Illustration by Tilly Binucci
I write today, almost a month after the chapter-break day of September 11, on the foreign policy of the United States Government, or better say governments. Kabul has fallen, Afghanistan is Talibanized, and President Joe Biden spirals in the opinion polls. This is in some part, I imagine, because of the portentous timing of Afghanistan’s capitulation: just over three weeks before the twentieth anniversary of the kamikaze attack on the World Trade Centre, organised by Osama bin Laden. Some Americans, remembering the wretched strike, saw Biden removing his troops, eliminating the presence of the United States in a country that refused to extradite bin Laden without hard evidence of his involvement, and panicked.
History does not work in such neat formulae, however. One cannot start at 2001 and read world politics as if nothing had preceded it. No: of course those attacks were caused by something. Some say imperialistic, expansionistic, neocolonial US foreign policy (in no way a recent invention) was germinal; others put the blame on so-called ‘Islamofascism’, or the general moral deficiencies in the Islamic religion, politically animated in the Middle East by the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Mistake me not: that latter analysis is nonsense, hooey, trash, fraudulent and obfuscatory claptrap designed to exculpate what some call ‘the West’. Take the most popular and, though this qualification debases the métier of the professor, ‘academically acceptable’ account of such a narrative – Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations. It does not take an academic to list the limitations of this thesis, though an academic certainly has, if only for a lark. (Professor Said’s 1998 lecture on the book, and the progenital essay, is an easy broadsword through Huntington’s whole project.) Huntington posits an inevitable engagement between an ‘Enlightened’ West and a Stone Age East (clearly not just descriptive but also moral categories) which would fill the dialectic vacuum after the dissolution of the USSR. What a tidy-minded worldview to sport on your collar! I’m afraid the world just doesn’t court that kind of binarism, or at least it ought not to.
I can already see the brows of pugnacious neocons furrowing, but settle the steam because I’m not denying the part of radicalism in the 9/11 atrocities. I mean to contextualise Islamic fundamentalism, to situate it in its proper historical context as a product and not the cause of aggressive US foreign policy. Nor is this radicalism overtly religious or cultural (sorry, Sam). Robert Pape, an expert on international security, in his book Dying to Win which studies all cases of suicide bombings from 1980-2005, concluded exactly the opposite – that Islamic fundamentalism is largely irrelevant. The goal is political, secular. And what goal, precisely, is that? To remove occupying forces from their homeland. The ghost of conquests past has visited the United States. It is now time to change, or to mobilise … I would prefer change, as should you, because I side with the dispossessed, the dislocated, the exiled, the colonised, the unjustly invaded.
Not only is 9/11 – one pivotal, monstrous instant of a suicide bombing – to be put in context, but suicide bombing (as we know it) itself has its roots, embryonically, in the action and inaction of the United States. A moment of confrontation in Damascus, 1975, between war criminal and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the then-President of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, to be specific. The root of the conflict came from the mismatch between Assad’s desire for Arabian unification in order to achieve hegemony and Kissinger’s pursuit of his global balance of power. Kissinger, pathologically afraid of humiliation, sought to upset Assad’s unification process by turning the Arab states against one another: what he called ‘constructive ambiguity’. He betrayed Assad, convincing Egypt to sign a separate peace treaty with Israel without considering the landless Palestinians whose vitality to the project of Arab unity Assad insisted. Kissinger cut Syria off.
The Syrian president’s paranoia about Americo-Isreali attempts at Arab fractionalisation would then abruptly appear when he allied himself with Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran against Reagan’s movements in the Middle East. This is where the human bomb was born. Khomeini’s political theology, whereby a man could achieve salvation through self-destruction if he took out as many enemies as he could on the way, met Assad’s cold political calculation – and thus Islamic fundamentalism comes into the picture, but is only decorative, ornamental, like paint. Trace the cord to the wall: who do we find? Uncle Sam.
What I write, ladies and gentlemen, is no conspiracy: I do not believe that the United States has the intention of provoking insurgents, only that it is an inevitable consequence of its militarised chauvinism. The intention, rather, is the acquisition of capital. In other words, America wages war on behalf of the banks.
Well, then, you may say, who are you to claim this? Ah yes: of course I can’t speak from even a suggestion of experience either in fighting for America or against it; but Smedley Butler, commander of the Marine Corps in the early 20th century, can. In retirement he wrote a book called War is a Racket, in which he describes his function as an officer in the US military:
I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 . . . . I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
This man, ladies and gentlemen, was the United States Government, and was no more than a lackey gunslinger for assorted commercial interests.
Mind you, this relationship between private companies and national utilities is not one-way. The United States often uses American mercenaries, known as ‘security contractors’ (a beautifully bureaucratic piece of euphemism), to aid its efforts. Private military contractors have been licensed in Iraq and Somalia, committing war crimes and violating human rights with impunity in Abu Ghraib and Nisour Square, the latter group of murderers slew 17 Iraqi citizens yet were then pardoned by Donald Trump. (See Singer, Outsourcing War.) The sacrifice of the innocent, oblations to the American Empire, decry a civilised society.
I mustn’t lose focus here, although the subject is, as anyone can see, mammoth. Back to Afghanistan, back to the attribution or rather the apportioning of blame. My theme here holds up too. The US, in 1979, funded Afghan rebels – known as the Mujahideen – against the Soviets in order to ‘Westernise’ the iron curtain. Once both nations withdrew from Afghanistan, the country collapsed in on itself in civil war. During this, part of the US-funded Mujahideen mutated into a splinter group, the Taliban, which took control in 1996.
Then, in 2001, two planes flew into the World Trade Centre in downtown Manhattan, pushing a pyroclastic flow of dust, glass, and steel for a radius of eight or so miles. Due to the ready arsenal of news and civilian cameras covering the first strike, over 60 percent of the American population witnessed the event as it unfurled, in numb horror. Barely a month later, President Bush inaugurated Operation Enduring Freedom in an attempt to unearth and overwhelm possible al-Qaeda military installations in Afghanistan. I cast aspersions on the nobility of Bush’s resolution: after all, he rejected the Taliban’s offer to hand over bin Laden in return for the cessation of his bombing campaign.
The Taliban fell, regrouped around 2003, and America continued the war in order to ‘promote freedom’. Bin Laden’s death followed, and Obama promised to withdraw from Afghanistan; they had done what they sought out to do. He didn’t. Neither did Trump, despite constant oscillation. Finally, President Biden, 20 years later, pulled US troops out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban retook the country with all the rapidity of a virus. Since we are back where we started in 1996, I would like to recount to you the cost of this war, in lives and dollars.
- Over $2 trillion
- 2,448 troops (through April)
- 3,846 contractors
- 51,191 Taliban fighters
- 444 aid workers
- 1,144 allied service members
- 66,000 Afghan troops and police
- 72 journalists
- 47,245 Afghan civilians
The futility is cliched, but the message is the same. This is not 20 years’ work lost in three weeks: this is a failure of foreign policy. The pursuit of stability in Afghanistan, if that was the ambition of the war, has miscarried, because if after 20 years the country falls, your time there was ill-spent.