Beyond the Bombs
The Making of a Terrorist, Part II
In the last issue of IMPACT, we looked at some of the ways America helped create Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Al-Qaeda, by training, arming, and supporting them and other mujahideen (Islamic fighters) in Afghanistan's war with the Soviet Union. In this issue we examine some of the root causes that led to the September 11, 2001 attack on America. We won't get far past the tip of the iceberg; this conflict has roots that go deeper than we could hope to explore in only a few thousand words. The relationship between America and the Middle East has created a quagmire of near-hopeless proportions. However, we cannot possibly hope to end this "war" without understanding it as thoroughly as we can.
"America must strike back!" said the people. And strike back we did. On October 7, 2001, the headlines screamed--in a font otherwise to be reserved for the second coming of Christ--that the United States had begun bombing Afghanistan.
As of this writing, Americans have begun to breathe a sigh of relief. In the weeks since the October 7 launch of "Operation Enduring Freedom," first one Taliban stronghold and then another collapsed beneath the weight of American and British bombs. The Northern Alliance first settled into the Afghani capital of Kabul, then Kunduz, and the remaining Taliban-controlled areas teeter on the brink of surrender while Osama bin Laden has either to feel the noose tighten.
On the first day of Ramadan, Osama bin Laden beat out Thanksgiving and Harry Potter to become the No. 1 search topic on Lycos. It seems only yesterday, however, that probably only one American in twenty could find Afghanistan on a map. Probably, very few remembered hearing of Osama bin Laden, who has been on the "most wanted" list since his alleged involvement in the first attack against the World Trade Center. Almost no one in America had heard of the Taliban.
Our ignorance probably led to our misfortune. Had Americans been more aware and more involved in our government's policy toward the Middle East--and had we been more aware and more involved in our corporate behavior on the international front--we might never have witnessed the tragic events of September 11.
"Defend yourself against your enemies; but attack them not first. God hateth the aggressor."--The Koran
It is hard to determine the precise moment a war begins. For most Americans, World War II began when the first Japanese bomb dropped on Pearl Harbor. We overlook, however, that conflicts between Japan and the U.S. had built momentum until they finally reached critical mass. We also tend to overlook the fact that the Nazis had been on the move in Europe for more than two years, even bombing our ally Great Britain for more than a year before we finally entered the war.
Perhaps it is because America is only two-and-a-quarter centuries old, and thus has little connection with its past; perhaps it is because we suffer from a sort of "CNN syndrome," whereby an all-consuming thirst for around-the-clock "breaking stories" displaces any hunger for the whole truth; or perhaps we rely on a media that has become increasingly protective of corporate best interests--whatever the reason, most Americans will placidly accept that Operation Enduring Freedom began on September 11, 2001 and remain blissfully unaware of the events that led to that date.
"Regardless of when [U.S. armed forces] return home, the Navy will still be representing the U.S. in the Persian Gulf. Naval forces have transited the region since 1801, and the reasons behind our stationing a permanent naval presence in the Gulf since 1948 have been revalidated by this most recent conflict."--U.S. Navy memo issued at the end of Desert Storm
In a November 18 report, the British newspaper the Guardian listed evidence found in Kabul that solidified the link between the Taliban, bin Laden, and the 9/11 attacks. "A map of Saudi Arabia showed it surrounded by small American, French, and British flags, representing foreign bases and ships. Above the painted map were the words, Occupation of the Holy Lands of Islam by the Crusaders.'"
To many Muslims, the current conflict is merely a continuation of the one that began in the middle ages, when the Crusades brought Christendom into battle against Islam over the holy land--a fact toward which President Bush showed remarkable insensitivity by referring to our "crusade against terrorism."
The U.S. military joined in "the crusade" 200 years ago. In a post-Desert Storm statement issued by the U.S. Navy, our historical position in the Gulf became clearly outlined. "Regardless of when the majority of DESERT SHIELD/ STORM forces return home, the Navy will still be representing the U.S. in the Persian Gulf," it began.
