After 9/11, Was War the Only Option?

Noam Chomsky

Activists from Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan shout slogans during a demonstration in Quetta, on July 19, 2011, to protest against U.S. drone attacks. (Photo BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the horrendous atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, which, it is commonly held, changed the world.

The jihadi movement could have been split and undermined after 9/11 if the "crime against humanity" had been approached as a crime.

The impact of the attacks is not in doubt. Just keeping to western and central Asia: Afghanistan is barely surviving, Iraq has been devastated and Pakistan is edging closer to a disaster that could be catastrophic.

On May 1, 2011, the presumed mastermind of the crime, Osama bin Laden, was assassinated in Pakistan. The most immediate significant consequences have also occurred in Pakistan. There has been much discussion of Washington’s anger that Pakistan didn’t turn over bin Laden. Less has been said about the fury among Pakistanis that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination. Anti-American fervor had already intensified in Pakistan, and these events have stoked it further.

One of the leading specialists on Pakistan, British military historian Anatol Lieven, wrote in The National Interest in February that the war in Afghanistan is destabilizing and radicalizing Pakistan, risking a geopolitical catastrophe for the United States – and the world – which would dwarf anything that could possibly occur in Afghanistan.”

At every level of society, Lieven writes, Pakistanis overwhelmingly sympathize with the Afghan Taliban, not because they like them but because the Taliban are seen as a legitimate force of resistance against an alien occupation of the country,” much as the Afghan mujahedeen were perceived when they resisted the Russian occupation in the 1980s.

These feelings are shared by Pakistan’s military leaders, who bitterly resent U.S. pressures to sacrifice themselves in Washington’s war against the Taliban. Further bitterness comes from the terror attacks (drone warfare) by the U.S. within Pakistan, the frequency of which was sharply accelerated by President Obama; and from U.S. demands that the Pakistani army carry Washington’s war into tribal areas of Pakistan that had been pretty much left on their own, even under British rule.

The military is the stable institution in Pakistan, holding the country together. U.S. actions might provoke a mutiny of parts of the military,” Lieven writes, in which case the Pakistani state would collapse very quickly indeed, with all the disasters that this would entail.”

The potential disasters are drastically heightened by Pakistan’s huge, rapidly growing nuclear weapons arsenal, and by the country’s substantial jihadi movement.

Both of these are legacies of the Reagan administration. Reagan officials pretended they did not know that Zia ul-Haq, the most vicious of Pakistan’s military dictators and a Washington favorite, was developing nuclear weapons and carrying out a program of radical Islamization of Pakistan with Saudi funding.

The catastrophe lurking in the background is that these two legacies might combine, with fissile materials leaking into the hands of jihadis. Thus we might see nuclear weapons, most likely dirty bombs,” exploding in London and New York.

Lieven summarizes: U.S. and British soldiers are in effect dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world more dangerous for American and British peoples.”

Surely Washington understands that U.S. operations in what has been christened Afpak” – Afghanistan-Pakistan – might destabilize and radicalize Pakistan.

The most significant WikiLeaks documents to have been released so far are the cables from U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson in Islamabad, who supports U.S. actions in Afpak but warns that they risk destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis in Pakistan â(euro) .125

Patterson writes of the possibility that someone working in (Pakistani government) facilities could gradually smuggle enough fissile material out to eventually make a weapon,” a danger enhanced by the vulnerability of weapons in transit.”

A number of analysts have observed that bin Laden won some major successes in his war against the United States.

As Eric S. Margolis writes in The American Conservative in May, “(bin Laden) repeatedly asserted that the only way to drive the U.S. from the Muslim world and defeat its satraps was by drawing Americans into a series of small but expensive wars that would ultimately bankrupt them.”

That Washington seemed bent on fulfilling bin Laden’s wishes was evident immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

In his 2004 book Imperial Hubris,” Michael Scheuer, a senior CIA analyst who had tracked Osama bin Laden since 1996, explains: Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. (He) is out to drastically alter U.S. and Western policies toward the Islamic world,” and largely achieved his goal.

He continues: U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it is fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.” And arguably remains so, even after his death.

The succession of horrors across the past decade leads to the question: Was there an alternative to the West’s response to the 9/11 attacks?

The jihadi movement, much of it highly critical of bin Laden, could have been split and undermined after 9/11, if the crime against humanity,” as the attacks were rightly called, had been approached as a crime, with an international operation to apprehend the suspects. That was recognized at the time, but no such idea was even considered in the rush to war. It is worth adding that bin Laden was condemned in much of the Arab world for his part in the attacks.

By the time of his death, bin Laden had long been a fading presence, and in the previous months was eclipsed by the Arab Spring. His significance in the Arab world is captured by the headline in a New York Times article by Middle East specialist Gilles Kepel: Bin Laden Was Dead Already.”

That headline might have been dated far earlier, had the U.S. not mobilized the jihadi movement with retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Within the jihadi movement, bin Laden was doubtless a venerated symbol but apparently didn’t play much more of a role for al-Qaida, this network of networks,” as analysts call it, which undertake mostly independent operations.

Even the most obvious and elementary facts about the decade lead to bleak reflections when we consider 9/11 and its consequences, and what they portend for the future.

This article is adapted from 9-11: Was There an Alternative?, the 10th-anniversary edition of 9-11, by Noam Chomsky, just published by Seven Stories Press.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of dozens of books on U.S. foreign policy. His most recent book is Who Rules the World? from Metropolitan Books.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.