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Issue 60, October 2001

A new world for the last superpower

    An 'anti-terror' coalition
    The nightmare in Afghanistan
    The roots of terrorism
    Preparing the home front

A new world situation has opened up following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, writes PETER TAAFFE, in which the attempt by US imperialism to decisively change the relationship of world forces to its own benefit through a 'war' against global terrorism threatens to bring misery and devastation to millions.

"WE ARE LOOKING at civil war, revolution, international conflict. We are facing uprisings by fundamentalist fanatics against America and its allies" (The Mirror, 18 September, 2001). It is a measure of how much the world has changed, and 'changed utterly', when the British 'popular' (gutter) press speaks in such apocalyptic tones about the future, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. And George 'Dubya' Bush confirms this grim vision when he metaphorically dons his Stetson, adopts the manner of a latter-day Texas Ranger and calls for the head of Osama bin Laden, the alleged perpetrator of the terrorist outrage, 'dead or alive'.

This, however, will not be single combat, a shoot-out with six-guns on the range, between Bush and bin Laden or his followers. Fiendish weapons of mass destruction will be deployed. Tens of thousands, if not millions, of workers and peasants, particularly in Afghanistan, will be immediately affected; the consequences will be felt worldwide. Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, "even refused to deliver a straight 'no' when asked whether his administration was contemplating as a last resort the use of tactical nuclear weapons" (The Independent, 17 September).


The carnage in New York and Washington and the subsequent rage which has swept across the US in particular, has provided the perfect opportunity for the US ruling class to assert itself and to seek to decisively change the relationship of world forces to its own benefit through a 'war' against worldwide terrorism. But if this is really a war then it is like no other kind which the US in particular has ever faced before. As a US army strategic planner stated in the Washington Post: 'Washington may be embarking on an endless war of attrition against a faceless enemy - think of a global Viet Cong'.

Such niceties, in effect hints at huge future difficulties, don't seem to trouble the uncomplicated minds of Bush and his advisers. Their world is divided into the 'good', US capitalism and its allies, and 'evil', the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, which are lumped together with radical and socialist forces that oppose global capitalism. While trying to pull together a 'coalition' of so-called 'moderate' Arab and Muslim regimes, he also employs crude language, calling for a 'crusade' against terrorism, which is calculated to undermine his diplomacy and pour oil on the already inflamed mood in the Islamic world as a whole. The bloody Crusades from the 11th to the 13th centuries, accompanied by the massacre of the Arabs, is etched into the consciousness of the Arab people and the Islamic world as a whole. It is not an accident that every champion, or alleged champion, of the Arabs for hundreds of years - including bin Laden - has invoked the figure of Saladin, the victor over the Crusaders.


Bush also demonstrated his ineptitude at the height of the crisis, effectively going AWOL for ten hours. His 'security' services, the CIA and the FBI with an annual budget of $30 billion, were also found facing the wrong way, with minimal 'intelligence' on the terrorist networks operating in the US. During a press conference following the attacks, the head of the FBI actually appealed for Arabic speakers amongst the US population to come forward and join them in their anti-terrorist 'war'!

Yet despite all this, Bush is riding high in the opinion polls, with his approval rating soaring immediately to 84% (and is now over 90%) from only 50% a month previously. His father George Bush senior also had approval ratings at 90% after success in the Gulf War. However, this was eroded to 37% immediately prior to the 1992 presidential elections because of the 1990s economic recession. The patriotic and even xenophobic wave which has engulfed the US, with competition as to who can carry the largest Star-Spangled Banner, is much greater than at the time of the Gulf War. The Independent newspaper's Washington correspondent bluntly wrote: "The First Amendment to the United States constitution may ensure the right to free speech but, for now, it is easier - and safer - to keep quiet" (19 September, 2001). This is undoubtedly the mood in New York, in the East in general and in small town USA. But it is not at all uniform throughout the country. In the West, perhaps, an area with large Latino and immigrant populations, amongst students, etc., even now there will be questioning if not opposition to the war preparations of US capitalism.