"Naval forces have transited the region since 1801, and the reasons behind our stationing a permanent naval presence in the Gulf since 1948 have been revalidated by this most recent conflict."
In a report on Alternet.org, Professor Stephen Zunes suggested that the stronger U.S. military presence has become in the region, the less safe our interests have become. The ongoing military presence in the region has provided much of the fuel for the fires of jihad, as expressed by bin Laden, but also less extremist critics. Two days before two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, a New York Times feature by John F. Burns described in detail videotape in which Osama bin Laden outlined his plans for mayhem against the United States:
"There is now a Muslim state that enforces God's laws, which destroys falsehoods, and which does not succumb to the American infidels - and it is led by a true believer, Mullah Muhammad Omar (the Taliban leader), the commander of the faithful," said bin Laden, before spewing threats against "the opponents of Islam," which includes "moderate" Islamic nations--including Saudi Arabia, considered one of the most repressive societies in the world. He then called for Muslims to migrate to Afghanistan to join the coming jihad.
Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counter-terrorist operations for the Central Intelligence Agency, reviewed the video. [Bin Laden] has clearly focused his attention on the Palestinian problem," said Cannistraro to the Times, "which he sees in holy war terms: The Palestinians being oppressed by the Israelis in ways that are only possible because of the support they get from the United States. This has reinforced his opinion about the United States and its policies in the whole of the Middle East. It sharpens his instincts for attack."
The "permanent naval presence" that began in 1948 arose from the establishment of Israel following World War II. In a nutshell, Israel was carved out of the desert after the war. As seen from neighboring Arab states, Israel was imposed upon them by the U.S. and its allies. To most of the world, the establishment of a sovereign home for the Israelis seemed a morally and politically "right" move; however, it created conflicts that have yet to be resolved. Those conflicts began almost immediately with Israel's neighbors in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who saw the creation of Israel in much the same light as the average American might view his next-door neighbor invading his back yard.
After a few decades of feuding, those conflicts have (for the most part) since become focused on Palestine. For more than three decades, the Palestine-Israel conflict has been personified in Yasir Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO evolved from a band of warriors who called themselves freedom fighters while Israel and the West called them terrorists. The organization began its activities calling openly for the total destruction of Israel; they now concur with the near-unanimous international opinion that there should be a two-state solution.
The U.S., however, has typically rejected that solution in favor of one that is more favorable towards Israel. Among Middle Eastern states, there is enormous resentment towards the U.S. over our apparently unconditional support of Israel. According to Zunes, "while Israel represents only 1/1000th of the world's population and has the 16th highest per capita income, it receives almost 40 percent of all U.S. foreign aid," to the tune of $3.5 billion each year.
The UN Security Council has passed numerous resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw its occupation forces from Palestine, for example, and to stop establishing illegal settlements in Palestine. The Council also wanted to dispatch unarmed human rights monitors to the area. However, the U.S. has repeatedly used its veto power to protect against UN resolutions critical of Israel.
Many Middle Eastern states also take exception to our policy forbidding them to produce weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons--while blithely accepting Israel's buildup of a nuclear arsenal and bringing our own atomic warheads into Persian Gulf waters.
To much of Islam, our stance toward Israel justifies their belief that the U.S. and our allies are anti-Muslim, and there will be continued skepticism toward our role in the area as long as we are perceived to continue to crusade for control of the Holy Land. However, our relationship with Israel has little if anything to do with our attitude towards Islam; it has a great deal to do with keeping open a gateway to the region's oil fields--and providing a friendly staging ground from which we might launch future military operations.
However, when and if Osama bin Laden is brought to justice, when and if the Bush administration declares Operation Enduring Freedom "won" and our troops begin to move back toward home, the war in the Middle East will not have ended unless a solution has been found to the Palestine problem.
