The “war of terror” decade

September 11, 2011

Anthony Arnove, author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal and coauthor with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People's History of the United States, looks back at the 10 years since the September 11 attacks--and how politicians have used the tragedy.

TEN YEARS after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the world is still reeling from the consequences of the terrorist attacks and the geopolitical shifts that followed.

Moments after the attack, President George W. Bush and his military planners were discussing how to use people's anger and fear for their political advantage.

The Bush administration saw the horrific events of September 11 as a rare chance to carry out plans that long predated the attacks and package these as defensive rather than offensive measures. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, immediately set to work to target Iraq, despite the fact that the country had no link at all to the attacks.

Leading members of the Bush administration were open about describing the post-September 11 moment as an "opportunity." After September 11, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser and later secretary of state, asked senior national security staff to think about how to "capitalize on these opportunities," which were "shifting the tectonic plates in international politics" to U.S. advantage.

Tank crews in Afghanistan wait for the order to move out

"I really think this period is analogous to 1945 to 1947," Rice told one journalist. "And it's important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions and all of that before they harden again."

Bush invoked al-Qaeda and the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks repeatedly in his public speeches on Iraq, as the administration consciously set about selling the war, eventually creating the false impression among a majority of the U.S. population that Iraq was connected to September 11.

The most immediate target, though, was Afghanistan. Bush and Co. claimed that they were invading and occupying Afghanistan--still occupied to this day, with no end in sight--because Afghanistan was a base for the September 11 attacks.

In reality, the Bush administration was simply looking for revenge and an easy target to strike, despite the fact that the people who would suffer the consequences were civilians of Afghanistan, who had no responsibility whatsoever for September 11.

With the Democrats safely in tow, the Bush administration intended the invasion of Afghanistan to be a show of force that would have a "demonstration effect," signaling to other states that the U.S. government has the right--one which it may extend on a limited basis to allies, such as Israel--to engage in "preemptive strikes" against any country it chooses.

While many sought to explain the aggressive policies of the Bush administration as an aberration or a case of neoconservatives or Republicans engineering a radical shift in U.S. principles, the fundamental policies of the so-called "war on terror," whatever name they go by, have been overwhelmingly bipartisan and have continued in significant respects under President Barack Obama.

ON OCTOBER 6, 2011, the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan will enter its eleventh year. Even after Osama bin Laden was assassinated in May 2011 in Pakistan, the occupation continues as before.

The extrajudicial murder led to grisly celebrations of U.S. imperial might and lawlessness, but almost none of the media commentators cared to mention how the United States had cultivated bin Laden and his allies as part of their sponsorship of the Jihadists fighting against the Soviet Union--much as Washington had also supported Saddam Hussein for years in Iraq as he carried out his worst crimes.

Despite talk in the press of "withdrawal," notes that even if active-duty troop "reductions are carried out as planned, the United States would still have far more troops in Afghanistan than it did when Obama came into office and more than at any point during former President George W. Bush's administration. This means that the troop reduction would not put us much closer to actually ending the war by the end of 2012."

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan in the first half of 2011 were up 15 percent over the same period in 2010, according to a United Nations study. As the Wall Street Journal reported, May 2011 "was the deadliest month since the counting of civilian casualties started in 2007, with 368 civilian deaths and 593 civilian injuries, according to the report. June had the highest number of security incidents, with 11,862 security incidents in the first half of 2011, compared with 8,242 in the first half of 2010 and 5,095 in the same period in 2009."

Many of these deaths have come from the under-reported drone warfare the U.S. military has been escalating in Afghanistan. As author Tom Engelhardt writes in his forthcoming Haymarket book The United States of Fear, "assassination-by-drone has become an ever more central part of the Obama administration's foreign and war policy, and yet the word assassination--with all its negative implications, legal and otherwise--has been displaced by the far more anodyne, bureaucratic term targeted killing."

The Obama administration is seeking ways to continue its troop presence in Iraq beyond a previously negotiated deadline of the end of 2011.

While the fate of active-duty troops is still uncertain, various "advisers" and private contractors will certainly remain, and Iraq is littered with installations and bases that the U.S. military does not want to abandon. In Baghdad, the United States has built the largest embassy that any government in the world has ever constructed, and it will use every opportunity it can to extend its control over Iraq's vital resources and to leverage its strategic location in a region that is of immense importance to U.S. projection of power.

The U.S. global war on terror extends well beyond Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States has used drone strikes against Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; led an air war against Libya without any Congressional authorization; and cooperated with Israeli attacks on Gaza, Lebanon and Syria based on the idea of "preventive" war. Other countries, from Russia to India, have asserted that they, too, have the right to invade and bomb countries to thwart terrorism.

As Nick Turse observes, "Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Col. Tim Nye told me, that number will likely reach 120."

