A Dialogue on ‘The War on Terror’

[Wrote the following about three months after the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Republished to contribute to recontextualising the current Afghan war and its disastrous covert extension into Pakistan by Obama via US drone attacks (over 1100 civilian dead since 2008). A contribution to cutting through the official propaganda and double standards as daily reproduced in the corporate media.]

A Dialogue on the ‘War Against Terror’ (January 2002)
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
– Martin Luther King

How do you view the events of September 11 in the USA ?

As a terrorist attack. Like all terrorist attacks, it was a crime against humanity.

When you say “terrorist”, what do you mean precisely ?

My attempt at a dictionary definition of ‘terrorism’ would be ‘the use of violence or coercion against civilians for political or economic purposes’.

You stress civilians. Why ?

Because I think that distinguishes ‘terrorism’ from ‘terror’.

That sounds like an intellectual’s nit-picking. Please explain.

In the ‘good old days’ when warfare was mainly restricted to soldiers fighting each other (i.e. up to about 1918), the military could and did use terror against each other, e.g. starvation, torture, gas, but this could not be called ‘terrorism’ without losing all clarity of definition. Classic warfare is ‘terror’, but not ‘terrorism’.

Does that mean that you are restricting ‘terrorism’ to non-state or non-military attacks?

Not at all. Quite the contrary in fact. From a quantitative perspective I would agree with Chomsky and many others that state terrorism (what Chomsky aptly calls the “terrorism of the strong”) has been responsible for infinitely more deaths and suffering of civilians than has the non-state (“weak”) terrorism to which the corporate and state media usually restrict the term for obvious reasons.

Have you got any figures to back up that sweeping assertion ?

It is an interesting, albeit quite logical (within the ruling imperial value systems) fact, that military deaths are usually much more accurately calculated than are civilian ones. And of course civilian coercion and suffering cannot, and probably should not, be quantified at all. Nevertheless, there are scholarly figures available based on a variety of mostly official sources. Chomsky and Herman have attempted extensive compilations (especially in Washington and Third World Fascism and Deterring Democracy). According to them, the civilian deaths due to state terrorism since the 1930s go into the millions. The Stalinist state in the Soviet Union was responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million of its own citizens (mostly as a result of famines that again were mainly a result of Stalinist social and agricultural ideologies). The Stalinist Khmer Rouge (which was actively supported by the US and the West long after its massacres) were responsible for the deaths of about 2 million of its own citizens. After the first mass bombings of civilians by the US and UK in Europe and Japan during World War 2, US military interventions in Korea, Vietnam , Cambodia and Laos alone killed more than 4 million civilians. Mao’s Stalinism is responsible for the deaths of over 20 million Chinese in the Great Leap Forward (mainly, like under Stalin, as a result of policy-induced famine) and Cultural Revolution periods. US-supported client states in the ‘third world’ are notorious for killing or ‘disappearing’ hundreds of thousands of their citizens in the noble causes of anti-communism and free foreign investment. For example, Washington’s ex-thug in Jakarta, General Suharto, was responsible for the massacre of 500 000 to 1 million civilians deemed ‘leftists’ during his coup in 1965. He was also responsible for the genocidal elimination of a third of the East Timorese population (about 200 000) from 1975 to 1999. His invasion of East Timor was condoned by Washington and various Liberal and Labor governments in Australia. Washington’s various right-wing pro-consuls and military dictators (whose henchmen were often directly trained in torture and repression in the USA) in Latin America killed or ‘disappeared’ hundreds of thousands of civilians deemed ‘leftists’ in their ‘dirty wars’ in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
So we are talking about many millions of civilian victims of state terrorism, both direct Stalinist and US state terrorism or SU- and US-supported state terrorism. The figures from non-state terrorism in the same time frame (e.g. from groups like the IRA, ETA, Al Fatah, Hamas, Baader-Meinhof, Al Qaida) would pale into quantitative insignificance in comparison. Which is not to say that they are insignificant or in any way justifiable. No civilian death is insignificant or justifiable. Which is precisely what distinguishes us from the so-called ‘war on terror’.

I beg your pardon? How can you say that? Isn’t the war on terrorism meant to prevent further attacks on innocent civilians? Are you saying that America should have just turned the other cheek after the horrendous attacks of September 11? Are you morally equating President Bush and Osama Bin Laden? Are you anti-American like bin Laden?

I can see you seem to be getting a little hot under the collar right now. You’re asking me a whole bunch of questions here. Let’s take them one by one. Is the ‘war on terror’ not meant to prevent further attacks on innocent civilians? Well, yes and no. You probably noticed that I just used the epithet ‘so-called’ when qualifying the ‘war on terror’. Yes, I do think that part of the aim of this war is the one overtly and officially proclaimed: to prevent further attacks by Al Qaida on US targets by destroying its bases and sheltering Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, at the same time I am also querying three things: namely, 1. whether that can be achieved by those means, 2. whether those means are legitimate, and 3. whether there are other aims to the ‘war on terror’ than those initially proclaimed.

