The 11 September Attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon:
Background and Responses

Panel discussion held on 20 September 2001

at the University of Victoria, B.C., Canada

in the lunchtime seminar series

"World Affairs in Historical Perspective"

sponsored by the UVic World History Caucus

and the Department of History


Gregory Blue

The roundtable discussion, "The 11 September Attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon", was held at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, on 20 September 2001, in response to widespread concern about those tragic events and the issue of how to interpret them. This seminar was held in university's Student Union Building and was organized as special session of the series "World Affairs in Historical Perspective", which has been sponsored since 1998 by the UVic World History Caucus and the Department of History. After my introductory remarks as chair, the five invited members of the panel made the following presentations:

         Andrew Rippin, "Political Islam"

         George Irani, "On Osama bin Laden"

         W. T. Wooley, "American Foreign Policy After 11 September 2001"

         Radhika Desai, "The Possibility of Contagion: South Asia in Focus"

         Martin Bunton, "Notes on Responses in the Middle East".

These formal presentations were followed by about forty-five minutes of general discussion involving questions and interventions from the audience of perhaps 400 people, and responses from the panel. The texts presented here by Drs Rippin, Wooley, Desai and Bunton in response to numerous requests are formal versions of their talks. Key points of Dr Irani's analysis may be found quoted in Claude Salhani's United Press International article "Analysis: Why they did it", which is posted at Given the prominence of Afghanistan in analyses of the attacks and their possible aftermath, an additional piece on "Afghanistan: Geopolitics and a Festering Crisis" which I presented a week later is also included.

The five speakers were each asked to bring their own expertise to bear on the attacks in the light of media reports and other available analyses. All the speakers are faculty members at the University of Victoria except Dr Irani, who generously took time from an already busy schedule to contribute to this event. Andrew Rippin (Dean of Humanities and Dept of History) is a Koranic specialist who has written and published widely on the Muslim world. George Irani (Conflict Analysis and Management Program, Royal Roads University), who was the senior policy analyst with the U.S. Commission on International Relations in Washington before coming to Victoria in July 2001, has wide expertise in conflict control and in analysing conflicts involving the Middle East. Ted Wooley (Dept of History) is a historian of the United States who specializes in American foreign policy and diplomatic history. Radhika Desai (Dept of Political Science) is involved in research on modern conservative ideologies of various kinds, including religious fundamentalism; she has particular expertise in South Asia. Martin Bunton (Dept of History) specializes in colonial history and the history of the modern Middle East, and has a particular interest in Arab-Israeli relations.

Political Islam

Andrew Rippin

What's Islam got to do with the events of last week anyway? This is as much a mystery to most Muslims as it is to everyone else. The spectre of Islam being associated with horrendous acts of violence jars with the self-conception of virtually every Muslim. It also clashes with what all the academic pundits say when they speak out about the "real" nature of Islam as a peace-loving religion which is against the killing of innocent people. And therein lies the tension and the problem. The tension exists because we cannot ignore the fact that Islam has been used in the past to justify actions such as assassination and bombings. Even if we leave aside last week's events, since no such link to Islam has been made explicit by those who perpetrated it, the fact still remains that Islam has become associated in this way and the spectre of this role of Islam will continue to haunt any public presentation of the events of last week, their background and how to understand them, precisely because of those past associations and the very vocal enunciations of a limited number of people.

The political nature of Islam as a religion has also become a focus of extended attention in recent decades, once again usually connected to meaningless platitudes such as Islam governs all of life and thus obviously has something to say about politics. That so many different takes on this point can be asserted and justified renders the statement not very useful to thoughtful analysis. It does not take much attention to the Muslim world and the diversity which is present within it on this particular issue of the political role of Islam to realize that the debates over what the role of Islam should be are a prime topic of discussion among Muslims and, once again, simple answers are not going to allow us any particular insight into the complex questions related to the situation of the world today.

