Taliban would disintegrate very rapidly (thus limiting the starvation), but from all available evidence, the Bush Administration was as surprised as most everyone else by the Taliban’s sudden collapse.
B11. Didn’t the defeat of the Taliban mean that food could be delivered to Afghanistan and hence didn’t the U.S. war improve rather than harm the humanitarian situation in the country?
Food was deliverable before 9/11. What made it undeliverable was the threat of war, closing of access routes to the country, the withdrawal of aid workers for their safety, and the bombing itself. Yes, the war’s ending was much better than if it had continued for many more months and led, as predicted, to hundreds of thousands or even millions of deaths.
The operational point is that it ended. The moral point, one that deserves to be studied as one of the low points of state behavior in history, is that Bush administration officials would have perpetrated it as long as was needed, regardless of the human implications, as they themselves made perfectly clear.
It is also worth noting that even after the Taliban were defeated food supplies to remote areas were much delayed by the fact that lawlessness prevailed in much of the country and the United States ?? despite the urging of aid organizations ?? refused to permit peacekeepers outside of Kabul who might have facilitated the delivery of food.
B12. Christopher Hitchens claimed that calls to suspend the bombing in Afghanistan originated from rightwing Pakistani sources. Were anti-war critics who supported the call dupes?
Calls for justice, not war, for refraining from massive bombing of Afghanistan, arose in the U.S. by September 12, or so, including from us. These did not originate with right wing Pakistanis. Shortly thereafter, international aid organizations and UN officials warned of the humanitarian dangers of the bombing and urged its suspension. Various anti-Taliban Afghans, including Abdul Haq and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) likewise urged an end to the bombing. It may be that in various parts of the world unseemly people favored stopping the bombing. That doesn’t mean that they controlled those who opposed it, an utterly ridiculous assertion.
The same type of thinking would say that since Hitchens advocates various military actions of the U.S., and a host of right wing dictators do as well, he is dupes of them, or a dupe of Kissinger, and so on.
B13. Michael Bérubé has also written that the anti-war left cannot admit that, on balance, the routing of the Taliban might have struck a blow, however ambiguous and poorly executed, for human freedom. Is that correct?
No. No one on the left has any trouble saying that Taliban rule was horrific. The anti-war left that Bérubé is talking about, including us, were clearly enunciating that fact well before 9?11, when in contrast the U.S. government was helping create and empower the Taliban.
So, the removal of the Taliban, though it came about in a morally and politically despicable fashion, is most certainly the removal of a set of tyrants. On the other hand, the anti-war left also notes that those installed in place of the Taliban are little different in kind, a fact which should certainly not be ignored.
B14. Given the enthusiasm of the Afghan people for the defeat of the Taliban, can’t the U.S. war be considered a humanitarian war of liberation? Similarly, is Nicholas Kristof correct when he asserts (NYT, 2/1/02, p. A25) that "our invasion of Afghanistan may end up saving one million lives over the next decade," because vaccinations — against measles, for example — are now possible?
The scenes of enthusiastic Afghans are primarily from Kabul, where international peacekeepers prevent the warlords from their worst excesses (though even in Kabul warlord power is not insignificant). But in much of the rest of the country, slaughter of prisoners, ethnic retribution, continued oppression of women, and widespread lawlessness prevail. (One should recall that the Taliban were welcomed by many Afghans in 1996 because they were able to end the horrendous disorder the country suffered under warlord rule.)
It is true that women are probably better off in Afghanistan today than under the Taliban. But it is also true that the improvement should not be overstated. According to Human Rights Watch (June 2002):
"Afghan women of all ethnicities have been compelled to restrict their participation in public life to avoid being targets of violence by armed factions and by those seeking to enforce repressive Taliban-era edicts. Afghan women, especially outside Kabul, continue to face serious threats to their physical safety, denying them the opportunity to exercise their basic human rights and to participate fully and effectively in the rebuilding of their country."
Kristof’s claim is typical of this sort of formulation. In fact, the Taliban did not prohibit international organizations from conducting immunization programs. Polio vaccinations, for example, were conducted in September 2001 — before the bombing — and then were resumed in November, though some areas "were not accessible during the fighting." ("Supplementary memorandum submitted by the United Nations Children’s Fund," Minutes of Evidence, Select Committee on International Development, House of Commons, The Humanitarian Crisis in Afghanistan and the Surrounding Region, 12/17/01.) Thus, what interfered with the vaccinations was not the Taliban, but the war.
