Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 2, Number 31 September 8 - 14, 2002 Quezon City, Philippines
Year Later: Unintended Consequences of 9/11 and the War on Terrorism
By John Tirman
When President Bush initiated the bombing of Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, the perils of the "war on terrorism" pivoted on three historical trends: the fear of a major refugee crisis and war casualties, destabilization of nearby countries, and mounting anger among Muslims toward the United States. The ways these dangers would manifest were and still are difficult to foresee, because such consequences are often unintentional and become visible only after many years.
in retrospect, what was obviously missing in early analyses were the
consequences -- many of them intentional -- for our own homeland. The war on
terrorism overall must be counted as a very partial success, with exceptionally
high costs. Those costs are largely ignored but colossal, in federal dollars
spent, state and local budgets exhausted, the financial markets worldwide
spooked, private security and insurance costs mounting, and the political costs
for other issues that are buried by the rally-‘round-the-flag mindset
prevailing for the last year.
war on terrorism has had milder impacts than expected on two counts. First, the
refugee crisis never became extremely acute, thanks to heroic efforts by relief
workers from around the world. The number of Afghan refugees remains very high,
however, and as attention to their plight fades, so will their chances of
repatriation and some measure of security. In July, the International Rescue
Committee reported from its northern Afghanistan office (which helps support
800,000 people) that "in warlord-controlled Mazar-e-Sharif . . . factional
clashes, looting and a significant increase in attacks, including sexual
violence," were a rising threat.
the casualties from the war in Afghanistan, while sadly excessive especially
among civilian populations erroneously bombed by U.S. aircraft (3,500 fatalities
or more), are fewer than what could easily have been. This is due in part to the
strategy of the Taliban to self-collapse and blend back into Afghan and
Pakistani society, perhaps to rise again after the Yankees leave.
mass grave recently discovered in Dasht-e Leili, the prison massacre last year
in Mazar-e-Sharif, the mishaps killing civilians -- these are precisely the
kinds of things that happen in wartime, and are one reason why pursuing
objectives by warfare needs to be approached with exceptional caution.
Naturally, the effort to rebuild Afghanistan is falling short, both in dollars
(donors have failed to deliver what they’d promised, a pattern repeated from
Bosnia, etc.) and in political soundness. The reputation of Afghanistan as an
international aid drain, assassination capital and heroin exporter seems to be
on its way to complete rehabilitation.
stability of Afghanistan, which will not be discernable for many years, is part
of a messy picture for the stability of the region. The truly chilling scare of
a near war between Pakistan and India last winter resulted from Islamic
terrorist acts in India and Kashmir, possibly with the knowledge of General
Musharraf, the Pakistani strongman and new friend of George W. Bush. While it
doesn’t take much to set India and Pakistan on edge, this latest imbroglio
(with the threat of nuclear weapons -- possibly a deterrent -- mixed into the
fray) was indisputably a result of the regional tensions wrought by the war in
Afghanistan and Bush’s embrace of Musharraf. While the Pakistani regime does
not seem as vulnerable to Islamic insurgency as it did last autumn, the
inability of Musharraf to control al-Qaeda, the Kashmir militants or the border
with Afghanistan is scarcely the mark of competence. In the meantime, Musharraf
consolidated his power and blunted a return to democracy, also done with the
approval of the White House.
the other side of Afghanistan, our old adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran,
has taken a fierce rhetorical whipping from Bush, which has set back the liberal
reformers (who are vulnerable to the religious hardliners’ charges of too much
accommodation with the U.S.) and casts Iran starkly as an enemy of America.
