Proponents of continuing or increasing the US military presence in Afghanistan often argue that such policies are essential to Keep Us Safe from Terrorists, who are just waiting to attack Americans and would more easily be able to do so if we retreat from the challenge that lays before us. As Monica Crowley writes in the Washington Times, “America's enemies are watching this indecision and calculating that the president doesn't have the stomach for a protracted fight …. Stalling on a troop request for Afghanistan while Americans are dying is a sure way to signal to our enemies that they can win, if only they hang in long enough.” To Crowley, echoing the conventional wisdom among petty propagandists advocating escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the only way “keep us safe from attack” is “American strength,” which is the “best deterrent to violence and chaos.”1 As President Obama himself said on CBS's “Face the Nation,” the “top priority” in Afghanistan is to “protect the United States against attacks from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.”2
In fact, in the national debate over the Afghan war strategy (as opposed to the war itself), now almost entirely focused around how many more troops should be deployed (not if more troops should be sent, or whether the war should be continued at all), the fundamental premise that fighting the war in Afghanistan somehow Keeps Us Safe from Terrorism is routinely touted as an all-encompassing justification for escalating violence being carried out abroad. In the pages that follow, I will address this claim by analyzing who and what it is the US is actually fighting in Afghanistan, as well as how it is doing so. In transcending the superficial and narrow debate occurring in the national media over the Afghanistan war, we should be able to gain some insight into the best course of action for the future while uncovering important but hidden truths about the present.
As I mentioned, in order to ascertain whether or not fighting (or escalating) the war in Afghanistan will actually Keep Us Safe from Terrorism, it is important to understand who and what we are fighting in the first place. Media reports and analysis commonly paint “our enemies” in Afghanistan and elsewhere simply as “Al Qaeda” or the “Taliban.” Liberal think tanks and news periodicals have taken to insisting that these two ominous foes have formed an unholy alliance, more threatening to American lives than ever before and thus a development which necessitates the escalation of the war effort. Writing in The New Republic, Peter Bergen describes how “in recent years, Taliban leaders have drawn especially close to Al Qaeda,” today functioning “more or less as a single entity.”3 “The signs of this” near-total collusion “are everywhere,” Bergen writes, noting how “the Taliban, like Al Qaeda, has tried to attack the West.”4 He begins his analysis by describing the “sobering” case of Najibullah Zazi, “the first Al Qaeda recruit discovered in the United States in the past few years,” who was planning “what could have been the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since September 11.”5 Since Zazi is alleged to have “traveled to Pakistan's tribal regions and studied with Al Qaeda members,” it is clear to Bergen that “we cannot defeat Al Qaeda without securing Afghanistan.”6 After all, “nearly every major jihadist plot against Western targets in the last two decades somehow leads back to Afghanistan or Pakistan.”7 Thus, failing to “win the war” in Afghanistan – essential to which is the escalation for which he advocates – would mean that armies of Terrorists (like Zazi) will soon be washing over the United States, leaving us with nowhere to run or hide from the onslaught.
