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Afghan blowback

By launching a bombing campaign against Afghanistan, the US and Britain have fallen into Bin Laden's traps, says Andy Gregg.

The attacks of 11 September shattered the American illusion of a safe and comfortable world in which the US can isolate itself from the complications of the poorer and less stable parts of the globe. But there is little evidence that this experience is likely to help US citizens to understand the rest of the world any better. In fact, the decision of the world superpower to take massive revenge within a few weeks sets them even further apart and can only increase the hatred that they fail to detect or understand across so many parts of the globe.

President George W Bush's response to the World Trade Centre bombings has been to do exactly what is expected of him by the US public. Unfortunately this is also exactly what Osama Bin Laden wants him to do. Even a cursory glance at the stated aims of Bin Laden and his partner Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Egyptian Al Jihad, shows that the US has walked into a trap.

The Blair-Bush axis is already losing the propaganda war across most of the world and particularly in Islamic countries. A war against terrorism is essentially unwinnable: terrorism is a tactic not a state. With every bomb that falls on Afghanistan the likelihood of Bin Laden obtaining his objectives increases. Middle Eastern states that Bin Laden considers corrupt are now under more serious threat than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among the countries that look increasingly likely to topple either into anarchy or some much harder-line pro-Islamist regime.

The whole purpose of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon is to lure the West into an unwinnable war that can be portrayed as a crusade against Islam. Any of the corrupt Middle Eastern despots that support this crusade can then be undermined from below.

Bin Laden and Zawahari have been planning their strategy for many years. The merger of Al-Qaida with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and a number of other Islamist groups in February 1998 to form the Islamic Struggle Front amounted to a declaration of jihad against not only Israel but also any US target, civilian or military. This Front saw the development of a pan-Islamic approach to terrorism that superseded the somewhat more localised aims that Bin Laden originally espoused - getting the US army of occupation out of holy Saudi Arabia and supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan as the only authentically Islamic society. Zawahari, who is ten years older than Bin Laden, has brought a more universalist approach to his notion of jihad which encompasses and has connections with activities as far away as the Philippines, Yemen, Bangladesh, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Algeria and Egypt. He has sharpened Bin Laden's approach to the questions of Palestine and Iraq which had not previously been at the forefront of Bin Laden's announcements.

Both Bush and Blair, along with nearly all of the media, have so demonised Bin Laden that they fail to see that the networks of semi-autonomous groups and individuals under the umbrella of the Islamic Struggle Front will continue long after any Bin Laden is killed or captured (even if this is possible). This demonisation and personalisation serves to allow the media and policy makers to avoid a serious look at the causes of the hatred that Bin Laden expresses so effectively. By associating the centre of international terrorism in the person of one man they are becoming mired in a no win situation. If they don't manage to 'smoke him out' they lose. If they kill him they also lose as the network shows every sign of being able to reestablish itself with new centres of control and reinvigorated by new potential martyrs.

In many respects the approach of the Islamic Struggle Front mirrors the 'strategy of tension' notion used by both ultra leftist and far right terrorist groups in the Europe of the 1970s. It is using attacks on symbolic targets to deliberately stoke up a backlash (a combination of direct US and Western intervention and increasing repression by corrupt middle eastern despots). It believes that this will eventually push the downtrodden masses into a realisation of the need to rise up and install more authentically Islamic regimes. In these circumstances the approach of both Bush and Blair is potentially disastrous - it is the nearest thing to pouring oil on to the flames.

The utter failure of the security services to anticipate the 11 September attacks raises a number of questions. Until recently the security services who gave birth to, armed and trained the Taliban in Afghanistan, seem not to have realised that their anti-Soviet monster is now totally out of control. The CIA's rather quaint term for this kind of unintended consequence is 'blowback'. There is strong evidence that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the titular leader of the Taliban, is as much under the control of Al Qaida as vice versa. The present that Bin Laden gave to the Taliban by assassinating Ahmed Shah Massoud (the charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance) only two days before the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon will make it very difficult for them to hand Bin Laden over to the US.