No one should shed a tear for the Taliban’s fall from power. But the people of Afghanistan are far from being liberated, intentionally or otherwise.
B15. Didn’t the U.S. in fact get Security Council endorsement for its war in Afghanistan?
No. The United States went to the Security Council twice and both times the resolution that emerged did not authorize U.S. military action against Afghanistan. Resolution 1368 did call "on all States to work together urgently to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these terrorist attacks," but this is a far cry from authorizing the United States to decide unilaterally to wage a war against Afghanistan.
Alternatively, if we interpret this clause as authorizing the United States to attack Afghanistan without any further Council action, then it also authorizes any state to attack any other state as long as the attacker believes (or says it believes) that it is helping to bring 9?11’s perpetrators to justice. Hence, by this reading, the Council would have been authorizing Iraq to invade Saudi Arabia (from where many of the hijackers originated) or Germany or New Jersey (where the attackers were based). This is obviously preposterous, but there is nothing in the language giving the United States any more right to attack Afghanistan.
B16. If the war in Afghanistan was not a very effective means of dealing with the problem of terrorism, why did the United States government go to war?
9-11 has been used by the Bush administration to try to achieve many of its foreign and domestic policy goals. This does not mean ?? and we have argued against the view ?? that Bush was "behind" the 9-11 attacks or somehow "let it happen." (See our "9-11: Conspiracies or Institutions?" http://www.zmag.org/content/Instructionals/shalalbcon.cfm.) But it does mean that once 9-11 happened, the Bush team moved decisively to take advantage of the situation.
Thus, White House National Security Adviser Condaleezza Rice told Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker that she "had called together the senior staff people of the National Security Council and asked them to think seriously about ‘how do you capitalize on these opportunities’ to fundamentally change American doctrine, and the shape of the world, in the wake of September 11th." Similarly, a senior official told Lemann that 9-11 was "a transformative moment," not so much because "it revealed the existence of a threat of which officials had previously been unaware as that it drastically reduced the American public’s usual resistance to American military involvement overseas, at least for a while." Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby told Lemann that the U.S. response to 9-11 was not foreordained. "There are many other courses that the President could have taken. He could have waited for juridical proof before we responded. He could have engaged in long negotiations with the Taliban." None of these approaches, however, would allow the United States to redefine its role in the world — and hence were rejected.
For example, one goal of the Bush administration has been to remove obstacles to U.S. freedom of action in the world. One such obstacle is international law. Although there was a golden opportunity after 9-11 to reaffirm the importance and value of international law, Washington was determined to go in the other direction. As Human Rights Watch put it: "in many respects, the campaign against terrorism has seen the erosion of international law, rather than its enforcement."
Another goal has been to communicate internationally the U.S. willingness to engage in outrageous levels of violence, outside the law, whenever any actor caused Washington to feel aggrieved. Policymakers reason that if everyone fears us, the fact that they may not like us all that much is quite secondary, at least if our only interest is to impose our will.
And a third goal has been to provide a lasting policy focus which could scare and otherwise deceive the U.S. public into supporting or at least accepting all manner of redistributive taxing and military spending and repressive legal reorganization, all on behalf of corporate and political power.
B17. What is the significance of oil pipelines through Afghanistan?
We wrote in October 2001:
"Oil of course plays a greater or lesser role in everything political and economic that happens in the Mideast, sometimes forefront, sometimes background. U.S. geopolitical and economic policies have as one of their prime motives maintaining access to and virtual control over oil sources around the globe. Pursuit of profit per se, and oil profit, are at the foundation of U.S. institutional arrangements in general, and thus impact our large-scale motives, of course. But the idea that oil is the proximate reason for the attack on Afghanistan, is very far fetched, just as the notion that the U.S. engaged in the war in Vietnam to gain access to minerals within Vietnam was far fetched. What is primarily at stake, geopolitically and economically, is not access to specific resources (or pipeline routes) but the rules of global interaction, the further delegitimating of international law, the development of a replacement for the Cold War in this case, a war on terrorism as well as actual concerns about terrorism itself."
We think this is still correct, despite the oil company connections of the new U.S. backed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and of U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. The prospects of building an oil pipeline through Afghanistan any time soon appear remote.