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Why This War Is Wrong

by Gary Leupp

Last semester, following the September 11 attacks, faculty at Tufts and many other universities spoke out against war preparations. As U.S. attacks upon Afghanistan began on October 7, we spoke out against the bombing. The Tufts Daily editorially disparaged our statements, dismissing them as “60s rhetoric.” Meanwhile, a national right-wing think tank inveighed against academics as the “weak link” in the “war on terrorism,” while some mainstream pundits found antiwar intellectuals less threatening than “irrelevant.” In the view of the latter, the marvelous success of the bombing in bringing down the Taliban and routing al-Qaeda, and the continuation of relative stability in Pakistan, proved the propriety of the president’s course and rendered the standpoint of the anti-war left merely ludicrous.

In fact, our dissent has been wholly justified by the events since. What has the bombing brought to Afghanistan and the world? Two positive developments: the overthrow of the Taliban regime, and the perhaps fatal weakening of al-Qaeda. Not that one should overstate these successes. Many members of the Taliban, including some former leaders like the notorious Justice Minister Nooruddin Turabi, have been released or were never under detention; while the Taliban’s fundamentalist Islamic ideology retains a social base and dangerous influence in the country. Many believe that tribesmen hired by the U.S. to search the caves of Tora Bora actually allowed hundreds of al-Qaeda forces to escape into Pakistan. But the thugs that pulverized the Buddhas of Bamiyan have been toppled, and while al-Qaeda may survive, its command center has probably been shut down. But what about these other results?

1. The bombing has produced a power vacuum, in which violence and drug-trafficking flourish. Shootings, looting, murder and kidnapping, in Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh, Kabul, Kandahar and elsewhere, have been reported by journalists, humanitarian workers and UN spokespersons. In Kabul, a man interviewed by a reporter from the Observer said, “We were expecting peace, but we were much happier before. We don’t want to see anyone with a gun walking in the streets.” An MSNBC reporter wrote January 25, “In spite of the widespread popular perception that the war is over, the bourgeoning reports of threats against foreign targets in Kabul suggest the conflict cannot be considered over even within the capital itself.”

Bandits infest main roads. There is no functioning national military or police force, and the warlords who are really in charge routinely violate human rights. In November, U.S. ally General Abdul Raschid Dostum’s forces summarily executed over 400 captured Taliban in Mazar-e Sharif. Militias control the streets of major cities, abusing women, demanding money from foreigners, and squabbling with other militias over turf. Opium production, successfully curbed by the Taliban, is back big-time.

2. The bombing has re-empowered the Northern Alliance. The human rights record of the main Northern Alliance leaders (mostly Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras) is abysmal. The State Department is well aware of it; most of the warlords had cordial ties with the CIA in the 1980s. They are particularly feared and hated by the population of Kabul, who suffered under their rule from 1993 to 1996. The Pakistani military, which plays a significant role in the “coalition against terrorism,” hates them because of their abuses of Pashtuns, and was therefore disturbed when Alliance forces moved into Kabul November 12, reinstalling former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, before a coalition government could be formed insuring Pashtun representation. The interim government created in Bonn three weeks later was supposed to be such a coalition government, but over half its 30 seats went to Northern Alliance representatives. Interim head of state Hamid Karzai was once deputy minister of foreign affairs in a Rabbani cabinet. Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Defense ministries all went to Tajik Northern Alliance figures. Alliance warlords like Ismail Khan and Dostum, who command private armies and head ethnically based Islamic political organizations, control most of the country. Dostum demanded and received the post of deputy minister of defense on the day of Karzai’s inauguration.

Consider the history of these warlords. In January and February 1994, Dostum and former CIA favorite Gulbuddin Hekmatyar jointly attacked Rabbani’s forces; killing 4,000, injuring 21,000, and forcing 200,000 to flee Kabul. Various Northern Alliance militias killed about 50,000 around Kabul before the Taliban came to power. Indeed, it was the general climate of lawlessness that made the Taliban, with its emphasis on restoration of law and order, based strictly on Islam, appeal to many.

Already, factions of the Northern Alliance have again skirmished in northern Afghanistan. Forces loyal to Defense Minister Fahim have exchanged fire with forces loyal to the Deputy Defense Minister Dostum! (Not encouraging.) Of course, the infighting extends beyond the Northern Alliance. Two Pashtun factions have clashed in Khost, and Kandahar warlord Gul Agha Sherzai has threatened to lead 20,000 troops to attack Ismail Khan’s fief around Herat. Many fear a return to the Rabbani-era violence. A few thousand international peacekeepers around Kabul will do little to comfort them. (Small wonder that the UN is now talking about maybe sending 30,000 peacekeepers to Afghanistannot that that would liberate its people.)

