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A CounterPunch Special Report

The Field of Battle

by Robin Blackburn

It is inherent in the concept of a terrorist act that it aims at an effect very much larger than the direct physical destruction it causes. Proponents of what used to be called the ‘propaganda of the deed’ also believed that in the illuminating glare of terror the vulnerability of a corrupt order would be starkly revealed. Once corruption and oppression were stripped away, a sacred or natural order–the nation, the religious community, the people–would come into its own.

The instigators of September 11 brought off a far more spectacular coup than any exponent of the propaganda of the deed, threaten more than a dozen of the world’s most autocratic and corrupt rulers and aim to summon to arms a religious community of well over a billion people. The resources disposed of by these men transcend those traditionally associated with terrorism and are closer to those of a small state, but a state without boundaries whose headquarters hops from country to country.

Given the extent of the destruction wrought by the September 11 attack it is sobering to realise that the effect aimed at is qualitatively larger, namely that of re-ordering world politics around a ‘clash of civilisations’, allowing the Islamic world to free itself of all infidel trammels. Whether the strategic director of the Al Qaeda network is Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri or someone else, their aim from the outset was to provoke the United States into a counter-reaction that would alienate Muslim opinion; to expose the hypocrisy of the hereditary and autocratic rulers of the Muslim world; to create conditions in which the forces of Islamic jihad could seize or manipulate power in one or another of the larger or more significant Muslim states.

The new Caliphates at which they aim might appear a medieval fantasy but are to be equipped with the military and financial resources of modernity. They urge believers to consider the awesome power of Muslim leaders equipped with Islamic virtue, oil and nuclear weapons. Given the frustrated or desperate condition of much of the Muslim world, this is a message that has great resonance even amongst Muslims who are uneasy at, or repelled by, terror actions. The message targets the military actions and dispositions of the United States and Israel, especially as they are deemed to encroach on Muslim holy places, but it is also aimed at the existing governments of the Islamic world, seen as pawns of the West.

The September 11 attack invited a response and Al Qaeda did little to cover its tracks. The leaders of Al Qaeda, and those close to them in the Taliban leadership, may have felt that they needed to widen the conflict and escape the problems of famine and drought. The latter were forcing them into dependency on the international aid agencies and the US anti-drug program. In such desperate circumstances the goal of Al Qaeda was probably to draw the United States into the Afghan minefield while boosting its position elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The US president responded to September 11 by proclaiming a global, US-led ‘war on terrorism’. Washington sought every conceivable ally or partner but insisted on retaining complete control of its ‘war’. The UN and the Security Council were asked to support the US effort, and each of their members to help in whatever way they could, but there was to be no formal anti-terrorism coalition and no supranational organisation to embody it. If this is the new ‘cold war’, as some have suggested, it is very differently structured. On one side there is the world’s most powerful state, with its 20th century weapons systems and a global system of alliances. On the other there is a terror network of perhaps no more than a few thousand men, acting as a self-proclaimed ‘Muslim vanguard’, but occasionally able to ignite the resentments and frustrations of tens or even hundreds of millions in the Islamic world. At the height of the Cold War the Communist states ruled one third of the world’s population, had military means that seemed a match for those of its global competitor and believed that they could beat the capitalist west at its own game of economic growth. Al Qaeda may have the economic and military resources of a statelet but it aims to shape the thinking of a civilisation. Its members are drawn from many nationalities and have been active in Central Asia, the Balkans, Europe, North America, Kashmir, China, Indonesia and the Phillippines as well as the Middle East and Africa. Its ideology is fuelled by a sense of injury and wounded pride rather than material aspiration. It is virulently anti-infidel and misogynist, anti-secular without being at all anti-capitalist, and egalitarian without being democratic. Islamic civilisation has always left great scope for mercantile capitalism. The neo-fundamentalism of the eighties and nineties, forged in a battle with godless Communism and in reaction to royalist bureaucracy and corruption, accentuated this legacy by basing itself on strong and responsible Islamic business and faith-based charity. While prepared to work with a variety of Islamic political authorities the project of Al Qaeda transcends such boundaries aiming to unite the faithful against the infidels who have insulted and oppressed Islam.

