9/11 and the imperial adventure in Afghanistan
By Larry Everest
The war in Afghanistan is not a “good war” gone bad. It’s been an unjust, imperialist war of conquest and empire from its inception. About five hours after hijacked jets crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, US President George Bush’s defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld turned to an aide and told him to begin drawing up plans for war. His instructions: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related [to the attacks] and not.”
In many ways, Rumsfeld’s orientation came to encapsulate the US imperialists’ response to 9/11. They seized on these attacks to launch an unbounded and unjust war of empire, waged under the rubric of a so-called War on Terror, beginning with Afghanistan, then moving to Iraq, with at least five other countries on the hit list. So none of these wars — not Afghanistan and not Iraq — were “good wars” gone bad. From the start, they were part of a single and sweeping imperialist war of conquest and greater empire. And they continue to be unjust, imperialist wars of aggression today.
All this is clearly shown by the discussions and sequence of decisions made by the Bush regime in the days and weeks after 9/11. Beginning hours after the 9/11 attacks and continuing over the ensuing week, top Bush officials began a series of secret discussions to hammer out their response. Bob Woodward’s reports on this in the Washington Post, along with other reports and insider accounts, make clear that the invasion of Afghanistan and the whole “War on Terror” were not fundamentally responses to the attacks of 9/11. Nor were they aimed primarily at either punishing those responsible for the attacks or preventing future attacks on the US.
Instead, the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 (and then of Iraq in March 2003) were conceived as the opening salvos in a long-term “War on Terror” whose actual, inter-connected goals included defeating anti-US Islamic fundamentalist forces (including ideologically), overthrowing states not fully under US control or fueling anti-US Islamist movements, restructuring the entire Middle East and Central Asian regions, and seizing deeper control of key sources and shipment routes of strategic energy supplies. These various objectives were stitched together by the overarching goal of expanding and fortifying U.S. power and creating an unchallenged and unchallengeable global empire. This “War on Terror” congealed a decade of neocon planning into a new global grand strategy, and subsumed earlier planning, including around Afghanistan in particular.
Bush on 9/11: The `Pearl Harbor of the 21st century’
From the beginning, the Bush “war cabinet”, which included Vice President Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state Colin Powell, CIA director George Tenet, and often deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, felt an acute necessity to lash back massively and violently against those who attacked the US in order to maintain US global credibility. And they felt that the attacks reflected a deeper and broader danger to US global power: the growth of militant, anti-US Islamic fundamentalism as well as ongoing instability in the Middle East and Central Asian regions that threatened US hegemony.
But they also saw a rare and historic opportunity to launch a broad war and achieve major strategic objectives they’d long sought. Their focus, even from the start, was never on simply responding to the attacks, finding those responsible, or preventing future attacks.
Some neocons predicted, a year earlier, that it would take just this kind of sudden jolt to jumpstart their plans for greater empire: “[T]he process of transformation [of Washington’s global posture], even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor”, the Project for a New American Century wrote in September 2000. On the night of September 11, 2001, Bush wrote in his diary: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today”.
Bush and company discussed the need to act quickly “to capitalize on international outrage about the terrorist attack”. They realised the attacks gave them a political opportunity to act forcefully to “shift the tectonic plates” of global power, as Rice put it, calling the post-Soviet period one “not just of grave danger, but of enormous opportunity”. One top Bush official who wished to remain anonymous told The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann that 9/11 was a “transformative moment” not because it “revealed the existence of a threat of which officials had previously been unaware”, but because it “drastically reduced the American public’s usual resistance to American military involvement overseas, at least for a while ... Now that the United States has been attacked, the options are much broader.” So the Bush team consciously worked to translate the shock and grief generated by 9/11 into a mandate for unbounded war.
From the start, the Bush team conceived of this offensive as a broad, global war. It was never simply a campaign against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden, and the US rhetoric and planning reflected that, quickly escalating far beyond the events of 9/11. On the morning of September 11, Bush had stated simply that the US would “hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly attacks”. By the end of the day, Bush’s war cabinet had already decided to strike out against a number of governments and anti-US political forces.
The evening of September 11 Bush escalated his rhetoric: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” The next day he upped the ante again, saying the attacks “were more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.” On September 20, 2001, Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and pushed the envelope further still by committing the US to an ongoing “war on terror” against “every terrorist group of global reach”, and “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism”. He then issued an ultimatum to the Taliban government of Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda had a base of operations. The US initiated war on Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.
