War Against the Planet

President George W. Bush of the United States appeared on television sets across the world on the 11th of September and declared War Against the Planet. Not only will those who committed the dreadful crimes of the morning be brought to justice, he declared, but so too will those who once harbored and now continue to harbor them.

Supply ships have started their way to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and toward Spain. A large part of the $40 billion designated by the US Congress will go toward the preparations that have already begun within the US military establishment, in close contact with its allies.

The Taliban, in Afghanistan, quickly pleaded that the suffering of its poor should not be increased with the wrath of the cruise missiles. So did Libya’s Gaddafi.

Others, such as Pakistan, hastily declared their fealty to the US strike back, and pledged to allow planes to fly over its territory. India was not far behind, eager to allow its land for what may be the largest assault since the bombardment of Cambodia and Iraq.

One commentator on the US television networks lamented that the US lost its virginity at 845am on 9/11 when the first plane struck the World Trade Center.

But the war did not begin at that time. This was not Pearl Harbor. The war has been ongoing for quite some time now, at least for five decades.

Indeed, five decades ago the United States assumed charge of that band of nations that stretches from Libya to Afghanistan, most of whom are oil rich and therefore immensely important for global capitalism. The civilizational mandate held by France and Britain came to a close when World War II devastated Europe, and it fell to the US to adopt the white man’s burden. It did so with glee, indeed on behalf, for the most part, of the Seven Sisters, the largest oil conglomerates in the world (most of them US-based transnational corporations).

Alliances forged with right-wing forces in these regions found fellowship from the US, just as the Left fashioned relations with the USSR. The United States participated in the decimation of the Left in north Africa and west Asia, from the destruction of the Egyptian Communist Party, the largest in the region, to the rise of people like Saddam Hussein to take out the vibrant Iraqi Communist Party, and of the Saudi financier Osama bin Laden to take down the Communist Afghan regime.

We hear that 9/11 was the “worst terrorist attack in history,” but this ignores the vast history of bombardment, in general, tracked by Sven Lindquist in his new book (for the New Press), and it certainly ignores the many terrorist massacres conducted in the name of the United States, for instance, such as at Hallabja in Iraq or else in South America by Operation Condor. These are just a few examples. But what is that history before 845am on 9/11, and will it show us that “retaliation” misses out the fact that the US has been at war for many decades already?

I. The Afghan Concession.

In 1930, a US State Department “expert” on Afghanistan offered an assessment which forms the backbone of US social attitudes and state policy towards the region: “Afghanistan is doubtless the most fanatic hostile country in the world today.” Given this, the US saw Afghanistan simply as a tool in foreign policy terms and as a mine in economic terms. When the Taliban (lit. “religious students”) entered Kabul on 27 September 1996, the US state welcomed the development with the hope that the new rulers might bring stability to the region despite the fact that they are notoriously illiberal in social terms. The US media offered a muted and clich?d sense of horror at the social decay of the Taliban, but without any sense of the US hand in the manufacture of such theocratic fascists for its own hegemonic ends. In thirty years,
Afghanistan has been reduced to a “concession” in which corporations and states vie for control over commodities and markets without concern for the dignity and destiny of the people of the region. Oil, guns, landmines and heroin are the coordinates for policy-makers, not the shadowy bodies that hang from the scaffolds like paper-flags of a nation without sovereignty.

Shortly after the Taliban took power in Kabul, the US State Department offered the following assessment: “Taliban leaders have announced that Afghans can return to Kabul without fear, and that Afghanistan is the common home of all Afghans,” announced spokesperson Glyn Davies. The US felt that the Taliban’s assertion in Kabul would allow “an opportunity for a process of reconciliation to begin.” Reconciliation was a distant dream as the troops led by the Tajik warlord, Ahmed Shah Masood and the troops led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Hazara-dominated Hezb-e-Wahdat party disturbed the vales of Afghanistan with warfare. Citizens of the advanced industrial states mouthed clich?s about “timeless ethnic warfare” and “tribal blood-feuds” without any appreciation of the history of Afghanistan that produced these political conflicts (in much the same way as the media speaks of the Tutsi-Hutu turmoil without a sense of colonial Belgium’s role in the production of these politico-ethnic conflicts).