In fact, this analysis is reflective of the woefully uninformed view of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and radical Islam in general that permeates the national discussion on the Afghanistan war as well as US Foreign Policy in the Middle East more broadly. Not only is the Taliban something wholly separate and distinct from “Al Qaeda,” but the latter does not even exist as the singular, monolithic entity that it is imagined to by propagandists cheerleading for war. “Even when at its most organized in late 2001,” writes Jason Burke, a journalist who spent years living in Afghanistan and Pakistan covering radical Islam, “it is important to avoid seeing 'al-Qaeda' as a coherent and structured terrorist organization with cells everywhere... this would be to profoundly misconceive its nature and the nature of modern Islamic militancy.”8 John McLaughlin, the former acting CIA director, echoes this assessment, saying “in the sense that Al Qaeda is decentralized, its much harder to get your hands around.”9 This, of course, is in direct contradiction to the well-organized monolith portrayed by Bergen and others, consisting of a vast “membership,” and a “leadership council” with the capacity to coordinate the actions of subordinate cells all around the world – and, for that matter, to partner with other organizations, such as the Taliban.10 Rather, as Burke describes in great detail, “a careful examination of the situation shows that it is wrong to imagine that there was any kind of network of international groups obedient to Bin Laden or created by him.”11 “It is not about being part of a group,” continues Burke, “it is a way of thinking about the world, a way of understanding events, of interpreting or behaving.”12
Indeed, Bin Laden and a small cadre of close associates, whom Burke refers to as “the hardcore,” were able to access vast networks they had accumulated during the US-sponsored Afghan jihad run out of camps on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and divert their vast supply of funds to various groups. The now-infamous training camps were a concentrated epicenter of Islamic radicals, who contacted one another to fulfill various needs – Bin Laden was able to bring the money, in a big way. As a result, what influence Bin Laden did have over this disparate array of groups “depended on the resources he could offer,” yet “with the loss of his bases in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the continued attention of American, Pakistani, and other security forces... those resources largely disappeared” and “much of his power with it.”13 “The “systematic elimination” of the camps and infrastructure which housed the various radical Islamist networks and protected this “hardcore” began “within weeks of the 9/11 attacks,” largely because “going into Afghanistan in 2001, the CIA had a fair understanding of Al Qaeda's strength, organization, and location” writes Robert Dreyfuss, citing top officials in the intelligence community.14 “According to U.S. Intelligence officials,” Drefuss continues, “many – perhaps most – of the group's members were killed in the bombing raids unleashed by the US military.”15 Gary Bernstein, a “longtime CIA operations officer and former CIA station chief” who “led the CIA team in the field that was assigned the task of hunting down Al Qaeda,” also described in detail how the majority of those in the camps in Afghanistan were killed or driven away very early on: “before Tora Bora, some did slip out, a dozen here, a dozen there... in Tora Bora, we estimated there were about a thousand who fell back, and many of those broke into two groups, finally. One group, of about 130, was captured in Pakistan. Another group, about 180, got away.”16 After the destruction of the camps, “the few who managed to get out – including bin Laden and... Zawahiri – were barely able to scramble to safety.”17 Subsequently, the CIA “reaped an intelligence bonanza,” including “computers, files, and organizational records,” from which “our knowledge expanded exponentially” in the words of a retired CIA station chief, allowing us to facilitate the further destruction of what remained of the extant terror infrastructure.18
It seems fairly clear after careful analysis that “the organization that attacked the United States on 9/11 has been virtually wiped out.”19 After the initial assault on the massive camp infrastructure, the “hardcore was scattered,” and “Al Qaeda” as it once existed was destroyed.20 Wayne White, a top intelligence official in the State Department, put it quite clearly: “I personally don't believe Al Qaeda exists as a robust organization anymore.”21 As a result, the modern phenomenon of the same name is of an even more decentralized character. “Most activism” nowadays, writes Burke, is by “individuals who look up to bin Laden as a symbolic leader... but are not controlled in any meaningful way by 'Al-Qaeda.'”22 White agrees that bin Laden is “not much more than a standard-bearer... like a regimental flag-carrier, holding up the flag and trying to inspire people.”23 Now, all that is left is “the idea of Al-Qaeda – the precept, the maxim, the formula, not 'the base',” and it “is more powerful than ever.”24 As Afghan-based journalist Anand Gopal put it, Al Qaeda is “mostly an autonomous homegrown or regional affair in the various countries in which it exists,” and “[t]here's very little evidence of ties between those groups...”25 In other words, modern-day “Al Qaeda” is little more than a franchise, a name that is adopted by various groups which arise spontaneously around the world who believe themselves to share a common ideology, but which do not coordinate with one another in any significant way.
Perhaps more importantly, “the efforts of Western governments, local regimes and security agencies around the world have been unable” to do much about this remaining element.26 In the study mentioned above, Dreyfuss spoke with top-ranking members of the US intelligence community, including current assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, who went even farther, concluding that US policy in the so-called “Global War on Terror” had actually “made the threat worse.”27 In other words, despite its initial success in destroying al Qaeda, the aggressive actions of the United States have actually placed Americans at greater risk of international Islamist terrorism, according to leaders in the foreign policy community. While this may seem puzzling at first, an honest evaluation of the tremendous cost, in terms human lives and suffering, at which this “victory” has come, inevitably leads to this conclusion. In the Afghan context, when one takes into account how US elites were willing to subject millions of Afghans to starvation, bombardment, and massive oppression, angry and often violent responses – from the “localized insurgency,” not some massive imagined underground radical Islamic movement – no longer seem unreasonable. If we are truly seeking to a policy that will Keep Us Safe, we need to ask some hard questions, which have equally unpleasant answers: where did “al Qaeda” come from, and what still leads Muslims to “look up to bin Laden as a symbolic leader”? Why do they hate us?
