Issue 257 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stop the war

The disasters of war

Bush and Blair have plunged us into a terrible conflict. But as Alex Callinicos explains, the longer it goes on the more their problems stack up
Despite talk of 'smart' bombs, residential areas have been hit by US bombing
Despite talk of 'smart' bombs, residential areas have been hit by US bombing

This was supposed to be the second American century. Yet, even though the vast military forces of the United States and its allies are now being unleashed against Afghanistan, the present crisis has highlighted the limits of imperial power.

Whoever planned the attacks on New York and Washington clearly intended, in the first instance, to humiliate American imperialism. So great was their success--the World Trade Centre destroyed, the Pentagon in flames, George Bush sent scurrying for safety in remote Nebraska--that the rulers of the United States must exact a savage and visible revenge. They haven't spent the past two decades trying to overcome the Vietnam Syndrome only to see their greatest city attacked with impunity.

Why the hawks have lost--so far

But the pursuit of retribution faces enormous contradictions. Within hours of the attacks, hawks in Washington were drawing up wish lists of the 'rogue states' they wanted the US to take out. Deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz talked about 'ending states'. Naturally Iraq was at the top of most of these lists. The new Tory opposition leader, Iain Duncan Smith, also supports attacking Iraq. But when we consider what that would involve, we begin to see the difficulties facing the Bush administration.

If the idea were to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, then such an operation would have to be launched by a US land army based in Saudi Arabia, like Desert Storm in 1991. But there is no prospect of the Saudi royal family permitting such an invasion (they have even refused to allow the US to attack Afghanistan from their territory). They were willing to have American troops come to their rescue when Saddam's seizure of Kuwait in August 1990 threatened their own survival. But it is clear that the Saudi regime regards a weakened and contained Saddam as a stabilising force who can be relied on brutally to hold Iraq together, and to prevent it from following the path of revolutionary Iran.

Moreover, in the past few years the Iraqi regime has been able significantly to reduce its isolation in the Arab world. The Anglo-American blockade and bombing campaign have caused outrage throughout the Middle East, while Saddam has used Iraq's increased oil revenues to rebuild close trading links with Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. He has also linked his cause to that of the Palestinians, donating money to every family that has a member killed by the Israeli security forces. An all-out American attack on Iraq would blow the region apart.

There were other considerations pushing Bush and his advisers towards the more narrowly focused response they have adopted. The kind of indiscriminate attack advocated by the hawks might play into the hands of Osama Bin Laden and the radical Islamist al-Quaida network. The American intelligence consultants Stratfor put it like this: 'More than anything, al-Quaida wanted to see simultaneous [US] attacks on multiple Islamic countries. This would achieve its two strategic goals. First, exhaust the United States strategically as well as operationally, globally as well as locally, by forcing it to commit itself beyond its military abilities. Second, demonstrate to the Islamic world that the United States is indiscriminately hostile to Islam. This, coupled with growing American military exhaustion, would open the door to what al-Quaida want most--dealing US power a military defeat in the Islamic world' (28 September 2001).

Bin Laden, in his videotaped response to the Anglo-American attack on Afghanistan, took great care to widen his cause beyond the issue that apparently radicalised him--the presence of 'infidel' US troops in Saudi Arabia--to the two most burning questions in the Arab world, Israel's war against the Palestinians and sanctions against Iraq. A Saudi academic told the Financial Times, 'He touched a real chord inside everyone when he said America will never gain peace until the Palestinians find peace' (8 October 2001). The Guardian commented, 'Bin Laden is successfully polarising opinion' in the Arab world (9 October 2001).

If Bin Laden has an interest in widening the conflict, the US administration symmetrically has an interest in keeping it narrow. This is why Bush and Blair have made such strenuous efforts to stress that they have no quarrel with the Muslim world, just with 'terrorists'. It is also why Secretary of State Colin Powell has so far succeeded in defeating the Washington hawks demanding a general war against all 'rogue states'. There is still a powerful lobby based mainly in the Pentagon that is pressing for an attack on Iraq once Afghanistan has been dealt with. The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported on 11 October, 'Israel believes that the United States intends to attack Iraq at a later stage of its current war against terror.' But given Arab opposition to such an attack it could only be militarily mounted in cooperation with Israel. An American-Israeli operation against Iraq would unleash a political earthquake, probably doing as much damage to US influence in the Middle East as the 1956 Suez war did to British interests there.

Stratfor has suggested that Washington is pursuing a more subtle strategy--by threatening not just Iraq but also Syria and stationing a carrier battle group off the Lebanese coast the US is putting pressure on Arab regimes to cooperate. Maybe, but given the atmosphere in the region even this is a high-risk strategy. A powerful political logic dictates keeping the war focused on Bin Laden, al-Quaida, and their allies in the Taliban.

