Afghan Boomerang

By: 
Yacov Ben Efrat

Introduction: Made by the USA

UNTIL RECENTLY, the name "Afghanistan" had an exotic ring to many, but not to US policy-makers. For a decade (1979-1989) they backed the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, contributing to the latter's collapse. The new world order had its start, one might say, in this desolate country, although it reached its heyday a short time later in the Gulf War. 

Among the "Mujahidin" who fought the Soviet Union were some who refused to accept the new world order. They saw the Afghan victory as a sign of Islamic superiority. The anti-Soviet war was a struggle against an Infidel Empire. The support they had received from America seemed to them merely a temporary conjunction of interests. 

The existence of these maverick groups, with their offbeat interpretation, aroused no misgivings in Washington. There were two reasons for complacency. One was the lopsided balance of forces: a great world power could hardly feel threatened by scattered bands of lightly armed fighters. Secondly, these former allies continued to collaborate in the US campaign to smash the Yugoslav federation, first in Bosnia, later in Kosovo. They also inflamed the war against Russia in Chechnya; here they cooperated with American oil companies, which sought to secure the energy resources of the Caspian Sea.

In Afghanistan, one of these groups, the Taliban, took power by force in 1996. It sheltered and sustained Osama Bin Laden, who issued a religious decree in 1998 calling for jihad, holy war, against the US. Yet here an additional factor blinded Washington: its regional allies, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, all supported the Taliban with arms and money. Indeed, the sole recognition of the Taliban government came from these three. 

How could America's main Muslim allies support the Taliban, who backed Osama Bin Laden's decree of jihad? And why did America fail to take the threat seriously?

In order to answer these questions, we need to examine the roots of the current war. Whatever may have been Osama Bin Laden's role in igniting the conflict, it is a mistake to attribute the unprecedented attacks of September 11 to his extremist views alone. Extremism thrives in a specific political, social and economic reality, which is that of most peoples today. It is by no means typical to Islam. We find it among those former Yugoslavs who have since become ultra-nationalistic, or in Italy and Austria, where Fascists are again in government, or among the perpetrators of massacre in Africa, and even in the US itself, among Christian fundamentalists eagerly awaiting Armageddon. Extremism is an epidemic of global proportions.

America backed the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, contributing to the latter's collapse. The name "Afghanistan", then, is directly connected to America's global hegemony. The new world order had its start in this desolate country. 

I. Afghanistan:forsaken land

From 1979 until 1989, the US was extremely busy in Afghanistan, then ruled by forces of the Soviet Union. America saw the Soviet presence as a threat to its influence in central Asia, and especially as a threat to its allies, Pakistan and Turkey. The Iranian revolution had recently toppled the Shah. This trauma heightened America's anxiety about Afghanistan's fall to the Soviets. As a counterweight, Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords, crossing to the Western bloc. Yet because of his subsequent isolation in the Arab world, his about-face did not reassure America concerning the area's future.

In order to realize its ambition of shaping events in Afghanistan, the US needed a more aggressive foreign policy. That required an internal transformation. It happened at the end of 1980, when conservative Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter. Reagan entered the White House armed with an extreme anti-Soviet political program. Almost immediately he found a close ally in Pakistan's leader, General Zia al-Haq, who had overthrown the legal government of Ali Bhutto three years earlier.

The Carter Administration had imposed sanctions on Pakistan because of its nuclear-weapons program and abuses of human rights; Reagan promptly canceled them. He provided generous military assistance. Pakistan became third among the nations receiving US foreign aid. (Digital National Security Archive.) In return, it supported US policy.

In order to win domestic legitimacy for his dictatorial regime, General Zia began to depend on Islamist tendencies. While suppressing political parties and canceling freedoms, he tried to give the regime a new identity. Among the religious movements he relied on was Jama'at al-Islam, a right-wing fundamentalist party founded in 1941. Zia gave it broad powers to administer the educational system, including the universities. He also helped it gain influence over the media. (Alavi.)

The power of this party extended to all aspects of life, including the military, arousing concern within the Pakistani opposition. The idyll between Zia and the Islamists reached its height in 1980, when Islamic law (Shariah) became the law of the land.

The fundamentalist character of Pakistan's regime did not bother Washington. On the contrary, the CIA adopted a view put forth by Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence): the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan must be aided in their struggle against the more educated, liberal, left-leaning classes.

On the advice of General Zia, the US decided to back the Afghan Islamist party, headed by Gulb a-Din Hekmatyar. The CIA's intent was to place him in charge of a front that would liberate Afghanistan from Soviet occupation. The preference for Hekmatyar derived from his ethnic affiliation. His group, the Pashtun, dwell on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border. It is the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Other leaders who initially fought the Soviets, such as Burhan a-Din Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masoud, both of the Tajiki minority, failed to get the massive support from Pakistan that Hekmatyar did. Another factor also weighed against them: they didn't seem obedient enough. (Singh.)

In 1987, American military assistance to the Afghan rebels reached $700 million - more than Pakistan got. The CIA took care to equip them with new high-grade weapons. Yet the agency took care, also, that the arms should not come directly from the US. It wanted to obscure the American presence in the area. (Digital National Security Archive, 2001.) In order to diminish financial activity between the US and Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia was engaged to transfer large sums of money from its accounts, which the CIA managed behind the scenes. When Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, the country sank into civil war. The various Muslim forces that had fought together could not agree about apportioning power. Hekmatyar, still supported by Pakistan, failed to capture Kabul, the capital. The battles between his forces and those of his rival, Ahmad Shah Masoud, tore the country to pieces. Anarchy reigned.