In his book Reaping the Whirlwind, Michael Griffin declares that we need 'an explanation for the studied incompetence of the FBI, CIA and other American intelligence agencies in addressing the alleged threat posed to the US by Osama bin Laden and his network'. Since 11 September this is even more vital. Griffin makes some instructive suggestions about Bush's links with the US energy industry (most notably with Unocal, which was actively involved in developing a trans-Afghan pipeline to transfer the massive energy resources of central Asia to the Pakistan seaboard while avoiding Iran). He is convinced that these links 'are likely to restrict the current state of knowledge about US policy in Afghanistan after the 1990s'.

Certainly, any real analysis of the growth of the Taliban will be a severe concern both to the US and in particular the CIA who ploughed so much money through the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency into arming and resourcing the Taliban and other pro-Pakistani mojahedin groups. Should US planes or helicopters be shot down by American-made Stinger heat-seeking missiles this will become an acute embarrassment.

Extremists from all over the Islamic world were trained in Afghanistan with CIA and Saudi money. The CIA is known to have trained several of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombers in Afghanistan, and it is no surprise that the majority of suspects for the 2001 World Trade Centre and Pentagon hijackings are Saudi nationals, many of whom have also undergone training by virtue of resources, money and expertise that derives originally from the CIA. The dangers of this 'blowback' will continue to plague the world for many years to come.

Those of us who are against the bombing campaign in Afghanistan but also are appalled by the 11 September events do have a responsibility to set out how we would try to deal with the problem. First of all, bombing will not assist the process of stabilising Afghanistan. The longer it goes on, the more collateral damage is bound to occur. A ground intervention by US, British or other non-Muslim troops will reunite many factions in the country to fight the infidel invader. Without Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance is even more likely to fall apart or demonstrate serious lack of discipline if it is allowed to resume control over Kabul.

Many of the groups in the Alliance have a history of carrying out the most appalling reprisals when able to do so. The ferocious General Dostum commanding his Uzbeki troops in the north is the nearest thing to a yoyo in Afghani politics having switched sides between various mojahaden alliances and factions a confusing number of times. The Alliance also contains an unstable coalition of Sunni and Shi'a groups who have turned on each other in the past.

Whether the elderly Pashtun King, Zahir Shah, is capable of welding together this fissiparous and unlikely group is unclear. If it is to be accomplished it will have to be with constant support from all of the regional powers (there is no precedent for this) as well as the US, Moscow and the Afghan diaspora. In many ways the establishment of a UN protectorate policed by a UN force with a predominance of soldiers from Muslim states might be a better bet.

There is an urgent need for humanitarian aid throughout Afghanistan in the next few months. If Blair is to meet his promise that the military and humanitarian causes will be given equal weight then he must insist on at least a temporary halt to air strikes so that aid can be dispersed. If he agrees to any ground war using British or US troops before this has happened we will know that this commitment was a lie and that he is prepared to sacrifice millions of starving Afghanis rather than disagree with the US.

The causes of terrorism, which include poverty as well as the manifestly unjust situations in Palestine and Iraq, must be addressed urgently. Blair knows this but his world vision will never be able to emerge while Britain is wedded to the political and strategic demands of the US. In particular US troops must be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia if the country is not to collapse from within. Given the dependence on Saudi oil supplies this may be an unrealistic demand. But a UN backed arrangement that ties the US and others into guaranteeing Saudi territorial integrity from bases stationed elsewhere in the region should not be impossible if the will was there.

Blair's ambitious dream of promoting development in both Afghanistan and Africa is to be welcomed. We will know whether he really believes in this the moment he insists that Britain should substantially increase the percentage of its GDP going into foreign aid to the agreed international norm of 0.7%.

Reaping the Whirlwind: the Taliban Movement in Afghanistan by Michael Griffin and Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism by John K Cooley are both published by Pluto Press.


November/December 2001