A lawyer in Washington commented: "No-one wants to hear about American policies or how they might have influenced or caused what has happened". For the time being this will be the case. Yet the shattering of 'Fortress USA' will ultimately force the population to confront the reality of 'the country's' standing in the world. Almost 6,000 perished in the terrorist attacks. As terrible as this is, that is the number of children who die in Iraq every month through lack of medicine and food because of US imposed 'sanctions'. As the author Martin Amis wrote: "It will also be horribly difficult and painful for Americans to absorb the fact that they are hated, and hated intelligibly. How many of them know, for example, that their government has destroyed 5% of the Iraqi population? How many of them then transfer that figure to America (and come up with 14 million)?" (The Guardian, 18 September.)

top     An 'anti-terror' coalition

THE WAR PSYCHOLOGY, not to say near psychosis, which developed within days of the World Trade Center atrocity, provides US imperialism, a wounded and enraged wild beast, with the support to crank up its massive military machine, in preparation for striking back against its perceived enemies. The momentum that has been created by mobilising this military machine makes some kind of military action inevitable. No matter how carefully constructed the military options are, however, they will enormously deepen the hatred felt for US imperialism and world capitalism in the neo-colonial world.


Yet the demand for the US and its allies to immediately 'bomb the hell' out of bin Laden and his followers, the calls to attack 'rogue states', which were loudly heard in the US and Europe in the days following the attacks, have now given way to a much more cautious attitude. The language of 'war' is still used but it is now being more carefully calibrated, and will be long and drawn out, according to Colin Powell and other spokespersons. It has dawned even on the obtuse Bush administration, that a straightforward attack on Afghanistan, without securing the support and neutrality of 'moderate' Islamic or Arab regimes, would, as with the Gulf War, set the whole of the Muslim world against them. The prospect of stirring up the sleeping giant of the 1.2 to 1.5 billion in the Muslim world fills the capitalist strategists with dread. The biggest 'Muslim' nation is not even in the Middle East but Indonesia in East Asia. Hence the careful creation of a war 'coalition' which, at least at the outset, is much more extensive, if not as deep, than at the time of the Gulf War.

European capitalism, particularly the French and the Germans, which maintained an arms-length relationship with the US in the past, first rushed in to support Bush's bellicose declaration of 'war'. This gave way to a more cautious attitude as the possibility of actual war loomed. Tony Blair, Bush's quartermaster, was evidently given the job of assuaging the doubts of the European bourgeois governments and bringing them on board Bush's war train.

In the Middle East, Yasser Arafat, believing that he made a mistake during the Gulf War in supporting Iraq, immediately rushed in to support US imperialism and declared a 'cease-fire'. This completely wrong-footed the right-wing Israeli government of Sharon who, under the cover of the crisis, sought to take over Arab land, create a buffer zone, and attack and occupy Palestinian towns. He was compelled to beat a retreat by the pressure of US imperialism. Putin in Russia, which is enmeshed in its own 'war against Islamic fundamentalism' in Chechnya, has supported the US. Even Iran and the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, as well as Syria, together with Gadaffi's Libyan regime, have all condemned the attacks without overtly signing up to the 'coalition' as yet. Iran has indicated that they would even join up to such a venture as long as it masquerades as a 'United Nations' project. China has done likewise. Their stance is not so much 'full-hearted' support for the US but an adherence to the old maxim that the 'enemy of my enemy is my friend'.


How this support will stand up once military action starts is another question entirely. But start it will, given the momentum that has been created, not just by the US but also by the fact that NATO has invoked its 'one for all' declaration, Article 5 of its constitution, for the first time in its 51-year history. At the very least, air strikes will be launched against bin Laden and his bases in Afghanistan. US imperialism, through the medium of the Musharraf regime in Pakistan, has attempted to force the Taliban regime to hand over bin Laden. Such a step, while not impossible, is problematical for the Taliban. The power of bin Laden in an enfeebled and weakened Afghanistan is indicated by the fact that he provides the cash for many functions of the state, including the upkeep of the military, with estimates of his annual contribution ranging from $50 million to more than $100 million. Moreover, the capture or killing of bin Laden would not shatter the terrorist network which exists. His organisation acts as an umbrella organisation, a 'think tank', a kind of 'Ford Foundation for terrorism' which, it is alleged, has a presence in at least 60 countries.