II. The Taliban Conquest of Afghanistan

The Taliban movement has its origin in a network of religious schools, established in Pakistan by another Islamist party, Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam. In the early nineties, some four thousand madrassas (boarding schools) sprang up all over Pakistan, especially near the Afghan border (where two million Afghan refugees were living in camps). These schools included not only refugee children, but also sons of wealthy Pakistani families. At present they have half a million pupils. (Rashid.)

Until 1993 Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam was still a rather isolated party in Pakistani politics. Then, however, it joined the government of Benazir Bhutto. The coalition was headed by the Pakistani People's Party (PPP). Under this aegis, the madrassas of Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam trained their pupils within a military and political framework. Out of it came the Taliban movement, under the supervision and responsibility of Pakistan's ISI.

In August 1994, the Pakistani regime decided to use the Taliban in order to establish control over Afghanistan, where it intended to impose order and stability. It sent the young fighters to carry out the task in which Hekmatyar had failed. (Pakistan had become disenchanted with Hekmatyar four years before in the Gulf crisis: he had taken a pro-Iraqi stance. This had also angered his patrons, the Saudis.)

The chief of Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam, Mullah Fadel al-Rahman (once head of the Pakistani parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee) at this time made a series of visits to Saudi Arabia. His aim was to persuade the Saudis to support the new Pakistani policy in Afghanistan. The head of the Saudi secret service, Prince Turki al-Faisal, then paid a visit to the Taliban's center at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Pakistan's pressure bore fruit: the Saudis decided to finance the Taliban. (Hiro.) 

They had an additional motive to do so. Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam and the Taliban belong to an Islamic school of thought known as Deoband, named after the Indian town where it was founded in 1867. This school is based on a separatist, reactionary interpretation of Islam. Deoband is very close to the Wahabi school, to which the Saudi royal family belongs.

The US joined its allies in aiding the Taliban movement, ignoring its cruelty toward Afghan citizens. Washington pursued a single objective only: control over the oil and gas resources in the Caspian Sea. On September 26, 1996, after seven years of civil war, the Taliban captured Kabul, the capital. They imposed their authority and secured, for a short time, a measure of stability.(Maroofi.) One year later a contract was signed between, on the one hand, a group of oil companies including America's Unocal and Saudi Arabia's Delta Oil, and, on the other, the government of Turkmenistan (formerly a Soviet republic). The agreement included the laying of a pipeline 790 km. long, from the gas fields of Turkmenistan on the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean. The pipeline was supposed to pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan, enabling the Americans to bypass Iran and Russia. The Taliban government promised Pakistan to keep the area around the pipeline stable. (Haque.) Trud, a Russian newspaper, quoted the assistant director of Unocal, Chris Taggart, on October 29, 1997 as follows: "If Taliban stabilizes the situation in Afghanistan and can gain international recognition, the possibilities of constructing a pipeline will be significantly improved."

In August 1998, the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar al-Salam were bombed. The attacks were linked to Osama Bin Laden, now based in Afghanistan under the aegis of the Taliban government. Three months later, Unocal canceled its part in the pipeline deal.

The Taliban victory in Afghanistan resulted not from divine intervention, rather from the support of Pakistan's army and secret service, together with American and Saudi money. In less abnormal circumstances, even all these would not have sufficed. One more element was required: Afghanistan's sheer backwardness. Were it not for that, a movement with so benighted an interpretation of Islam could never have taken over. This movement could only find footing in a country lacking the infrastructure of modern life.

III. A utopian plan to restore the caliphate

In 1995 Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was visiting Ethiopia when an attempt was made on his life. It was linked to associates of Osama Bin Laden, then in Sudan. Egypt and Saudi Arabia brought pressure to bear on Sudan, which expelled Bin Laden. He returned to Afghanistan in May 1996. On September 26, Taliban forces entered Kabul and took control of the country.

The intimate relation between Bin Laden and the Taliban did not result from any interest on his part in the welfare of the Afghan people. The need to restore the ravaged land had no place on his agenda. On the contrary, devastation and backwardness provided fertile soil for his megalomaniac program: to turn Afghanistan into a major base of jihad fighters for the sake of Islamic conquest.

The Taliban movement did not establish a modern system of government. It did not aim to solve the economic and social crisis, caused by years of war and drought. Instead, through a special police system, it set about enforcing its reactionary Wahabi version of Islam. The new laws proscribed, among other things, listening to music or making art. Afghan women paid the highest price. The Taliban forbade them to study or work or even, except under strictly defined conditions, to go out of doors.

The Taliban did bring relative stability, however, which stopped the flow of refugees to Pakistan. This neighbor viewed the new government in a favorable light and acted as its patron. To Pakistan, a friendly Afghanistan is a source of strategic depth. It provides vital help in the confrontation with India over the control of central Asia. In particular, the Taliban jihad fighters reinforce pro-Pakistan troops in disputed Kashmir. In the border battles of May 1999, between India and Pakistan, Bin Laden's forces played a major role.