But haven’t the limited military aims already been largely achieved (as of February 2002)? There is a new government in Kabul and the Taliban and Al Qaida have been largely eliminated in Afghanistan.

It’s early days. Yes, a new pro-western government has been installed in Kabul. We do know that the human rights record of many of its warlord members (who continue to control the whole country outside Kabul) in the warring tribes period after the withdrawal of the soviets was so abysmal that the citizens of Kabul warmly welcomed the Taliban as liberators in 1996. Internal insecurity and Pashtun resentment against the Tajik, Hasara and Uzbek warlord militias from the north and west would seem to be growing again. The Taliban and Al Qaida would definitely seem to have been mostly vanquished militarily, at least within Afghanistan and for the time being. Whether this spells peace and no more terrorist attacks abroad is, however, highly unlikely. Al Qaida obviously still exists outside Afghanistan and those remnants, including Taliban, that still exist within or near the country have obviously simply withdrawn and transformed into guerrilla mode, possibly with the aid and sympathy of Pashtun tribes in remote areas. Any familiarity with the past achievements of the latter mode of armed struggle in different countries will preclude the disinterested observer from writing off Al Qaida at this stage.

But by almost eliminating and decisively weakening the Taliban and Al Qaida in Afghanistan hasn’t the risk of terrorist attacks abroad also been considerably weakened?

Short term, perhaps. Mid-term, I doubt it. Remember two initial purported aims of the US military intervention – to “smoke them out of their holes” and “bring them to justice” – have not as yet been achieved in regard to the leaders Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. Both have not been found. Whatever happens in the future, in my view bin Laden has, in ‘defeat’, already won. If he survives underground somewhere he can continue his attacks and if he is captured or killed he becomes a martyr to the cause. Either way his attraction as the militant underdog will grow for disaffected or impoverished Muslim young men and allied groups. In that sense Bush and his client deputy sheriffs Blair, Schroeder, Howard etc have done precisely what bin Laden might have wished for. They have thus not decreased but actually increased the likelihood of terrorist attacks on US and western targets in the future. The so-called ‘war on terrorism’ has increased the likelihood of terrorism. It thus has not even achieved its overt, official aims within its own terms of reference. Moreover, this has been done using morally illegitimate and/or terrorist means in the sense of our definition of terrorism at the start of this dialogue.

But surely Washington and London are fighting a war against terrorism in Afghanistan, not “using violence and coercion against civilians for their own political or economic ends”?

That’s where I beg to differ. They are, in my view, fighting an unjustifiable war that is in fact using violence and coercion against civilians for their own political and economic ends.

You’re making very sweeping assertions again. Have you got anything to back them up with?

I think I have. First, the unjustifiable war. This also links up with your earlier question about whether ‘America’ should have just done nothing after September 11. The answer to that is simple: no. ‘America’ (to use your popular, albeit dangerous, personification) was of course perfectly justified in responding strongly to those unjustifiable and criminal attacks. However, to use Howard Zinn’s useful distinction, it had a justifiable cause for strong action, but not for war. This war against Afghanistan is as unjustifiable as the attacks themselves. The latter – let’s be quite clear on this – were criminal terrorist acts, not acts of war committed by a sovereign state. Thus, by international law, there was NO right of military, self-defensive retaliation against another state like Afghanistan whose government was not implicated in planning the attacks. The legitimate strong responses under international law which the US could have pursued included coordinated, international police work (including limited and proportionate use of some targeted military means – preferably under UN auspices – where necessary) in order to bring the perpetrators to justice before the law. This route was not chosen by the US elite because, as I’ll try to outline later on, it would not have fitted in with the other (main and unofficial) reasons for the so-called ‘war on terrorism’. The war option against Afghanistan (and possibly other states) was immediately chosen, blatantly contravening international law. To perhaps better understand the latter point: just imagine the international reaction if Britain had declared war on the Republic of Ireland and the USA after IRA terrorist attacks in London because IRA members are known to be often based in Eire and financially supported by many Irish in Boston. Or if Cuba had declared war on the USA because it harbours anti-Cuban terrorists in Florida. Such wars against other states are simply unjustifiable in international law.

OK, maybe the war in Afghanistan is not legitimate in some narrow legalistic sense. That still doesn’t make it a form of terrorism.

I think it does if we accept my original definition of terrorism. And, by the way, I am always a little bemused when supporters of ‘our’ wars so quickly brush aside law issues when it is, officially, precisely the civilised ‘rule of law’ that ‘our’ wars – in marked contrast to ‘theirs’ – are purportedly defending against some form or other of lawless tyranny and oppression….But that’s another issue…

Yeah, OK. Now get to the point will you.