Certainly there is a broad spectrum of Muslims who consider that the moral and ethical standards of Islam should play a greater role in the political sphere. Such groups of people are often referred to as Islamists. There is tremendous diversity within the call to political action, starting from the simple fact that the abstraction of Islam once again allows for a multitude of approaches. There are certainly those who seize on Islam as a basis on which to ground a platform of revolutionary activity which involves ideas ranging from the forcible removal of current governments in Islamic countries to the disruption of the world economic and political alliances in order to effect transformation of society. Overall, this rise of an Islamic political consciousness and the resultant wish for participation within the political system among a good portion of the general Muslim populace has had significant ramifications. While such political movements may have started with numerically insignificant groups of people, the rise of mass higher education and the emergence of inexpensive means of mass communications have produced the desire and the opportunity for many more people to become involved. This rise in participation has had the effect of producing a significantly fractured voice within the various movements; the greater the number of people involved, the greater the number of opinions. Because of this, it has become difficult, if not impossible, to say that such a "movement" actually exists in any real sense. Furthermore, as a result of this, governments have been able to use their authority to fill the resultant lack of Islamist unity. The continuing pressure of the Islamists has led to an uneasy balance in many countries. Governments are using Islam to a greater extent, while cracking down on the more radical aspects of the Islamist groups. In recent years, some have spoken of a "post-Islamist" mood emerging among many people, because of the significant re-emergence of Islam as a factor in government policies which has undermined the need for the more moderate (and generally accepted) aspects of the Islamist agenda. This has been accomplished through a governmental appeal to Islam as the social basis of legal statutes, while being accompanied by a careful limiting of the realms in which the Islamic shari'a is to be implemented. To those in power, this often makes a good deal of pragmatic sense, since the difficulties in determining how the shari'a can give guidance on current issues such as gun control, import duties and industrial monopolies are well understood. So, the recent history of the Islamist moderate groups has shown them to be slowing losing their influence as their platforms becomes co-opted by governments who institute various elements of traditional Islamic law within the overall law codes, especially in areas such as family law. Thus the reason for the existence of such groups becomes undermined in this process. The governments of such areas regain control and regain political stability. But it is a constant back-and forth and unsettled situation, especially if one looks at the recent history of countries such as Turkey. At the same time, it also leads to an increasing radicalization of some groups who resist the governmental co-opting of their agenda and in fact become even more resentful of the governments in power and those who support them.

The question is still, How does Islam become involved in this? Why does Islam have anything to do with this? Or fundamentally, Why is it Islam which groups have used as a vehicle for urging reform or revolution? Mohammed Arkoun, a prominent Muslim writer and intellectual, has argued that the word and abstract concept Islam itself has been appropriated by those who are fighting political battles in a context in which no other ideology is present that will allow for the mobilization of the masses. And certainly the concept of Islam itself is flexible enough to accommodate such use, as is most every other religion also able to absorb such modes of thought. The notions of martyrdom, of the utopian future, of the stark line between good and evil are all such as to support a vision of the world which is focussed upon transformation of society through political action. But what Arkoun notes is that it is the loss of the legitimacy and viability of nationalism, socialism, communism, democracy and so forth as supports for political action that has created a situation in which Islam has had to be used in this way. It is the lack of viable alternatives within the Muslim world itself that has created this rise of what is referred to as "political Islam".

The question of what does Islam have to do with this is, in the end, meaningless, just as is portraying the conflict as the "crusade" against terrorism or a jihad of Muslims against the West. Abstractions of Islam into the arena of ideological debate are attempts to pose simple answers to complex questions which emerge out of the boundless narratives of human history. As history teaches us, the ingenuity of the human mind to find justifications for its actions on the basis of abstract ideals which it considers authoritative is endless. Muslims are no different than anyone else in that regard. But of course, a movement which has become called political Islam does exist and it involves people who use Islam as an instrument towards certain political ends. Some of those groups are pushed towards more radical means of achieving their ends. This is result of factors within the affected countries in which the balance within the struggle to use the emblem of Islam has tilted towards governments, at least temporarily. That use can be quite limited as in Egypt or all encompassing as in the case of Afghanistan. But in doing so, there is created the space for ever more revolutionary uses of the notion of political Islam, in the absence of any other ideology and in the successful taming of public sentiment by governments in their own use of the Islam as a symbol of identity. In sum, Political Islam is obviously a volatile force, the result of internal community dynamics upon the stage of global politics.

American Foreign Policy After 11 September 2001

W. T. Wooley

What I will try to do is bring some historical perspectives to the responses that the United States has made, and probably will make, to the dramatic events of 11 September.

1. Those events in New York and Washington were exceptionally dramatic for Americans due in part to the exceptional nature of their historical experience. Throughout the tumultuous twentieth century (and while acting as a global superpower for half that century), the continental United States never sustained a significant foreign attack. Indeed, the recent blow was the most serious on American soil since the War of 1812.

Last week, that "psychology of immunity" probably came to an end. (And this insecurity will take a quantum leap if another major incident soon occurs.) American geography failed to insulate; American strength failed to deter; and American technology failed to protect. Americans now feel vulnerable to an unprecedented degree.

2. The result is a combination of fear and anger, an explosive mixture. Americans demand revenge, not merely against those who caused the carnage of 11 September, but also those who, in delivering the blows, so abruptly terminated a long-lasting sense of nearly complete safety that Americans have traditionally taken for granted. People in the United States can no longer enjoy the luxury of combining powerful involvement abroad with considerable safety at home.

There is also the concern (common to great powers) that any appearance of weakness will invite further challenges. It is time, many argue, for a show of strength. This is traditional great power behaviour.

President Bush is under extreme pressure to react forcefully relatively soon. (His Texas, wild west analogies suggest that he does not need much convincing.)

Americans will expect a punishing blow on the perpetrators of the attack and/or those who assisted them.

(One might question the wisdom of this. Would not mostly covert methods be preferable, combined with Bush's long-term, general strategy described below? One is also reminded of the ancient adage, "Revenge is a dish best served cold.")