In 1964, King Zahir Shah responded to popular pressure from his subjects with a constitution and initiated a process known as “New Democracy.” Three main forces grew after this phase: (1) the communists (who split into two factions in 1967, Khalq [the masses] and Parcham [the flag]); (2) the Islamic populists, among whom Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-i-Islami from 1973 was the main organization (whose youth leader was the engineering student, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar); (3) constitutional reformers (such as Muhammad Daoud, cousin of Zahir Shah, whose coup of July 1973 abolished the monarchy). Daoud’s consequent repression against the theocratic elements pushed them into exile from
where they began, along with the Pakistani Jamaat-I-Islami and the Saudi Rabitat al-Alam al-Islami, to plot against the secular regime in Afghanistan. In 1975, for instance, the theocratic elements, led by Hikmatyar in Paktia, attempted an uprising with Pakistani assistance, but the “Panjsher Valley incident” was promptly squashed. The first split amongst the theocratic elements occurred in the aftermath of this incident. Instability in Afghanistan led to the communist coup in 1978 and the eventual Soviet military presence in the region from 1979. The valiant attempts to create a democratic state
failed as a result of the inability of hegemonic states to allow the nation to come into its own.

From 1979, Afghanistan became home to violence and heroin production. Money from the most unlikely sources poured into the band of mujahidin forces located in Pakistan: the US, the Saudis (notably their general intelligence service, al-Istakhbara al-‘Ama), the Kuwaitis, the Iraqis, the Libyans and the Iranians paid the theocratic elements over $1 billion per year during the 1980s. The US-Saudi dominance in funding enabled them to choose amongst the various exiled forces — they, along with the Pakistanis, chose seven parties in 1981 that leaned more towards theocratic fascism than toward
secular nationalism. One of the main financiers was the Saudi businessman, Osama bin Laden. Five years later, these seven parties joined the Union of Mujahidin of Afghanistan. Its monopoly over access to the US-Saudi link emboldened it to assassinate Professor Sayd Bahauddin Majrooh in Peshawar in 1988 when he reported that 70% of the Afghan refugees wanted a return to the monarchism of Zahir Shah (who waited in a Roman suburb playing chess). Further, the Interim
Islamic Government of Afghanistan called a shura (council) in 1989; the seven parties nominated all the representatives to the body. All liberal and left wing elements came under systematic attack from the shura and its armed representatives. The US-Saudi axis anointed the theocratic fascists as the heirs to Afghanistan.

With over $1 billion per year, the mujahidin and its Army of Sacrifice (Lashkar-i Isar) led by Hikmatyar (who was
considered the main “factor of stability” until 1988) built up ferocious arsenals. In 1986, they received shoulder-fired Stinger missiles that they began to fire indiscriminately into civilian areas of Afghanistan. Asia Watch, in 1991, reported that Hikmatyar paid his commanders for each rocket fired into Kabul. Claymore mines and other US-made anti-personnel directional fragmentation mines became a staple of the countryside. Today, about 10 million mines still litter the vales of
Afghanistan (placed there by the Soviets and by the US-Saudi backed mujahidin). In 1993, the US State Department noted that landmines “may be the most toxic and widespread pollution facing mankind.” Nevertheless, the US continues to sell mines at $3/mine (mines cost about $300-$1000/mine to detect and dismantle). Motorola manufactures many of the plastic components inside the mines, which makes the device undetectable by metal-detectors.

The CIA learnt to extend its resources during the Southeast Asian campaigns in the 1970s by sale of heroin from the Golden Triangle. In Afghanistan, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) [Pakistan’s CIA], the Pakistani military and civilian authorities (notably Governor Fazle Huq) and the mujahidin became active cultivators, processors and sellers of heroin (a commodity which made its Southern Asian appearance in large numbers only after 1975, and whose devastation can be gleaned in Mohsin Hamid’s wonderful novel, Moth Smoke). The opium harvest at the Pakistan-Afghan border doubled
between 1982 and 1983 (575 tons), but by the end of the decade it would grow to 800 tons. On 18 June 1986, the New York Times reported that the mujahidin “have been involved in narcotics activities as a matter of policy to finance their operations.” The opium warlords worked under cover of the US-Saudi-Pakistani axis that funded their arms sales and aided the conveyance of the drugs into the European and North American markets where they account for 50% of heroin sales.

Heroin is not the only commodity flogged by the mujahidin. They are the front-line troops of an ensemble that wants “commercial freedom” in Afghanistan so that the Afghan people and land can be utilized for “peaceful” exploitation. The California-based oil company Unocal (76), then busy killing the Karens and other ethnic groups in alliance with the Burmese junta and with the French oil company Total, had its eyes on a pipeline from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean, through Afghanistan. Only with an end to hostilities, at any cost, will the international corporations be able to benefit from
the minerals and cheap labor of the Afghans. So far, the corporations have reaped a profit from sales of arms to the Afghans; now they want to use the arms of the Afghans for sweatshops and mines.

