New Crusade: The U.S. War on Terrorism

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New Crusade: The U.S. War on Terrorism
by Rahul Mahajan
July 2002


(c) Rahul Mahajan, July 2002

Rahul Mahajan is a graduate student in physics at the University of Texas at Austin and an antiwar activist, serving on the national boards of Peace Action and the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. A prolific political analyst and commentator, his writings on U.S. foreign policy and globalisation have been published in newspapers like the Baltimore Sun and Houston Chronicle, as well as alternative publications like Extra! and the Texas Observer. He is a founding member of the Nowar Collective

The following briefing was written for Rahul Mahajan's new book, "THE NEW CRUSADE: AMERICA's WAR ON TERRORISM" (Monthly Review Press, March 2002,


The world changed on September 11. That's not just media hype. The way some historians refer to 1914–1991 as the "short twentieth century," many are now calling September 11, 2001, the real beginning of the twenty-first century. It's too early to know whether that assessment will be borne out, but it cannot simply be dismissed.

The attacks of September 11 forever ended the idea that the United States could somehow float above the rest of the earth, of it and not of it at the same time. Americans can no longer foster the illusion that what happens to the rest of the world doesn't affect them. It is more crucial than ever that we understand what kind of world we are living in, and what the United States has done to make it what it is.

It is not enough to say that the attacks were crimes against humanity, though they were, and that terrorism like that must be stopped, though it must. It's also not enough to say that the hijackers were religious extremists, though they were. One must also understand the role the United States has played in promoting religious extremism, directly, as in the Afghan jihad, and indirectly, by destroying all alternatives through its ceaseless attacks on the left and by pursuing policies that foster resentment and anger

It is of particular importance to understand its newest policies, the so-called "war on terrorism." Of the many ways to approach it, perhaps the most straightforward is to examine the official view of the war on terrorism that has emerged and is being pushed on the public, and refuting it point by point. These are some of the main myths about that war:

The attack was like Pearl Harbor, and therefore, as in the Second World War, we had to declare war or risk destruction

The truth is that Pearl Harbor was an attack by a powerful, expansionist state that had the capacity to subjugate all of East Asia. The attacks of September 11 were committed by nineteen men, part of a series of networks that has a few thousand hard-core militants, with access to modest financial resources. Since they were hardly an immediate, all-encompassing threat, options other than war could have been explored.

This was an attack on freedom

Whatever considerations exist in the mind of Osama bin Laden or members of his network, his recently broadcast statements contain no mention of any resentment of American democracy, freedom, or the role of women. They mention specific grievances regarding U.S. policy in the Middle East: the sanctions on Iraq, maintained largely by the United States, which have killed over one million civilians; material and political support for Israel's military occupation of Palestine and its frequent military attacks, carried out with American weapons, on practically unarmed Palestinians; and U.S. military occupation of the Gulf and support for corrupt regimes that serve the interests of U.S. corporations before those of the people. The terrorists' own vision for the states of the Middle East is, if imaginable, even more horrific than the current reality, and would presumably involve even greater limits on freedom than are already in place. Their recruiting points, however, the issues that make them potentially relevant as a political force, have to do with U.S. domination of the region, not with the internal organization of American society.

You're with us or you're with the terrorists

This polarization, foisted on the world to frighten possible dissenters from America's course of action, is the logic of tyranny, even of extermination. Anti-war protesters who condemn the terrorist attacks of September 11 along with the criminal acts of the United States in Afghanistan, and countries that do the same, don't fit into this scheme, and certainly don't deserve to be tarred with the same brush as the terrorists.

The war on Afghanistan was self-defense

In fact, people in Afghanistan at the time of the attack had no way of menacing the United States from afar since they have no ICBMs or long-range bombers. Someone in Afghanistan intending to attack the United States had to get there first. If there was an imminent threat, it was from terrorists already in the United States or in Europe. Thus, there was enough time to seek Security Council authorization, which is required unless one is attacking the source of an imminent threat. Instead, the U.S. deliberately chose not to seek it. The four weeks between the attack and the war that passed virtually without incident are proof that there was no immediate, overwhelming need for military action, a fundamental requirement of any claim to act in self-defense.