The contradictions of grand strategy

Even this approach involves enormous difficulties. The grand strategy of the American Empire is a modernised version of that pursued by its British predecessor during its heyday in the 19th century. A vast 'continental island', long protected by the oceans, the US has relied on its capacity to project air and sea power globally, and on the political and military alliances it has built up with the other advanced capitalist states to dominate the Eurasian land mass since 1945. The Vietnam debacle underlined how dangerous it was for the US to become entangled in a prolonged Eurasian land war. Like Victorian Britain, America now has a relatively small professional army that it can afford to use only sparingly in major combat.

Afghanistan, however, is notoriously the graveyard of imperial armies. Landlocked and mountainous, it lies deep in the borderland between central and south Asia. Operations against Afghanistan can be mounted from Pakistan, lying to its south and east. But, given the strength of radical Islam within Pakistan, basing and supplying a large American expeditionary force there would be a political and military nightmare. The alternative is to attack Afghanistan from the ex-Soviet central Asian republics to its north. Apart from the instability of the local regimes, a substantial US force would depend on very long supply lines controlled by Russia, still the dominant power in central Asia.

These problems seem to have directed the Pentagon towards the kind of operations that have now begun. These involve, as usual, the heavy use of air power, much of it based at sea or even in the US itself to avoid embarrassing Washington's Islamic allies, combined with the deployment on the ground of special forces and other elite units directly to attack Bin Laden and the Taliban in cooperation with the rival Afghan army of the Northern Alliance.

It is crucial to understand that even these comparatively limited operations are subject to major political constraints. According to the Observer, the Anglo-American attack on Afghanistan was due to be launched on Tuesday 2 October, but it was postponed at the last moment. Instead US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was sent on a lightning tour of the Gulf in order to firm up key allies such as the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Oman. Only once they had been reassured did the bombardment of Afghanistan begin on 7 October.

Two problems faced the Bush administration in building up its famous 'coalition against terrorism'. The first is that most of its partners are venal in the extreme, and have no intention of doing something for nothing. So they have to be bribed. Thus Rumsfeld agreed to sell the Sultan of Oman $1.12 billion of F-16 fighters and other weapons systems to keep him on side.

The Financial Times reported on 5 October that so much money was flowing into Pakistan that the central bank had to intervene to push down the rupee's exchange rate against the dollar. To shore up General Pervez Musharraf's regime, Washington has scrapped sanctions imposed after Pakistan developed nuclear weapons, and poured in aid money. According to the Financial Times, 'Pakistani officials estimate that the country has been pledged about $1 billion in official inflows over the past few weeks.'

Sometimes the bribes are political. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has been given greater leverage over Washington thanks to the US need to base forces in central Asia. In response he has already seen western criticism of Russia's bloody war in Chechnya vanish. Putin has portrayed the Americans as latecomers to the fight against 'Islamic terrorism' that he claims to have been waging in Chechnya for years. He will press for other concessions--aimed, for example, at halting or delaying Nato expansion eastwards.

The coalition requires the support of other even more dubious customers, like President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. In exchange for allowing the US to base troops and aircraft in his central Asian republic, he will expect Washington to turn a blind eye to his ruthless repression of all opposition forces--there are 7,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan. This is the reality of the 'fight for justice' based on 'the moral power of a world acting as a community' that Tony Blair proclaimed to the Labour Party conference in Brighton.

Over 50,000 demonstrated against the war in London last month
Over 50,000 demonstrated against the war in London last month

The second problem runs much deeper. If the attacks on New York and Washington were indeed mounted by al-Quaida, then they were atrocities that have the fingerprints of the US and its closest allies all over them. Notoriously, the CIA--with the help of MI6 and the SAS, it should be remembered--financed, armed and organised radical Mujahadeen from all over the Islamic world, among them Bin Laden, to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

In an interview in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur several years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinksi, National Security Assistant to President Jimmy Carter, revealed that Carter first ordered US aid to the Mujahadeen in July 1979, six months before the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. He commented complacently, 'That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing Russia into the Afghan trap.' Brzezinski's cynicism should be kept in mind when American and British officials, and their tame intellectuals like James Rubin and Michael Ignatieff, sit in judgement on 'failed states' in conflict with western 'civilisation'. Afghanistan may have been a backward and oppressive society before 1979, but it functioned. It was American and Russian imperialism that destroyed it.

The point isn't just moral. Bin Laden and the Taliban have numerous connections to Washington's main clients in the Middle East and South Asia. The Taliban were, of course, the creation of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the CIA's main instrument during the Afghan war. Moreover, Tariq Ali estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of the Pakistani army are sympathisers of the Jihadis, the radical Islamist minority. Jihadis allied to the Taliban are waging a guerrilla war directed by the ISI in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Bin Laden may have been stripped of his Saudi citizenship, but he is a member of the kingdom's ruling class, members of which continue to finance al-Quaida. If the hijackers of 11 September are any guide, the core of the network's activists were recruited from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, America's most important Arab allies.

Thus, as numerous commentators have observed, 11 September was blowback on a monumental scale. The office workers and air passengers massacred that day were innocently paying the price not just for US policy in Afghanistan, but also for Washington's support for corrupt dictatorships in the Middle East, for the savage repression of Egyptian Islamists by Hosni Mubarak, for Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, for the US military presence in Saudi Arabia.