Thus, despite its poverty and devastation, Afghanistan has become a crucial zone for regional and global interests. The Taliban government, for its part, has chained the Afghan people to its struggle for the Islamic nation. The aim is nothing less than to impose its reactionary version of Islam on a global scale. For starters, it did not balk at cooperation with America. The jihad fighters joined Uncle Sam in conflicts ranging from the Balkans through Chechnya to the Philippines. Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban developed a symbiotic relationship. The latter adopted the former's utopian program, according to which all Muslims should unite beneath a restored caliphate. They should rid the Muslim world of infidels and cancel national borders. The effect of Bin Laden's vision would be to isolate the Muslim world. He believes he can only achieve this goal by the violent overthrow of existing Arab regimes. His organizational tool is the al-Qaeda movement. This arose during the anti-Soviet revolt, as a means of coordinating Arab volunteers who came to help the Afghans.

Bin Laden has outlined his program to the Al-Jazeera television network. He wants to restore the type of regime that existed under the "Rashidun caliphate". (The term refers to the first four successors of the Prophet Muhammad; they are considered to have been righteous men, compared to the corrupt and divided leaders of later periods.) Unlike other Muslim visionaries, however, Bin Laden intends to put his program into practice at once, beginning with the Arab world but not stopping there. He wants, that is, to replace the existing global regime with an Islamic one.

In his desire to change the world, Bin Laden does not contemplate a protracted process of persuasion; he does not seek to build an alternative with a broad social base and a political organization. He does not believe in mobilizing the masses to the point where they will be ready to overthrow the regime. His approach is rather the shortcut known as jihad. Only thus, he believes, will he awaken the oppressed to action. He counts on the despair and frustration to which American policies have led during the last decade. Yet without a firm social alternative, despair and frustration have never sufficed to change reality.

Despite the dramatic effects of the recent terrorist attacks, there is nothing new in their underlying concept: a group of extremists undertook a spectacular act, aimed at arousing the masses to action. The same concept guided the Bader-Meinhof group in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and the Montoneros in Argentina. Such organizations, whether left or right, were far removed ideologically from the Islam of Osama Bin Laden. Yet all shared a belief that terror would pave the way for change. All shared, that is, the quality of impatience. Their end was abject failure. Their adventurist tactics enabled the authorities to isolate and eliminate them. Their terrorist acts provided a pretext to put down, in addition, more patient revolutionary movements, which were engaged in the slow work of building a true alternative.

In contrast with the communist parties, the radical groups, misinterpreting Marx, sought to take power solely through armed struggle. Violent actions were to replace the mobilization of the masses, trade unions and political parties. Bin Laden has learned nothing from the dismal fate of the "leftist jihad", whose fighters were no less devoted than his. The hatred and spite that he harbors toward the working class, or anything that smacks of socialism, have prevented his learning from others' experience. He is leading his supporters to a similar doom.

IV. Decline of the global jihad

In February 1998, Bin Laden and Aiman al-Zawahari, leader of Egypt's Islamic jihad, united various Islamic groups under a single roof: "The Global Islamic Front Against the Jews and the Crusaders." Clerics who identified with the Front published a fatwa (a decree of Islamic law), stating: "To kill Americans and their allies, civilian or military, is an obligation for every Muslim capable of doing so, wherever possible. This decree will be in effect until the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Mosque (in Mecca - YBE) and until their armies withdraw from all the lands of Islam." (al-Quds al-Arabi, February 1998). This decree was a desperate measure. It was meant to revive the jihad groups, whose status, for reasons we shall now explore, had been severely shaken in the Arab world. 

1. The failure of jihad in Algeria

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, about ten thousand Arab volunteers who had fought with the Afghan rebels found themselves idle. Under the leadership and guidance of Bin Laden, they established a secret network of armed activists in several lands. The first target was Algeria, whose army, in 1991, had grabbed power in a coup against the party that had won that year's election, namely, the "Front for Islamic Salvation". Five years after this coup, the GIA ("Armed Islamic Groups") appeared in Algeria. It was subject to Bin Laden. It proclaimed a jihad against the Algerian army and its rural militias. In the subsequent fighting, both sides massacred innocent Muslims by the hundreds of thousands. The blood of civilians flowed until the autumn of 1997, when the Front for Islamic Salvation declared a cease fire. The GIA refused to accept it, continuing its terrorist operations. This resulted in its isolation and repudiation by the Algerian masses. (Benramdane.) 

2. … and in Egypt

The fate of jihad groups in Egypt was no different. Their terrorist acts failed to overthrow the regime. At first they tried unsuccessfully to assassinate government officials. In a later phase, they killed tourists. In addition to destroying lives, these assaults caused serious economic damage, for tourism is Egypt's main source of foreign currency. The jihad fighters also made terrorist attacks on the Copts, a Christian minority in Egypt, in an attempt to awaken inter-religious hostilities. But the Egyptian public turned its back on such extremism. It gave its support, instead, to the more moderate Islamic school, which seeks to ally itself with the regime. The activists of the moderate Islamic movements make up an important part of the Egyptian economic elite. They hold numerous jobs in government administration, religious institutions, universities, trade unions and non-profit associations. Their offices connect them to the regime. As a matter of course, these activists have influence with the masses. They have managed to isolate the jihad groups, preventing them from overturning the government.

3. … and in Sudan

The heaviest blow to the jihad movement came in Sudan. At first things went superlatively. In 1989 Sheikh Hassan Turabi and General Omar Bashir conducted a military coup against the country's democratically-elected government. The new regime invited Osama Bin Laden to live and work in Sudan. In the mid-1990's, however, General Bashir began warming up to the West. He banished Bin Laden in 1996. Three years later he placed Turabi himself under house arrest. In the same period, the regime permitted the CIA to open offices in Sudan.

