he 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
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
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approach to terrorism that superseded the somewhat more localised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
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.