The events of September 11, 2001 marked a clear turning point in US, and even world, history. Not only the horrific terrorist attacks which left thousands dead, but the selfless heroism of the firemen and other emergency workers in New York, has been etched on the memory of ordinary people around the world. Socialist Alternative and the Committee for a Workers’ International immediately and unequivocally condemned these attacks.
As socialists, we have always opposed the methods of terrorism, even when the terrorists claim to be acting on behalf of the oppressed. All too often, terrorist actions have simply strengthened the hand of the regimes they were meant to attack – as Palestinian suicide bombs have reinforced Sharon’s grip in Israel. We struggle against capitalism and imperialism through organizing working people and youth in open, democratic mobilizations in defense of their interests.
However, the Al Qaeda network and its leader Osama bin Laden, who are motivated by an utterly reactionary ideology, actually bear little resemblance to “classic” terrorist organizations. Their strategy on 9/11 could be better described as mass terrorism trying to create an apocalyptic confrontation between a radicalized Islamic world and the “infidels.”
If the immediate aim of the attackers was to inflict a crippling blow against the American establishment, they were only temporarily successful. In fact 9/11 provided an opening for George Bush to reassert the dominance of US imperialism on a global scale, and to launch a massive attack on civil liberties here at home.
Therefore, our revulsion at the attacks and the ideological motivation behind them did not blind us to the way in which the American ruling class was likely to respond. As we said in the days after September 11.
“Americans are rightfully and understandably angry and are demanding some sort of justice. But what will military retaliation and an invasion of another country actually accomplish? It will not help solve the problem of terrorism or protect Americans from future attacks. Contrarily, it will greatly aggravate the underlying problems that gave rise to terrorism, sowing the seeds for even greater calamities. The vast majority of those killed or hurt by any US military attack will not be terrorists, but the ordinary people of … other countries.”
War in Afghanistan
It was difficult to know in advance how much resistance the US and their proxy force, the Northern Alliance, would face in the military campaign in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime disintegrated rapidly, reflecting their thin base of support and the hatred of large sections of the population for them.
Some military strategists immediately pronounced that this was further proof, after the Gulf War and the war in Kosovo, that American air power and high tech was now sufficient to win wars without significant (American) casualties. But in reality, the US victory in 1991 required the mobilization of 500,000 troops and in Kosovo the US used the KLA as a proxy ground force and threatened a full-scale land invasion. If the US were to again wage war against a movement of national and social liberation with mass support, as in Vietnam, it would face an enormous military challenge even with all its high tech arsenal of death.
The defeat of the Taliban was, of course, a great propaganda victory for Bush who proclaimed a “new dawn” for the oppressed people of Afghanistan. The American media, however, has tried to systematically cover-up the cost of this “new dawn” in civilian lives, particularly from US bombing. The total number of civilian casualties as calculated by independent sources is at least 5,000 and is possibly much higher.
And while any progressive person welcomes the fact that girls can now attend school in Afghanistan, the reality is that the overall situation of ordinary people – after two decades of war for which the US bears enormous responsibility – is desperate and likely to get worse. Life expectancy is 46 years; one in four children dies of disease by the age of five; 80% of the population is illiterate and most of the rural population has no access to electricity, safe water or health care. The World Bank estimates that over seven million Afghans remain at risk of starvation.
On top of this, the authority of Hamid Karzai’s US-backed regime does not extend much beyond Kabul. Outside of the capital, control has passed back into the hands of the warlords whose brutal civil war in the early 90s opened the road to the Taliban’s message of law and order in the first place.
The UN has estimated that the cost of rebuilding Afghanistan is at least $20 billion dollars. But having spent billions bombing the country and putting their puppet in place, neither the US nor its “allies” seem to have much interest in coughing up the money for reconstruction. So far, only half of the $1.8 billion which the Afghan regime was suppose to receive to date has actually been delivered.
One of the indirect consequences of the US campaign in Afghanistan has been to further destabilize the situation in South Asia. In particular, the conflict between Pakistan and India, both nuclear-armed states, over Kashmir came dangerously close to war earlier this year. Now the regime of Musharaff, Pakistan’s military dictator, is looking increasingly unstable. Musharaff, who has done the bidding of Washington at every stage since 9/11, is now derisively called “Busharaff” by ordinary Pakistanis. The possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of pro-fundamentalist sections of the military is a nightmare scenario which US intervention in the region has brought measurably closer.
And of course, in his blatant support for Ariel Sharon’s policy of turning the West Bank and Gaza Strip into open-air prisons for the Palestinian population, Bush has massively increased the anger of ordinary Arabs and Muslims against the US. Now he is preparing for war against Iraq, which as we discuss in the article on the facing page could draw the US into a full-fledged quagmire.
So after one year of the “war on terrorism” are ordinary Americans any more secure? Has the likelihood of terrorist attacks against the US been diminished? According to Dick Cheney, another September 11-style attack on the US is “inevitable”; FBI Director Robert Mueller has warned of impending suicide bombings on US soil. Despite spending tens of billions of dollars at home and abroad, these leaders can only assure us that new terrorist attacks are inevitable.
Rather than increasing our security, the “war on terrorism” has exacerbated the underlying social causes of terrorism, increasing the possibility of new, horrific terrorist attacks. Bush’s actions are increasing hatred for the US around the world, particularly in the Arab world, and are creating thousands of potential recruits for future terrorist campaigns.
Domestically, the “war on terrorism” has meant a huge increase in the power of the state, from the passage of the Patriot Act to the FBI’s new TIPS campaign. But in all of this, the key aim of Bush and his attorney general, John Ashcroft, has not been to improve the security of ordinary Americans but rather to exploit the fears of the population as a cover for a massive assault on civil liberties.
Of course socialists don’t oppose stopping hijackers getting on planes, but it is questionable whether even the airports are more “secure”. There is, however, a very effective campaign of racially profiling travelers, especially those of Middle Eastern origin.
Since 9/11, the sheer incompetence of the various agencies which are supposed to be “defending” us has been exposed again and again, most notoriously when the INS approved student visas in early 2002 for a number of the 9/11 hijackers. Some have even raised whether the government had prior knowledge of the attacks. Indeed, there were clearly a number of signals and warnings that were missed. But a major blunder by the US security apparatus is a very different thing from active collusion or letting these attacks occur because of the advantage that might be gained. In fact, 9/11 was a deeply shocking event for the US establishment, which represented a serious temporary blow to their prestige.
They are determined to avoid a repeat, but as they themselves have admitted there is no way to completely seal the borders of the US even if they wanted to go down such a reactionary road. The real problem is that the government is determined to pursue policies that are bound to create a backlash.
What determines the policies of the US, whether the Democrats or Republicans are in office, is the needs of US capitalism – not the interests of workers or youth. 9/11 in this context represented an opportunity for the reassertion of US global domination, and for Bush and Ashcroft to put in place the elements of a “national security state” at home. This can be used against all forms of dissent, including strikes or anti-globalization protests. The security of ordinary Americans is very far down the list of priorities.
As long as large parts of the planet are humiliated and impoverished by capitalism and imperialism, and there is a lack of a mass socialist alternative, terrorism will always have a fertile breeding ground.
The real way to undermine terrorism is to build powerful movements of the oppressed based on socialist ideas in the underdeveloped world, linked to an independent workers movement in the West – especially the US. At the end of the day, workers and youth from Karachi to New York share a common interest in ridding the world of imperialism and all the murderous regimes which it supports or breeds in poor countries, and creating a new “international order” based on the cooperative and democratically planned use of the world’s wealth.
Justice #31, September 2002