Some argue that at least women’s status is somehow improving through all of this. In fact, the prospect that once rid of the Taliban, women would be able to come out from behind the veil hasn’t materialized. It was Rabbani who issued a rule in 1994 making the burqa obligatory for women in Kabul. Between 1978 and 1992, many women had adopted western or modified traditional dress; the post-Soviet leadership (back in power now) deplored that. The Taliban did not invent the burqa nor were they the first attempt to impose it on all women; key figures in the current power structure seem as committed as the Taliban to restricting Afghan women’s progress in the struggle for sexual equality.

3.. The bombing has killed thousands of civilians. It looks likely that the Afghan civilian toll now far exceeds the loss of life in New York and Washington DC September 11. A study by University of New Hampshire Professor of International Relations Marc W. Herold, published in mid-December, cited credible journalistic reports indicating that over 3700 Afghani civilians had been killed by U.S. bombing to that point. These included about 100 killed in Karam in November (reported by Time); at least 128 civilians when bombs destroyed the village of Shahagha November 10 (CNN); and 150 in Kama Ado December 1 (Boston Globe, NBC). Since then, some of the more destructive attacks killed 60 in a civilian convoy in the village of Asmani Kilai December 21 (Guardian), and up to 107 were at Qalaye Niazi, on December 28 (Reuters). Herold now puts the reasonably documented minimal civilian death count at over 4000.

The imprecision of the bombingmanifest from the outset, when four U.N. landmine-sweeping specialists were killedwas never better illustrated than on December 2, when three U.S. Special Forces, and five Afghan allies, were killed by “friendly fire” north of Kandahar. Hamid Karzai himself was wounded by shrapnel. Meanwhile, unexploded bomblets, like those that killed seven children in a village near Mazar-e Sharif this month, will pose a threat for a long time.

In late December, Defense Minister Fahim stated that now that al-Qaeda was defeated, the U.S. should stop bombing Afghanistan. A Defense Ministry spokesman added that the “remaining [al-Qaeda] forces are few in number and may be annihilated in a maximum of three days, and once this is done there is no need for the continuation of the [U.S.] bombing. We demand America stop its bombing of Afghanistan after this goal is achieved.” Gen. Tommy Franks’ response (from President Bush’s Texas ranch): “We will not be pressed into doing something that does not represent our national objectives, and we will take as long as it takes.” The new Afghan “government” has no veto power over U.S. bombing of its own territory.

4. The bombing has produced further destabilization from the Middle East to Central Asia. The bombing has confirmed many Muslims’ (and not only “fundamentalists'”) perception of the U.S. as anti-Muslim, while encouraging leaders engaged in conflict with movements rooted among Muslim populations (Sharon, Vajpayee, Putin, Jiang etc.) to depict their agendas as part of the “global war on terrorism.” Governments of Muslim countries closely associated with the U.S. are becoming increasingly concerned about by the level of outrage towards U.S. actions evident among their populations. The recent Washington Post story, indicating that Saudi Arabia’s rulers feel the U.S. has “overstayed its welcome” in the country since the Gulf War, suggests that even this most intimate of U.S. allies is concerned that the U.S. presence at Prince Sultan Air Base might lead to its own downfall, in an Iran-style Islamic revolution. Meanwhile the Israeli government feels it has the green light to go to war on the Palestinian Authority (as a “terrorist” organ), and the Indian government to attack Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism. The world seems a more, rather than less, dangerous place now than before the bombing began October 7.

5. The success of the bombing, and accompanying (cheerleading) press reports, in sustaining widespread popular war support, have emboldened the administration to carry the war into a second reckless phase, with no end of targets in sight. Bush announced last year that 2002 will be a “war year;” Cheney has stated that he anticipates a long war beyond our lifetimes. Rumsfeld has stated that the war is about “a lot more than just al-Qaeda.” The administration plainly hopes that an “America United” will enthusiastically endorse whatever expansion of the amorphous “war on terrorism” it announces. The early favorite for Target Number Two seems to have been Iraq. Allies may have vetoed that, and there are problems with attacking Iran, Lebanon, Somalia and Yemen as well. Oddly, it became the fate of the Philippines, a close U.S. ally, to become the second venue for U.S. action.

In mid-January the U.S. began dispatching over 600 Green Berets and other U.S. forces to the Philippines to assist the Armed Forced of the Philippines (AFP) in crushing the Abu Sayyaf group of Islamic separatists in the southern Philippines. The Abu Sayyaf group is supposedly a component of al-Qaeda and its destruction a next natural step in the “war on terrorism.” But consider the following.

The State Department’s website on international terrorist groups puts Abu Sayyaf’s fighting strength at only about 200. The highest estimate I’ve seen is 1000. The AFP has 107,000 troops, about 7000 deployed in the area where Abu Sayyaf is active. President Arroyo has stated that the AFP is perfectly capable of handling Abu Sayyaf and other counterinsurgency matters in the Philippines. (It reportedly killed 18 Abu Sayyaf members January 24.)