For corporations and for corporatized states (such as the US), an unprincipled peace allows them to extract their needs without the bother of political dissent. The Taliban briefly offered the possibility of such a peace. Formed in 1994 under the tutelage of the ISI and General Naseerullah Khan (Pakistan’s Interior Minister), the Taliban comprises southern Pashtun tribes who are united by a vision of a society under Wahhabism which extols a form of Islam (Tariqa Muhammadiya) based on its interpretation of the Quran without the benefit of the centuries of elaboration of the complexities of the Islamic tradition.

In late September 1996, Radio Kabul broadcast a statement from Mullah Agha Gulabi: “God says that those committing adultery should be stoned to death. Anybody who drinks and says that that is not against the Koran, you have to kill him and hang his body for three days until people say this is the body of the drinker
who did not obey the Koran and Allah’s order.” The Taliban announced that women must be veiled and that education would cease to be available for women. Najmussahar Bangash, editor of Tole Pashtun, pointed out shortly thereafter that there are 40, 000 war widows in Kabul alone and their children will have a hard time with their subsistence. Further, she wrote, “if girls are not allowed to study, this will affect a whole generation.” For the US-Saudi-Unocal-Pakistan axis, geo-politics and economics make the Taliban a worthy regime for Afghanistan. Drugs, weapons and social brutalities will
continue, but Washington extended a warm hand towards Mullah Mohammed Omar and the Taliban. US foreign policy is driven by the dual modalities of containment (of rebellion inspired by egalitarianism) and concession (of goods which will bring profit to corporate entities). Constrained by these parameters, the US government was able to state, in 1996, “there’s
on the face of it nothing objectionable at this stage.”

Certainly, on 10 October 1996, the State Department revised its analysis of the Taliban on the basis of sustained pressure from Human Rights and women’s groups in the advanced industrial states as well as pressure from the conferences held by Iran (at which numerous regional nations, such as India participated). In conflict with its earlier statement, the US declared “we do not see the Taliban as the savior of Afghanistan. We never really welcomed them.” The main reason offered for this was the Taliban’s “uniquely discriminatory manner” with women. The US state department would have
done well to mention the heroic attempt made by the communist regime to tackle the “woman question.”

In late 1978, the regime of Nur Mohammad Taraki, President of the Revolutionary Council of Afghanistan, promulgated Decree no. 7 which aimed at a transformation of the marriage institution by attacking its monetary basis and which promoted equality
between men and women. Women took leadership positions in the regime and fought social conservatives and theological fascists on various issues. Anahita Ratebzad was a major Marxist leader who sat on the Revolutionary Council; other notable leaders included Sultana Umayd, Suraya, Ruhafza Kamyar, Firouza, Dilara Mark, Professor R. S. Siddiqui, Fawjiyah Shahsawari, Dr. Aziza, Shirin Afzal and Alamat Tolqun. Ratebzad wrote the famous Kabul Times editorial (28 May 1978) which declared that “Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health
services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country….Educating and enlightening women is now the subject of close government attention.” The hope of 1978 is now lost and the pessimism must not be laid at the feet of the Taliban alone, but also of those who funded and supported the Taliban-like theocratic fascists, states such as the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The real reason for the US frustration with the Taliban was its recalcitrance toward global capitalism (as an example, the Unocal scheme fell apart). The Taliban, created by many social forces, but funded by the Saudis (such as bin Laden) and the CIA, was now in the saddle in the center of Asia, and it soon became a haven for disgruntled and alienated young men who wanted to take out their wrath on the US rather than fight against the contradictions of global capital. Bin Laden, the CIA asset, became the fulcrum of many of their inchoate fears and angers.

II. Oil, Guns and Saddam

During the Gulf War of 1991, a decade ago, the US-Europe discovered the Kurds for a few years. The Kurds and the Kuwaitis provided the war aims for the Alliance, since we kept hearing how Saddam Hussein’s armies had exploited both.

Oil is not the reason, we were repeatedly told; we are only concerned for the ordinary people of the region oppressed by these madmen, such as Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad and the Ayatollahs. We heard little about the recently closed Iran-Iraq war, about the various contradictions in the region, indeed about the role of the US-Europe for several decades in the fabrication of the regimes that ruled here. As the cruise missiles fell on Iraq, we did not then hear that the first major aerial bombardment in modern times took place in December 1923 when the Royal Air Force pummeled the rebellious
Kurds (they felt the wrath of the guns again in March 1924, not being disciplined firmly enough by Headmaster Britain).