In World War II liberal capitalism and autocratic Communism fought as allies against fascism. But in the postwar period the West feared a loss of control in the Middle East and so it allied with the most conservative forces in the Islamic world. The Saudi and Iranian monarchies were chosen as the strategic allies needed to protect Middle Eastern oil resources while secular nationalists like Mossadegh in Iran or Kassem in Iraq were destabilised and replaced. In fact the Western system of alliances is not simply a relic of the Cold War but rather a palimpsest that reflects, layer on layer, a longer history and a colonialism that mummified an extraordinary collection of archaic or pseudo-archaic regimes. This embraces Saudi Arabia with its 30,000-strong Royal Family, the Shaikhs of Bahrein, Qattar and Kuwait, the Sultan of Oman, and the Emirates–boasting the world’s longest-serving head of state, Shaikh Sakir al-Qasimi of Ras al-Khaimah, who ascended his throne in 1948. When we add to those the Sultan of Brunei in the South China sea it is as if oil is a pickling fluid akin to formaldehyde projecting into the 21st century simulacra of the Anciens Regimes of former times. Pakistan, with its notorious ‘feudals’, does not have oil but enjoys an intimate pact with the oil sheikhdoms. The paradox here for liberal, bourgeois and nationalist forces in the Middle East was that the power that should have been their great ally, the United States, actually blocked them at every turn and preferred to do business with royal absolutists.

The US-sponsored Arabian and Gulf regime associates the West with corruption, autocracy and stagnation at a time when there is a yearning for a new start in the Arab world. The dilemma of US policy is that it understandably wishes to avoid a ‘clash of civilisations’ while remaining fearful of renewal within the Muslim world. It was a tribute to Washington’s diplomacy that its assault on Afghanistan aroused so little official censure in the Muslim world, but an indication of the fragility of this success that no Muslim state was willing to play an active and public role in the attack. Notwithstanding continuing corrections and adjustments–dumping the terms ‘crusade’ and ‘infinite justice’ for the campaign against Al Qaeda, strenuously cultivating old and new Muslim allies–the US failed to extricate itself from the strategic trap it faces. It prefered to talk of war than of a police operation. And it was planning a new government in Afghanistan based on ‘moderate’ Taliban and Northern warlords and mercenary tribal elders under the aegis of the former monarch, Zahir Shah. So far as the wider Islamic world is concerned this strategy simultaneously offends the Islamicists and those who yearn for more democracy, autonomy and self-respect. Religious fanatics and bourgeois or petty-bourgeois democrats are not natural allies–in Iran they are at loggerheads–but in the territories where the United States has allied itself with feudal and autocratic reaction these two currents find a common antagonist. The White House may genuinely believe that the interests of global capitalism are best promoted by its pact with the oil dynasties and their Pakistani and Egyptian hangers-on, but this is not true. The pact may deliver slightly cheaper oil, and privileges to Western oil corporations, but it stifles the growth of an autonomous business culture and circuits of accumulation in the region itself. The resulting frustrations create conditions which politicise religious fanaticism, especially in those countries where such fanaticism is one of the few officially-tolerated species of public activity.

The US attack on Afghanistan was certainly anticipated. Just a few days before September 11 Massoud, the commander of the anti-Taliban forces, was assassinated by agents of Al Qaeda, posing as journalists. This action was calculated to both please and strengthen the Taliban, by ridding them of their most dangerous enemy, and to leave the United States with less credible local allies. The warlords of the Northern Alliance are dependent on autocratic governments in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that are seen as stooges of neighbouring powers. With all its failings the Northern Alliance is preferable to the Taliban, but it does not represent a force for democracy and does not shield the invaders from the charge of being alien to Islam. Matters will not be improved by giving key positions to ‘moderate Taliban’ and royalists. This approach risks the worst of both world–discouraging those who yearn for a more tolerant social order, for secular progress and for an Afghan regime not beholden to foreigners while failing to win over or appease the religious fanatics, or seriously to erode their appeal.

