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War and Terror

Pranjal Tiwari
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004
    As the “war on terror” announced by our rulers approaches its third year, it is receiving bad reviews all around, even in the mainstream media, establishment, and intellectual circles. Pranjal Tiwari takes a look.

Typical of the barrage of criticism that the war on terror has been subjected to is a recent report from none other than the Army War College which concluded that “[T]he global war on terrorism as currently defined and waged is dangerously indiscriminate and ambitious,” but qualified that “its parameters should be readjusted.”

On the academic front, Graham Allison of Harvard University wrote in the Boston Globe in 2003 that “the administration’s incompetence in postwar Iraq has attracted both terrorists and jihadi wannabes in what now threatens to become a terrorist incubator akin to Afghanistan during Soviet occupation.” This was earlier tempered by Allison’s sentiments that “the demonstration of America’s military might has surely sobered regimes that wish America harm.”

Further to the right, editorials in the Wall Street Journal assessed that “what is unfolding [in Iraq], in short, is a counterattack intended to deal the US war on terror a dispiriting defeat” and criticized the Bush administration for being “slow to recognize and describe the nature of this threat.”

There are telling similarities between much of this mainstream criticism. Most prominently, the examples cited take as a starting point that pronouncements from our leaders are gospel – that a necessary ‘war’ is indeed being waged by the US on some concept called ‘terrorism.’ This basic assumption essentially echoes the position of the National Security Strategy laid out in September 2002, which explains in fervent language that the United States is merely living up to its “responsibility to lead” in humanity’s “great mission” against terrorism, in which most any part of the world can be invoked as a ‘front’.

Perhaps underlining this last point, another similarity is that all of the above examples appeared after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, suggesting that anti-terrorist rhetoric has near-universal applicability (as late as this July, an editorial appeared in the Journal continuing to assert the discredited notion of links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda).

The ‘criticism’ that follows is generally of shortcomings such as ‘incompetence’ or ‘intelligence’, concluding that the US is ‘failing’ in its war on terror. To begin with this foundation, rather than questioning the very concept of the ‘war’, is in effect to provide intellectual cover for its execution. More generally, the basic assumption of the existence of a ‘war on terror’ is neither correct nor even logical.

But for the sake of argument, let’s indulge these parameters for a second, and try to assess how actions match up to the rhetoric. In other words, if we take as given the fact that through our actions we are trying to “help make the world not just safer but better,” in the words of George W. Bush, what has happened over the past three years that has helped to achieve that?

Heightened terror

By its own parameters – limiting ‘terrorism’ to non-state groups targeting the US and its allies – the US State Department provided evidence earlier this year that the world is indeed less safe than before. When the latest annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report was released this year, administration officials publicly hailed the fact that the number of significant terrorist attacks recorded was at its lowest since 1969. This was followed by press reports contradicting the report’s figures, leading Colin Powell to publicly apologize for “errors.”

The State Department’s own reassessment was that terrorist attacks, as the administration defined them, had shown a “sharp increase” in 2003, leaving over 625 people dead. In fact, such attacks were at their highest level in 21 years: not since the reign of Ronald Reagan – who had his own version of the “war on terror” – has terrorism been so widespread. Indeed, the attacks in question took the lives of ordinary people in countries around the world, including Turkey, Spain, Morocco, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps explaining this rise, a 2004 report from the International Institute for Security Studies said that US actions such as the invasion of Iraq gave a “potent global recruitment pretext” for organizations such as al-Qaeda, estimating that their numbers had been bolstered to around 18,000 in 60 countries. Jason Burke, writing in the establishment journal Foreign Policy, notes that “al-Qaedaism” is more of a worry than any tangible organization of that name, and advises that “if countries are to win the war on terror, they must eradicate enemies without creating new ones.”

It seems that mainstream critics now concede what many anti-war activists had been saying for years – that the brazen militarism of the ‘war on terror’ would increase the grievances that swell the ranks of terrorist organizations. Though much of this same criticism argues in favor of “winning hearts and minds” with propaganda campaigns that “balance” US military operations, it would make more sense to simply stop actions that encourage terrorism.

