frontline issue 4

FROM NEW YORK TO KABUL

September 11th bombings

The full consequences of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11 have yet to unfold. Washington has seized on the shock and horror provoked in the US and to varying degrees elsewhere to launch under cover of a 'war against terrorism' a vast offensive against all challenges to its global hegemony. The first manifestation of this offensive has been the attack against Afghanistan launched on October 7. It will certainly not be the last. Murray Smith looks at the aftermath of the New York bombings.

The bombing of the World Trade Centre was a barbaric act, which we as socialists unreservedly condemn. These methods are not ours and whatever the motives of those who carry them out, are incompatible with human emancipation. We do not fight against imperialism by taking thousands of innocent lives. And we do not hold the working class or the ordinary people of an imperialist country responsible for the acts of its government.

The bombing of the World Trade Centre was not only morally and ethically unacceptable. It was also, looked at from the point of view of the Arab and Muslim peoples it purported to serve, politically counter-productive. The immediate result was to create a climate of fear, anger and hysteria that has pushed the majority of the American people into the arms of Bush and the warmongers. The effect has been to make it easier for Bush to bomb and kill the people of Afghanistan or any other country chosen as a target for the demonstration of US power.

LIBERATION MOVEMENTS

The history of the 20th century has shown that it is possible to fight against imperialism and oppression, and to win, without resorting to such methods. The Cuban leadership condemned the September 11 attacks, while pointing out that Cuba has herself suffered terrorist attacks over 40 years, from the CIA and from US-backed Cuban exiles. But never once has Cuba responded by engaging in terrorist attacks against the American people. The day after the New York bombings, Dennis Goldberg spoke at a meeting of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign in Glasgow. Goldberg is a white South African who was a leader of the ANC's armed wing and spent 22 years in the prisons of apartheid. He pointed out that the ANC had chosen to wage war on the military forces of South Africa, not on its white population, because if we had done that: 'what kind of country would we have inherited?'. When young members of the ANC placed bombs in supermarkets the ANC condemned these acts.

For over a decade America waged a brutal war against the Vietnamese people, including large-scale bombing of civilian targets. The Vietnamese never once reacted by launching terrorist attacks on the USA. If they had done so, there would not have been the development of a mass anti-war movement in the USA in sympathy with the Vietnamese people, a movement which contributed in no small measure to forcing the withdrawal of American troops. In Vietnam the terrorists were the Americans and their allies. Bush senior personally supervised Plan Phoenix, which involved the assassination of 40,000 civilian cadres of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. These examples demonstrate that movements which are fighting for freedom, national liberation and socialism have no need of terrorist methods. On the contrary, they are capable of inspiring sympathy and support across the world, including in the imperialist heartlands.

However much we deplore these barbaric acts and however much we sympathise with the people of New York, we also have to understand and explain why such things happen. After all, Bush and Blair did not stop at condemning the attacks. They also put forward their own explanation of events, which has been trumpeted day in day out by the Western media. According to them it is a struggle between good and evil, darkness and light, civilisation and barbarism.

It is necessary to counter this propaganda with a rational analysis. What happened in New York was a product, a horrible, gruesome product, but a logical product of American policy, and not just of American policy but of the place America occupies in the world. At the beginning of the 21st century, imperialism is alive and well. Wealth is systematically sucked from the Third World to the imperialist centres and above all to the USA, via debt payments, plunder of natural resources, unequal trade weighted in favour of the rich countries and other means. While wealth is increasingly concentrated in the imperialist countries and within those countries by the multinationals and the financial institutions, the majority of the world's population suffers from poverty, avoidable diseases, famine and malnutrition. Every year, six million children under the age of five die from hunger and preventable diseases. And within many countries of the Third World, the local ruling classes enjoy a standard of living which puts them closer to their imperialist masters than to the mass of their own people.

THE MIDDLE EAST

It is necessary to understand and explain that the hostility that is felt for the USA and the West by the mass of the people in the Middle East, in Latin America, in Asia, is not some sort of primeval, senseless hatred, a kind of manifestation of evil. It is entirely rational. One of the most inane remarks by Bush was that the people who carried out the attacks were 'jealous of US freedom and prosperity'. Indeed, well beyond the perpetrators of the bombings, hundreds of millions of people in the world are indeed 'jealous'. They may not have read Lenin on imperialism, but they understand somewhere that this freedom and this prosperity is built on their own poverty, suffering and lack of freedom.