Washington strives not to inflame Muslim opinion, or to allow the conflict to be defined as a war of religions. It hopes that the danger can be avoided by allowing its Muslim allies to adopt a low profile, or even to stand aside. The UN may be handed responsibility for occupied areas of Afghanistan but Iranian and Egyptian proposals that the UN should take charge of the anti-terrorism campaign were rejected. Given the UN’s long history giving cover to US military campaigns, from Korea to Kosovo, entrusting it with nominal responsibility post facto will be of limited value in averting the danger of a ‘clash of civilisations’. The UN could sponsor an accord against terrorism and the creation of a supranational force to police it. But such an approach would have little legitimacy if credible governments from the Muslim world are excluded. An international and supranational approach would be far more effective longterm at tackling terrorism than a US-led and defined ‘war’.but will not easily be accepted in Washington since it would challenge imperial ideology and control. The Bush team see themselves as champions of the American people and US capitalism but in fact neither require direct US control of Middle Eastern oil, as we will see below.

The most difficult thing for the strategists of Empire to perceive, or explain to the American people, is that the best and perhaps only effective coalition against Al Qaeda and the Taliban will be one that they do not lead and do not control. The leaflets dropped on with the food packages carried a message that this was a contribution from ‘The Partnership of Nations’ in English and Pushtu. The use of this hollow rubric–perhaps sounding like United Nations in translation–testified to a deficit of legitimacy. The United States has standing against Al Qaeda because of what its citizens have suffered at its hands. But nobody really believes that the Taliban ordered the September 11.

While I will focus on Washington’s sins of omission and commission I believe it would be wrong to slight the ability of the Bush administration to impose its own definitions on domestic opponents, and on allies and even enemies, abroad. The US president has sometimes been presented as a figure of fun but this has not stopped him having the last laugh on those who ridiculed him. Unlike more brilliant leaders he surrounds himself with a capable and experienced team, and sometimes heeds words of caution. The secret of his strength–and his fatal flaw–may be the instinctive rapport he enjoys with those gripped by US national messianism, the idea that only the United States can tackle the really big global threats and that whatever the US does is ipso facto favourable to freedom. These sentiments are often accompanied by deprecation of international organisations, an unwillingness to consider global complexities, or to contemplate any sacrifice of US sovereignty. The casualties on September 11 were on a terrible scale but our world bristles with these and greater dangers, notably that of encouraging a ‘clash of civilisations’ linked to weapons of mass destruction.

Jonathan Schell has drawn out attention to what he calls, in a book of that name, The Unfinished Twentieth Century. Schell argues that with the end of the Cold War in 1989, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the huge apparatus of nuclear deterrence became redundant, yet it was neither scrapped or negotiated away. Russia, China and the other nuclear powers were not invited to dismantle–or even to drastically reduce–their nuclear weapons systems. The 1972 treaty against biological weapons was useless because there was no enforcement agency nor mandatory inspection. Sixty major overseas US military bases were maintained in forty countries, backed up by over seven hundred other military installations. What was true of weapons systems and overseas bases also applied to alliances. NATO was not disbanded, nor widened to include Russia. Instead it expanded eastwards and a type of ghostly and surreptitious Cold War against unnamed ‘global competitors’ (actually Russia and China) was perpetuated.

Also still in place was that palimpsest of alliances inherited from colonialism and the Cold War, so that the United States entered the new century encumbered and compromised by all that was most backward-looking and discredited in the Islamic world. During the Cold war the military confrontation was precariously regulated by the ‘balance of terror’. Today not only is this lacking but the ‘war against terrorism’ will stoke Muslim resentment in a widening arc of states and could eventually give Al Qaeda the influence it aims at in a nuclear state. The dangers of an escalation of terror, and of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, are very much increased if hundreds of millions of people believe themselves to be nursing legitimate grievances.

The imperial role is justified on the grounds that the United States has a special destiny as world leader and champion of freedom. These roles, it is believed, require Washington to meet the threat of rogue states acquiring weapons of mass destruction, to pre-empt ‘global competitors’, to secure sources of scarce raw materials (especially oil), and to guarantee the personal security of ordinary Americans. Yet the truth is that the empire does not secure these goals, and actually makes ‘blowback’ more likely, as Chalmers Johnson so presciently argued. A healthier US polity could dispense with the cumbersome and expensive apparatus of empire, set the scene for a broader, more pluralistic global capitalism, and promote the competence and authority of supranational agencies in the fields of disarmament, anti-terrorism and peace-keeping. But the vested interests which stand in the way of these goals are those of a bloated military-industrial complex and re-charged presidency.

Chapter 2

The Imperial Presidency and National Messianism