More than that, the war against Afghanistan could subvert these client states. The bombardment immediately provoked rioting in Pakistan and Gaza. Even in the prosperous Gulf sheikhdoms, whose rulers are dependent directly on US arms for their survival, anti-American feeling is strong. The New York Times reported from Kuwait on 2 October:

If this is true in Kuwait, where nearly 400,000 Palestinians were expelled at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 on suspicion of sympathy for the Iraqi occupation, it is trebly so in the rest of the Arab world. Were the US to succeed in destroying Bin Laden and the Taliban at the price of causing the fall of Mubarak or of the House of Saud, then it would have won merely a pyrrhic victory.

This means that Israel, particularly under the thuggish premiership of war criminal Ariel Sharon, is even more of a liability than it was during the crisis of 1990-91. Sharon thought he could exploit 11 September both by going onto the offensive against the Palestinians and by persuading Washington to attack Hezbollah, the radical Islamist movement whose guerrilla war drove the Israeli Defence Force out of southern Lebanon.

Big mistake. Any confrontation involving Israel could undermine America's nervous Arab allies. Hence the US pressure on the Israeli government to resume negotiations with Yasser Arafat, hence Bush's public support for a Palestinian state, hence the row over Sharon's comparison of American policy in the Middle East with British appeasement of Hitler at Munich.

So we have a paradox. The US, the lone superpower of the early 21st century, has been wounded and humiliated. It is politically essential that it is seen to obtain revenge. But the Bush administration must use its vast arsenal cautiously and selectively. This is not simply because, as the pundits stress, it is engaged in 'asymmetric warfare' against an enemy which does not use conventional methods. If Washington treads too heavily it could rip up the delicate web of alliances on which its domination of western Asia depends.

The impossible becomes feasible

Face of US imperialism(1)
Face of US imperialism(1)

Now that fighting has begun, combatants and campaigners for peace alike are subject to the notoriously unpredictable chances of war. Yet some things are clear already. Opposition to the war is far greater than it was to the 1999 Balkan War. This reflects a widely shared sense that the roots of 11 September run very deep, and that military retaliation is extremely unlikely to remove the threat of Islamist terrorism and may indeed make it worse. The Mubarak regime spent ten years waging a bloody 'dirty war' against the Islamist opposition in Egypt--with what result? Defeated at home, some radical Egyptian Islamists took the war to Manhattan. This isn't a promising precedent.

The crisis unleashed by the events of 11 September has also revealed something very important about the nature of capitalism. From Seattle onwards, the movement against capitalist globalisation selected economic targets--multinational corporations, international financial institutions like the IMF and WTO, and so on. Now we are being reminded that capitalism isn't merely an economic system. Capital is interwoven with the system of states, and dependent on the military power that they wield and the geopolitical alignments that they form. To be an effective anticapitalist you need to be an anti-imperialist as well.

Face of US imperialism(2)
Face of US imperialism(2)

The day before the bombardment of Afghanistan began, a Financial Times editorial gloated, 'One of the less remarked consequences of the US terrorist attacks has been to halt in its tracks the mass movement against globalisation.' This will probably turn out to be too hasty a judgement. It's true that some of the more respectable NGOs, particularly in the US, have run for cover. But many anti-capitalist activists seem to have been drawn into the anti-war movement. The result could well be a deepening of the radicalisation that began at Seattle rather than its disappearance.

One reason why anti-capitalism is unlikely to fall victim to 11 September is that subsequent developments have further weakened the neo-liberal agenda. Next to the Financial Times leader announcing the death of the anti-capitalist movement is a feature entitled 'Keynes Revisited' that begins:

In other words, the developing economic recession has prompted the Bush administration to adopt the basic plank of Keynesian economics. During the 1990s cutting the budget deficit became an economic religion in the advanced capitalist countries. It was embraced by Bill Clinton, and written into the agreements setting up the euro. Now we have the absurd spectacle of a very right wing Republican administration pumping money into the American economy, while the euro zone, largely governed by social democratic parties, is bound to neoliberal orthodoxy by the European Central Bank and the Stability and Growth Pact. Britain, of course, isn't part of the euro zone, but Gordon Brown is acting like a one-man Stability and Growth Pact, reaffirming his commitment to financial 'prudence'.

Other neoliberal pillars are shaking as well. One objection to the Tobin Tax on international currency speculation has always been that it would impossible to enforce it on the offshore financial centres through which half the world's money stock passes. But now the US and the European Union are issuing ultimatums to the offshore centres to block off funds to suspected terrorists. If this can be done for the 'war against terrorism', why not to limit financial speculation and redistribute wealth?

Great crises like the present one suddenly release ideological and political logjams. The impossible turns out to be perfectly feasible after all. This condition of flux is undeniably very dangerous. The west's war on Afghanistan could produce yet more horrors. But it can also give rise to a stronger movement that understands that the world will not be safe so long as capitalism continues to exist.


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