The Bush administration turned away from its emerging unilateralism (pulling out of the Kyoto protocols, sabotaging the ABM treaty with Russia, etc.) to a new multilateralism

This assumes that "multilateralism" means first pre-determining one's agenda, then attempting to browbeat or bribe other countries into agreement or acquiescence. True multilateralism would involve setting up international structures that are democratic, transparent, and accountable to the people, institutions, and governments of the world and abiding by the decisions of these authorities whether favorable or not. The United States has consistently set itself against any such path. In this case, the United States refused even to seek the authority from the appropriate body in this case, the Security Council. This even though the United States could likely have gained its acquiescence by use of its standard methods of threats and bribery. It seems that the United States wishes very firmly and deliberately to claim the right of unilateral aggression.

There were four weeks of restraint as the Bush administration tried a diplomatic solution to the problem

Much of the "restraint" was simply to find time to move troops and materiel into place and to browbeat reluctant countries like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan into providing staging areas and overflight rights. Also, there was real concern about destabilizing many allied governments in the Islamic world. No diplomatic solution was tried; the administration line was consistently "no negotiations." They made demands no sovereign country could accept; free access of the U.S. military to sensitive sites, plus the right arbitrarily to demand that an unspecified group of people be "turned over." They also refused to present the Taliban with evidence. In spite of all this, the Taliban was willing to negotiate delivery to a neutral third party. In fact, a deal had been worked out to have bin Laden tried in Pakistan by a tribunal which would then decide whether or not to turn him over to the United States. The U.S. government didn't even want that. Its "diplomacy" was deliberately designed to lead to war.

Revenge was the motive for the war

Although many people felt an emotional desire for revenge, the two principal reasons for war cannot be described in these terms. The first reason is that of imperial credibility. The United States is an empire, of a different kind from the Roman or the British, but still one that holds sway over much of the world through a combination of economic and military domination. In order to remain in power, an empire must show no weakness; it must crush any threat to its control. The last half of the Vietnam War, after the U.S. government realized there would be no political victory, was fought for credibility to show other countries the price of defiance. The need was all the greater with such a devastating attack in the center of imperial power. The second reason is leverage over the oil and natural gas of Central Asia. Afghanistan is the one country that the United States could control through which a pipeline can be run from those reserves to the Indian Ocean, for the rapidly growing Asian market. The war would provide an opportunity for that, as well as a chance to set up military bases in the former Soviet republics of the region.

The war was a humanitarian intervention as well as an attempt to get the terrorists

The food drops were mere military propaganda—enough food for 37,500 people a day, if it was distributed, which it couldn't be—and they accompanied bombing that disrupted aid programs designed to feed millions. The lack of humanitarian intent was shown later by the U.S. government's ignoring a call by aid agencies and U.N. officials for a bombing halt so enough food could be trucked in. UNICEF estimated that because of the disruption of aid caused by the bombing and earlier the threat of bombing, as many as 100,000 more children might die in the winter. After the withdrawal of the Taliban, as much of the country collapsed into chaos and bandits started looting aid stores, the United States held up for almost a month proposals for a peacekeeping force, and didn't even pressure the Northern Alliance to restore order and facilitate aid, as aid workers were unable to reach at least one million people in desperate need.

The war was conducted by surgical strikes, minimizing collateral damage

There's no such thing as a surgical strike—the most precise weapons miss 20–30 percent of the time, and only 60 percent of the ordnance dropped on Afghanistan has been precision-guided. The United States has also used such devastating weapons as cluster bombs and daisy cutters, which by their nature are indiscriminate, so "collateral damage" cannot be controlled. Also, U.S. bombing campaigns generally deliberately target civilian infrastructure. In this case, there are reports of power stations, telephone exchanges, and even a major dam being destroyed, with potentially catastrophic effects. Totaling up all reports, including those from the foreign press, Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire estimated the number of civilians killed directly by bombs and bullets as of December 6, 2001 to be 3,767, a number he feels is, if anything, an underestimation. This is already greater than the number of innocents who died in the attacks on September 11, and it doesn't include the likely greater number who have died of indirect effects.

It was a war of civilization against barbarism

As if the above weren't enough, at the siege of Kunduz, where thousands of foreign fighters were trapped along with many thousands of Afghan Taliban fighters, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did everything short of calling for the foreigners to be killed. Later, a group of foreigners imprisoned in a fort and convinced they were going to be killed staged a rebellion. The fort was bombed and strafed by U.S. planes, even though later reports indicate that perhaps hundreds of the prisoners had their hands bound—this is almost certainly a war crime. At the same time, government officials and media pundits began calling for Osama bin Laden to be killed even if he surrendered.

It was a war against terrorism

The Northern Alliance, which the United States has put in power over most of Afghanistan, is a bunch of terrorists, known for torture, killing civilians, and raping women. The United States harbors many terrorists,