4. …and in Arab lands

The jihad groups also failed to make progress in Arab countries. This fact shows the difference between the reality in those countries and that in Afghanistan. The masses of the Arab lands rejected all attempts to impose Islamic dictatorship. The workers, the peasants and the liberal intelligentsia are simply not willing to enter a Dark Age of fanaticism.

5. … and beyond

The jihad forces have also attempted to impose their vision outside the Arab world, but with little success. Their apparent achievements in Bosnia and Kosovo did not come about because of superlative military capability. Their interests coincided temporarily with those of the West, that was all. This collaboration was based on a common desire to reduce Russian influence by dismantling the Yugoslav federation. One expression of this strange harmony occurred in Israel. The government of Yitzhak Rabin joined hands with the local Islamic movement in 1993, absorbing dozens of Muslim refugees from Bosnia. The Islamic movement lost its enthusiasm, however, upon discovering that the refugees were blond and secular. Finally, the kibbutzim took them in.

The jihad groups also suffered defeat in Chechnya and Dagastan. Here the Mujahidin operated in response to the call of America, which wanted to secure control of the oil-rich Caspian Sea. Under American protégé Boris Yeltsin, Russia was passive. The dismemberment of Yugoslavia, its historic ally, had continued with impunity. This passivity stopped, however, as soon as the American slicing machine threatened the Caucasus. Under pressure of Russian public opinion, Yeltsin refused an American demand to place international observers in Chechnya. Soon after that he resigned, yielding power to Vladimir Putin (who promised not to use incriminating material against him). Putin then launched a campaign to wipe out the Chechnyan rebels. Riding on a wave of nationalist enthusiasm, he won support from the Russian people, who felt humiliated by the decline in their country's international status. He achieved the acme of popularity when he conquered Grozni, the Chechnyan capital, and ground it to bits.

For the jihad, then, things did not go so well here as they had in Bosnia and Kosovo. Extremist Islam failed elsewhere as well. In May 1999, Pakistan's army worked together with the Taliban and Bin Laden's jihad fighters in a joint attack on the province of Kashmir in India. It ended in dismal defeat. 

On all fronts, then, Osama Bin Laden's jihad fighters lost ground. The attacks on America occurred after their movement had reached a dead end. They hoped to recoup prestige by a sensational action. It would catalyze the necessary confrontation with the Infidels. At its end, they believed, would come Redemption. 

V. Operation "Day of Judgment"

The Islamic awakening did not progress at the rate Osama Bin Laden desired. At the same time, however, the status of the US itself declined in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Popular rage against America (and Israel) came to a head in October 2000, when the masses went into the streets in support of the Intifada. Bin Laden did not ignore this. These energies, he understood, were directed not only against Israel and Washington, but also against America's Arab allies, above all Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Massive demonstrations broke out in the whole Arab world, including the Gulf states, and among the Arabs in Israel. The opposition to America focused on three issues: (1) Its one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians; (2) its sanctions against Iraq; and (3) its support for India against Pakistan. Behind these issues lay a broader background of unemployment, poverty and backwardness.

Arab public opinion made it difficult for the regimes to maintain open, friendly relations with the US. As soon as the Intifada broke out, they hastened to convene an Arab summit - the first since the Gulf War - to deflect the criticism. They changed their line to save their skins. Egypt and the Gulf States had established diplomatic and economic relations with Israel during the nineties. They had supported the Palestinian surrender at Oslo. Now, suddenly, they launched a crude propaganda campaign against Israel and America. The campaign has lasted a year. It has included most of the Arab media, from newspapers to satellite TV. It has filled an important function in awakening popular feeling to identify with the Intifada. Within Arab public opinion, it has created the impression of an imminent war against "the Jews and Crusaders".

Islamist forces did score points on the Israeli front, although without connection to Bin Laden. First, under the military pressure of the Hizballah (the Islamic "Party of God"), Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000. Fanatical Islamic organizations continued to carry out suicide attacks inside the country. These successes tended to nourish, among extremists, the feeling that the moment of decision was near. Islam seemed capable of leading the faithful to victory. In the upsurge of faith, the real balance of forces was forgotten.

There are fundamental differences between the terrorist actions in New York and Washington, on the one hand, and the struggle of Hizballah and Hamas on the other. The latter carefully avoid any damage to American interests. They act within a carefully defined political framework. The Hizballah coordinate their actions with Syria and Iran; they claim legitimacy from international law. As for Hamas, it rarely strays beyond "red lines" established by the PA (Palestinian Authority). When it does, the PA arrests its leaders. The attacks on America, in contrast, were not intended to liberate conquered territory or achieve a well-defined practical end. The intent was more grandiose than that: to create strategic parity between the Islamic world and that of the Infidel. What kind of framework, then, is guiding Bin Laden? What are his "red lines"? How does he dare to launch an attack such as far greater powers would never dream of? We should recall, first, that he and his companions believed they had recently defeated the Soviet Union. Furthermore, although Bin Laden considered the forces at his disposal and weighed his steps, his assessments were off. We have mentioned the strategic depth that Afghanistan gives Pakistan in the latter's conflict with India. Bin Laden apparently believed that Pakistan, in turn, would provide him with strategic depth in his jihad against "Crusader" America.