There is nothing radical or progressive in the ideas of bin Laden and his followers who, if anything, are to the right of the vicious theocratic regime in Saudi Arabia. Emanating from the Wahhabi sect which rules Saudi Arabia, they hark back to the ninth century of 'pure Islam' and believe that all but a handful of the chosen few, 'the House of Peace', are apostates. This includes all other Muslims. All Westerners - Jews and Christians - will have their lives forfeited unless they convert to Islam. And it was a proponent of these medieval ideas, bin Laden, who the CIA and the Pakistani army and intelligence services supported, armed and financed against the Russians in Afghanistan. They created a Frankenstein's monster which has recoiled on the American people with murderous results and has helped to cast Afghanistan back into the Dark Ages.


top     The nightmare in Afghanistan

THE BELLICOSE THREATS coming from US capitalist spokespersons to bomb Afghanistan 'back into the Stone Age' miss the point; it is already firmly located in the Stone Age. Life expectancy "according to the Statistics Office, has fallen to the age of 42 for men and 40 for men" (New York Times service, quoted in the International Herald Tribune, 14 September). Out of 26 million people, at least five million have fled the country. With the economy in ruins, drought and famine plagues those who are left behind. The US is preparing to bomb this country yet, as recently as May this year, the US government donated 30 million with the approval of Colin Powell.

The military logistics for any contemplated action are a nightmare. This is possibly the most inhospitable region on earth. Even Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde bypassed Afghanistan; Alexander the Great lasted three years. It has been the graveyard of invading foreign armies from the British in the 19th century to the Russians in the 1980s. As one former Russian colonel who fought in Afghanistan commented: 'If the Americans go to war I pity those boys... Vietnam will be a picnic by comparison'.

The Russians lost 60,000 men in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. Added to this are the estimated 10 million mines - planted by the Russians - which lie in fields, on mountainsides, beside roads, around the big cities and along irrigation ditches. Robert Fisk reports: 'On average, between 20 and 25 Afghan men, women and children are blown up by mines every day - even if we take the lower figure this indicates 73,000 civilian casualties from these mines in the last ten years alone'. Twenty-seven of the 29 Afghan provinces are littered with mines. Therefore, any land invasion, as well as stirring up mass nationalist Afghani opposition, even from those who were recently fleeing Kabul, would also confront the nightmare of virtually the whole country being mined. The mass use of helicopters, technically possible, would also be difficult. Helicopters operating at altitudes of 3,000 feet, it seems, cannot carry the same weight of personnel or equipment as in other theatres of operation. Moreover, a land force needs a secure base, something which is difficult, if not impossible, given the geo-political factors operating in this region.


Ferocious pressure has been exerted on the Musharraf dictatorial regime in Pakistan to force the Taliban to hand over bin Laden and possibly to provide facilities for a base operations against Afghanistan. A senior official in Islamabad, speaking to the Financial Times, complained: "The US told us: 'You are either with us or you are against us'... Under these circumstances we had no option but to sign up". As with Egypt during the Gulf War, the US is dangling the prospect of cancellation or part-cancellation of the $36 billion debts of Pakistan in return for its help. The Pakistani ruling elite, particularly the army and the intelligence service, effectively created and sponsored the Taliban. Tariq Ali pointed out in The Independent: "In Pakistan itself, Islamism derived its strength from state patronage rather than popular support. The ascendancy of religious fundamentalism is the legacy of a previous military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, who received backing from Washington and London during his eleven years as dictator". He created a network of madrassahs (religious boarding schools) which were funded by the Saudi regime. Ali comments: "The madrassahs had only one aim: the production of the deracinated (uprooted) fanatics in the name of bleak Islamic cosmopolitanism". These 2,500 religious boarding schools produced "a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and die for their faith when asked to do so by the religious leaders".