Specifically, in the Middle East, the Arab and Muslim masses see vast oil wealth under the control of Western oil companies and corrupt monarchs and dictators while they live in poverty. They see the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel, which receives more US aid than any other country in the world and is armed to the teeth with American guns, tanks, helicopters and fighters. They see the effects of sanctions against Iraq, which have cost the lives of more than one million Iraqis, half of them children, over the last decade, on top of the massacre of civilians and soldiers, many of them conscripts fleeing the battlefield, during the Gulf War itself. And they feel justifiably that there is a double standard at work. Where was the three minutes' silence for the victims of Sabra and Chatila? Do the deaths of 5,000 Iraqi children every month count for less than those who died in the World Trade Centre?

FROM NATIONALISM TO FUNDAMENTALISM

Whether Osama bin Laden, who has been designated as being behind these attacks, actually was, it seems that the September 11 attacks were carried out by Islamic militants, as have other attacks over recent years. But these attacks, although carried out by religious people, are not really religious in character. They are an expression, a grotesquely deformed expression, of hatred for US imperialism and for the way it dominates the world. August Bebel, on of the founders of the socialist movement in Germany once characterised anti-Semitism as 'the socialism of imbeciles'. Drawing on this analogy the French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd recently described the ideology behind the September 11 attacks as 'the anti-imperialism of imbeciles'. Like anti-Semitism, the ideas of bin Laden and his kind are deeply reactionary and can in no way lead to the liberation of the Muslim peoples, as the medieval obscurantist Taliban regime in Afghanistan demonstrates.

But resistance to imperialism and its local clients was not always expressed in this way. There is nothing in the Middle Eastern or Islamic psyche that implies that the fight against imperialism has to take place under the banner of Islam or by terrorist methods. In the 1950s and 1960s a wave of revolt and revolution spread across the Arab world, sweeping away not only what remained of direct colonial rule but a whole series of pro-Western client regimes. Radical nationalist regimes came to power in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, North and South Yemen. These regimes were inspired not by religious fanaticism but by ideas of national liberation, socialism and a secular society. The Palestine Liberation Organisation developed in the 1960s with a similar ideology.

The whole region was swept by revolution. Oil companies and other Western property were nationalised. Egypt took over the Suez Canal at the price of a war with Britain, France and Israel. In Iran in 1953, twenty-six years before the Islamic revolution, the secular nationalist government of Mossadeq, which had nationalised the oil industry, was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup. Moves were made to modernise Middle Eastern societies, to develop education and health, to emancipate women, to carry out land reform. Some regimes were much more radical than others, but the whole phenomenon had imperialism seriously worried.

These radical nationalist regimes ultimately failed for a variety of reasons: unwillingness to go all the way to a break with imperialism and the old ruling classes, undemocratic one-party regimes which often became as corrupt as the old regimes they had replaced, the weakening and final collapse of Soviet influence, the corresponding strength of the USA, with which most of them finally came to terms, and of Israel. It was the ultimate failure of these regimes to fulfil the popular aspirations they had aroused that paved the way for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a political force, defined by the idea that the values of Islam could provide the ideology necessary to free these countries from Western domination.

However, even the rise of Islamic fundamentalism does not entirely explain the resort to terrorism and its most extreme form, suicide bombings. These are in part a product of a feeling of powerlessness faced with American and allied power. It has been said that terrorism is the atomic bomb of the poor. In part also, the resort to terrorism is an expression of the lack of space for democratic, mass politics. In the Arab and Muslim world, some regimes are more repressive than others and some even allow elections that are more or less manipulated to parliaments that are more or less powerless, but from Morocco to Afghanistan there is hardly a country that could be described as a bourgeois democracy, with the exception of Lebanon, and then only with serious qualifications. There is also, ironically, a direct responsibility of the United States for the spread of armed Islamic militancy. During the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, America and its allies armed, trained and financed the Afghan resistance. It was reinforced by substantial numbers of volunteers from all over the Islamic world, who came to fight a holy war against the infidels. These people, prominent among them Osama bin Laden, were armed, trained and financed by the West. When the Soviet army pulled out, these trained and experienced fighters dispersed to their countries of origin, where they engaged in fundamentalist politics and in some cases armed struggle. In the course of the 90s, after the Gulf War and continuing US support to the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people, they came to see America as the main enemy. As for the Taliban, they were formed, armed and trained in and by Pakistan, initially with American support. It was from Pakistan that they invaded Afghanistan in 1994 and captured Kabul in 1996.