3. In the longer term, the United States will attempt to craft a broad coalition of nations (as before the Gulf War the same leaders are in charge) to counter international terrorism, a strategy that will militarily target individual terrorist groups and use a variety of diplomatic, economic, and military means to punish countries that offer refuge for terrorists to live and train (when they are not training in the United States), that provide funds or allow fundraising for terrorists, that provide intelligence, equipment and expertise, or that hinder the investigation of terrorist acts.

Americans certainly realize that they need considerable assistance in intelligence, security measures, and expect (if history is any guide) Americans to take an essentially unilateral approach to military actions. While Americans like the diplomatic cover of a common cause, they have seldom been comfortable with genuine alliances or coalitions. (Recall Korea and the Gulf War; NATO was the first peace-time alliance that the U.S. joined since 1800 and they dominated that alliance so much that they did not have to sacrifice much freedom of action.)

Coalition-building is so difficult once you get beyond broad generalities of concern. Different nations have different agendas, different domestic political situations, and varying levels of willingness to take risks. Coalitions are frustrating as they can severely limit any member nation's freedom to act boldly especially with military force.

4. The decision to retaliate in the short term will complicate the longer-term strategy. Many "allies" will become more cautious in their support. The retaliation will alienate many Muslims, particularly if civilian casualties are high. Cooperation with the U.S. (at least, open cooperation) would be difficult for fragile regimes susceptible to challenge by Islamic militants.

5. Finally, Americans will feel the need to bolster their security at home, at some sacrifice of traditional rights and liberties. (This has happened before when Americans felt very insecure, with much erosion of civil rights and liberties, combined with irrational hunts for internal enemies.) A second attack, by the way, would enormously accelerate that process.

So, with American exceptionalism on the wane, and with extensive involvement abroad no longer pleasantly linked to safety at home, one can foresee two general responses.

One is to increase security at home by actions at home and overseas.

The other is to become less extensively involved in affairs abroad, a kind of restraint that, prior to 1941, was a major part of the American diplomatic tradition. One senses a rising mood in the U.S. for a less ambitious foreign policy indeed, this was one of the promises of the Bush presidential campaign. Also, ever since the end of the Cold War, there has been no consensus about America's proper role in international politics. This would facilitate changes in both the substance and scope of American policies. (One such change could be the extent of American support for Israel.)

Battling terrorism around the world, but withdrawing somewhat from international politics; militant intervention combined with increased isolation. They sound contradictory, but they could easily occur concurrently as American seek to bring the benefits and costs of their involvement in international politics more into an acceptable balance.

President Bush faces enormous challenges: to resist an immediate over-reaction, to craft an effective long-term strategy against terrorism, to calm irrational domestic fears, and to adjust international objectives to a level Americans are willing to support in lives, taxes, and diminishing freedoms at home.

It is not going to be easy. He may wish there had been a full recount of the ballots last fall in Florida.

The Possibility of Contagion: South Asia in Focus

Radhika Desai

As we try to make sense of the situation that has emerged in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September, it is very clear that we find ourselves in a new and menacing situation. But the feeling that the world changed on that day, irrecoverably, does not obviate the need to make sense of it by analogies, however weak and revised and even inverted, with events of the past. Analogies with Pearl Harbor have been frequent in the statements coming out of US government sources. While this serves the administration's purpose of justifying severe retaliation, whether short, sharp and swift or a longer campaign of war and violence, the calamity which both courses of action promise has suggested another to those mindful of it: Sarajevo, 1914.

This trigger of the first great war to involve all the major powers of the world and the historically unprecedented destruction which it wrought was, of course, a much smaller event the assassination of a prince. It was the first war of a truly globalized world in which major powers competed not only economically, but politically and militarily, for the control of the people, materials and territories of the rest of the world.

The present situation is vastly different in many major respects. Most importantly, all the major powers are on the same side under the leadership of the US. How the present conflict will be prosecuted by the United States and its allies is not yet clear, not least because of differences within the US administration itself about how to proceed. However, there is another factor of some importance which makes imagining, let alone predicting, the pattern of the conflict to come more difficult, and may make the coming conflict itself vastly more dangerous. Just as after Sarajevo the contagion of war spread rapidly after Austria declared war on Serbia in July 1914, dragging all the major powers of Europe, and eventually the world, into war, the possibility that the US and its allies could be at war with more than just a bunch of terrorists is still open. It has to do with the manner in which states which are not among the US's most powerful allies will react to its proclamations, actions and diplomacy. South Asia, which borders on Afghanistan, is an important case in point.

The US's focus on Osama bin Laden and the current demands on Afghanistan and Pakistan to secure his surrender come at a point in the history of South Asia where relations between the two major powers in the region, India and Pakistan, are at a historically low ebb. The US's war against terrorism presents difficulties as well as opportunities to both as they try to turn the balance of power to their advantage. But the abilities of each of these states to do so, the strategies which may be most effective, and the motivations of the US itself in this situation are uncertain enough to make the outcomes unpredictable and, as a result, the unfolding of coming events in the region potentially very dangerous for the peoples of the region and, ultimately, for the world.