One major outcome was the coming to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Religious zealotry alone would not have guaranteed victory for the Taliban. It was the Pakistani army, through the medium of 'volunteers', that guaranteed its success. Moreover, this was the only 'victory' of the Pakistani army, hence its tenacious support for the Taliban up to now. Fuelled by the rottenness and corruption of successive Pakistani regimes, as well as a worsening of the conditions of the already impoverished masses, fundamentalism has now also sunk deep roots in Pakistan itself.


The Musharraf regime is between a rock and a hard place. Despite US pressure, it is impossible for it to act like the Saudi regime did in the 1991 Gulf war in granting bases for US troops. The Saudis preside largely over desert, with a scattered population, and could accede to the USA's demands during the Gulf War. Yet even that was at the cost of stimulating opposition from its own brand of Islamic fundamentalists such as bin Laden. Pakistan is an entirely different proposition, with a population of 140 million, and a massive growth of fundamentalism which has affected all sections of society, including the army and the 'intelligence service'. The former head of the intelligence service, speaking to the Financial Times, complained: "America has shown breathtaking arrogance in asking Pakistan to once again demonstrate that it is a friend... We gave everything in the 1980s to help America drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and when it no longer suited their interests, the Americans simply abandoned us". This general went on to point out that bin Laden was part of an anti-Soviet mujaheddin group that received at least $10 million from the US during the 1980s. "Furthermore... the Taliban regime of Afghanistan grew directly out of the generous funding that the US gave to Islamic mujaheddin groups in the 1980s" (18 September). Another general crudely spat out to Tariq Ali that after they had fought the Russians deep ingratitude was their reward from the US: "Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan. We've served our purpose and they think we can be flushed down the toilet". It is likely that, at most, Musharraf will allow the use of Pakistani air space.


Musharraf has gone as far as he probably can in pressing the Taliban to hand over bin Laden. The editor of a Pakistani newspaper states: "If Musharraf doesn't go along with the Americans, he will be squeezed. But if he goes with the Americans there will be a strong domestic backlash" (17 September). In effect, this will be the signal for divisions in the state, particularly in the army, and possibly a civil war with a mass uprising of fundamentalists, risking a split in the army itself. The outcome of all this, unless the US is very careful, would be the coming to power of an Islamic fundamentalist regime in Pakistan itself, in this case one armed with nuclear weapons.

Another option is for troops to be located in the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan. This area is under the control of the Northern Alliance led, until his assassination, by Ahmed Shah Masood and his more 'liberal' Islamic regime, which holds about 5% of Afghan territory. In this area, women are allowed to be educated, unlike the savage slavery inflicted on them by the Taliban regime. There is speculation that Masood was assassinated by bin Laden's supporters immediately before the attacks on the World Trade Center, in order to prevent him becoming a rallying point for the anti-Taliban forces. Yet even in this region there would be reluctance to accept the stationing of US troops for fear of being labelled 'imperialist stooges'. There is evidence that the US government was, in any case, preparing to move against the Taliban before the suicide attacks.


top     The roots of terrorism

THE INSTABILITY WHICH the Taliban regime built into the foundations of its regime has become increasingly unacceptable to US imperialism and its allies. Irrespective of what form of military action takes place, there are attempts afoot to put together an anti-Taliban coalition of Afghans, possibly around the deposed and exiled King Zahir Shah, to be put in place once the Taliban is overthrown. US imperialism has learnt from previous incursions into the neo-colonial world that it is not possible for a foreign invader to hold a territory for any length of time without finding real social and political support on the ground. The Russian Stalinists, when they intervened in Afghanistan to give military assistance to a sympathetic regime, did help to introduce serious reforms on the land, abolition of the bride price, etc. The pro-Russian regime of Najibullah, despite its dictatorial and undemocratic character, did have a certain popular basis in society at one stage. It is an open question as to whether they would have maintained themselves in some form but for the intervention of US imperialism, the promotion of the mujaheddin and the subsequent flooding of the region with cash, weapons and drugs, which have plagued the population of the region ever since. Accompanying any military action will eventually have to be an attempt by imperialism to economically improve the barbaric situation in Afghanistan.

