Looking Over the Edge

— David Finkel

SEPTEMBER 11 WAS the day the United States’ global empire came face to face with the monster that U.S. policy so greatly helped to create. October 7 marked the beginning of the empire’s strike back. After two weeks of bombing, the immediate question was not whether, but when, a U.S.-organized military occupation of Afghanistan would begin.

Now a whole new set of problems arise: What will be the actual political and military aims (not necessarily the declared ones) of the U.S. war? How far and wide might the resulting conflict spread? How will the conduct of the war (if that’s what it is) be related to the fear of a sharp global economic recession?

The problems are on a scale large enough to threaten the structure of United States global economic and political management (for short, U.S. imperialism). They are also ominous to the future of every living human being and generations to come, first and foremost to the peoples of the Middle East.

In fact, there are at least three sets of questions that must be kept analytically distinct. A great deal of confusion and damage can result, especially on the left, from mixing up these questions. 1) What are the motivations and objectives behind the U.S. war? 2) What are the character and goals of the forces that carried out the September 11 terrorist atrocity? 3) What are the grievances and aspirations of masses of people who are angry with U.S. policies in the Arab and Muslim world?

I will argue here that the September 11 attacks were carried out by a force that is totalitarian and absolutely reactionary (I would actually say, in certain important respects, nazilike) in its core objectives, not only in its methods.

But this must not be confused with accepting U.S. claims to be fighting a defensive, anti-terrorist war; nor can the legitimate anger of tens of millions of Arabs against the killing of Palestinians and starvation of Iraqis be confused with the fatwas of Osama bin Laden. [1]

A Wider or Narrow War?

The character of the war as a whole is inevitably shaped, first and foremost, by the strongest side. That means we must begin with the side whose victory, at least in a military sense, is assured—the United States, with its unbelievable technological arsenal, its British junior partner and assorted coalition hangers-on. What are the objectives of imperialism and the scope of its war?

The question is complex because the war objectives remain under debate. In the short run, the argument has apparently been resolved in favor of a limited focus, the destruction of the bin Laden apparatus in Afghanistan and the overthrow of Taliban rule there.

That initial goal can surely be accomplished, though not so easily. But whether the campaign remains focussed only on Afghanistan beyond the short term is in doubt. At the very least, there are strong signs of U.S. dissatisfaction with the behavior of the Saudi royal house, and a lack of confidence in the ability of that monarchy to protect “our” oil supplies.

From the very beginning of the crisis, it hardly seemed possible that the Taliban regime and its former sponsors, the government of Pakistan, could coexist after Pakistan delivered Washington’s hand-over-Osama-or-else ultimatum.

Washington must have made a commitment to the Musharraf regime to strike hard enough to demonstrate to the Pakistani military/intelligence apparatus (as well as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) that anyone tempted to back the Taliban will be on the losing side.

The leader of a small left-wing organization in Afghanistan described the situation in an interview with Farooq Tariq of the Pakistan Labour Party:

We are totally opposed to American military intervention. But we are in favor of an immediate ending of Taliban government. The situation is like this, that America was bringing up a dog who has now gone mad...Taliban were supported indirectly or directly by the Americans and Pakistan in the hope of stabilizing Afghanistan but the situation has gone out of their control. Email to: labour.pakistan(@)usa(.)net [or visit] website: www.labourpakistan.org

This same source stated that the Taliban have 20,000 military men, less than the 25,000 fighters in the country with Osama bin Laden. In that sense Afghanistan may be less an “enemy” country than an occupied one. The problem obviously is that militarily destroying the Taliban is the easiest part, and from the point of view of imperial management, just the beginning.

How to control the popular anger in the region over civilians who are being killed in the bombing of Afghanistan, and the far greater numbers starving to death? How to put together “a carefully balanced political dispensation” (Musharraf’s phrase) for Afghanistan that somehow satisfies competing tribal/ethnic warlord factions and the disparate interests of Russia, Iran and Pakistan?

U.S. policy makers in the mid-’90s were happy to see Pakistan’s military intelligence services sponsor the Taliban’s seizure of power, because after the fall of the Soviet Union they didn’t regard Afghanistan as worth the trouble of directly managing—an option that doesn’t exist now.

Then there’s the looming question of whether George W. Bush’s “crusade” will be enlarged, as demanded by the likes of William Safire or Laurie Milroie who have demanded for years an escalated U.S. campaign against Iraq.

Were that wider-war line to prevail, U.S. power this time must be committed to a final confrontation with the Iraqi regime—entailing an unprecedented level of violence, the possible disintegration of the country and upheavals in all the surrounding states. In the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” [2]

In his dual capacity as the U.S. journalistic mouthpiece of Ariel Sharon, Safire also chafes under the mild restraints imposed by the State Department on the Israeli state’s brutal assault on the Palestinian population. (These restraints dictate that killing dozens of Palestinians every week is acceptable, but killing hundreds, or thousands, or assassinating Yaser Arafat, is not legitimate at least for now.)