The origins of this question – and the obvious conclusions – go back many years, as we can learn from reading the declassified internal record. In 1958, President Eisenhower discussed with his staff the origins of what he called “the campaign of hatred against us” in the Middle East, “not by the governments but by the people.” The National Security Council clearly outlined the source of this curious “campaign” soon thereafter: “in the eyes of the majority of the Arabs the United States is opposed to the realization of the goals of Arab nationalism. They believe that the United States is seeking to protect its interest in Near East Oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress.” That the perception that the US stands opposed to independence and self-determination in the Third World, in particular the strategically crucial Middle East, is so widespread should not be surprising, the NSC continued, because “our economic and cultural interests in the area have led not unnaturally to close US relations with elements in the Arab world whose primary interest lies in the maintenance of relations with the West and the status quo in their countries,” blocking progress and development.28
These conclusions were reiterated in 2004, when Donald Rumsfeld directed the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication to review the impact that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were having on Terrorism and Islamic Radicalism. According to the DSB charter, it is composed of 35 civilian members handpicked by the Defense Department.29 “Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,'” the report concluded, “but rather, they hate our policies.”30 The “overwhelming majority” of Muslims are angry over “the American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq,” which “in the eyes of Muslims... have not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering.” The massive fury over these wars built on anger which already existed throughout the Muslim world, the report continues, as a result of “one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan Pakistan, and the Gulf States,” closely mirroring the reasoning of the NSC as cited above.31 Accordingly, “there is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies – except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends” [emphasis in original].32 So, “when American public diplomacy [propaganda] talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.”33
There is no shortage of examples to support these assessments. According to “new US intelligence reports,” “nearly all the insurgents battling US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not religiously motivated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors,” but rather “ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency.”34 Despite the fact that “US commanders and politicians” present the image of fighting “holy warriors seeking to spread a fundamentalist form of Islam,” in reality these fighters “see themselves as opposing the United States because it is an occupying power” according to US intelligence agencies.35 Mohammed Atta, the “ringleader” of the 9/11 attacks, was also motivated to devote himself to a suicide attack by these very same factors. As Lawrence Wright wrote in his book The Looming Tower, “on April 11, 1996, when Atta was twenty-seven years old, he signed a standardized will he got from the al-Quds mosque. It was the day Israel attacked Lebanon in Operation Grapes of Wrath. According to one of his friends, Atta was enraged, and by filling out his last testament during the attack he was offering his life in response.”36 These conclusions were also confirmed by the account of New York Times journalist David Rohde of the seven months he spent as a prisoner of the Taliban. “Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi, and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes,” he writes, “as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged.”37 He further describes how his captors were furious about the “large numbers of civilians” who “had been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories in aerial bombings.”38 Echoing these sentiments, a Kabul resident, speaking about the air raids that were crippling the country, told the BBC “they call themselves a civilized nation and are proud of acting like Hollywood cowboys... They are vultures.”39
It is quite understandable that the victims of US violence in Afghanistan should feel this way, especially when one considers the human rights record of the occupation and invasion. As Noam Chomsky wrote, “the threat of bombing, and then the bombing, were among the most disgraceful acts of modern history, as was known instantly... [t]hat starvation could cause the deaths of millions was the clear, explicit, unmistakable message of just about every international aid agency and those who cared about the people of Afghanistan.”40 Indeed, the humanitarian crisis that was a predicted consequence of the bombing of Afghanistan is horrifying almost beyond words. On the eve of the bombing, a UNHCR spokesman said that “the population is barely managing to survive,” with nearly one-quarter of the population relying on handouts from international aid groups.41 Despite this widespread desperation, on September 16, 2001, it was reported by the New York Times that the US had issued several demands to Pakistan, one of which was “the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population,” a request was predicted at the time to induce “massive starvation.”42