The U.S. is also perceived, and rightfully, to have supported autocratic regimes in the Middle East. In 1953, for example, the U.S. helped overthrow an "unfriendly" constitutional government in Iran, then supported the brutal dictatorship of its Shah. Ironically, our support of the dictator backfired when, in 1979, a revolution led by Islamic hard-liners ousted the ruler. Led by the Ayatollah Khomeini and other clerics, the new government established a very fundamentalist, very anti-American state. The fundamentalists, in fact, probably put the final kibosh on then-President Jimmy Carter's chances for re-election by taking Americans hostage and successfully thwarting a somewhat pathetic rescue attempt.
Since then, U.S. policy towards the region has been confusing at best, often characterized by bizarre, Orwellian shifts in alliances. For example, we have extended economic and military support to autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Morocco while we discontinued our large-scale support to Jordan once it opened up its political system. Our support to Yemen was cut off within months of its first democratic election. Generally, we have seemed friendly to non-democratic nations and hostile to those that move towards a more liberal, more politically inclusive form of government.
And we have been strangely quiet while some of our current enemies--Iraq, for example--built up their military power. Shortly after the "Iran hostage crisis," Saddam Hussein began to militarize Iraq and prepare for war with Iran. The U.S. did nothing, and may even have supported the buildup.
"...in retreat, the Iraqis literally set Kuwait on fire. There was no strategic significance for this, no military advantage for the retreating Iraqi troops. Blowing the oil wells--nearly all the oil wells in [Kuwait]--was the environmental equivalent of crapping on the carpet."--Tim Cahill: "Kuwait is Burning: A Postcard from the Apocalypse."
Iraq's war with Iran took a devastating toll on each nation. Hussein, however, regrouped to launch an invasion of Kuwait. The invasion and occupation of Kuwait was a brutal, shameless act, provoked by alleged petty disputes over well drilling locations near the Kuwait-Iraq border. More than likely, Hussein hoped to reap some of Kuwait's riches in order to recoup some of his war losses. (In fact, he demanded that Kuwait forgive some of his war debts.)
Kuwait's rulers tried half-heartedly to placate Iraq; the U.S. and the Middle East seemed to hope that the problem would simply go away. Unfortunately, Iraq assembled troops on Kuwait's border, then marched almost unopposed into Kuwait City. By the time Desert Storm ascended to drive them away, Iraq had devastated the tiny nation.
According to Outside magazine's Tim Cahill, who arrived on the scene as the Iraqis fled, in a "gesture of hatred, ignorance, and contempt," the occupying Iraqi soldiers "often defecated in the finest rooms of the finest houses they could find...Then in retreat, [they] literally set Kuwait on fire," blowing nearly every oil well in the country, leaving behind lakes of burning oil. The oil-well arson was, Cahill suggested, "the environmental equivalent of crapping on the carpet."
Under the George Bush, Sr. administration, the United States went to war with Iraq; the opening words of Bush's memo to the vice president, Cabinet, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made clear why the maneuver was deemed important: "Access to Persian Gulf oil..."
"Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to U.S. national security...[The] United States remains committed to defending its vital interests in the region, if necessary through the use of military force, against any power with interests inimical to our own. Iraq, by virtue of its unprovoked invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and its subsequent brutal occupation, is clearly a power with interests inimical to our own."
By the time the dust had settled, both Iraq and Kuwait were devastated, Kuwait from the senseless actions of its invaders, Iraq from being on the receiving end of the heaviest bombing in world history. The bombing had not only effectively destroyed Iraq's military but much of its civilian infrastructure, as well.
The U.S. hoped that, in the aftermath, the Iraqis would overthrow Hussein. This did not happen; consequently, we have insisted on maintaining strict sanctions against Iraq to force compliance with UN demands that Saddam dismantle the country's capability of producing weapons of mass destruction.
Unfortunately, our policy of enforcing strict sanctions against Iraq has had an effect opposite of the intended one: rather than the sanctions leading to the overthrow of Hussein, they seem to have strengthened it. The sanctions have caused thousands of Iraqi civilians, including children, to die from malnutrition and treatable disease, leading to worldwide demands that we relax the sanctions, and with the people of Iraq more dependent on their government than ever, they are even less likely to risk open defiance of Saddam.