Global war, regional ambitions
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Bush team had been secretly debating whether or not to immediately attack Iraq — even though they knew Iraq was not involved in 9/11. By September 17, 2001, they had decided to start with Afghanistan, but not to strike Iraq — yet. The enormity of their emerging agenda demanded a step-by-step approach, and according to the Washington Post, they felt they would “need successes early in any war to maintain domestic and international support”.
Bush told Woodward: “[I]f we could prove that we could be successful in this theatre [Afghanistan], then the rest of the task would be easier. If we tried to do too many things — two things, for example, or three things — militarily, then ... the lack of focus would have been a huge risk.” That day Bush signed secret orders authorising war on Afghanistan and instructing the Pentagon to begin planning for war on Iraq — even before his ultimatum had been issued to the Taliban.
The wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq were conceived as part of an even broader agenda. The 9/11 attacks had underscored the increasing instability in the Middle East/Central Asian regions and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism as a destabilising pole of opposition to US hegemony — and an ideology putting itself forward as an alternative to US-led capitalist globalisation and bourgeois democracy. These forces — which are completely reactionary and represent the old order, both feudal and bourgeois — don’t fundamentally oppose foreign capital, but their interests clash in various ways, and often sharply, with the US and its regional clients.
On September 18, 2001, Rumsfeld said the best way to get at the terrorist networks is to “drain the swamp they live in”. A week or so later, Wolfowitz joined in: “We are going to try and find every snake in the swamp we can but the essence of the strategy is to drain the swamp.”
Just think about these statements. The US rulers were targeting as a “swamp”, entire regions, home to hundreds of millions of people, which are unstable and not fully under US control. And they were setting out to “drain” that “swamp” — to violently conquer and restructure these regions in order to crush any who oppose US domination, to reshape and transform them to both undercut the social forces giving rise to anti-US fundamentalism and to integrate them more fully and directly into the US imperium.
Retired General Wesley Clark told the Democracy Now radio program on March 2, 2008, that 10 days after September 11, 2001, he was in the Pentagon and was told by a top official, “We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq”, and that a few weeks later the same official told him a memo was circulating (probably Rumsfeld’s) “that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran”.
Such thinking was further consolidated at a secret meeting in late November 2001, documented by Bob Woodward in his book State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006). According to Woodward, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defence, felt that the US faced a “crisis” and that it needed a deeper understanding of its adversaries — “Who are the terrorists? Where did this come from? How does it relate to Islamic history, the history of the Middle East, and contemporary Middle East tensions? What are we up against here?”
Wolfowitz pulled together a dozen imperialist strategists and former officials for a secret seminar to discuss these issues and devise a broad, aggressive response. The result, Woodward reports, was a “seven-page, single-spaced document, called ‘Delta of Terrorism.’ ‘Delta’ was used in the sense of the mouth of a river from which everything flowed.” The analysis and vision contained in this still-secret memo seems to have guided much of the Bush regime’s thinking ever since.
It concluded that 9/11 wasn’t an isolated incident, but part of a broader, deeper issue confronting the US in the Middle East and globally: “9/11 was not an isolated action that called for policing and crime fighting” one participant told Woodward. Instead, the US faced a “two-generation battle with radical Islam” to maintain control of the Middle East/Central Asian regions.
The meeting concluded that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran were the most important sources of the radical Islamic trend the US confronted, but they were difficult to deal with. Iraq, however, was another matter, “weaker, more vulnerable”, Woodward summed up. “We concluded that a confrontation with Saddam [Hussein’s regime] was inevitable”, a participant said. “He was a gathering threat — the most menacing, active and unavoidable threat. We agreed that Saddam would have to leave the scene before the problem would be addressed.” Another participant told Woodward that the plan was to start with Iraq, and success there would lead to “Iranian overthrow”.
So from the beginning, the Bush regime conceived of the war in Afghanistan and then the invasion of Iraq in the context of overall US imperialist objectives and as part of a larger unjust war for greater empire. That’s why much greater resources were allocated to the invasion of Iraq than to securing or rebuilding Afghanistan (or finding Osama bin Laden). Iraq was considered more strategically central — both in terms of the “demonstration effect” of taking down a major regime; because the imperialists thought Iraq could be turned into a stepping stone and a model for regime changes and US-driven transformations across the Middle East; and because Iraq has huge oil reserves.
[Slightly abridged from counterpunch.org. Larry Everest is the author of Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda (one of the books that influenced the script of W — Oliver Stone’s just-released movie about George W. Bush), and a contributor to Impeach the President: The Case Against Bush and Cheney (Seven Stories).]