It is a matter of debate whether Islamic fundamentalism in general is today a rising or a declining force. The answer undoubtedly differs from country to country. It is certainly the case that in the countries where it has come to power (Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan) it has not proved remotely capable of tackling the problems of poverty and underdevelopment. In Algeria extreme fundamentalism has been discredited in the course of the ten-year civil war. Elsewhere, in countries like Morocco, Egypt and Jordan it remains strong. There exist forces, though weaker than before, across the Arab and Islamic world, which continue to defend secular, nationalist and socialist ideas, and some of them are trying to draw the lessons of past failures in the Middle East and more widely. Only the growth of such forces can really provide an alternative to Islamic fundamentalism.

THE AFTERMATH OF THE BOMBINGS

The immediate effect of the New York bombings was to starkly illustrate that the United States was not immune to the spreading world disorder. A superpower which cannot prevent the massacre of its own citizens in the economic nerve centre of global capitalism is faced with a challenge to its authority.

The demonstration of American vulnerability provoked two reactions. On high, Bush declared war on terrorism and multiplied warlike declarations and threats. This was necessary from the point of view of US imperialism, to reassert its global power. And for this reason it was supported by the European imperialist powers and by those regimes in the world which are dependent on American power. Among the American population the reaction was one of shock, grief, anger and a desire for vengeance, a reaction shared to a greater or lesser degree by people in Western Europe. This gave considerable freedom of action to the American ruling class and its allies. It seemed immediately after September 11 that this would result in a rapid and perhaps massive attack on countries identified by Washington as harbouring terrorists. Afghanistan was the number one target but Iraq was also spoken of, with threats to complete the unfinished business of the Gulf War.

In fact it was twenty-six days after the New York bombings before American and British air strikes hit Afghanistan. Why did it take so long? There are a number of reasons. In the first place, of course, the kind of action envisaged involved transporting considerable numbers of troops, ships, planes and military material to the Middle East. Secondly, the process of putting together a coalition took time. America had to reassure its European allies, many of whom had and still have reservations about American policy. After the attack on Afghanistan, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin stated clearly that French support for Washington was not unconditional and described the reservations of French public opinion as 'not illegitimate'. Blair's shuttle diplomacy between Washington and European capitals was a two-way affair: to line up the Europeans behind Bush, certainly, but also to convey their preoccupations to Washington.

Thirdly, it was necessary, but not easy, to bring on board key countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Pakistani regime is faced with a real political crisis over its support for the US, caught between the hammer of American pressure and the anvil of its own people. There was a particular problem in that Washington needed not only political support, but the use of neighbouring countries as bases for an attack on Afghanistan. This was obtained with difficulty from Pakistan and with less difficulty from the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia. However, all Arab and Muslim governments who lend direct or indirect support to America's war will find themselves faced with opposition from their own peoples. Fourthly, there was the fear of destabilising geopolitically sensitive regions in Central Asia and the Gulf. If the Taliban are overthrown, will there be a credible political alternative on offer? And there is no more certainty than there was ten years ago that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would not lead to the break-up of Iraq. Finally, Western and particularly European public opinion had to be taken into account. While polls showed majority support for military action, they also showed much less backing for any action involving heavy civilian casualties.

THE WAR BEGINS

Now the action has been engaged. One objective will be to capture, or perhaps preferably, kill bin Laden. This has become symbolically important because he has been identified as the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks. It would have been embarrassing for the United States if the Taliban had actually handed over bin Laden. They would then have had to try him. In the first place, they would have to produce evidence against him, which they have not so far done. Secondly, bin Laden would no doubt use the trial as a public platform to attack America, and perhaps reveal links that would embarrass some of America's present allies. And it would take a long time. Even more important, it would have removed their excuse for attacking Afghanistan.