What could have led him to such a miscalculation? Did he really believe that Pakistan would stand with him? Apparently. Behind his mistake lay two events: the Islamic bomb and the coup by General Pervez Musharaf. 

(1) On May 28, 1998 Pakistan carried out a successful nuclear test. This had a tremendous effect on the Muslim states in the region, including the fundamentalist movements. Saudi Arabia was among the first to cheer. Much of its enthusiasm derived from the fact that its two major enemies, Iraq and Iran, are well underway toward developing their own.

In the three years since that event, Pakistanis have observed each May 28 as "The Great Day": the anniversary of the first successful nuclear test by an Islamic state. In the Great Day celebrations of the year 2000, the Pakistani Minister of Science declared, "We bow down before God Almighty, who restored her greatness to Pakistan on May 28, 1998." (Goldberg.)

Sami ul-Haq, who heads Jama'iyyat Ulama al-Islam and serves in Pakistan's parliament, has published a fatwa declaring jihad against any Pakistani government that signs an agreement preventing nuclear tests. Ul-Haq, a fervent supporter of Bin Laden, also heads a religious school. Many of his graduates have joined the Taliban. The Associated Press reported in October 1998 as follows: "Many militants want Pakistan to continue development of nuclear weapons, both as a deterrent to longtime enemy India and as an equalizer for the Islamic world in its dealings with the West." (Gannon.) Muslim extremists interpreted Pakistan's nuclear tests as a gift from heaven. God granted them the bomb as a thing to use. The West had tried to prevent Islam from getting what others in Asia, Europe and America had, but Pakistan's success ended that.

Bin Laden and his organization now awaited their chance to declare a jihad against America. The Musharaf coup, to which we now turn, signaled for them the approach of Judgment Day. 

(2) At the time of the nuclear test, Nawaz Sharif was still president of Pakistan. He tried to reach agreement with India over Kashmir. Behind his back, General Pervez Musharaf led the army and the jihad militias, attacking inside that province. He meant to torpedo the pending agreement. Like all Pakistani generals, Musharaf feared that a treaty with India would weaken the army's domestic position. This army draws its power and influence from a strange mix of modern arms and Muslim extremism, aimed against the arch-infidels, India and America. 

The Musharaf offensive ended in failure, as I have mentioned. Pakistanis blamed the defeat on a change in American policy. Until the Clinton Administration, the US had sided with them. But Clinton had switched sides, favoring India. This had outraged the Pakistani public, as well as the army. Bin Laden compared the switch to America's preference for Israel over the Palestinians. In October 1999, Musharaf deposed Sharif. An ultra-nationalist was now at the helm in Pakistan, backed by an army with strong Islamic connections.

Behind Osama Bin Laden's miscalculation, then, lay three beliefs: First, Pakistan with its nuclear bomb could function as an independent Islamic power, giving him strategic depth against "Jews and Crusaders". Second, Musharaf would surely support him. And third, as mentioned, there was the abiding conviction that he and his colleagues had done it before: they had (with a little help from their American friends) defeated one superpower already.

VI. Saudi Arabia - The Weak Link

To understand America's difficulty in coping with the Bin Laden phenomenon, we need to explore the complex relations between the US and Saudi Arabia. We have mentioned the latter's cooperation with the CIA in financing the Afghan Mujahidin. With the passage of time, however, a conflict of interest has developed between Riyadh and Washington. After the attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar al-Salam (August 1998), the US retaliated against Bin Laden's bases in Afghanistan, as well as a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (which it claimed was making chemical weapons). On February 8, 1999, the New York Times quoted CIA Director George Tenet as telling Congress that Bin Laden could strike "at any time" against symbols of American power. The Times noted a consensus, among US policy makers, "that Bin Laden has strong political support even among American allies abroad." He "receives money and political support from princes of the Saudi royal family, whose king he has vowed to depose, and from powerful people and financial institutions in Kuwait and Qatar, where there is a strong American military presence, U.S. officials said." (Weiner.)

Washington wasn't blind to the seriousness of the situation. Concerns about Saudi Arabia's ambivalent relation to America had begun to grow after June 25, 1996. On that date an explosion in an American base at Khobar in Saudi Arabia killed 19 US soldiers. The Saudi government refused to cooperate with Washington in investigating the incident. On the contrary, the Saudis did all they could to conceal information and keep the Americans from gathering evidence. To this day, five years later, the incident at Khobar remains a mystery. No one has been brought to trial. Louis Freeh, head of the FBI, "gave an example of how the Americans were cold-shouldered: the Chevrolet used in the attack had been found at the start of July 1996, but it took more than six months and the most highly-placed intercessions before the FBI was allowed to examine the vehicle." (Middle East International.)

Saudi Arabia attempted to create the impression that Iran-backed Shi'ites had made the attack. Its version did not persuade Washington. On July 6, 2001 the Al-Jazeera television network broadcast a talk show called "More Than One View" (Aktar min Rai), including Saudi and Iranian participants. They exposed several important facts concerning the attack in Khobar. Dr. Sa'ad al-Fakiyya, head of the Islamic Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia, called in to say, "Let's be clear. A group of six Sunni Muslims was arrested in connection with the attack at Khobar. Their link to it has in effect been proved. These six… aren't the only ones. Hundreds were arrested after the attack, in a wide-ranging action that brought in everyone who was thought to be a supporter or who had any connection whatever to the war in Afghanistan."