Certainly, pardon the facetious digression. The war in Afghanistan is, I would again venture, indeed ‘using violence and coercion against civilians for political and economic ends’. US planes have been dropping carpet and cluster bombs on Afghan towns and villages non-stop since October 7, as well as on purely military Al Qaida and Taliban targets. Professor Marc W. Herold of the University of New Hampshire, basing his research on international news sources, calculated the civilian death toll in Afghanistan at the beginning of December 2001 at, conservatively, 3,767 (‘A Dossier on Civilian Victims of Untied States’ Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting’, published at http://www.zmag.org/herold.htm December 2001). If these figures are correct, the death toll may now (January 2002) be over 4,000. That’s about a thousand more innocent civilian dead than died in the USA on September 11.

How can you compare the two at all! The Al Qaida attacks on September 11 intended to kill innocent civilians to make a political point. They were applauded by the perpetrators. The civilian victims in Afghanistan are not intended, they are accidental and regretted.

That’s true, they are accidental, or ‘collateral damage’ as the military technocrats chillingly call it. In some particularly flagrant cases they may also be officially regretted. In most cases however they are either denied outright or framed as somehow excusable ‘collateral damage’ within a ‘just war on terrorism’. Be that as it may, several points can be made in regard to the question of ‘intentions’. Firstly, from the point of view of the victims, there is no difference. They understandably have little interest in the killers’ so-called ‘intentions’, be they a ‘just war on terrorism’ or a ‘just war on the Satan America’. My ethical key assumption is that the point of view of the victims is always morally superior to that of the perpetrators of whatever persuasion. Secondly, if inherently anti-civilian weaponry like carpet and cluster bombs are being used, how can one truthfully say that there is no ‘intention’ to kill civilians? Thirdly, from the mens rea point of view in civil criminal law, ‘intention’ does not exculpate from criminal responsibility. If you blow up a train carrying both passengers and a valuable painting in order to collect the insurance on the painting, you are still committing murder. The same reasoning applies if you blow up civilians in order to eliminate terrorists. Fourthly, the Geneva war conventions ban the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force against civilian populations even when they are thought to be harbouring enemy forces. On all counts, therefore, I would maintain that the Al Qaida 9/11 and the US Afghan attacks are in many ways indeed comparable. In both cases the civilian victims have been callously identified with something unilaterally defined as evil by people with weapons who are not at all interested in making any distinctions and who have political ends of their own. (The last sentence is another variant of our basic definition of terrorism). And to say the two sets of attacks are ‘comparable’ is not to say that they are identical. There are also many differences, of course.

Well, finally. So what are the differences?

In the political ends connected with the attacks, obviously, but also with the sheer scale of the actual and potential level of death and suffering in the civilian populations.

Meaning what?

I’ve already mentioned the probable higher death toll in Afghanistan compared with the WTC/Pentagon attacks. That’s the direct deaths resulting from long-distance, zero-perpetrator-risk, hi-tech bombing including anti-personnel cluster bombs each containing 300 parachute bomblets the colour of food parcels that lethally shred or maim any people that touch them on the ground. The indirect toll in civilian deaths and suffering, however, could be potentially much higher. Hunger, malnutrition and diseases preying on weakened bodies can kill as efficiently as bombs can.

You’re not seriously suggesting that Washington and London are deliberately starving out the Afghan people, are you? What about the effects of 20 years of war and long-term drought?

Yes, of course, Afghanistan is an already devastated country. And, no, I am not suggesting that. The west of course has been involved in that kind of strategy in the region: its food and medicine sanctions against Iraq over the last decade since the Gulf War. According to UN figures, over a million Iraqi civilians have died as a result of those sanctions, half of those being children under five. (Another example of my definition of terrorism that we might come back to). However, I am not suggesting the same applies in the current situation in Afghanistan. The point here is rather that Washington and London have consciously and callously risked the lives of millions of hungry Afghans – most of them women and children of course – by conducting their war in such a manner that all food aid agencies were officially prevented from delivering food supplies right up to at least the fall of Kabul and despite a rapidly approaching winter. Aid agencies like Oxfam and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights protested to no avail. Civilians were held hostage by Western military forces for their own aims, civilians who had nothing whatsoever to do with Al Qaida or the Taliban regime. The number of them acutely threatened with starvation and dependent on food aid that was quoted at the time was at least 3 million people. So let’s get that straight: 3 million lives were consciously put at acute risk in the pursuit of political ends. Thankfully, the news as of the end of December was that food aid had again massively resumed and the food situation had been considerably ameliorated. However, this amelioration has not been because of any conscious western policy. At this point in time (early January 2002) the bombing continues, as do the deaths of innocent civilians. The latter – when members of the poor world – have never been particularly ‘newsworthy’ in our media and they aren’t now. The usually implicit, although sometimes even explicit, assumption is that the deaths of (‘their’) innocent civilians are perhaps unfortunate but really just part of the inevitable cost of achieving ‘our’ legitimate and laudable political ends.

