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A stream of solemn reflection has surrounded the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are generally lamented for their lack of proportionality and their squandering of global sympathy.
Discussions are almost universally tactical. Regarding Afghanistan, many are now brave enough to call the war a ‘mistake’, a ‘lethal misjudgment’. The general consensus acknowledges the ‘war on terror’ was a failure, that the stated aims haven’t been met and therefore ‘the decade since 9/11 must rank among the most inept and counterproductive eras in the story of modern statesmanship.’
The one victory is the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, everywhere the ‘mastermind’ of the attacks; an entirely unproven accusation, as the US government admits, repeated without question by media and commentary.
The primary lesson is ‘the enduring legacy of the past decade is lost influence for the US, lost confidence in its leadership, lost respect for its effort to champion ideals such as democracy and human rights’; the latter apparently evident to all in the decades previous.
Gary Younge writes: ‘Ten years later the US response to the terror attacks have clarified three things: the limits to what its enormous military power can achieve, its relative geopolitical decline and the intensity of its polarised political culture.’
There are maybe a few other factors that have been clarified.
US Marine Corp General Smedley Butler was correct when he wrote in 1935 that ‘war is a racket’. The last decade has been an exciting time for defence contractors, accruing billions in profits, often through no-bid contracts. Investigating the matter, the US Center for Public Integrity reports ‘publicly available data shows that Defense Department dollars flowing into non-competitive contracts have almost tripled since the terrorist attacks of 9/11’. The Center concludes: ‘The taxpayer is the loser.’
At the end of August, the Commission on Wartime Contracting reported to the US Congress that around $60 billion may have been lost to waste and fraud in Afghanistan and Iraq. Waste and fraud may not be strong enough terms for what is essentially an enormous taxpayer kick-back to unaccountable corporations with no serious attempt at oversight. Rendition flights have brought similar benefits to private companies, who leased their aircraft to the CIA to fly ‘government personnel and their invitees’.
The cowardice and subservience of commentators and analysts has maybe reached its historical zenith in the period following the 9/11 attacks. The attack on Afghanistan was almost unanimously supported amongst articulate opinion. Opposition on principled, rather than tactical, grounds was practically non-existent in the mainstream. The illegality of the initial attacks, the clearly fraudulent pretexts and the brazen hypocrisy could be quietly ignored in the ‘good war’.
Legacy in Afghanistan
Ten years on, we could maybe return to some of the reports at the time of the initial attacks on Afghanistan to determine our level of benevolence. During the initial bombing, Arundhati Roy wrote:
‘Reports have begun to trickle in about civilian casualties, about cities emptying out as Afghan civilians flock to the borders which have been closed. Main arterial roads have been blown up or sealed off. Those who have experience of working in Afghanistan say that by early November, food convoys will not be able to reach the millions of Afghans (7.5m, according to the UN) who run the very real risk of starving to death during the course of this winter. They say that in the days that are left before winter sets in, there can either be a war, or an attempt to reach food to the hungry. Not both.’
This month, we can read how, ‘more than 150,000 Afghans were displaced during the past 12 months, a 68 per cent increase compared with the same period a year earlier,’ according to the United Nations refugee agency.
US ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker predictably used the anniversary to try and bolster support for the war, claiming that increasing the military capability of the Afghan state was ‘the ultimate guarantee that there will not be another 9/11’, and that the fight against the Taliban must continue because they have not severed their links with Al-Qaeda. Neither argument is taken seriously by anyone who studies the matter, but facts should not be allowed to discredit the public line.
Crocker was quoted as saying of the invasion and occupation, ‘as expensive as this has been in blood and treasure, it has cost a lot less than 9/11 did.’ Afghans might take a slightly different view.
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies recently released their annual strategic survey. They write, ‘The appetite in the west ten years after the 9/11 attacks to engage in active forward and anticipatory self-defence is lower than it has been for generations,’ and now ‘The case of liberal interventionism can still be made, but the cry has to be loud and the cause irrefutably perfect for it to be answered positively.’
We do not need to worry about the fact that ‘active forward and anticipatory self-defence’ has no precedent in international law, or that the ‘liberal intervention’ in Afghanistan began with an act of international terrorism against the Afghan people, designed to punish Afghans ‘until they get their leadership changed’, in the words of British Admiral Sir Michael Boyce.
It is an educational experience to see commentators explain the gap between the rhetoric of leadership and the realities of state policy.
Jonathan Freedland cites director of Chatham House Robin Niblett who ‘recalls how, during the cold war, regimes in Africa, Asia or Latin America won western backing as they fought off local, domestically motivated rebels simply by casting their opponents as part of “the global Communist foe”.’ Somehow, another generation of ingenious leaders have managed to exploit what Niblett calls the ‘9/11 mindset’ to ensure ‘the west fell for the same trick all over again.’
Freedland adds that Gaddafi was ‘playing the same game’ by ‘persuading British intelligence to become complicit in his torture of dissidents’. The truth is slightly different, as we can read elsewhere in the Guardian that ‘the British went much further than being merely complicit, and were directly involved in rendition to a country where the victim could expect to be tortured.’
The evidence that the UK actively participated in the rendition of individuals as an aspect of policy, as well as supported the US program, is now too serious to be easily discarded, or so one would think.
Exporting the democratic deficit
The conventional understanding of the US role in the world was well articulated by John Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Mearsheimer notes how Charles Krauthammer and Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the future was a United States that ‘should take the lead in bringing democracy to less developed countries the world over.’
‘US grand strategy has followed this basic prescription for the past twenty years,” he writes, although curiously, the results have been ‘disastrous’. In the UK, Conservative politician Rory Stewart, whose support for the Iraq war did not prevent him attaining a position at Harvard University’s apparently sincerely-titled Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, writes that it is ‘our sense of moral obligation, those fears about rogue states, failed states, regions and our own credibility, which threaten to make this decade again a decade of over-intervention.’
Or there could be other factors that determine whether the United States and its allies decide to attack and destroy a given political system.
In the UK, examining these factors might begin with a recent publication by the independent research organisation Democratic Audit, which found ‘corporate and financial dominance of Britain’s democracy’ has created a gaping democratic deficit. The authors note:
‘Instead of the public sphere constituting a separate life domain, with its distinctive values, relationships and ways of operating, it has become an extension of the private market, permeated by the market’s logic and interests. Instead of popular control we have subordination to an oligarchy of the wealthy and economically powerful. Instead of everyone counting for one, we have the easy purchase of political influence and the well-oiled revolving door between government and the corporate sector.’
However, it is unreasonable to suggest that concentrations of socio-economic power have a larger bearing on foreign policy decisions than ‘our sense of moral obligation’ or a public pronouncement to bring ‘democracy to less developed countries the world over.’
In either case, US and UK governments have acted in ways that have sought to increase their influence in key strategic regions of the world, benefit groups of domestic elites and subsequently impoverish, endanger and repress sectors of their own societies.
Honouring the victims of 9/11, and closing the democratic deficit, will require the bringing to justice of those who engage in acts of international terrorism, a task that begins at home.