From the point of view of the US administration of George W Bush, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York was not a tragedy. Rather, it represented an unprecedented opportunity.
It gave the “neo-cons”—the hard-nosed ideological right wingers like Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Vice President Dick Chaney—who dominated the US administration the justification to implement their long-cherished dream of a concerted war drive across the Middle East. They were out to recast the whole of this vital oil-rich region to cement US world domination for decades to come.
The war which they launched on Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attack was in no sense the main game. It was merely a first step in their plan to attack Iraq and then quickly move on to Syria, Yemen, Somalia and a seemingly endless list of future targets.
The US wanted to assert its unrivalled control over the oil wealth of the region, partly to boost the profits of the giant US oil companies but more importantly to gain immense leverage over its imperialist rivals in Europe, Japan and an emerging China, which was just beginning to surface as a threat to unbridled US power.
The Bush administration’s assault on Afghanistan was facilitated by an overwhelming chorus of endorsement not just from the reactionary Murdoch press but nearly the whole of the mainstream liberal media, an array of Labor politicians in Britain and Australia, prominent liberal commentators and some feminist organisations. And to this very day, after Joe Biden has withdrawn the last of the US troops after 20 years of a murderous imperialist war, these same liberal forces still want to present Afghanistan as the “good war”.
The invasion of Afghanistan was not of course sold as a first step to cement decades of US global rule. That would have been much too honest for public consumption.
Instead, it was justified as the opening act in a “War on Terror”. The US ruling class ruthlessly exploited the deaths in the Twin Towers to justify a wave of hysteria against Muslims and Arabs which has long lasting terrible consequences that we are still confronting today.
George W Bush notoriously declared “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” And small-l liberal opinion lapped it up.
A wave of reaction swept across the US. Incredibly harsh anti-terror laws were imposed. To protect our freedoms, freedoms had to be abolished. Left-liberal academics like Alan Dershowitz declared that the torture of suspects was fine, as long as judges issued a “torture warrant” in each case! People of “Middle Eastern” appearance were viciously assaulted on the streets. Mosques were firebombed. Women had their head scarves ripped off.
This reactionary atmosphere carried over into countries allied to the US, like Australia. Liberal Prime Minister John Howard exploited it to the utmost by further stepping up his vicious racist campaign against refugees (now deemed terror threats), legislating draconian anti-terror laws and eagerly commissioning Australian troops to massacre Afghans.
The ALP offered no opposition to Howard’s fear mongering. Labor leader Kim “Bomber” Beazley fell over himself to demand even more draconian measures to combat the supposed threat of terrorism in Australia, and gave full throttle backing to the invasion of Afghanistan.
It was not just the Labor right that embraced the chauvinist frenzy either. Leading Labor leftist Senator John Faulkner declared: “We have all been impressed by the United States government’s rational, deliberative and calibrated response.”
What was left out of the whole narrative about the terrorism threat, that small l liberals and Labor politicians were so keen to endorse, was the simple fact that the US had for decades funded, trained and armed the terrorists.
The US in concert with Pakistani military intelligence recruited and trained Islamist reactionaries to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. The more fanatical they were the better as far as the US was concerned. Coming from a very wealthy Saudi Arabian ruling class family Osama bin Laden, who went on to head Al Qaeda, was typical of the Islamists who went to fight with the US backed forces in Afghanistan.
As for the Taliban, on various occasions in the 1990s the US and Pakistani military had backed them against the equally reactionary band of thugs who were then in government, the Northern Alliance, who specialised in mass rape and the throwing of acid in the face of unveiled women. When the Taliban militias swept across an exhausted country and took power in 1996, a US State Department spokesperson told reporters that there was “nothing objectionable” about this. In fact, they hoped the Taliban would provide stability. But by 2001, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, supporting the Taliban “no longer serves US strategic interests” and the US invaders restored the Northern Alliance to government.
Nonetheless, the relentless propaganda barrage that “something has to be done” about the “evil” terrorists had a profound impact on popular opinion, including a whole raft of so-called progressive opinion. It was left to small groups of socialists and other committed anti-imperialists to forcefully carry the arguments against the build up to war.
Another key argument rolled out to justify the US invasion was that it would liberate Afghan women from the horror of Taliban rule. As though the Bush administration, which was beholden to right wing Christian fundamentalists, ever had any intention of advancing the rights of women, either in Afghanistan or the US.
Just two days after his inauguration, with his first executive order, Bush banned US funding to any international family planning organisation that even mentioned the option of abortion to poor women. Similarly, the US administration willingly tolerated the harsh discrimination against women in US allies such as Saudi Arabia, whose vile religious police the Taliban used as a model. Indeed, the US instructed its own women soldiers in Saudi Arabia to cover themselves from head to foot with the same attire that they were supposedly freeing women from wearing in Afghanistan.
And when the US installed Northern Alliance government forcibly stopped marches in Kabul demanding rights for women the US government made no objection. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer declaring: “We’re talking about different regions of the world where people have their own cultures and histories.”
The Northern Alliance in fact had an even worse record in terms of the treatment of women than the Taliban. According to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, when the Northern Alliance was in power during the early 1990s, “Kabul was bathed in blood and burned in ashes...Crimes committed by the fundamentalists were not limited to mass murders. They raped young girls and women; tortured ethnic minorities; and pillaged national assets and public property.”
To manufacture the image that Afghani women had been liberated by the US forces media footage of women removing their burqas and showing their faces in public was beamed around the world. What was conveniently left out of the story was the women immediately put the burqas back on after the photographers left.
None of this prevented US feminist organisations like Equality Now and Feminist Majority and other prominent feminists applauding the invasion of Afghanistan. The Feminist Majority even circulated a petition thanking the Bush administration for its supposed commitment to restoring the rights of women in Afghanistan. They never explained how the US bombing of thousands of civilians, both women and men, liberated them from anything other than many of their lives.
The strident support from middle-class liberals and feminists for the invasion helps explain why the protests against the Afghan war were so much smaller than the one million people who took to the streets across Australia a year and half later to oppose the invasion of Iraq. By 2003, the claims that the US was bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to the Middle East were being increasingly exposed by reality on the ground as the lies that they had always been.
Twenty years on from the invasion we can’t allow these same small-l liberals to rehabilitate the murderous wars that devastated Iraq and Afghanistan and butchered more than a million people. They were never about “freedom” or “democracy”, let alone liberating women. They were about the naked, but in the end failed, defence of US power.