Dr. al-Fakiyya explained why the Saudis kept the Americans from investigating: "If this group or another, in the attacks at Riyadh or Khobar, is shown to be connected to Bin Laden, it will demonstrate that there is a local Sunni group opposing the regime and threatening its stability. The Saudi fear of such a revelation led them, instead, to blame the Shi'ite opposition."

The program host, Sami Hadad, added the following: "In October 1998, the French News Agency cited a source in the Saudi Interior Ministry, who said that the Saudis had expelled the Taliban representatives because their government was sheltering people wanted in connection with the attack at Khobar." The Assistant Editor of al-Shark al-Awsat, Muhammad Awam, confirmed this claim.

How did the Khobar attack affect relations with America? According to the International Herald Tribune ("Saudi Arabia: The Ties That Bind," December 2, 1996), a senior US official admitted: 'Saudi Arabia is a black hole. We have enormous gaps in understanding what is going on here.' After the Khobar attack, the CIA subjected the kingdom to an exceptional analysis procedure known as 'hard target strategy' (until then reserved for countries like Russia, China, Iran, Iraq and North Korea) to try to assess the dangers weighing down on the regime." 

The CIA did manage, however, to investigate why the Khobar attackers weren't brought to trial, but it refrained from publishing the results. We may hazard a guess as to why: the US discovered how much the political opposition to the Saudi regime has been growing. Maybe Washington finally understood, too, that there is broad antagonism to its military presence on Saudi soil. If the CIA did its homework, it found out that the opposition to the regime is nourished by a decline in social and economic conditions. The bitterness of the people increases because of corruption in the royal family, whose members carry on a life of ostentatious luxury at a time when most Saudis are suffering. Since 1982, when King Fahd came to the throne, the economy has shrunk drastically. "In 1993, annual per capita income was $5,000, barely one third of what it was in the early 1980's. By some estimates, it has since fallen still further. And politically, all this has aided Islamic fundamentalism, which has grown at an alarming rate because it is the only popular movement which the government cannot outlaw." (Aburish.)

Whatever the results of the CIA investigation, it is clear what Washington decided to do in the wake of the Khobar attack: keep mum. At the same time, it seems, Saudi Arabia reached understandings with the Taliban and Bin Laden. The latter agreed to cease attacking inside the Saudi borders. In return, the Saudis would continue to provide financial support and refrain from bringing the Khobar attackers to trial. We have no proof of such understandings, but the fact is, terrorist activity did stop inside the country until an explosion in Khobar at the start of October 2001, after the attacks on America. (Here too the pattern has repeated itself: investigation has yielded no publicly visible results.)

The events of September 11 put an end to Washington's hesitations. The main editorial in the New York Times for September 25 called on the Saudi government to cooperate with American intelligence in order to uproot the terrorist organizations on Saudi soil, as well as their financial sources. This call amounted to an admission of now undeniable facts: Saudi Arabia gives shelter and support to extremist Islamic groups, fearing that confrontation will doom a regime that is already on the edge.

Twelve of the suicide fighters in the attacks on America came from Saudi Arabia. This fact carries grave implications for the Saudi regime. Its officials have tried to blur it by saying that the published names are inexact. They keep American journalists from entering their country. Despite the attempts at obfuscation, it is certain that most of the Saudi suicide-attackers came from the poverty-stricken region of Assir (in the southern part of the country, near the border with Yemen). Here live a number of tribes that are known to oppose the regime. (Murphy.)

 

Three years before the attacks on America, in October 1998, Le Monde Diplomatique published the following analysis: "The Saudi model of alliance between conservative Islamic fundamentalism and the West has failed. The problem for Washington is that it has no alternative political strategy vis-à-vis the Muslim world. On the Saudi side, the double talk of Prince Turki, a convinced pro-American who has always supported the radical Sunni movements and was still with the Taliban in the spring of this year, is reaching its limits. Riyadh is spending large sums of money to fund Islamist networks that actually feel nothing but contempt for the emirs and their petrodollars and think the Islamic State of Saudi Arabia would be even more Islamic without the Saud dynasty." (Roy.)

The "Prince Turki" in question is Turki al-Faisal, for thirty years head of Saudi intelligence and architect of the kingdom's close relations with the Islamist movements. These relations started with the alliance against the Soviets in Afghanistan and continued on their lethal course until September 11. (Tyler.) Now they have reached a dead end. Curiously, Prince Turki resigned or was sacked (no outsider knows) just before the attacks, on August 31; this has led to speculation that the Saudi regime may have known that something was afoot. 

VII. America with no alternative

It isn't easy to grasp what alternative America has in relation to Afghanistan, perhaps because she has none. That is why Washington delayed its military response for almost a month. Even today it is hard to define the purposes of this war or the standards by which to measure success or failure. It seems strange that to catch one man and his followers hiding in caves, a great power moves aircraft carriers and army divisions across vast seas. 

This war was imposed on America. Bin Laden and Afghanistan were by no means on its agenda. Many of the organizations and people labeled "terrorist" after September 11 had been known to the US Administration for quite some time. They had operated in America and Europe without interference. Some of Bin Laden's associates, for example, though sentenced to death by Egypt, won political asylum in Britain, where they engaged in media activities and ran a ramified financial network. Before September 11, Washington did not view the massacres of Algerians by the hundreds of thousands, or the murders of tourists in Egypt, as a grave enough problem to justify outlawing or restraining these organizations.