The decision has obviously been taken to get rid of the Taliban regime. That does not necessarily mean that there is no role for the Taliban in a future Afghanistan. In order to secure a broad-based regime the United States would be ready to work with Taliban factions that could be presented as more moderate. This would also guarantee the Pakistani regime a continuing influence in Afghanistan, in return for its support to Washington.

But it is clear that US intentions are not limited to Afghanistan. In a letter to the members of the Security Council on October 7, a few hours after the attack on Afghanistan began, America's ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte declared that the action had been undertaken in the exercise of America's legitimate right to defend itself. He added that in the future the exercise of this right could 'necessitate other actions concerning other organisations and other states.' It is possible that 'other states' will include Iraq, and perhaps targets in other countries such as Yemen or Sudan.

Over and above the immediate war in the Middle East, the Bush administration is clearly seeking to use the bombings to create a consensus among the US population, and if possible in Europe and elsewhere, which would legitimise the use of forces against anyone, baptised 'terrorist' for the occasion, who engages in armed resistance to the US and its allies or client states. That would include in particular the Colombian guerrillas of the FARC and the ELN.

PUBLIC OPINION

There is no doubting the military power of the United states and its technical ability to intervene anywhere in the world. But there are political constraints on the use of this military power. These consist essentially of the degree of opposition to American action, both in the Middle east and elsewhere in the Third World and in the imperialist heartlands, and the way in which this opposition is refracted by governments, who are capable of using it to reinforce their own reservations about US policy.

A key factor in the situation is the contrast in reactions between the advanced capitalist countries and the rest of the world. The shock that hit America on September 11 was largely shared within the advanced capitalist countries. This was not just a reaction of sympathy. There was a feeling that if it could happen in New York, it could happen in London, Paris, Rome or Berlin. It is clear that in the short term the American public is ready to support any armed action to avenge the bombings. There has also been a rise in racist attitudes and attacks on Muslims. These same reactions also exist in Europe, though probably less strongly the further you get from America. They will certainly be stronger in Britain because of its historic and political ties than in most parts of continental Europe. Nevertheless, many people in Britain and in Europe are far from uncritical of the American policies that preceded the bombings and will not necessarily approve of future American action, partly out of fear that it could provoke renewed terrorist attacks. This attitude will exist even in the USA. And it would probably be premature to proclaim the Vietnam syndrome dead and buried. There is a difference between saying you are ready to take casualties and actually seeing the body-bags come home.

The reaction outside Europe and North America has been quite different. There the threat of terrorism is fairly remote compared to the reality of poverty and oppression, and for most of the peoples of the world the United States and its allies are more of a threat than is Osama bin Laden. In Asia, Latin America and Africa, anti-Americanism is widespread. It is not just a question of the Arab and Muslim world, where there is a particular combination of sympathy for Iraq, solidarity with the Palestinian people, a feeling that it is Islam which is under threat and popular hatred of American-backed dictatorships. Anti-imperialist sentiment, which means overwhelmingly anti-American imperialism remains strong in Latin America, where resentment against past and present economic exploitation is mingled with still vivid memories of direct military intervention in several countries and the bloody American-backed dictatorships which murdered tens of thousands in the Southern Cone in the 60s and 70S and in Central America in the 80s. And today the effects of American-dominated global capitalism are visible in the economic and social catastrophe that has hit Argentina and menaces other countries of the continent, while America continues to back Plan Colombia in what could become another episode of the war against terrorism.

On one point we can agree with George W Bush. The New York bombings and the attack on Afghanistan are the start of a long war. But in this war, American victory is far from sure. The attack on Afghanistan is probably the easiest part, although even that has provoked considerable protests in the Muslim world. An attack on Iraq would provoke much more opposition in the Middle East and beyond. That does not mean that America will not launch such an attack. Political leaders not infrequently take decisions which have consequences that they do not wish. But it means that by sowing the seeds of war against all those in the global South who do not accept American hegemony, Bush could yet reap the whirlwind.

Top