In 1932 the British put in place the puppet royal dynasty, the al-Saud family to rule the Arabian Peninsula as Saudi
Arabia. This regime was to protect the “interests” of global capitalism, particularly after oil was discovered there in the early 1930s. The British put King Faisal over the newly created Iraq, a Sunni leader over a predominantly Shi’ite land.

Workers movements in the region came under attack from these regimes, many of which violently crushed democratic dissent in the name of the dollar. Henry Kissinger was later to create political theory of a policy that had been long in the works: that the US should lock arms with any political leader who will resist the will of socialism, who will ensure that international capitalism’s dictates be maintained and who can therefore be a “factor of stability.” The rogue gallery of this policy includes a host of CIA assets, such as the Noreiga, Marcos, Pinochet, Suharto, the Shah of Iran, the various Gulf
Sheikhs, and latterly such fundamentalist friends as the BJP in India. Even when some of these leaders flirted with the Soviets (Saddam and al-Assad), their usefulness to US policy prevented a break in their links to the CIA, mainly to contain domestic left-wing dissent.

The Ayatollah may have been a natural asset, but his regime was stamped by a radical and patriarchially egalitarian Shi’ism that terrified the Oil Kingdoms, whose tenuous rule was now bolstered even further by the armies of the imperial powers and their proxy state at this time, Iraq. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out, people
spoke of it as a sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis, but few pointed out that Iraq has a large Shia population and that Iraq fought primarily with the backing of the US and its alliance to “contain” the Iranian revolution and the rule of the Mullahs. Saddam, then, was friend not foe.

During these years, no one mentioned the Kurds. For decades the communist movement grew amongst the Kurds, both in Turkey and in northern Iraq. But by the early 1970s, the CIA entered the battlefield to cut down the left and bolster the right. Between 1972 and 1975 the CIA paid $16 million to the eccentric and untrustworthy Mullah Mustafa Barzani as a “moral guarantee” of US support for this activities. In 1959, Barzani had expelled the communists from his mainly Iraqi
party and he had sent Iranian Kurds to their death in the camps of the Shah. Barzani was an asset that the US cultivated, and is now a close ally of Saddam Hussein, another US asset.

In 1975, Marxist-Leninists within the Kurdish resistance formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which pushed many Kurds to the Left, including those in the Iraqi Kurdish Front formed in 1988. Saddam Hussein was given the green light by Washington to take out the PUK, and he conducted chemical bombing on them in 1983 (at Arbil) and most spectacularly in 1988 (at Halabja, where five thousand died, and many thousand continue to suffer). The outrage of Halabja created a momentary stir in the Left media, but nothing was done then because Saddam was a US ally and asset – it returned to do ideological work during the Gulf War.

As many died at Halabja as on 9/11, but their death does not factor in when NPR announces that 9/11 was the “worst terrorist attack in history.” When terror is conducted in our name, then it is not terror but “retaliation.”

III. Revenge or Justice?

President Bush promises to get those who did the bombings in New York and Washington, but he also promises that those who harbor them will feel the wrath of the US. This is the most dangerous statement so far. Not only does it violate all manner of international laws, it ignores the fact that the US has harbored these criminals for years, mainly at the expense of the global Left.

Saddam and bin Laden are products of the US, even as they, like Frankenstein’s beast, turn against their
master now. The lesson is not to continue the madness, to go after the symptom with $40 billion of firepower. The lesson, for all democratic minded people, is to undermine the basis of our global insecurity.

First those people who did the horrendous deed on 9/11 must be found, arrested and brought to trial. The path of justice should not be short-circuited by the emotions of the moment.

Second, our fight in the US continues, as we continue to point out that US foreign policy engenders these acts of
barbarism by its own desire to set-up strong-arm “factors of stability” in those zones of raw materials and markets that must be subservient to US corporate interests. Vast areas of anger, zones of resentment will continue to emerge – this is not the way forward. Another indiscriminate bombardment will bring forth more body bags for the innocent.

History shows us that the US was not innocent on 9/11, even as thousands of innocent people died. We should not confuse these two things: the terrorists made no distinction between those who conduct political and economic terror over their lives, between a regime that they dislike, corporate interests that they revile and innocent people who live in the same spaces. The terror of the frustrated works alongside the terror of the behemoth to undermine the powerful and democratic
urges of the people. Both of those terrors must be condemned. CP

Vijay Prashad
Associate Professor and Director,
International Studies Program
Trinity College, Hartford, CT

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).