But when Arroyo met President Bush last fall, he offered her U.S. ground troops to fight Abu Sayyaf insurgents. Arroyo declined; the constitution of the Philippines prohibits the deployment of foreign combat troops, and acceptance of such an offer would mean political suicide. This offer rebuffed, Bush offered U.S. Special Forces to “train” Philippines troops. Arroyo (for whatever reasons) agreed. This produced a political crisis in the Philippines, particularly when it was announced that the U.S. forces would be deployed in a combat zone in the southern Philippines, where they would necessarily exercise the right to self-defense. The vice-president and foreign secretary threatened to resign; even the former defense minister, now-senator Juan Ponce Enrile, called the agreement unconstitutional.

That crisis forced the Arroyo government to reverse its earlier statement that the U.S. troops would join AFP in combat areas and announce that they will train Filipino troops on bases only. But it’s not clear that the U.S. will accept that. The U.S. government appears to be pressuring an uneasy, unenthusiastic host to accept a greater degree of U.S. involvement in counterinsurgency than the host requires or desires. The presence of U.S. troops can become a major political liability, in the Philippines as in Saudi Arabia.

It is obvious that Arroyo did not go to Washington eager to invite U.S. soldiers to her country, nor does she believe that the Philippines has a big al-Qaeda problem that can only be solved with U.S. help. Indeed, she told Agence Press-France this month that there is no evidence for Abu Sayyaf contacts with al-Qaeda since 1995, and that there is no al-Qaeda operation in the Philippines.

On January 25 CNN aired a half-hour special “Live from the Philippines” that gave the U.S. public its first “in-depth” view of the “second phase of the war on terrorism.” This was highly sympathetic to the deployment of U.S. forces (this was, after all, CNN: there was an invitation at the bottom of the screen to go online and “vote” on “what country should be the next target in the war on terrorism?”) But it also noted the existence of widespread opposition to U.S. military presence, especially among “nationalists” and “leftists.”

The most surprising revelation in the report was that in the late 1980s bin Laden visited the Philippines and primarily assisted a group called the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, rather than Abu Sayyaf. This is apparently a much larger group centered on Mindanao. The CNN report sought to link them closely with al-Qaeda, as if to assure anyone questioning the legitimacy of this “second phase” that this is, indeed, still all about September 11 and 2,900 dead.

How arrogant U.S. action must seem to many Filipinos! The Philippines was a U.S. colony from 1898 to 1946. The U.S. bought the Philippines from Spain following the Spanish-American War, and refused to accept the independent republic announced by Emilio Eguinaldo. In the “Philippines Insurrection” (1898- 1902), one-tenth of the Filipino population was killed by U.S. occupation forces. In the postwar period the U.S. has assisted unpopular Philippine governments in anti-communist counterinsurgency campaigns, notably under the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos overthrown by the “People Power” revolution of 1986. (The notoriously corrupt Marcos found comfortable exile after that in Hawai’i, having stashed away hundreds of millions in foreign banks.)

There is a well-organized political left in the Philippines, including a Maoist guerrilla force, estimated by the U.S. State Department at six or seven thousand, engaged in on-and-off peace negotiations with the government. These guerrillas (like so many other disparate groups, like the African National Congress at once time) are regarded as “terrorists” by the State Department, and the media is already beginning to conflate all listed groups as an ubiquitous threat to Americans. Given the extreme vagueness of the objectives of the current “war,” who knows what new targets it may choose? “A lot more than just al-Qaeda,” said Secretary Rumsfeld. Hamas in Palestine? Hezbullah in Lebanon? When does the net widen to include the radical left, like Maoists in Nepal, the Philippines and India? Will it really make any difference a year from now whether the target of U.S. rage has anything at all to do with September 11?

6. The bombing campaign has resulted in the projection of U.S. military power even further around the world. There has never been a more ubiquitous imperialist power than the U.S.A. Now U.S. bases designed for indefinite operation have been established in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan, and the Pakistanis have turned over at least one base to exclusive U.S. use. Although the U.S. government has assigned “peacekeeping operations” in Afghanistan to European allies, the U.S. commander of “Operation Enduring Freedom” will oversee all foreign troops in the country. While the U.S. has not colonized Afghanistan, and is probably incapable of controlling the many armed groups and factions in the country, it will undoubtedly be in a position to control Afghanistan’s future in the near term, as new rulers negotiate lucrative contracts for the construction of oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean. Is this a good thing for the people of the planet?

The “war on terrorism” has, in short, itself unleashed much terror on the world (while failing to apprehend Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar). Its planners, drawing political support from the feelings of grief and outrage, and carefully manipulated patriotic sentiment, have sought to win from the American public a blank check to bomb anywhere, anytime, to fight any source of what they label “terrorism.” Public opinion polls showing widespread U.S. support for an attack on Iraq (which seems to have had no connection to the September 1 events) confirm their success so far, but I think that will change. I am proud in this context to be part of the “weak link” of thinking people opposed to this unconscionable war, and urge my colleagues and everyone in the Tufts community to question it and speak out against it.

Gary Leupp is associate professor of History and Adjunct Associate Professor of Comparative Religion, Tufts University, Medford, MA. He can be reached at:

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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