To make matters more complex, the factors which have fed into the situation in which the US finds itself are not too different from those which have increased political and military tensions in many of the world's current trouble spots whether the worsening situation between Israel and Palestine or the tensions between India and Pakistan, to take just two of the conflicts on the fringes of the Islamic world which may have a determining influence on the pattern and outcome of the current "war on terrorism". The decline in secular and materialist ideologies of progress and a better world to come whether socialism, social democracy or developmentalism has been accompanied by the rise of others, whether centred around religion, ethnicity or culture. Whether as rulers of states, or pitted against them, the more extreme and intolerant bearers of these ideologies present, it is widely acknowledged, a new type of political challenge. But whether one speaks of the resurgence of racism and religious fundamentalism in the western world, or religious and ethnic ideologies in the poorer countries of the world, these ideologies are problematic as much in their mainstream "moderate" versions as in their extreme forms and make political conflicts at once more intractable and unclear. It is not just the right-wing extremism of a Timothy McVeigh or the Islamic ideology of the purported terrorists of 11 September, it is also the crusading rhetoric of the President of the US and the "moderate" Hindu chauvinism of India's democratically elected government led by Prime Minister Vajpayee.

Key to the antagonisms on the subcontinent is Kashmir. It is more than a territorial dispute and its roots run deep down to the very foundations and constitutive ideologies of the two contending states, India and Pakistan. As is well known, the communal divides between Hindus and Muslims on the subcontinent, which became conflicts in the course of British colonial rule, not least because of Britain's clear interest in "divide and rule", resulted in its partition at the time of independence in 1947. And the dispute over Kashmir goes back to the earliest years after that. As the Muslim majority successor state of British India, Pakistan claimed it in accordance to one principle of the partition, i.e. the religion of the majority of the population. Since Kashmir was a princely state, ruled by a Hindu Maharaja who was "persuaded" (notably with offers of military help against the incursions from Pakistan, complete with promises later unfulfilled) to abandon his delusions of independence to join the Indian Union in 1948, India's claims to it followed another principle of the same scheme for the division of territory, since the ruler's choice was the basis upon which hundreds of princely states were integrated into the successor states.

Just as Pakistan's claims to Kashmir are central to its founding ideology as a state for the Muslims of the sub-continent, India's claims on Kashmir are a central part of its self image as a "secular" nation, a nation which not only retained a good third of the Muslim population of undivided India who enjoyed religious freedoms, but which also claimed to democratically govern a state in which Muslims were a majority. The centrality of Kashmir to the secularism of the Indian state has been inversely proportional, however, to the health of democracy in Kashmir subject to manipulations by the Congress even under Nehru, whose commitment to democracy is still eulogized, and getting steadily worse under Mrs Indira Gandhi, presiding over a troubled Congress Party which needed to stimulate and then manipulate the popular regional aspirations more and more as its lost its base among the regional elites, they reached a point by late 1987 where elections then held were so widely seen to have been engineered rather than free and fair that they became the main impetus for the rise of a movement for Kashmiri independence from India.

Pakistan controls a substantial portion of the southwestern portion of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the gains of the incursions by a combination of irregulars and army in 1947. After the war between India and Pakistan over the issue in 1965, which India won but without regaining Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK, in Indian parlance and "Azad Kashmir" or Independent Kashmir in Pakistani parlance), there were no major attempts to change the borders until the war over the Kargil sector of the boundary in 1998. But tensions between the two states had been on the rise for the better part of two decades by then. There were two principal factors in this rise in the temperature in the India-Pakistan relationship.

First, there was the rise of religious fundamentalism in both countries. Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq saw a turn towards deliberate Islamization of the state for the first time in its history. It should be clarified here that Pakistan was, contrary to the widespread misapprehension, at its foundation, a state for South Asia's Muslims but never meant to be an Islamic state. During the prolonged postponement of liberal democracy in Pakistan, one unelected military dictator after another tended to legitimize his position by deploying Islam ideologically, and occasionally in government policy. But these remained isolated forays until the 1980s. The postponement of democracy was occasioned by the entirely mundane fear on the part of the largely Punjabi dominated West Pakistan, of Bengali domination due to the size of East Pakistan's population an "intra-Muslim" problem. These fears were well founded and, unsurprisingly in retrospect, the first elections and the crisis of government formation which followed the inevitable majority of the Awami League based in East Pakistan led to East Pakistan's war of independence with the assistance of India, and to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The rise of Muslim Fundamentalism in the 1980s was state sponsored by Zia as a strategy of undemocratic legitimation.