With the world looking on at the humanitarian crisis, America seems even less sensitive and, to some, more anti-Muslim. Iraq has become one of many damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situations to develop from our policy in the Middle East. Without extending aid, or at least lifting sanctions, many more Iraqis will die, and we will end up looking even more heartless. If we lift the sanctions, we not only risk the strengthening of Iraq's already America-hating military regime, but risk criticism for supporting yet another Middle Eastern dictator and human rights violator.
Nevertheless, among some Muslim extremists, America's sanctions against Iraq and our continued support of Israel fuel the notion that the U.S. is as "terrorist" a state as any other. Along with their perceptions of us as a nation blasé towards human rights, we appear to place commercial profit above the human freedoms we claim to hold sacred.
In all likelihood, by the time you read this, we will again be openly at war with Iraq. However, the war never ended, really. There have been frequent Iraq/U.S. skirmishes since Desert Storm, including the Desert Fox operation during the Clinton administration (although the military operation received less news coverage than the Monica Lewinsky scandal.) Already, President Bush has hinted that military maneuvers into Iraq will follow the fall of Afghanistan's Taliban.
An American war against Iraq will present us with another diplomatic quagmire: As military historian Terence H. Brown explained, Saddam Hussein is "a secularist" against whom we defended Islam (Kuwait) in the past--as well as a harsh dictator who has proven to be untrustworthy. Yet the Iraqis are predominantly Muslim, so by attacking Iraq, we will probably be accused of expanding a war "against Islam."
"[The chasm between rich and poor nations] is by far the most important single problem in the world. [Were more done for the poor] there would be a lot less animosity and a lot less inclination to commit suicide to kill an American."--Former President Jimmy Carter.
In the wake of September 11, many factions within America, both on the left and the right, began using the coming war to justify their positions. We have seen "the war on terrorism" used to promote right wing attacks on civil liberties, for example, and we will soon see it used to justify military action against Iraq. On the other hand, we have also seen sentiment against "the war" used to attack globalism, which many progressives and leftists want to make "the true culprit" behind the attacks.
The anti-globalists will argue that many of our Middle East policies have been dictated by our desire to access its oil. And they are correct--when it comes to oil, the U.S. is the most conspicuous consumer on the planet. With only five percent of the earth's population, we use 25 percent of the oil pumped from the ground, and we have capped oil wells in Texas and elsewhere, because it is cheaper to buy it from OPEC than to pump it from beneath our own soil.
Our arms dealing in the region seems further proof of the greed that drives our policies. Since Desert Storm, the U.S. has sold more than $60 billion worth of arms to Persian Gulf nations. Arms sales are an important building block in the construction of alliances between the U.S. and other countries, and there is a strategic benefit to having countries with or against whom we might go to war armed with our own brand of weaponry. Of course, selling arms to other countries also helps support our defense industry during peacetime.
Osama bin Laden and his ilk could probably care less about globalism except as it affects Islam. However, bin Laden must surely believe his Medieval values are under attack by global consumerist trends. Among other things, Brown said, "They hate us for our hedonism," which has delivered "all kinds of good stuff, like Internet pornography, for instance" into the lap of Islam.
"Liberal society will not be advanced by these guys," Brown pointed out. "Liberal society is their target--not consumerism. These folks invented international commerce. What they do not like is the feminism, destruction of the family," and so on that America seems to promote to the rest of the world, he suggested. For example, "I am told they do not target the Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel; they target the secular culture which, of course, has a large American component."
Creeping globalism has delivered much more offensive products than Internet porn or feminism, however. It has delivered a widening inequity between the rich and poor that many fundamentalist Muslims (and many others, as well) find offensive.
In the years following World War II, the expansion of American-style capitalism promised a rosy utopia, in which all the nations in the world would eventually become enlightened by way of consumerism and free markets. Economic interdependency would eventually transcend national boundaries and overcome anachronistic political thinking.