This, despite extensive cooperation from Iran on the efforts to cleanse the area
of al-Qaeda and bring some order to long-neglected Afghanistan. Some two million
or more Afghan refugees are housed in Iran, so its interests and costs are
considerable. If the reformers fail (the economy is in very bad shape) and the
iron fist returns to rule in Teheran, America’s hands will again be bloody.
the north are the "stans," and here, too, we see the return of the
praetorian state at the behest of Washington. Virtually all of them, perhaps
Uzbekistan most obviously, are seized by militarism wrought by the excuses of
the war in Afghanistan and the rooting out of terrorism. Fragile democracies are
vanishing in a stampede toward authoritarianism. A report in August from the
reliable International Crisis Group notes that in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where
2,000 U.S. and coalition troops are stationed, the "increasingly autocratic
behavior of President Askar Akaev is fueling unrest." A similar report came
out of Kazakstan in the same month.
trend toward unrest, which is visible all over the world, has also worsened that
most volatile tinderbox, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The scorched earth
policies of Prime Minister Sharon would be very difficult to maintain if he
could not employ the anti-terrorism principles Bush has proclaimed. And indeed
the White House has supported all but the worst excesses in this grisly tragedy,
which now includes massive malnourishment of children in the Palestinian areas.
It is this ongoing conflict, rather than Afghanistan itself, which is inflaming
Muslim opinion worldwide -- the perception, largely true, that the U.S.
government cares not a whit for Palestinian lives and will back (and supply)
Israeli actions of nearly any scale. This also gives cover to the many Arab
despots in the region, who can divert attention from their own repressive and
bankrupt administrations to the outrages in Gaza and the West Bank.
final consequence of the "war on terrorism" that we can view abroad,
and was visible by last October, is the ascending chance of a war against Iraq.
It seems likely that Bush, Jr., has long had his sites set on Saddam in order to
avenge Bush, Sr.’s failure from a decade ago. But it is inconceivable that a
war against Iraq today could have been mounted willy-nilly without the pretext
of fighting terrorism. The so-called Bush Doctrine holds that the United States
maintains the prerogative to attack a country preemptively if it is harboring
terrorists or is showing intent to commit terrorist acts.
bootlickers in the press have tried to make the case that al-Qaeda has clear
operational links to Saddam, but that is dismissed by serious analysts (and the
president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board). Even if there were such weak
links, several other friends of Washington would be equally culpable. Likewise,
illegal possession of weapons of mass destruction would put a few more countries
on the list for preemption, including Israel and Pakistan, were that standard
applied logically. There is an actual menace, of course, but Saddam has been in
power for decades and was long aided by the United States, principally by Ronald
Reagan and Bush Sr., and close advisors Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard
Haass, and Colin Powell, all major players in the current regime.
to deal with this menace without a catastrophic war is for another time, but we
can easily draw two immediate conclusions: (1) a war on Iraq would inflame
Islamic and Arab radicalism, possibly bringing down regimes from Amman to Cairo;
and (2) war talk would not be occurring without the emotional facade of the
"war on terrorism" and the daily drumbeat of threats to which we are
the United States
one truly significant consequence of the anti-terrorism campaign that was
difficult to predict, at least in scale, is the effects within the United
States: the enormous costs, the civil liberties setbacks, the choking climate of
smarmy patriotism, the stifling of dissent.
expenditures by the federal, municipal and state governments over the first year
will run close to $100 billion to improve "first responders" and
tighten security. It is bankrupting cities and states and drawing from unmet
needs, like Medicaid. Security in private buildings and other facilities also
has costs, generally unknown, but doubtlessly passed on to the consumer; these
are high in inconvenience and easy to circumvent by a determined villain. The
financial markets have been rocked by many Bush policies lately, but not least
the constant cultivation of imminent terrorist assaults. So, too, have oil
prices, which are being driven up by fears of a Persian Gulf war.
there is the boost to military spending. As the Center for Defense Information
puts it, Bush is "requesting $396.1 billion for the military in fiscal year
2003 . . . This is $45.5 billion above current levels, an increase of 13
percent. It is also 15 percent above the Cold War average, to fund a force
structure that is one-third smaller than it was a decade ago." Spending
over the next five years will be $2.1 trillion, a colossal increase. In
combination with the tax cuts, this Pentagon spree is likely to sink the economy
with deficit spending. Moreover, most of the increases have nothing to do with
on Civil Liberties
shocking than those costs are the broad attacks on civil liberties of citizens
and immigrants on a scale not seen in a generation or more. The implications are
drawn out neatly by my colleague, Itty Abraham: "The passage of the
Orwellian-named Patriot Act with only one dissension in the House of
Representatives was the most striking example of the power of the modern state
to privilege its definition of security over all others. The patent violation of
due process and legal protections in the arrests of thousands of Muslim, Middle
Eastern and South Asian residents of this country point to the lack of
judiciable evidence in the hands of the government and mark a historic breakdown
of a liberal legal culture that was the envy of the world."