On the other hand, the problem of Islamic militancy in Pakistan had a crucial international dimension. The imperatives of Pakistani foreign policy right from the start had led it to try to cultivate a close relationship with the United States as a counter to the overwhelming power and sheer weight of India in the subcontinent. While US support has always been less than enthusiastic, its preference for India as its regional ally never being far from the surface, the 1980s provided a setting for a closer relationship and an opportunity for the Pakistani military under Zia ul-Haq to place itself centrally within US strategy in the region. It went along with a reorientation of Pakistani political economy towards the Gulf, in particular those conservative Arab regimes which had been traditionally close to the US. The US government had launched in the early 1980s, and conducted throughout that decade, a covert war against the Soviet backed regime of Babrak Karmal in Afghanistan. The chief instrument of the US's war were thousands of Islamic militants inspired by a Saudi orthodox sect, the Wahabis. This was the beginning Pakistan's Islamic terrorist problem, and the origins of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Army and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), who were deeply implicated in this US strategy also began directing many of these Islamic militants in the direction of Kashmir starting in the early 1990s, targeting that Indian state and it is suspected, the rest of the country see, e.g., the 1993 blasts in Bombay's business district which killed about 250 people. While the Pakistani military establishment has found the Islamic militants useful in pursuing its aims in Kashmir, their equation on the Afghanistan and domestic fronts have been far more ambiguous, and it would appear that they are as much a political problem to be managed (if they are not to be allowed to determine state policy in important sectors) as they are the last weapon which Pakistan has to deploy in order to retain leverage in Kashmir. The dominant opinion in the surprisingly free Pakistani press is that the actual penetration of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan's society is easily exaggerated.

The growth of Hindu nationalism/fundamentalism/majoritarianism has been a far more organic development, rooted more solidly in its middle and upper classes. And it merges more imperceptibly with the ideologies and practices of the state, while its opponents remain preoccupied with its more extreme manifestations in state policy and in society. For the last three and a half years, India has had a coalition government headed by the largest party in Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is also the political party affiliated to the organizations of Hindu Fundamentalism centred around the secret, undemocratic and fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was founded in 1926. While tensions between India and Pakistan have been growing stronger through the last two decades, and particularly so over the course of the 1990s when Pakistan sponsored incursions of Islamic militants into the Kashmir Valley, within a month of the advent of the present BJP-led coalition government they reached an unprecedented high with the Pokhran and Chagai nuclear tests by both countries and the War in the Kargil sector which followed.

In the aftermath of the events of 11 September, the government of India has proclaimed its support for the US-led war against terrorism while at the same time calling for it to be broadened to include India's terrorism problem in Kashmir and elsewhere. Over the last three years of the BJP-led government, India has consistently followed a policy of attempting to draw closer to the US and isolating Pakistan from its former ally. To the US's long-standing preference of India as its ally in the region, now more openly expressed as the war in Afghanistan against the USSR was over, has been added India's unremitting efforts. India's aid to the US during the Gulf War including US war planes using Indian air bases for refuelling was an early and controversial indication of this new closeness. The decade since then a decade of IMF backed economic reforms and the rapid opening up of the Indian economy has compounded political with economic ties, and there is little controversy among the political classes, barring the Left centred around the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPM), about the wisdom of this approach.

Over the last three years a very particular Indian strategy of engagement with Pakistan has emerged. It involves the surface rhetoric and practice of a diplomacy of talks and summits with Pakistan. Its underlying purpose is to make the most political capital of India's liberal democracy and dismiss Pakistan as a "rogue state" and a military dictatorship. Call it a form of the arrogance or hubris of virtue, if you will. The recent spate of visits, talks and summitry, from the Prime Minister's bus trip to Lahore to the recent failed Agra Summit, have, on India's part, concentrated on precisely these "optics", an enterprise of which the press in India appears to be an active partner. Needless to say, the globally dominant discourse which demonizes the Islamic world has been employed with much success by the Indian government and media in these "optical" ventures. It may be of some interest to note that it is clear both from the tone of the statements from Indian government sources and the established media, and from the new diplomatic closeness which India has sought with Israel recently, turning back on the leading role which India used to play in supporting the Palestinian cause internationally, that the present Indian government sees India, and would like others to see it, as positioned between Pakistan and the US in much the same way as Israel is between the Palestinian Authority and the US.

The present Indian government aims to redefine the Kashmir problem from a territorial dispute into a "terrorism problem", involving a "rogue state". There has been, underlying this, no strategy for normalizing the relations between India and Pakistan or for seeking a peaceful end to the Kashmir problem, a problem whose chief victims are the Kashmiris themselves, and Kashmir's justly famed culture of religious coexistence. That is why the Agra Summit between President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee in July failed. That it could not do otherwise was, if one bore these realities in mind, so obvious that the extent of the media hype surrounding it, and the additional verbiage with which the media helped the government to cloak the failure, never sounded more empty. (The President leaving in the dead of night without a formal farewell after working into the late hours to come up with no more than a mutually face saving statement promising little more than further talks is a failed summit if there ever was one!).

The present Indian government has no solutions to the Kashmir problem but increased state repression in the name of counter-terror and the ideological legitimation of this strategy. If as an added bonus, the multiple pressures on Pakistani state and society military dictatorship, Islamic militancy, economic disorganization and centripetal regional pressures, to name only the most obvious leave it with no alternative but to open itself up to foreign, mainly Indian economic collaboration with the demise of Pakistan's western hopes, there are many in India who would be eager to take up the opportunities and others in Pakistan who will, with various degrees of enthusiasm, offer them. But this, if it ever comes, is a long and probably bloody way off. For the moment, Pakistan's hour of economic and diplomatic crisis is taken to be India's hour of political and military opportunity. India can be expected to play an enthusiastic part, alongside the US in putting further pressure on Pakistan as and when the opportunity arises. How, in this situation, the war may spread to the subcontinent depends on the particular pattern which events follow in the course of the next weeks, but that it could is a very strong possibility.