As Brown pointed out, the reconstruction of Japan and Germany seemed the first experimental proof of this new global economic thesis. "The Third Reich is gone; if you've met Germans, you know they're not like they were in the 30s: they're liberal, socialist, or green--anything but Nazis," he said. "And In Japan, the bushido culture is gone, or at least replaced by an Americanized version of it. Shinto militarism was replaced by materialism and capitalistic ambition."
As Coca Cola entered previously closed foreign markets and McDonald's showed up near Moscow's Red Square, each new foray of corporate America into hostile territory seemed to dissolve the borders--both geographical and ideological--that nationalism had erected.
Unfortunately, golden arches diplomacy has not paved the way to utopia. Instead of spreading the wealth throughout the world, globalism has helped concentrate it into fewer and fewer hands, prompting many international extremists and more moderate activists to accuse corporate America of exploiting third world people in order to pad its bottom line.
Even on our own shores, the corporate stranglehold on money and power has created an alarmingly wide gap between the rich and poor. Minnesota Congressman Martin Olav Salbo has sponsored an act that he hopes will help narrow the income gap. "The dark secret of the 1990s [economic] expansion," said Salbo, is that the income of America's lower-income families has dropped while that of the wealthiest has increased until the average American CEO earns 326 times that of his assembly-line counterpart, and "the richest 20% of households earn as much as everyone else in America put together."
Apparently, however, that disparity is not enough to meet the demands of corporate greed. Our corporations set up shop on foreign soil for two reasons: to open new markets for hamburgers, sodas, and the like; and to lower their production costs. An American corporation can enhance its bottom line by spending less on foreign real estate or lower construction costs, for example, or by avoiding stringent domestic environmental regulations. A corporation may grow food crops using pesticides that it would not be allowed to use at home, for instance; or it may find less restrictive emissions standards elsewhere. And of course, an American corporation may begin production in a nation where sweatshops are de rigueur; safety standards are lax and minimum wages are nonexistent.
Imagine how unjust the "income gap" can appear in anti-American propaganda, especially when the gulf between a rich American and a poor Saudi is three times wider than that between rich and poor Americans. And Saudi Arabia has the highest per capita income in the Middle East; elsewhere in the region, the gap is ten or a hundred times wider. Little wonder, then, that critics of American corporate colonialism accuse the West of invading their countries to "steal" their wealth.
Even former President Jimmy Carter insists that America should be more aggressive in closing the gap between the world's rich and poor. In mid-November, the Associated Press reported Carter had called for more to be done to help the poor of Afghanistan and other countries. The gap between the rich and poor, said Carter, is "by far the most important single problem in the world." Were that gap to shrink, he suggested, "there would be a lot less animosity and a lot less inclination to commit suicide to kill an American."
"With imagination, we could use or find the technologies that create energy without destroying our planet; we could provide work and trade without deforestation...The state of Israel must be given recognition by all... The Palestinians must have justice... The world community must show as much its capacity for compassion as for force."--British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on winning the war against terrorism.
As Blair suggests above, for Operation Enduring Freedom to truly succeed, global superpowers like the United States and Great Britain must not only rethink our attitudes toward ongoing political issues like Palestine, but also rethink our role as citizens of the global village.
No matter how many bin Ladens we bring to justice--no matter how many Al Qaedas we shut down--freedom will not endure unless we put our money where our mouth is: We cannot deny U.S. corporations the right to create acid rain, operate sweatshops, or use DDT at home while permitting them to do so in the backyards of the Third World. We cannot form alliances based on access to oil at the expense of freedom and human rights. We cannot permit our leaders to walk out of summits on international issues like the global warming because the world consensus inconveniences their oil company cronies and corporate campaign backers.
However, said Brown, "Certain things that are going well in our culture that will help us in this struggle," including "liberal things, like tolerance for other cultures; affirmative action; and gutsy journalists--things that resonate with many in the Islamic world while not offending any religious sensitivities."