Firstly, however, US imperialism has to assuage the mood which it has built up in the US, for retribution for the more than 5,000 deaths from the suicide attacks. This is despite the fact that they are conscious, or half-conscious, that the very conditions which their system has created and perpetuated are breeding grounds for terrorism in all its forms. Moreover, military action will compound the problems. Some bourgeois commentators recognise this - for instance, Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, wrote in the Financial Times: "Terrorism has always existed and will not be eradicated. In fact, by increasing the terrorists' mobility, agility and global reach globalisation has made them much tougher adversaries". He goes on to comment: "Nor does the world lack fertile breeding ground for future terrorists. These may be refugee camps that are homes to millions displaced by war, ethnic strife or failed states or neighbourhoods as big as entire cities, where the only way out of despair and hopelessness is the promise of martyrdom: the supply of volunteers will continue to be steady, diversified and abundant". The death of bin Laden and his network no more will eradicate terrorism than the elimination of Pablo Escobar, the leader of Columbia's most powerful and violent drugs cartel, thwarted the drugs gangs and their trade. He was quickly replaced after his murder. The 30-year war against the Colombian guerrillas has also failed. 'Plan Colombia', fostered by US imperialism, is also incapable of eradicating the guerrillas or the drugs trade.


Moreover, the 'hotspots' that can spawn figures like bin Laden are present throughout the world. They exist in Colombia, also in the tensions between India and Pakistan. India has deftly stepped in to offer bases to US imperialism to be used against the Taliban but on condition that it comes down heavily on its side in the conflict over Kashmir. The temporary truce in the Middle East is far from being a lasting solution. A further outbreak of conflict is inevitable.

Despite the seemingly untrammelled power of US imperialism, its actions in the next weeks and months will create the conditions for a repeat of the horrors of the World Trade Center. One US commentator has described this as the "law of unintended consequences", which "provides that for every action, there is an excellent chance of producing an opposite and totally disproportionate reaction" (Anthony Lewis, New York Times, 17 September).

US actions in the 1980s in supporting the mujaheddin in Afghanistan has created the nightmare confronting the US today. Military action in one form or another will create even greater problems in the future. The problem will continue so long as capitalism, and its main defender on the world stage, US imperialism, exists. Ultimately, terrorism flows from a divided, class-ridden and unequal world, from poverty, degradation and wars. Temporarily, it can appear to be stamped out but it will grow if the underlying social conditions remain the same. At the same time, it is an expression of the weakness of the organised working class movement, and the absence of a clear socialist and Marxist leadership on a world scale, and particularly in the developed industrialised countries.


top     Preparing the home front

A VITAL INGREDIENT in US imperialism's ability to rampage throughout the world is the support that has been given to Bush by the leaders of the former mass parties of the labour movement, such as Blair, Schr?der, Jospin, etc. Under the cover of the terrorist attacks they are set to launch an offensive against democratic and civil liberties. In the US the intelligence services, found wanting in this crisis, have allegedly had one hand tied behind their back. In reality, the CIA and the FBI, despite Congressional and presidential orders to the contrary, have not stopped for one moment being involved in 'dirty tricks' against opponents of the US government and capitalism. Now, however, Cheney and Rumsfeld have taken off the gloves and can openly call for the lifting of the presidential ban on the murder or assassination of foreign opponents of the US. Phone tapping, illegal opening of mail, all of these are to be sanctioned by the US government, it has been suggested. A certain militarisation of US society - a touch of Jack London's 'Iron Heel' - is underway. This has been emulated in Britain, with David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, laying the ground for the introduction of ID cards, a further step in the direction of further government monitoring and control of the population. These attacks on basic freedoms and democratic rights will be resisted, even if by a minority in the first stage.