Notes on Responses in the Middle East

Martin Bunton

The "war vs. terrorism" will ostensibly have to be a global war, one which ostensibly will force the United States into taking action in Europe, Russia, through Asia, Latin America, Africa. But, more specifically, it is a war that seems to be unfolding at the outset in the Middle East and in Southwest Asia (forces are heading that way as we speak) and it is a war on behalf of which the US has called for "multilateral unity". The support of certain Arab governments will likely therefore be key to this international coalition.

Evidently, the response throughout the Middle East and North Africa to the bombings of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon has been a rather remarkable show of empathy and solidarity with Americans: Yasser Arafat donated blood and strongly condemned the attacks, as have Lebanese political figures, Gaddafi in Libya, the governments of Syria and Egypt and Iranian political leaders, from reformists to conservatives; Israel, Turkey, Jordan have pledged full support.

However genuine the show of sympathy, shows of support for an actual anti-terrorism coalition have been much more ambiguous and nuanced, particularly among Arab governments. Let me try to set out a few reasons as to why this is so: that is, set out why many Arab governments will be treading carefully in their negotiations with the Bush administration regarding the terms of an "anti-terrorism coalition" (and note that it is not yet entirely clear what exactly governments are meant to be rallying around!). As in 1990, many governments will no doubt try to leverage their participation (asking perhaps for increased aid or diplomatic support), but they will also insist on a course of action that doesn't threaten a backlash against their regime. (Then again, the Bush administration doesn't appear to be in a negotiating mood, and the US may well prefer in the end to go it alone - a discussion we can perhaps pick up later.)

Some of the minefields to negotiate:

  1. Public opinion on "the street". Public opinion, of course, is notoriously difficult to assess, particularly in countries where opinion polls are not conducted on an on-going basis such as we are accustomed to, and where civil liberties are constrained by state authorities. Nonetheless, it is clear that some Arab leaders have been cautioning for some time now that anti-American sentiment (that is, anti-American foreign policy sentiment) has been rising. Why? From the general to the specific...

(It is not entirely clear how this will unfold in the coming weeks/months. On the one hand, there is the possibility that America's special relationship with Israel might deepen, as together they face the "war against terrorism", and that Israel will be provided with even greater scope in the attempt to crush the intifada. On the other hand, there is the possibility (and some evidence already) that Bush will lean on Israel and Palestine alike to cease fighting and return to the negotiating table, and so attempt to avoid being accused of holding double standards in the fight for democracy and freedom. One is reminded of the last time 'Bush came to shove' in the Middle East, over 10 years ago, when a coalition against Saddam Hussein was maintained in part through assurances that the US would address the Israeli occupation once the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait was ended ("the mother of all linkages").

  1. A second threat of backlash against regimes who cooperate in an "anti terrorism coalition may come from the nature of the action taken. There may be some support for a surgical strike against targets in Afghanistan, if it is Osama bin Laden, but participation in the coalition would be hard for many governments to maintain over the long term if civilian casualties mount, or if Arab countries (Iraq? Yemen? Lebanon?) are struck as well. Unrestrained attacks, or the lack of clear proof of a link to terrorism, may make American action appear to many as irrational or vindictive. There will be much distrust of America's long term aims in this regard.
  1. A third dimension to the threat of backlash is the repercussion to be felt from any requirement from the US that Arab governments themselves come down hard on Islamist groups. To be sure, some governments will happily oblige (as they have before): already, Algeria has sought resources (which have been refused in the past due to human rights concerns) to combat Islamist opposition movements (who, of course, were posed to win the 1992 elections before they were cancelled by the government); and clearly Saudi Arabia would like to see the end of Osama bin Laden. However, some Islamist groups enjoy wide public support (given the many activities in which they engage), and governments that are seen as cracking down on them because America told them to will undoubtedly fear for their legitimacy and, more to the point, their stability. Also, Arab governments will no doubt forcefully argue for a distinction between terrorism, on the one hand, and, on the other, justified resistance, say, to illegal occupations (but such distinctions are not easily agreed upon -- has history not shown that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter?)

The bottom line here seems to be that what Arab governments fear most from cooperation with American action is its destabilizing impact -- an impact which, as viewed by many regimes in the Middle East, was precisely what Osama bin Laden (assuming it was him) aimed for. To these regimes, the target last Tuesday was not so much the exercise of American power in the world; rather, the target was state power in the region. As Fred Halliday has noted, the chief aim was to mobilize support behind a program of action which can be defined, not in religious terms, but in very nationalist/statist terms: the taking of control over governments, most notably, Saudi Arabia. Any retaliatory action on the part of the US which might trigger (any combination of) the minefields as have just been described, and thus destabilize the region, and thus discredit allied regimes, will facilitate the very political aims of last Tuesday.