Before September 11, in fact, the foreign policy of the United States was directed mainly against Russia. America views Russia as a nuclear power that competes with it for influence in the vital areas of central Europe, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. As for Bin Laden, he was not considered as serious a threat as "rogue states" like Iran, Iraq and North Korea. The main strategic initiative of George W. Bush was to cancel the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and increase the effort to build an anti-missile defense system, which was supposed to ensure supremacy over Russia. Although he has not given this up, the attack on America has shifted priorities and changed the political map.

The New York Times, on September 27, exposed a small part of the web that America had woven around Russia: "Russia has helped decisively in preparations for any military action in Afghanistan and today it was rewarded. The United States, in a clear shift, stated for the first time that the Al Qaeda network played a role in inciting the bloody rebellion in the Russian territory of Chechnya." This new position signifies a sharp turn in the American attitude toward Russia. Just a few months ago, during his election campaign, Bush threatened to cut off aid to Russia because of its attacks on Chechnya. During a television interview in February 2000, Bush said, "This guy, Putin, who is now the temporary president, has come to power as a result of Chechnya." He added that Putin dealt with Chechnya in a way "that's not acceptable to peaceful nations." (Dau.)

Why only now does Washington acknowledge the role Bin Laden played in the Chechnyan uprising? The answer is simple. Earlier, the US was interested mainly in besmirching Russia's name and undermining its influence. Osama Bin Laden seemed a minor problem. 

The aid that America gave the Taliban in Afghanistan was a product of the same strategy. It was the Taliban's role to guarantee an American foothold in the three Muslim states that border the Caspian Sea and are presently under Russian influence: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The US preferred the Taliban regime in Afghanistan because of its absolute dependence on Pakistan. The alternative "Northern Alliance", supported by Russia and Iran, was repugnant to American eyes.

Despite Washington's present use of the Northern Alliance as a lever against the Taliban, it does not see the former as a strategic partner. Nor does it want to create antagonism with its devoted allies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Thus its anti-Taliban stance at first led Iran to support the American cry for revenge. Soon enough, however, Iran sensed the way the wind was blowing: it joined the opposition to the US attacks on Afghanistan.

Washington is determined to eliminate Bin Laden and stabilize the Afghan regime without disturbing the regional balance. If it succeeds in this, it will continue its Crusade to liberate the sacred Caspian oil fields. It will seek to bring other nearby lands, such as Georgia, into its orbit. 

VIII. The War and the Global Economic Downturn

The roots of the "first war of the 21st century" may be found in the wars America waged in the 1990's against Iraq and Yugoslavia. It fought against countries that could offer no resistance, military or economic. It paraded these wars under enlightened titles such as the defense of ethnic groups, of human rights, of democracy. Their single purpose, however, was to enforce a new world order, commanded by the United States. The wars resulted in a great many victims, the destruction of nation-states, and structural destabilization on a global scale.

That destabilization was the topic of an article in Le Monde Diplomatique (June 1999): "When the cold war came to an end, civil conflicts in the developing world did not. On the contrary they redoubled in intensity. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) more than 23 situations of internal warfare have appeared, or been reactivated - with more than 50 armed groups involved…In many countries (for instance Angola, Somalia and Sierra Leone) the destructiveness of these ongoing national conflicts follows a pattern. … Rebel groups vie with each other for a monopoly of violence, previously the prerogative of the state. When this happens, the developing nation-state implodes and turns into an ungovernable chaotic entity. …Whole sectors of the economy, towns, provinces and regions fall under the yoke of new warlords, drug traffickers or mafia. This is currently the case in Afghanistan…" The article goes on to name fourteen more "ungovernable chaotic entities," including Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya and Haiti. (De Rivero.)

Soon the West Bank and Gaza may join the list, as a result of the American-sponsored Oslo Accords. Structural instability is the consequence of a global economic regime that furthers the interests of big industrial concerns, above all the oil companies. Since 1997, the world has teetered on the edge of economic crisis. This causes direct damage to two kinds of countries: those with medium-sized economies, such as Brazil, Argentina and the East Asian "tigers"; and poor ones like Egypt. The enormous popular rage against America derives from the ravages caused by its new world order. Millions of people all over the world find themselves left out of the global economy, with neither income nor future.

The use of force to impose hegemony is a sign of weakness. It shows that the global capitalist regime is nearing collapse. Anarchy in weaker lands may be taken as the first sparrow. For the past two years, however, the crisis has been hitting the big industrial centers. Japan, Europe and America itself were slipping into recession even before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These came as a rude awakening: the malignancy has not stayed locked up within the borders of Africa, Asia or Latin America. It has found its way to the nerve-center of the capitalist order.

The present and future anarchy does not know borders. New technology and high-speed transportation, the vital organs of globalization, constitute a two-edged sword. With all the good they have done, especially for the multinationals, they also made it possible for nineteen fundamentalist extremists to go to flying school and strike at the heart of America.

The attack on the US is a warning. The lack of any alternative on a global scale raises unprecedented dangers. The beginnings of disarray can be seen already, in the cracks that have opened among the former members of the alliance against Iraq. They do not go along with the American notion that problems can be solved by force. They worry that they too may become a target for rage, with anarchy popping up in their own backyards.