WMD proliferation

If we are serious in discussing security, though, we should consider particularly carefully the place in this ‘war’ that weapons of mass destruction hold – since the spread of these weapons signals the potential annihilation of the planet and all its species. The term WMD has been made familiar through propaganda as a hallmark of the ‘axis of evil’, a part of the endless justifications for the invasion of Iraq, and one of the targets of the ‘war on terror’. Three years of the ‘war on terror’, however, have created a worrying situation with regard to these weapons.

Two months after the September 11 attacks, for example, the holder of the world’s largest nuclear stockpile, unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. George W. Bush claimed this move to be part of the ‘war on terror’, saying that the “treaty hinders our government’s ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks.”

Subsequently, increased levels of tax money were funneled to the Ballistic Missile Defense (the so-called ‘Son of Star Wars’) system, which threatens to encircle the world with a ballistic missile shield operated by Washington. Economist Paul Krugman notes that such moves “seem to have little to do with the actual threat, unless you think that al-Qaida’s next move will be a frontal assault by several heavy armored divisions.”

In 2002, further moves were made by the US towards increased proliferation of nuclear weapons. The US Nuclear Posture Review called for the development of the next generation of nuclear weapons, and funding was given for studies on the feasibility of developing the next generation of earth-penetrating nuclear weapons (or nuclear ‘bunker-busters’).

The development of these weapons, the Council for a Liveable World argued, would go against the US government’s obligations as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the very cornerstone of international moves against the development and spread of nuclear weapons. In addition to this, in late 2002, there were credible threats to use nuclear ‘bunker busters’ in Iraq by the Pentagon – credible if only because they came from the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons in combat.

Perhaps it was developments such as these that led International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei to remark in February 2004: “We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security – and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use.”

With the invasion of Iraq and the administration’s unilateralist, militarist illogic, it is quite probable that many other governments heeded the warning and possibly embarked on their own development of nuclear technology, bringing the world to the brink of another nuclear arms race. North Korea’s nuclear deterrent or “bargaining chip,” for example, is often referred to in media reports.

After an official visit to the Yongbyon nuclear facility in January 2004, Siegfried Hecker from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, noted that North Korean officials “stressed that the DPRK now has a nuclear deterrent and that US actions have caused them to strengthen their deterrent – both in quality and in quantity.”(Though he notes that he could not assess from the technology he observed whether the country actually had a nuclear weapons program).

With the increase in terrorist actions against civilians around the world, the prevalence of militarist illogic, the proliferation and increase in demand for nuclear weapons technology by the US and other regimes, the nightmare of nuclear weapons being used by state or non-state terrorist groups now cannot be discounted.

Homeland security

The security and civil liberties of people within the US and many other countries around the world has also been eroded by programs of domestic repression and surveillance.

The NewStandard recently reported details about ‘the Matrix’ (or Multi State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange), a federally-funded, corporate run database containing billions of records with such information as current and past addresses and phone numbers, arrest records, real estate information, voter registration records, and hunting and fishing licenses of ordinary citizens. With its database open for use by government agencies of participating states, the Matrix is just one of the networks of domestic repression to be employed since September 11.

Racist profiling of South Asian and Middle Eastern people in the US also led to the detention of around 1000 people the wake of September 11. Such ‘immigration sweeps’ have been recorded throughout the three years with The NewStandard reporting roundups among the Latino community in Southern California as recently as June 2004, which resulted in the detention of 400-500 people.

The cover of the war on terror has also been used to justify economic policies that siphon resources to ruling classes. Bush employed a $151.1 billion expenditure on the invasion of Iraq along with cuts in major federal programs in a tactic that Paul Krugman called “starving the beast.” “Radical conservatives,” Krugman’s New York Times column said, “are intentionally creating huge deficits so that the government cannot finance its spending and so that there will be a radical downsizing of government programs for the middle class and poor.” The Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies observes that “Federal spending cuts will deepen the budget crises for local and state governments, which are expected to suffer a $6 billion shortfall in 2005.”