The most extreme scenarios correspond to the agendas not only of the clash-of-civilizations types in the U.S. intellectual and political establishment, but also of the Osama bin Ladens and Ariel Sharons of the world. But it is only the might of the imperial superpower that can turn this ideologically-driven fantasy—a war of the West against the Muslim world—into a nightmare reality.

The CIA’s Monster

While imperial objectives remain under debate, the immediate target of course is the al-Qaeda network. And here there are two central facts to be grasped.

First, the terrorist frankenstein monster—what I prefer to call totalitarian-religious fanaticism [3]—is real, far more real than many Cold War myths ever were. Second, as it cannot too often be repeated, the United States Central Intelligence Agency was at the center of creating it.

Nowhere is the story better told than the account by Pakistani investigative journalist Ahmed Rashid:

In 1986, CIA chief William Casey had stepped up the war against the Soviet Union by taking three significant, but at that time highly secret, measures. He had persuaded the U.S. Congress to provide the Mujaheddin [anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan] with American-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Soviet planes and provide U.S. advisors to train the guerrillas ...

[Second] The CIA, Britain’s MI6 and the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] also agreed on a provocative plan to launch guerilla attacks into the Soviet Socialist Republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the soft Muslim underbelly of the Soviet state from where Soviet troops in Afghanistan received their supplies ...

Thirdly, Casey committed CIA support to a long-standing ISI initiative to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan and fight with the Afghan Mujaheddin. The ISI had encouraged this idea since 1982, and by now all the other players [i.e. the Pakistani political leadership, the USA and Saudi Arabia] had their reasons for supporting the idea ...

None of the players reckoned on these volunteers having their own agendas, which would eventually turn their hatred against the Soviets on their own regimes and the Americans. (excerpt from Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Yale University Press, posted by Center for Public Integrity, website: http://www.public-i.org/excerpts_01_091301.htm)

This was also the decade in which the United States encouraged Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in the name of “containing Islamist fundamentalism.” These Great Games were supposed to be wise and cunning statecraft, free of casualties to the U.S. population. After a decade of prosperity and unchallenged U.S. supremacy, how bitter the rewards have proven to be!

What the Fanatics Want

In the immediate wake of the September 11 crime, the question arose in the media: Why do “they,” the terrorist perpetrators, hate “us”? The self-serving answer generally given is that America, the beacon of prosperity, personal freedom, scientific enlightenment, religious toleration and women’s rights, is naturally hated by the forces of darkness and intolerance.

Needless to say, the question can be more intelligently answered, but more importantly, it is the wrong first question. Undoubtedly the organizers of September 11 hate the United States, but that does not explain the attack.

We need to be clear about what totalitarian-religious fanatical movements seek in practice: First and foremost, the goal here-and-now is to control their own population, to expand their indigenous power base.

When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson opined that God has withdrawn His curtain of protection from America because of the abortionists, the gays and lesbians, the secularists and the American Civil Liberties Union, they weren’t attempting (in the short run) to start a world war against Islam. They are trying to gain power in America.

Just exactly so, the totalitarian-religious fanatics in the Muslim world seek to control those countries. Their goal in the September 11 massacre was to produce chaos and massive violence against Muslim and Middle Eastern nations, and against Arab communities in the USA, precisely because their influence and power will be enormously enhanced in the process.

Thanks to the cynical and vicious maneuvers of the Great Powers, most notably the United States, in the era of the Cold War, their power is not small.

They were aided and abetted in the conquest of a ruined Afghanistan, a country where religious fanaticism was not the main indigenous tradition. Today in Kashmir they have organized gangs who throw acid into the faces of unveiled women.

They have a powerful base of support in Pakistan and Egypt as well as Central Asia, cadres of fighters within the national resistance struggle in Chechnya, and disastrously, some sympathies within the population of Palestine. They represent a serious threat in Saudi Arabia, where an enfeebled royal house pays them what amounts to tens of millions of dollars in protection money.

In short, these forces are an authentic menace to everyone, but mainly to the women and the working classes and the secularists in their countries of operation. But we must now rephrase the “hate” question so that it becomes relevant:

Why is there so much popular dislike of the United States that a crime on the scale of September 11 can enhance the standing of the hideous forces who committed it?

Reasons for Rage

There are several answers, some of them less obvious than others. You can begin, of course, with the sheer blatancy of U.S. sponsorship of Israel’s brutal occupation policies, which produces completely justified rage throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds—unfortunately not nearly enough elsewhere.

Then there is the even greater crime against humanity of the U.S.-imposed sanctions against Iraq. This is literally a slow-motion genocide, made more horrible by the fact that it goes on quietly, daily, without any images of death camps or mass executions or carpet bombings to focus western attention. But it is a fact well known to everyone in the Middle East.