I think that is a malicious assumption that you are now making. When, as you assert, was such a cynical assumption ever made explicit?

For example, on the 12th of May 1996 by the then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

She is actually supposed to have said that the deaths of innocent civilians were part of the ‘cost’ of some politics? Come on now!

Innocent children, actually, yes. The interviewer Lesley Stahl of the US TV show 60 Minutes stated that western sanctions had caused the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, that figure being more than had died in Hiroshima. He then added: “And…you know, is the price worth it?”. Her answer was, and I quote: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price…we think the price is worth it” (quoted, amongst others, by Professor Edward Herman in his commentary ‘The Price is Worth It’ available at the zmag website September 27, 2001). I know of no more succinct expression of terrorism, as defined above. (The purported ‘hardness’ of the choice notwithstanding. How our democratic rulers must agonize over the mountains of corpses their freedom-loving policies occasion in other countries!) And for those many citizens who still have ‘leftish’ social-democrat/liberal/pop-feminist delusions, it should be pointed out that Ms Albright is a woman who served under Democrat President Clinton. Let’s remind ourselves of our dictionary definition of terrorism: ‘the use of violence or coercion against civilians to achieve political or economic ends’. In the light of this definition we here have the rare occasion of a political representative of the ruling class in a formal democracy admitting with admirable, unusual candour that this class is engaged in explicit terrorism: half a million dead children achieved through the unspectacular (and thus non-newsworthy) violence of food and medicine sanctions are a ‘worthy price’ for the political (and ultimately economic/oil) benefit that class sees thereby gained in weakening or pressuring Saddam Hussein. To my knowledge this terrorist statement by Albright was of course not picked up by the mainstream media and did not cause any cries of outrage. (However, just as an aside, I sometimes wonder whether it would have even if it had been more widely published or known among the broadsheet-reading middle class and intellectuals. I think our rulers’ double standards, selective indignation and ‘reasonable’ utter immorality have actually become quite broadly internalized).

Well, as you say, it did not become widely known and so the point is hypothetical. I must confess, however, that, if true, the quote would appear to be quite damning. I must also admit that I still find it quite difficult to view Ms Albright or Clinton, Bush, Blair or Howard as terrorists rather than as, shall we say, democratic politicians of, granted, perhaps sometimes Machiavellian bent who are just engaged in realpolitik, i.e. in securing what they perceive as their national interests.

I would agree with your view of them. It’s just that, as I have tried to indicate, this democratic foreign policy or ‘realpolitik’ has always included measures that are im- and/or explicitly terrorist. ‘Democratic’ terrorism may be, like ‘democratic imperialism’, an oxymoron but it is the reality, usually carefully shielded from the distracted democratic public. The latter sees well-groomed, softly spoken, reasonably arguing politicians, people like you and me, and that’s not what terrorists look like of course. Terrorists are supposed to carry AK47s, rant and have a fanatical glint in the eye. They often wear beards and never wear suits until they get into power and become the new ruling class. But let’s perhaps also remember that Adolf Eichmann didn’t look like a terrorist either. He was also well groomed, had a soft voice and argued very ‘reasonably’ at his trial in Jerusalem, by the way. He also only had the ‘national interest’ (and lean administrative efficiency) at heart.

OK, OK. We’re really getting absurdly polemical and off the track here. You’ve now outlined your views on why the present ‘war on terror’ is both inherently self-defeating and morally unjustifiable but you have yet to spell out what you think the so-called ‘real’ political and/or economic aims behind this war are. No doubt some sort of dark conspiracy theory I assume.

You assume wrongly. If I had to try and compress my hypothesis into a simplifying sentence I would say that in my view the so-called ‘war on terror’ is a welcome pretext for the US ruling elite to extend its hegemony and control both domestically and internationally. There is, systemically, no ‘conspiracy’ needed to do this. 9/11 was an opportunity it grabbed, probably on the model of Hitler’s use of the Reichstag fire. Whether or not, however, some core sections of the elite and/or ‘intelligence community’ were to some degree at least aware of this upcoming tantalising opportunity provided by its own former Islamic fundamentalist protégés remains to be seen. In contrast to dogmatic anti-conspiracy theory positions, I think one should keep an open mind on such an issue until all the facts are fully known (after all one does remember the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, for example). Until they are, however, over-simplistic or downright wacky conspiracy theories are unnecessarily distracting from the very obvious and dangerous agenda being pursued since 9/11). But that’s the topic of another dialogue…

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 6, 2010.

2 Responses to “A Dialogue on ‘The War on Terror’”

  1. Of course, what a great site and informative posts, I will add backlink – bookmark this site? Regards,

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