Unjustified means

The following article appeared in the French magazine Le Monde diplomatique, in the November 2001 edition, and has been reposted here. You can see the original article at http://mondediplo.com/2001/11/01unjustified1

Unjustified means
November 2001
Translated by Ed Emery

With the United States now fighting the first major war of the 21st century in Afghanistan, it seems reasonable to ask what are its war aims. One was stated in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 11 September: dismantling the al-Qaida network and capturing dead or alive Osama bin Laden, the likely perpetrator of thousands of deaths no cause could justify. This is easier said than done. And the military circumstances are unusual. There is a massive disproportion between the opposing forces. This is the first time that an empire has gone to war not against a state, but against an individual.

Washington is deploying all its massive firepower in this conflict, and this should bring it a kind of victory. But history is full of major powers that failed to overcome relatively weak enemies. History teaches us that in asymmetric warfare the most heavily armed do not always win. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm said recently, the IRA successfully held the British state in stalemate for almost 30 years. The IRA didn't have the upper hand, but it wasn't defeated (1).

Like most armed forces, those of the US are designed for war against other countries, not against invisible enemies. But wars between states are now on their way to being anachronisms. The victory in the Gulf war in 1991 was misleading. As Anthony Zinni, a general in the US marine corps, put it: "In reality the only reason Desert Storm worked was because we managed to go up against the only jerk on the planet who was stupid enough to confront us symmetrically" (2). The same was true of Slobodan Milosevic in 1999 in Kosovo.

These new-style conflicts are easier to begin than to end. And the use – even the massive use – of military means does not guarantee achievement of aims. Remember the American setback in Somalia in 1993. In attacking Afghanistan, on the plausible pretext that the Afghans are harbouring Bin Laden, Washington knows that it is in the easy phase. And it may get some of what it wants fairly easily and quickly. But victory against a loathsome regime will not necessarily assure the war's main objective: the capture of Bin Laden.

The second US objective, the elimination of "international terrorism", is too ambitious. The term "terrorism" is imprecise. It has been used for 200 years since the period of the Terror in the French Revolution to describe all who, rightly or wrongly, choose to use violence to change the existing political order. Hindsight shows that in some cases violence was necessary. As Gracchus Babeuf wrote in 1792: "All means are legitimate in the fight against tyrants." Former terrorists have become respected heads of government: Menachem Begin, the former head of the Irgun; Abdelaziz Bouteflika, an ex-fellagha and then president of Algeria; and Nelson Mandela, the former ANC leader who went on to be the Nobel Prize-winning president of South Africa.

The propaganda of this present war might lead us to suppose that the only terrorism is Islamic terrorism, which is not the case. Other terrorisms are very much operational in the clearly non-Islamic world: ETA in Spain; the FARC and paramilitaries in Colombia; the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. (Not forgetting the recent history of the IRA and the Unionists in Northern Ireland.) Terrorism has been embraced as an operating principle by almost all political groups at some time. The first to theorise it as a doctrine was a German, Karl Heinzen, in 1848. In his essay Der Mord (Murder) he proclaimed that all means were valid to hasten the advent of democracy. As a radical democrat, Heinzen felt able to write: "If you have to blow up half a continent and cause a bloodbath to destroy the party of barbarism, you should have no scruples of conscience. Anyone who would not joyously sacrifice his life for the satisfaction of exterminating a million barbarians is not a true republican" (3).

The absurdity of this statement proves even the best ends do not justify the means. Citizens have everything to fear from any republic, secular or religious, that was created in a bloodbath. At the same time we also have reason to fear that the hunt for terrorists announced by Washington as the principal aim of this war will have alarming consequences for fundamental human freedoms.

(1) La Repubblica , Rome, 18 September 2001.

(2) El Mundo, Madrid, 29 September 2001. Zinni was addressing the US Naval Institute in March 2000 (transcript published in July 2000 by the Robert McCormick Tribune Foundation).

(3) Quoted by Jean-Claude Buisson in Le Siècle rebelle. Dictionnaire de la contestation au XXe siècle, Larousse, Paris, 1999.

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