Already, in the USA and in the teeth of the war hysteria, there are voices raised in opposition to preparations for war. Even in New York, at commemorations for victims of the World Trade Center attacks, pacifist placards were deployed reading 'An eye for an eye means the whole world will be blind'. These went alongside the singing of John Lennon's 'Give Peace A Chance'. Amongst students and young people in general, opposition to the plans of Bush and US capitalism will grow and will be echoed later by wider sections of the US population.


US imperialism is attempting now to use the terrorist attacks and the mood which exists to seriously break the post-Vietnam syndrome. Up to now, the US population would not accept more of its young men and women coming home in body bags as happened during the Vietnam War. When US imperialism has been forced to fight wars it has been by professional units or through the Air Force, armed with hi-tech weapons - the bombing of Serbia or the Gulf War against Iraq - with little or no use of ground troops. All of this US capitalism intends to change, with the argument that they 'already have body bags', the almost 6,000 who perished at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Fifty thousand reservists have been mobilised and there is even speculation in the press that if the US is to be involved in a long drawn-out 'war' the draft, conscription, could be back on the agenda. This will meet with the resistance of women in particular, even at this stage, who will be resistant to the idea, unless absolutely necessary, to give up their sons and daughters to unwinnable 'wars'.

Opposition will grow despite the fact that Bush has been given even greater support in Congress than at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 (opposed by only two congressmen) which led the US to immerse itself in the Vietnam disaster. Now, only one Congresswoman, representing the districts of Berkeley University and Oakland in California, voted against giving Bush unlimited powers. This unanimity will not hold in the teeth of the increased problems which will confront the prosecution of this 'war'.


Also looming on the horizon, particularly if US imperialism rampages militarily throughout the world, is the horror of an outbreak of 'bio-terrorism', biological, chemical and germ warfare deployed by terrorists. Added to this is the nightmare scenario of terrorists using nuclear devices in suitcases, or the bombing of nuclear power stations in the US and elsewhere.

But at the same time, a different kind of 'war' will eventually unfold in the US and throughout the capitalist world, in parallel with the military efforts of US imperialism and its allies: a class war. This will result from the inevitable resistance of working class people to the capitalists' attempt to use the cover of this conflict to carry thorough wholesale attacks on workers' living standards. Elsewhere we deal with the economic fallout and the likelihood of a deep recession in the US and throughout the capitalist world. But working class people, after the first initial effects of the attacks have worn off, will resist the sackings that have already started in the airline and civil aerospace industries, with a third of Boeing's workers to be made redundant.

A new period has opened up in the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. The terrorist methods of the groups that carried out these attacks have provided the ruling classes with an opportunity to try and bolster its position, to strengthen its state apparatus and attack the living standards of working-class people. This underlines the argument that Marxism has always made against terrorist methods carried out by conspiratorial groups, which no matter what the underlying causes - oppression, discrimination, poverty, etc - always have the opposite effects to those envisaged by its perpetrators.


In the past, Marxists, who base themselves on mass action, had to oppose individual terrorism, usually action by individuals or small groups to assassinate individual representatives of the ruling class, who would simply be replaced by new leaders. The attacks on the US, however, are a form of mass terrorism carried out by a conspiratorial group, not only striking a blow at the symbols of US wealth and power but also indiscriminately claiming the lives of thousands of ordinary people.

So long as Marxism, socialism and the organised labour movement remain weak such incidents are not only possible but inevitable. Under the impact of the new situation which is developing, however, the working-class movement will begin to reassemble its forces and step forward. This is indicated by the events around the anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation movement, particularly in Genoa, which preceded these attacks. This mood has not gone away and will resurface, with the added dimension of anti-war peace movements. The new disturbed and violent era in which we are moving is ultimately the product of class society. It is the responsibility of a class, the capitalists, who are incapable of solving the problems of the world - poverty, unemployment, deprivation, etc. As shocking as the events of the World Trade Center are, out of this carnage will come a layer who will ask questions as to why these horrific events take place, why large parts of the world are already submerged in a capitalist barbarism. They will discover that the capitalist system is incapable of satisfying the needs of a majority on the planet, and will turn towards the ideas of socialism and Marxism.

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