Once the threat of US bombardment became imminent, this situation drastically worsened. The New York Times described how “the threat of military strikes forced the removal of international aid workers, crippling assistance programs;” refugees reaching Pakistan “after arduous journeys from Afghanistan are describing scenes of desperation and fear at home as the threat of American-led military attacks turns their long-running misery into a potential catastrophe.”43 “The country was on a lifeline,” one aid worker said, “and we just cut the line.”44 “It’s as if a mass grave has been dug behind millions of people,” in the words of a Christian Aid worker, “we can drag them back from it or push them in. We could be looking at millions of deaths.” On September 20, the UN Food and Agriculture Agency warned that 6 million people, “nearly one-quarter of the population,” were “facing starvation” if the threatened bombing were initiated.45
The bombing and subsequent invasion did indeed have terrible consequences, thought just how awful will perhaps never be known, since the suffering caused by the crimes of the powerful are rarely if ever investigated. The BBC reported in October that “most agencies have stopped deliveries into the country because of security concerns since US-led air strikes began,” placing “millions” at “enormous risk.”46 Meanwhile, US “food drops” were widely acknowledged to be little more than a “propaganda exercise” in the words of the charity Doctors without Borders, as they delivered merely “a fraction of what the population will need to survive winter.”47 The direct consequences of the bombing were also significant. In April 2008, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said “I am not happy with civilian casualties coming down; I want an end to civilian casualties... As much as one may argue it's difficult, I don't accept that argument... It seriously undermines our efforts to have an effective campaign against terrorism.”48 Reviewing the record, his concerns seem well-founded. Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) have reported that civilian casualties from US bombing in Afghanistan have “been increasing since 2001,” including a 30% jump between 2007 and 2008, “the bloodiest year yet.”49
There are “serious concerns about the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of air strikes” Amnesty writes in its recent report on Afghanistan, “following several grave incidents” which involved large numbers of civilian casualties.50 Furthermore, the use of the chemical agent white phosphorous, which causes “horrendous burns” to all who come into contact with it, has not been denied by the US military, and there is evidence it has been used in civilian areas.51 “To fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” Human Rights Watch recently wrote in an open letter to Barack Obama, “many warlords were placed in positions of authority, relied on for military support, and provided weapons and funds by the US... [which] has shown little appetite for sidelining senior warlords when the opportunity has arisen.”52 When the US or its warlord militia allies arrest Afghans, such as during infamous “night raids” in Afghan houses carried out by the US military, they are “hand[ed] over to the NDS, Afghanistan's intelligence service, which perpetuates human rights violations including torture and arbitrary detention with impunity,” or perhaps sent to one of the torture chambers which the US runs directly.53
Thus, it is US imperialism – the maintenance of brutally repressive regimes all around the world, direct and indirect military invasions and bombings (invariably and inevitably with “large numbers of civilian casualties”54), and other such actions carried out in the interests of US elites – which engenders this anger and frustration among Muslims. Given the large number of Muslim countries which the US has routinely bombed, crippled, and otherwise oppressed, destroyed, and enslaved it should not come as a surprise that such feelings run high among the victims. When these victims see the world in religious terms, these conflicts are perceived and understood through that lens, meriting a response which is in line with a religious interpretation of global conflict and resistance to the US empire. The same can be said of US society. After 9/11, many Americans (with the help of the media and the intellectual establishment) adopted a similar view. Not all of those who saw things this way even rose to the low level of famed Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, who presented the conflict as an inherent “clash of civilizations” in his book of the same name. Others adopted a more messianic posture, such as Blackwater owner Eric Prince, who “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” a view which led him to “encourage and reward the destruction of Iraqi life” after the invasion of that country according to the sworn testimony of a former Blackwater employee.55
There can be no other word for “encouraging and rewarding” the murder of innocent people in the name of a grand religious “crusade” – let alone the other massive crimes discussed here – besides terrorism, a tactic practiced by the US and its agents on a far grander scale than “al Qaeda” or Osama bin Laden could ever dream. The quest to secure and enhance the global domination of US elites has not come peacefully or easily. Where Eric Prince sees himself as a “crusader” for god, our elite leaders destroy and cripple societies, slaughtering and maiming civilians if they deem it neccesary, to secure their reign of terror over the planet and its largely poor, uneducated inhabitants. Unsurprisingly, these actions generate responses, one of which was the attack on September the 11th. As state managers readily understand, if stopping terrorism and Keeping Us Safe is truly the most important goal as Barack Obama and George Bush tell us it is (to say nothing of keeping Afghans or Iraqis safe), US policy must radically change. That necessary change will almost certainly not come from the top down. We must act to force our leaders to embrace democracy, freedom, and self-determination as values that can bring humanity to construct a more positive future, not threats which need to be suppressed and destroyed, both at home and abroad.