Economists such as Doug Henwood have estimated that each US household will pay around $3,415 to fund the war – while the wealthy have already been granted substantial tax cuts. Meanwhile, weapons makers such as Lockheed Martin have gained substantial profits from the increased demand for their products, and companies such as Halliburton and Bechtel have also reaped huge quartely profits as a result of government contracts in Iraq – all subsidized by taxpayers’ money.

Internationally, the hobgoblin of ‘terrorism’ was used to justify crackdowns and repressive legislation in many countries around the world. Amnesty International (AI) found that in the Middle East specifically, governments and US authorities indulged in “mass arrests, prolonged detention without charge or trial, incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, strict secrecy surrounding the fate and whereabouts of some detainees, and apparent extra-judicial killings.” The invasion of Iraq also heightened insecurity by serving as a pretext for militarist adventures in other parts of the world – Indonesia’s invasion of Aceh, for example, came soon after the US invasion of Iraq, and shared many of its features, including media management through embedded reporters.

Additionally, the recent torture scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq revealed not only the systemic abuse of prisoners, but more generally the practice of widespread arrests and detention employed by US forces and their allies. AI has called for an independent inquiry into ‘war on terror’ detentions across the globe, and delivered the scathing assessment that the US had “a contemptuous approach to international law and standards.” The organization also noted that “the use of incommunicado and secret detention, and the repeated dehumanization and labelling of all detainees as ‘killers’ and ‘terrorists’, have created conditions ripe for torture and other crimes under international law.”

Moral Equivalents

A concept that is often left out of the mainstream concept of ‘security’, is the security of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the BBC reported a “very conservative estimate” in 2002 that around 5,000 Afghans had been killed in the US bombings up to that point – bombings that used such indiscriminate weapons as cluster bombs and Fuel Air Explosives. A June 2004 report from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) found that “between 9,436 and 11,317 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of the US invasion and ensuing occupation, while an estimated 40,000 Iraqis have been injured.”

The lingering effects of depleted uranium, and the destruction of civilian infrastructure have yet to be factored into this assessment. Whatever we can say about the situation in these countries before, these thousands of deaths and injuries are the direct result of our actions.

Considering the post-invasion situation for ordinary people in these countries, we see no concern for security. Human Rights Watch referred to Afghanistan as a system of “enduring fiefdoms” where the regional rule of brutal warlords was “reinforced by the policies of the US and other international actors.” The IPS report observes that crime against ordinary people in occupied Iraq has skyrocketed, with the main victims being women and children. “Violent deaths rose from an average of 14 per month in 2002 to 357 per month in 2003,” the report says. The lack of concern about the security of ordinary Iraqis is not surprising, coming as it does from the governments that supported the worst crimes of Saddam Hussein, and ran the brutal sanctions regime that led to thousands upon thousands of preventable deaths over 12 years.

Of course, this is where we get to the illogic of the whole situation. In true doublespeak, the enemy of ‘terrorism’ is defined in the National Security Strategy as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.” This is the same National Security Strategy calling for an ‘anti-terrorist war’ that has brought often indiscriminate death and terror to tens of thousands. The definition, as it is currently applied, is surely a logic propped up by racism and notions of superiority.

Moreover, to use the ‘war on terror’ paradigm now – after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the domestic crackdowns and class war, increased militarization and proliferation of WMDs, and the apparent strengthening of the very groups the war aims to eradicate – is to continue to be dishonest, to rely on concepts that have been proven false by our actions and their consequences.

This is particularly important to remember as we come to another US election in November. The so-called opposition in the form of John Kerry has not challenged the paradigm, saying instead: “I think I could fight a far more effective war on terror.” This indicates that anti-terrorist illogic will continue to be with us for a while – with potentially dire consequences for people all over the world.

It follows that organizing efforts against this war of terror and the empire which it upholds – and for our survival – must continue and redouble whatever the result this November.

Pranjal Tiwari is a journalist, editor of In the Water blog ( and Hong Kong activist.