these detentions, whether in Guantanamo Bay or Smalltown USA, could occur and
persist for months with little outcry against them is astonishing. Or perhaps
not so astonishing: Throughout American history, the first reaction in most
national traumas has been to hunt down the strangers among us, the recent
immigrants, who are suspect whenever anything goes wrong. Contrast the last
12-month roundup with the light treatment of the right-wing militias in America
that cheered (and possibly aided) the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and imagine
what would happen if Muslim Americans formed militias devoted to Allah.
current detentions and harassments are accompanied by the kind of highly
symbolic but ineffectual actions that more authoritarian countries typically
resort to. In Washington, for instance, federal buildings and monuments are
ringed by concrete barricades, amplifying the sense of danger and letting
everyone know who is truly important. Cops are ubiquitous at even minor events.
For many months, soldiers in combat gear, automatic weapons at the ready,
patrolled airport corridors. These symbols have a purpose beyond protection:
they say, "we are at war, we are in danger, do as you’re told."
Decline of Dissent
patriotism that first proliferated as a solemn tribute to the 3,000 dead in the
World Trade Center and Pentagon was quickly seized by the right as a political
initiative, and has transported bereavement into repression. Journalists,
professors and others who speak to the public were sanctioned for questioning
Bush’s war policy, and this practice persists to this day, buttressed by the
self-censoring, flag-waving news networks. The phenomenon of how opinion is
shaped can be clearly seen at the influential Washington Post. Its editorials
have been resolutely pro-war (in Afghanistan, Iraq, and who knows where next),
with weekly ridicule heaped on those with doubts. Alternatives to or criticisms
of the war policy are simply kept off those pages.
tandem with the nearly daily warnings of an imminent terrorist attack, the news
media seem perfectly in tune with the administration’s scare mongering -- a
nearly textbook replication of what Noam Chomsky calls "manufacturing
consent." It is important to resist this conformity not only for our own
self-respect and the functioning of democracy, but for signaling to European
allies in particular; if they believe America is utterly united in its
determination to wage war against Iraq, for example, then they are much more
likely to acquiesce.
one must ask: Is all this worth it? It is conceivable -- likely, even -- that
the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, were a one-off catastrophe; if there is a
determined network of terrorists ready to strike again, expect them to set
forest fires, not to ram a truck into the Lincoln Memorial. They will do things
for which there are no guards, just as they did on Sept. 11. The plain fact is,
however, that not a single, credible threat has been revealed by the U.S.
government since that sad day. And this is not surprising. Al-Qaeda, as far as
we know, is a small organization with small capabilities. Its major attacks have
come at the rate of one every two years. Much of its activity can be disrupted
by law enforcement -- freezing assets, arresting actual suspects, keeping them
on the run. The thought that we need to spend $100 billion of tax money
annually, and much more in private funds and opportunity costs, to
"protect" against such a threat is at least questionable.
It becomes ever more questionable when we consider the human costs, in violations of civil rights and the catastrophic costs of anti-terrorism across the globe. Detentions, mass arrests, killings, deprivations: These are the tools of allies from Indonesia and Malaysia to Chechnya, Turkey, and Nigeria. The example of lawlessness we set, the "for us or against us" demands that we press, and the economic and political commotion we stir all reverberate around the world, accentuating the worst political tendencies and, as always, hurting those at the margins most. Such are the most durable, "unintentional" consequences of the "war on terrorism."
Tirman is a program director of the Social Science Research Council. His article
"Unintended Consequences" is in AlterNet’s book "9/11:
Solutions For a Safer World."