Though, sadly, stability does not necessarily mean freedom or democracy for the Middle East, destabilization will potentially play into Osama bin Laden's hand.

Afghanistan: Geopolitics and a Festering Crisis

Gregory Blue

Presented to the workshop
"Terrorism and the U.S.A.: A Community Dialogue. Making Meaning, Making Sense"
Victoria City Hall, 26 September 2001

This week's Guardian Weekly notes that "The mass murder of American civilians has sparked an international crisis of truly global proportions." (20-26 Sept 2001, p. 16). I've been asked to say a few words about Afghanistan, a country on the other side of the world from New York and Washington, which appears to be one of the likely sites of U.S. operations.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country of ancient heritage, lying between present-day Iran on the west, Pakistan on the south and east, and the ex-Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on the north. A long corridor in the northeast opens onto China's Xinjiang province. Afghanistan's tumultuous medieval history produced a complex ethnic and linguistic mosaic. The largest of the 10 major ethnic groups are the Pashtun (or Pathan) who make up about 50% of the population, followed by Daris (Persian-speaking Afghans), plus Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north, and Hazara in the centre. The country includes several major historic urban centres. Alexander the Great founded settlements near present-day Herat in the west and at Balk; other major cities include Jalalabad, Kandahar and the capital Kabul in east, and Mazar-e-Sharif in north. Islam was introduced ca 700. By religious affiliation, over 80% of pop is Sunni; a small percentage are Ismaili, and about 15% are Shi'ite, including the Hazara, descendants of the Mongols who invaded in the 13th century. Current population is estimated at about 24 million.

Afghan culture includes strong warrior traditions. An empire unifying the Pashtun tribes was carved out in the 18th century, but in the 19th it faced strong pressures from the expanding British and Russian empires. Britain was handed a disastrous defeat in the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), but succeeded in subduing the armies of the main Afghan ruler in the second (1878-80), after which Britain and Russia treated the country as a buffer zone and a prime arena for what Kipling called "the Great Game" of the imperialist manoeuvring.

Independence was regained in 1919 after the fall of the Tsarist empire, in the third Anglo-Afghan War, during which the Afghans received some support from the Bolsheviks, but internationally speaking the country remained a buffer until the 1979 Soviet invasion. After World War II it became a non-aligned state; and, reflecting this status, aid was accepted during the 1950s-70s from both superpowers. Much of the clergy were trained at the al-Azhar in Cairo. Army officers were trained in the USSR, at least partly the result of competition with U.S. Cold War ally Pakistan over jurisdiction of the Pashtun-majority population in the latter's N.W. province after Indian/Pakistani independence in 1947.

A constitutionally limited form of monarchy was introduced in 1964 by Mohammed Zahir Shah, who had ruled since 1933 (and who is again emerging in discussions at present). The king was removed from power when a Republic was declared in 1974, with the support of the People's Democratic party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the indigenous, but very ethically divided Afghan communist party. Soviet troops were invited into what was still essentially a tribal society in 1979 by the PDPA regime established the previous year. That regime, which was involved in sharp factional fighting at the time of the Soviet occupation, had met fierce resistance to its plans to revolutionize the country, e.g. by introducing land reform, modern education and equality for women. The Soviet army, backing the PDPA government of Babrak Karmal, who was President until 1987, generally managed to control the cities and major territories along the borders, but was faced with an intense guerrilla warfare in the hinterland. Some four to five million Afghans out of a total of eighteen million became refugees, with about two to three million residing in camps over the border in Pakistan.

This resistance was carried on by religious fighters [mujahidin] embarked on a holy war [jihad] with strong support from a curious mix of backers, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, their arch-enemy Iran (under Ayatollah Khomeini), the People's Republic of China, and especially the USA. Among the Muslim fighters who came from across the Arab-Islamic world to participate in that resistance was the dissident Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden. The Soviets' decade-long attempt to control Afghanistan was an open wound that bled the USSR of lives and resources.

After Mikhail Gobachev took power, he began looking for a way to extricate the Red Army. Following talks with the Reagan administration, in which George Bush Sr was Vice-President, Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops in 1989, leaving in place a PDPA government under President Mohammed Najibullah, former head of Afghan intelligence, who continued to receive Soviet financial and weapons support and remained in power for several years, while continuing to alternately fight and negotiate with various mujahidin groups.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Najibullah government had to surrender power in 1992 to a government made up of various mujahidin forces headed by Burhannudin Rabbani. Rabbani had been one of the first to begin resisting the occupation, but himself lacked any strong population base among the country's various peoples and tribes. The following years saw the country fall into a state of armed anarchy as the different groups competed for power and clashed. Killings, rapes and robberies became commonplace in the generally chaotic atmosphere, and the refugee problem remained acute.