Dig a little deeper, and you can discover without difficulty why hundreds of millions of people see themselves not only as left out but as actual victims of “globalization.” Here is an account by Farooq Tariq of the Pakistan Labour Party, reporting on a visit to his home town of Toba Tek Singh in central Punjab, “once a hub of a peasant movement led by the Stalinist left ...”

As I arrived here after six hours of driving from Lahore to see my aging father, I was bombarded with questions by him. A trader all his life, now fighting with the banks to give back the loans he has once taken in the hope that agricultural income will be better, but disappointed all the time ...

He was of the view that Taliban will teach another historic lesson to the Americans, that the military regime in Pakistan have little time left as they are playing at the American hands. He said I am very happy what has happened in America. IMF and World Bank have destroyed my life and I am in the grip of the banks ... I cannot afford to pay the price of the pesticides as the state subsidies are gone and (my) orange garden has been ruined by that. He told me that the whole town is happy about the incidents.

(A) peasant working at the land on monthly wages ... told me that someone at last has taught a lesson to the most powerful nations on the earth. “How could this happen?” I asked him. He told me that it is the work of God, no one can intervene ... Whenever I raised the issue of innocent Americans losing their lives, the normal reaction was yes, we sympathize, but what about those millions of Palestinians, Sudanese, Vietnamese and others who have lost lives at their hand?

The grinding misery left untouched, even worsened, by corporate globalization is not a mystery to readers of this magazine or to activists in the global justice movement that has arisen to address precisely these issues. Of course, the perpetrators of September 11 did not advance the global justice movement—nor did they have any intent to do so—let alone the struggles of the exploited.

Yet in a twisted way, just as classic fascist movements drew upon the despair of destroyed hopes and livelihoods, the totalitarian-religious fanatics prey upon the sentiments of global capital’s victims.

“Permanent Counterrevolution”

There is still another level at which imperialism helped prepare the ground for this malignancy. This is what I would call a decades long “permanent counterrevolution” in the politics of the Middle East, a whole series of tragic defeats for working-class, left-wing, liberal and secular nationalist movements. It is a process that can only be crudely sketched here.

Societies like organisms have what we can call “immune systems” that guard against fanatical cults or fascism gaining ascendancy: political parties, class organizations such as trade unions, popular movements—the institutions that are lumped in today’s lazy terminology under the catch-phrase “civil society.”

But in the view of the Cold War strategists and petroleum corporations, such forces represented “the threat of democracy.” They were seen as dangerous to the natural order of things, namely the domination of rich western civilization over the planet’s natural resources and human labor, and even worse as natural allies, god forbid, of Communism.

What happens when social and political organizations and institutions are smashed and prevented from regeneration over a long period? In certain respects recent Middle East history offers a series of laboratory experiments, which can only be sketched briefly here.

The Palestinian Tragedy

The first Palestinian Intifada (1987–91) was tragically defeated by a combination of extreme brutality on the part of the Israeli government of future Nobel Peace Prize winner Yitzhak Rabin, the failure of the exiled Palestinian leadership to mobilize support for the uprising, and the catastrophic impact of the second Gulf War.

The subsequent debacle of the U.S.-supervised peace process, which has been extensively discussed in this and many other publications [4], led inexorably to the ongoing year-long Second Intifada.

But while the First Intifada was an uprising of anger and hope, which is why the first uprising almost until the end saw no attacks on civilians inside Israel’s internationally recognized borders (and only sporadic attacks on the most provocative settlers), this Second has become more one of rage and hopelessness.

This trend is illustrated by the evolution of Palestinian poll results. At the beginning these showed a clear majority opposed to terrorist bombings against civilians inside Israel, while today the majority are strongly in favor.

In part, certainly, this is a response to the fact that a majority of Israeli Jews now support their government’s assassination of Palestinian officials, to say nothing of the routine use of helicopter gunships and F-16 planes against Palestinian civilian towns and camps.

I don’t believe that most Palestinians rationally expect suicide bombings of pizza restaurants and discos to win their freedom. Rather, people are living in a condition where the possibility of exacting some small measure of revenge seems the only way of preserving their human dignity. And so it is that a small number of Palestinians came into the street to celebrate the sight of the collapsing World Trade Center towers.

The Only Alternative

Only if the impact of this long “permanent counterrevolution” is understood, in my opinion, can one grasp why the attacks of September 11 have some degree of popular resonance in the Middle East and Muslim world. And only by realizing what American (and Soviet) adventurism perpetrated in Afghanistan can we understand how power could wind up in the hands of the Taliban. [5]

This brings us to the conclusions that must be drawn as the left and the antiwar/global justice movement face this enormous crisis. We confront two questions: not only how we oppose the imperialist military operation, but also the question on the minds of the U.S. population, “how can we fight terrorism?”