1Crowley, Monica. “McChrystal goes rogue,” Washington Times, October 7, 2009.
2Schmitt, Eric and Tom Shanker. “General Calls for More U.S. Troops to Avoid Afghan Failure,” New York Times, September 20, 2009.
3Bergen, Peter. “The Front,” The New Republic, October 19, 2009.
8Burke, Jason. Al -Qaeda. 2003: Taurus Books, New York, pg 6
9Dreyfuss, Robert. “The Phony War,” Rolling Stone, September 2006.
25Hynd, Steve. “Anand Gopal Interview: 'The Taliban Don't Need Al Qaeda Like They Did Eight Years Ago.” Newshoggers, October 19, 2009. Available at http://www.newshoggers.com/blog/2009/10/anand-gopal-interview-the-taliban-dont-need-al-qaeda-like-they-did-eight-years-ago.html
28Quoted in Chomsky, Noam. “Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.” 2006, Metropolitan Books: New York, 202
30Report of the Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on Strategic Communication. United States Department of Defense. September 2004, pg. 40
34Bender, Bryan. “Taliban not main Afghan enemy.” Boston Globe. 2009 October 9.
35Bender, Bryan. “Taliban not main Afghan enemy.” Boston Globe. 2009 October 9.
36Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower. 2006: Knopf, pg. 307
37Rohde, David. “7 Months, 10 Days in Captivity,” New York Times, 17 October 2009
38Rohde, David. “Inside the Emirate.” New York Times, 18 October 2009
39“Fears of Afghan food crisis.” BBC, 9 October 2001.
40Chomsky, Noam. “The Afghanistan Food Crisis,” Z Magazine. 4 September 2005.
41“Afghans flee cities.” UNHCR Press Release, 17 September 2001.
42Burns, John F. “AFTER THE ATTACKS: IN ISLAMABAD; Pakistan Antiterror Support Avoids Vow of Military Aid,” New York Times 16 September 2001.
43Frantz, Douglas. “A NATION CHALLENGED: REFUGEES; Refugees From Afghanistan Flee Out of Fear and Find Despair,” New York Times 30 September 2001.
44Sifton, John. “A Last Road Trip Through Premodern, Postmodern Afghanistan,” New York Times. 30 September 2001
45“Grave Food Crisis in Afghanistan Could Deepen if Current Situation Deteriorates.” UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Special Alert No. 318. 20 September 2001.
46“Fears of Afghan food crisis.” BBC, 9 October 2001.
47“Fears of Afghan food crisis.” BBC, 9 October 2001; “Taleban 'demand tax' on aid convoy.” BBC, 11 October 2001.
48Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch. 8 September 2008.
49Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch. 8 September 2008. Amnesty International Report 2009. Amnesty International.
50Amnesty International Report 2009. Amnesty International.
51“Afghanistan: NATO Should 'Come Clean' on White Phosphorous.” Human Rights Watch, Press Release. 8 May 2009
52“Afghanistan: New US Policy Should Stress Human Rights.” Human Rights Watch, Press Release. 26 March, 2009
53Amnesty International Report 2009. Amnesty International.
54Troops in Contact: Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch. 8 September 2008.
55Scahill, Jeremy. “Blackwater Founder Implicated in Murder,” The Nation, 4 August 2009