In this climate, the Pakistani intelligence services (ISI or Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate) backed a new movement, known as the Taliban, many of whose members were recruited from the fundamentalist Islamic schools (madrasas) that had been set up to train mujahidin in Pakistan. Armed with Pakistani weapons, financed with Saudi funds, and comprised especially of Pashtun fighters, the Taliban launched a military campaign to take control of the country. They advanced rapidly, taking Kandahar in summer 1994, Herat in 1995, then Jalalabad and finally Kabul in 1996. At that point Pakistan officially recognised them as the government of Afghanistan, a move soon followed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to economic considerations, the Pakistan government was apparently motivated by a desire to satisfy conservative Pashtun opinion on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border. Authorities in Riyadh were clearly influenced to recognize the new regime, again in addition to economic considerations, by the fact that the Taliban subscribed to a Wahabist version of Sunni Islam, the official Saudi creed, and were firmly opposed to the Shi'a of Iran.

The Taliban brought an end to decades of warfare in the areas that came under their control. In these areas they disarmed the population and strictly implemented criminal law as they interpreted it. However, the regime they introduced was and is an extremely harsh and repressive one. Horribly severe forms of criminal punishment, including frequent executions (for example, by stoning for adultery), the chopping off of limbs, public beatings (e.g. for having one's beard too short) were combined with a system of highly repressive policies towards women and girls, including strict curtailments of their movements, enforced wearing of the burqa, bans on their employment any place where men worked, bans on being cared for by male doctors, or even attending schools. So harsh were their practices that even the Iranian religious authorities judged the Taliban's interpretation of Islam as backward and medieval.

As the Taliban extended its domain, the Clinton administration at first maintained good relations with it, despite what was obviously an appalling human rights record. It is interesting to contrast White House spokesman Ari Fleischer's 25 Sept 2001 briefing claiming the Taliban was made up predominantly of people who had come from outside Afghanistan with the 1996 recommendation of the movement, attributed to State Department official Robin Raphael, who contrasted the Taliban as an indigenous force with the Rabbani-led coalition supported by Iran and India and recognized by the United Nations.

The Clinton administration's initial acceptance of the Taliban reportedly had to do with the fact that Afghanistan is located between Pakistan and petroleum-rich Turkmenistan. After the break-up of the USSR, that ex-Soviet republic became increasingly open to business with foreign companies, and various ideas were floated for exporting Turkmeni oil abroad. One such scheme involved building a pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. This option was vigorously pursued first by the Argentinian company Bridas and then by the Californian company UNOCOL despite criticism in the U.S. Congress. Prior to the Taliban's 1996 taking of Kabul, Bridas had signed an agreement with them for building a pipeline with the Turkmen and Pakistan governments. The latter then backed away from that agreement and in July 1997 signed another pipeline agreement with a consortium involving UNOCOL and Saudi Arabia's Delta Oil. Despite UNOCOL wooing, the Taliban continued to favour the deal put to them by Bridas.

As prospects of business with the American company worsened, relations between the Taliban and the Clinton administration likewise progressively deteriorated, damaged partly by reports of human rights abuses in Afghanistan and more dramatically by charges that the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had been the work of Osama bin Laden. These attacks were apparently a striking example of what the CIA calls "blowback", that is, an unintended consequence of U.S. policy, in this case of supporting fundamentalist groups against the Soviet occupation (on which see Chalmers Johnson's work). Bin Laden by then had returned from Sudan to Afghanistan as a guest of the Taliban; the U.S. administration retaliated by firing cruise-missiles into Afghanistan and, by mistake, into Pakistan in August 1998, at a key point in the Lewinsky hearings.

When Taliban forces captured the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in summer 1998, they executed ten Iranian diplomats who had been accredited there with the Northern Alliance (as the forces nominally associated with the Rabbani government, still recognised by the U.N., were called). Iran mobilized its troops along the border, and an international meeting was convened by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to try to avert war and influence the Taliban to adhere to international law. The event was notable for bringing together top Iranian and American diplomats for their first official meeting since 1979. In addition, Saudi Arabia downgraded but did not break off its relations with the Taliban at this time.

Since 1998 Afghanistan has been subject to three years of drought so severe that U.N. aid workers have compared it to the Ethiopian droughts of the 1980s. During this time, the Taliban have continued to pursue their internal military campaigns and have slowly whittled down the territories under Northern Alliance control, with the most effective resistance to them being offered by Ahmad Shah Masood, from his base in the Panjshir Valley in the northeast of the country. In the summer of 2001, Taliban forces succeeded in capturing most of the country's central territories inhabited by the Shi'ite Hazara minority. Bloody massacres of captured Hazara soldiers and civilians were reported then, and the Taliban showed their disdain for international opinion in early 2000 by blowing up the ancient Bumayan statues of Buddha, which they considered idolatrous.

The successful assassination attempt against Masood on 9 September, which resulted in his death a few days later, has deprived the Northern Alliance of its most effective anti-Taliban general. In the meantime, fears of indiscriminate bombing by a vengeful American administration has led to a new mass exodus of refugees, which threatens to gravely aggravate famine conditions in the country.

Further Reading:
Peter Marsden. The Taliban: War, Religion, and the New Order in Afghanistan. Oxford University Press and Zed Books, 1998.
Chalmers Johnson. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. Metropolitan Books, 2000.