In the process of sorting out our new role in the Middle East, Brown pointed out, we need to be careful about creating more blowback. "What are the unintended consequences of the course we now pursue?" asks Brown. "These Jihadist guys," Brown pointed out, make the worst of Western right wing reactionaries "look like East Village coffee shop owners."
Yet we may have helped create the "Jihadists," he explained. "It is worth examining the policies that brought us to engage such enemies, just as it is worth examining Versailles contribution to the Third Reich," he said, adding that we must "call for care in how we now proceed so as not to generate future surprise movements."
U.S. policies during the Afghan/Soviet conflict helped create the terrorists that later attacked us. Our reasons for training bin Laden and other extremists seemed simple enough: the positives outweighed the negatives. The end--Afghanistan's defeat of the Soviet Union and thus our "winning" of the cold war--justified the means.
We seem bound to repeat these same mistakes. To get "Operation Enduring Freedom" under way, the Bush administration cozied up to an unfortunate group of bedfellows, and there is an astronomical potential for today's allies to become tomorrow's adversaries.
Consider Turkey, for example, which has a horrendous record of human rights violations including constant harassment of its Kurdish minority and imprisonment of dissidents. A self-appointed "chief executive," Pervez Musharraf, heads Pakistan. Musharraf gained control of the country through a military coup that occurred after Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, tried to fire him. The two were disputing, apparently, over Sharif's decision to end an Islamic incursion into India that Musharraf is said to have orchestrated.
And consider Uzbekistan, where Bush quickly began negotiating for bases from which to launch the war against the Taliban. The former Soviet republic has a long-standing animosity towards the Taliban; like the U.S., Uzbekistan's government has become incensed over the Taliban's refusal to surrender Muslim extremists accused of political activism within the country.
However, the Uzbek approach to political activists has been extreme: the country reportedly has more than 7,000 political prisoners, some accused of nothing more than distributing leaflets or wearing a beard. Over the past few years, Radio Free Europe reported almost monthly atrocities committed against Uzbek civilians by their government. For example, the government shut down a television station that had criticized its policies. Ostensibly, the station was closed due to a code violation involving a fire alarm system, prompting the station owner to state: "We can give the Uzbek government credit and acknowledge their creativity in finding a reason to shut down an independent television station."
After repeatedly trying--in vain--to get the government to allow the station to reopen, the station owner learned that he was to be arrested and fled the country. His decision to flee, he said, was influenced by the recent fate of human rights activist Shovrukh Ruzimuradov, who died a few months ago while in police custody.
Ruzimuradov's family had heard nothing of the activist from the time of his disappearance until the police returned his body to them for burial. Although the police claimed his death was from suicide, relatives claimed the body was covered with bruises, "and some organs were missing," indicating that he was probably tortured to death.
With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Most important, of course, is that we must stress that civilians are not appropriate targets in any war, and make sure our current allies--military or economic--understand that we mean that. "It's one thing to hide behind friendly governments and kill American soldiers, sailors and airmen, but quite another to target civilians," said Brown. "That is an important distinction; if it was not, then what would stop us from targeting their non-governmental civilians--or any civilians anywhere?"
The U.S. and its allies have already been criticized for incurring unintentional civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and it appears that the Northern Alliance (or the United Front) threaten to perpetrate My Lai-type actions against the pro-Taliban mercenaries in their midst. Sooner or later, we will have to answer those criticisms and we should continue to take whatever steps we can to avoid such events. As Brown pointed out, "Many [Americans] do not like the numbers of civilian dead that result from targeting the military. Imagine if the civilians were targeted instead."
We can't "win" a "war against terrorism" unless we ensure that the world believes that we won't tolerate attacks against civilians--whether those civilians are American or Afghan, Israeli or Palestinian. With our high-technology bombs and other war machinery, Brown said, "We can kill millions quickly. But we are fighting for a world in which civilians are not war targets."
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