The enemy is evasive. It is not just Bin Laden or the Taliban. The real enemy is the anarchy America itself has created. The present war will strengthen this anarchy. The economic crisis, meanwhile, sharpens conflicts of interest among the more influential states. There is growing danger of nuclear confrontation between China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, and yes, America and Russia. Nor can we ignore the rebirth of fascism in Europe. Fascists again stalk the corridors of power in Italy and Austria. Our world, in short, has gone astray. Bin Laden and his followers have reminded us how far. But the primary problem is not terrorism. Society lacks, at present, the will to heal the gravest illness humanity has ever known: the epidemic of poverty. This is not a poverty caused by overpopulation, drought or famine. It is a poverty resulting from an unbounded drive to profit at the expense of others. 

Epilogue

Soon after the suicide actions, the New Statesman, a British weekly close to the Labor Party, included the following analysis in its lead editorial (Sept. 17, 2001). "Since the communist bloc began to weaken in the 1980s, and finally collapsed in the 1990s, capitalism has reverted to type, though with most of the misery exported from the industrialized nations. A world in which there is only one superpower deprives poor countries of the best lever for improving themselves that they ever had: if one side wouldn't provide aid, in cash or kind, they could go straight to the other. True, this kind of blackmail allowed many cruel and corrupt dictators to retain power. But you may be sure that, if the Soviet Union were still a reality and a threat, the debt crisis, which now affects some 50 countries and has reached previously unimagined levels (some countries have to use a quarter of their export earnings to service debt), would not exist….The death of the Soviet Union also deprived the global poor of something more intangible: not exactly hope, perhaps, but the sense of an alternative, of possibility."

These points are clearly beyond the comprehension of Osama Bin Laden and his band. When he called on Muslims to wage a jihad against American bases in Saudi Arabia, against the siege on Iraq and against the oppression of the Palestinians, he forgot one thing: it was he and his followers who helped bring down the Soviet Union - and who bear, therefore, responsibility for the ills he rails against.

How otherwise explain the fact that until the fall of the Soviet Union, the Americans couldn't get a foot in the regional door? How otherwise explain the fact that until this event, forty years had gone by and no country had dared fire ballistic missiles on another's cities? How otherwise explain the fact that the Palestinian people felt forced to accept an agreement amounting to surrender? Who would ever have imagined, before the fall of the Soviet Union, that Arab states would stand by America in a war against Iraq? Or that they would let the option of war against Israel be swept from their hands?

In Lebanon in the early 1980s, when Palestinians resisted Israel and received support from the Soviet Union, Bin Laden (with Saudi help) gave America a gift in Afghanistan. Instead of defending the oppressed, he struck at their ally. If the Arab volunteers in Afghanistan had really wanted to sacrifice themselves, they could have gone to Beirut when it was under siege, at a time when the Palestinians and Lebanese desperately needed Arab solidarity. Why didn't they go? Because the war in Beirut, unlike that in Afghanistan, was being fought against American imperialism, and this didn't fit their concept. Osama Bin Laden "beat" communism, but the victory was a Pyrrhic one, and the first of its victims was the Palestinian people.

Not just this people, however, but all peoples of the world are paying the price for the Soviet demise. The greatest endeavor in human history here met its end. Absurdly enough, the capitalist regime too pays the price for its downfall. The Soviet Union had ensured a measure of political and economic stability in many lands. Upon its collapse, responsibility passed to the United States.

The current global problem, however, is not the fact that there is just one superpower, but the absence of a significant organized political opposition within that superpower. The US prides itself on being the stronghold of democracy. What is this democracy? A coterie shuffles power among its members. Around this magic circle the media form a consensus of specious reasonableness, in which the human causes of massive suffering pass as immutable laws.

One result of the lack of broad-based opposition in the US has been the rise of extremist tendencies in the rest of the world. While Americans huddled cozily, enjoying their "way of life," others have been in decline. It is no wonder, therefore, that the poor of the earth, among them Islamic peoples, have developed a deep hatred for America. Its exploitation of them for the sake of its standard of living, accompanied by indifference to their catastrophes, has led to the present state of things, where the US has become a target. A true response to the recent events, on the part of the American people, would be to take a stand - and offer at last an alternative to the coterie that got them into this mess. It is not accidental that the movement against globalization began in Seattle in 1999. This was a good beginning toward building an alternative. But the recent suicide actions have caught the anti-globalization movement unprepared. Its lack of readiness shows in the absence of a clear political program to counter capitalism. 

The earth-shaking events of September 11 should make it possible for popular movements in the industrial nations, and especially in the US, to put politics back on the public agenda. America still has its masses, its working class, its unions. It is upon them to put forth a new position, blocking reactionary trends that threaten to cast the world into anarchy.

As Marxists, we attempt to understand the contradictions of the capitalist regime and to work for its downfall. Acts of suicidal murder contribute nothing toward this difficult goal. Our way is long, requiring patience and persistent labor. Our purpose is to persuade the masses and to organize them within the framework of political parties, until they are able to realize their democratic right to determine their own fate.

Politics must be put back on the public agenda, not as an end in itself, but as a means to return society's resources to society's hands. These resources ought to be distributed equally among all peoples, so that each may feel itself to be part of humanity. If this does not happen, what we saw on September 11 will turn out to be part of an ongoing series. Between socialism and barbarism there is no third alternative. The time has come to choose.

- Translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Langfur.

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