The U.S. has taken part in global kidnapping and assassination operations in multiple countries, set up torture centers from Guantánamo Bay in Cuba to Bagram in Afghanistan and vastly expanded the apparatus of both the military-industrial complex and a new "national security" complex that increasingly is being used to target dissent and curb civil liberties in the United States.

In the process, President Obama has embraced many elements of the expansion of executive power Bush and Co. engineered in the wake of September 11. As Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, noted in an interview with in International Socialist Review, "[O]ften, Obama's policies are squarely consistent with Bush policies--they are the same. Sometimes...Obama's actually going beyond Bush."

Literally trillions of dollars have been poured into the costs of running these wars abroad and at home, draining funds from schools, health care and other vital social needs.

IN THE process, we have also experienced cultural shifts with far-reaching and damaging consequences.

The establishment media has played a vital role in selling the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the broader "war on terror." The New York Times and other liberal journals such as the New Yorker sold the invasion of Iraq in a way that Bush alone never could have without their reporting lies and propaganda as truth.

We have also seen the open targeting of Muslims, Arabs, immigrants and people of color more broadly to shore up popular support for war. This rhetoric, far more than justifying killing of civilians abroad, has also legitimized racist attacks at home and had a chilling effect in communities understandably fearful of what would happen to them if they spoke out in public against U.S. actions.

Rather than making the world a safer place or spreading democracy, as Bush and Obama claim, U.S. policies have only destabilized the world, fueled a number of reactionary movements at home and abroad, contributed to the appeal and recruitment of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and made the United States more hated in the world--and in the process made it more likely someone would seek to launch another terrorist attack here.

The balance sheet of the last 10 years is grim. It would have to include the immense loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan; the millions displaced by the invasions and their aftermath; the deaths of the working-class youth, mostly from rural areas, sent to kill and die in Afghanistan and Iraq for no reason; the impact on the communities and families torn apart by these traumas; the erosions of civil liberties; and much else.

Some thought that the election of Barack Obama would close this terrible chapter in our history. It has not. Instead, Obama has mostly engineered refinements of Bush-era policies, a process that Bush himself had already begun in his second term as his advisers realized that the abusive and arrogant unilateralism of the initial phase of their wars was needlessly alienating allies.

Obama has repackaged and in fact given new legitimacy to policies that were once seen by some as outlandish, but are now defended or excused by those whose political horizons are defined by the politics of a prowar Democratic Party.

Not surprisingly, we have seen new setbacks for the antiwar movement and a dwindling of activism since Obama's election, not the growth of the left that some predicted when calling for a vote for Obama, despite his clear intention of escalating the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and his predictable embrace of numerous Bush-era policies.

But the fact remains that an enormous gap exists between the views and actions of Washington (and of its establishment media echo chamber) and those of the majority of the country.

THE 10 years since September 11 have demonstrated to millions that we live in a topsy-turvy world. It has led millions more to oppose war and occupation, despite the barrage of media and government propaganda and the exclusion of antiwar voices from political discussion and debate. Around the world, people have taken to the streets and marched to demand change.

Despite a continuing shift rightward at the top, most people came to reject the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. People want less money spent on the military and more on social security and health care. And on a broad range of issues, people feel the government does not serve their interests.

There is still a crying need to close the gap between these popular sentiments and the organization we need to turn that into effective forms of protest.

We need, first and foremost, to start by rebuilding an antiwar movement that is independent of both the corporate pro-war parties. That movement needs to be inclusive of Muslims and others targeted as part of the ideological support for endless war. And it needs to also involve the soldiers and veterans, and their families, being asked to fight these wars.

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 will be used by many to shore up nationalism and militarism and justify continuation of the disastrous wars fought in our name.

But we can't let this barrage intimidate those of us who know that the tragedy of the deaths of September 11 are only compounded by each new death in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and beyond.

On October 6, and in the days that follow, people will gather in Washington, D.C., to protest the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq--with solidarity events taking place in other cities. A new organization, the United National Antiwar Coalition, is trying to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of other organizations and coalitions that failed to effectively build an independent antiwar movement in the last decade.

These are still modest steps, but vital ones. It took years of many ups and downs to build effective opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, but in the end, the movement here and resistance in Vietnam led to a defeat for the United States and a brief moment in which more far-reaching changes could have been won.

We should not be deterred by the setbacks and challenges of the last decade. Far too much is at stake. The course our leaders have set us down is one that leads to more wars and the very real possibility of annihilation, through nuclear war or environmental devastation. It is a path toward barbarism.

We need to set down another path--toward a world without occupations, a world rid of nuclear weapons, a world in which we share rather than make war over the resources of the planet, a world based on solidarity and cooperation. In a word, socialism.

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