The latter question must be addressed, not only because it is on the minds of ordinary people who must be won over to an antiwar perspective, but also because it is a very real question!

The answer that we must articulate, it seems to me, is that the terror network, which is not mythical but real (even if its actual dimensions are not known), can be isolated and crushed not through imperialist intervention but only in the course of a struggle against imperialism and global capitalist domination.

If the above analysis of the reasons for the power of religious-totalitarian fanaticism is sound, then it can only be defeated on the ground, in those very societies which are its real targets and where it constitutes the greatest menace—and defeated only through the revived power of popular social and class movements, those very forces that have been strangled by dictatorship and neoliberal capitalism.

A struggle within the rich countries that opposes war, racism and the institutions of global capitalism is not simply a nice politically-correct notion. It is becoming a necessity for our own survival.

his has nothing in common with any delusion that a fight for social justice here, nor even the coming of a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace, will turn Osama bin Laden and similar types into so many Gandhis, Mandelas or Martin Luther Kings. Not at all: The philosophical affinities of these murderers are with genocidal nazism, not with any kind of freedom struggle.

We cannot pretend to offer the U.S. population any quick-fix solution to the crisis. But then again, neither does George Bush with his promise of a long struggle with sacrifices and uncertainties.

Fine, we can respond: The question is what kind of sacrifices, by whom; what kind of anti-terrorist coalition; what kind of world as the outcome?

Against the sacrifice of lives and civil liberties (and social security and medical care and workers’ rights), we must demand the sacrifice of the Third World debts and the massive profits of multinational corporations, and the clever “strategic” games our government plays in fighting one adversary by supporting some group of fanatical or criminal gangsters who turn out to be much worse.

The point is that our struggle must be one that opens up space for authentic freedom struggles around the world, the very opposite of Washington’s military campaign that will close down that space even further.

The struggle against totalitarian-religious fanaticism and the high-tech smart-bomb free-market-uber-alles terrorism of imperialism are, in real life, the very same struggle.



  1. Without discussing here various polemics circulating on the internet, I would say that the first mistake is made by Christopher Hitchens, who understands perfectly the character of the bin Laden/al-Qaeda network but apparently not the nature of the U.S. war; while the second mistake is made by a handful of people on the far left who seem to think that the September 11 attack expressed some distorted or strategically misguided “anti-imperialism.”
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  2. So far, this go-all-the-way perspective remains confined to deputy-level Defense Department figures and Safire’s New York Times columns labelling Baghdad “the capital of world terrorism.” Keep in mind here that the facts, whatever they maybe, are literally irrelevant. If at some point the United States government opts for war with Iraq, it will invent proof of “Iraqi-sponsored terrorism” even if none exists; if it opts against, it would suppress evidence of Iraqi terrorist involvement even if it does exist.
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  3. I use the term “totalitarian-religious fanaticism,” realizing that it is likely to be controversial, for several reasons. First, the religious dimension of the cult must not be ignored, even if it has nothing in common with the mainstream of the religious belief it claims to represent. Second, I think it is a better description than the rather meaningless catch-all term “fundamentalism.” So-called fundamentalists may simply be strictly conservative religious dissidents, without claiming the right to rule society as God’s agents on earth. Or they may be, like bin Laden, fanatics with a religious ideology wedded to a program of theocratic power. In the U.S. context, the majority of “Christian fundamentalists” belong to the first category; Pat Robertson and the Promise Keepers come closest to the second. I would also include under the heading of “totalitarian-religious fanatics” the hard core of the national-religious Israeli settler movement, whose doctrine asserts that creating Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank heralds the beginning of the Messianic era.
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  4. See the Solidarity Working Paper, Crisis and War in Israel/Palestine (2001) and the sources cited there, as well as widely circulated essays by Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk and numerous other observers. The Solidarity Working Paper is being reprinted and can be ordered ($1.00 plus 50 cents postage) from this magazine.
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  5. There is another comparison I want to suggest without being able to pursue here. The origins of the Taliban, as a sect of a few hundred fanatic seminary students, bring to mind two other movements that became serious forces with a program for the destruction of urban society, the rejection of modernity, physical extermination of intellectuals and of all popular organizations not under their own complete control. I have in mind here the Khmer Rouge (Cambodia) and Sendero Luminoso (Peru). These cults called themselves “Communist” but in fact were well outside the norms even of orthodox Stalinism or Maoism—which sought after all to control urban classes and build modern economies, not to destroy them. The Taliban strike me as “Islamic” in roughly the same sense that these movements were “Communist,” and able to take power only in conditions where society’s “immune systems” had been wiped out.
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David Finkel is an editor of Aganst the Current and is active in Middle East solidarity work.

ATC 95, November–December 2001