Presentation for “Life After Capitalism” Conference at the World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brazil. Published on Znet (www.zmag.org).
On August 29th 2002 in Little Rock, Arkansas, George W Bush said: “We liberated Afghanistan from the clutches of a barbaric regime… We’re liberators, not conquerers here in America”(1).
Addressing U.S. troops this January in Fort Hood, Texas, Bush said, “Should Saddam seal his fate by refusing to disarm, by ignoring the opinion of the world, you’ll be fighting, not to conquer anybody, but to liberate people”(2).
Most recently during his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush repeated his aims: “America is a strong nation, and honorable in the use of our strength. We exercise power without conquest, and we sacrifice for the liberty of strangers.”
This rhetoric of liberation is not new at all — in fact it is an age-old trick to disguise and sugarcoat the intentions of the powerful empire. Older empires have sought to “civilize” instead of “liberate” the populations of their colonies. For example, “posession of an empire profoundly influenced the ways in which the British thought of themselves and the rest of the world… it encouraged a sense of superiority… It also fostered racial arrogance. And yet at the same time, deeply rooted liberal and evangelical ideals produced a powerful sense of imperial duty and mission. The empire existed to civilize and uplift its subjects, or so it champions claimed.”(3). Using the rhetoric of “civilizing”, and in today’s world, “liberating”, leaders attempt to quell the consciences of the masses whose approval they seek.
From the start of the so-called War on Terrorism in Afghanistan, and the current aggression against Iraq, the word ‘liberation’ has been sprinkled liberally into the speeches of talking heads of state. These kinds of speeches raise images of millions of mostly brown faces, starving and tortured and imprisoned by a single tyrant and his cronies. It conjures up assumptions of jubilant women and children celebrating their impending liberation as bombs begin falling on their heads. What’s a few hundred cluster bombs anyway, and a few months of abject starvation imposed by cut-off food supplies now that the Americans are on their way to save them? Liberation is close at hand.
U.S. soldiers have been busy “liberating” brown peoples all over the world from the imposition ofcommunism and now terrorism, practiced by their own leaders such as the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. But what does “liberation” really mean in the context of US aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq?
What “Liberation” Has Meant for Afghans
Afghanistan is being touted as an example for Iraq by the Bush administration and hence we should also consider it an example for what to expect in Iraq. It is of course true that the Afghan people and particularly Afghan women were trapped under the laws and weapons of the Taliban. It is true that the majority of Afghan women in cities like Kabul and Kandahar longed for the day when the Sha’ria laws and drought would end. It is also true that U.S. bombs toppled the Taliban and opened the door for Afghan women to continue their education and choose their own clothing, at least in theory. Critics of anti-war leftists may ask, is that not liberation in the real sense? And indeed the war against Afghanistan was hailed by many as a “just” war. Most people, including the left now consider Afghanistan a closed chapter. It is not.
“Liberation” has meant the imposition of a U.S.-friendly leader, Hamid Karzai, in the face of public support for the ex-king of Afghanistan. “Rather than address the issue democratically, almost two days of the six-day loya jirga were wasted while a parade of high-level officials from the interim government, the United Nations, and the United States visited Zahir Shah and eventually ‘persuaded’ him to publicly renounce his political ambitions.”(4) At best “liberation” has meant a subversion of the democratic process which was being infused with the input of thousands of ordinary Afghans including women and refugees. According to James Ingalls, “the West was deliberately manipulating the politics of Afghanistan so that a weak leader who depends on foreign backing and who needs to appease the warlords was installed. The first act of intimidation was the US and UN pressuring of Zahir Shah. After the floodgates were opened it was impossible simply to allow the delegates, many of who had a strong human rights agenda and were intent on weakening the warlords, either to vote or speak their minds freely and fairly.”(5)
“Liberation” has meant the return to power of warlords who once terrorized Afghans and maintain feifdoms within the country, mainly members of the so-called Northern Alliance (not so allied anymore as they were when confronting the Taliban). Additionally, Taliban remnants and the renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, originally heavily funded by the United States in the 1980s, continue to threaten the US puppet regime in what amounts to acontinuation of terrorism against the civilian population. Such attacks occur almost daily, although they are not covered by the mainstream media. For example, “A bomb exploded on the roof of a United Nations office in northern Afghanistan within hours of an armed attack on a UN convoy in the east of the country … in which two Afghan security men were killed”(6). A day later, “An explosion killed 18 people travelling on a bus near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar”(7). The UN Secretary General’s Deputy Special Representative for Reconstruction in Afghanistan cites 16 violent incidents in just two weeks(8). Even Afghan President Hamid Karzai agrees, “The area where we have not been able to make significant inroads was to provide the Afghan people a life free of armed gangs who are fighting each other in parts of the country.”(9) So Afghans have gone from the terrorism of Taliban imprisonment to the terror of trigger-happy war criminals. Additionally, illegal checkpoints established by the US-backed mujahidin during the early 1990s and abolished by the Taliban have reappeared to once again interfere with traffic and extort lavish bribes.(10)
The “liberation” of Afghanistan at U.S. hands has meant the direct deaths of at least 3500 Afghans(11) through the use of “smart” bombs. It has meant hundreds and thousands of pieces of unexploded ordinance from the use of internationally illegal cluster bombs. The United States dropped nearly a quater million cluster bomblets on Afghanistan in or near heavily populated areas, leaving behind an estimated 12,400 pieces of unexploded ordinance, which are defacto landmines.(12) Currently between 5-10 Afghans are killed by landmines each day.(13)
“Liberation” has also meant the coerced repatriation of over two million Afghans from cramped refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran to the streets of Kabul where even long time residents are unable to find work. “The decision to facilitate the mass repatriation was driven by neighbouring countries, donor interests and political pressure to legitimise the new government,” according to a report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.(14) The returnees flock to Kabul because it is the safest place to be in the country. In their wisdom, the liberators have decided to restrict the international security presence to Kabul, to protect their investment in Hamid Karzai. Meanwhile the remaining landscape is overrun by warlords.
And finally, for women and girls in whose name George and Laura Bush swore many platitudes, “liberation” means a return to the old ways and business as usual. For example “In the city of Herat in western Afghanistan, the government of the warlord Ismail Khan recently applied new rules rolling back educational opportunities for women and girls. Men may no longer teach women or girls in private classes. Girls and boys are no longer allowed to be in school buildings at the same time. The effect of the ban will be to block many women and girls from attending private courses.”(15) Earlier last year, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called on Ismail Khan during a visit to Herat, and afterward described him to reporters as “an appealing person.”(16)
As long as oppression takes place with U.S. oversight, it is acceptable and “appealing”. When committed by enemies to the United States, it is called terrorism. The results of the “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan are an important lesson for the coming invasion of Iraq.
Afghanistan as a “Model of Sucess for Iraq”
In August of 2002, a US Defense Department news item was entitled, “Rumsfeld calls Afghanistan Model of Success for Iraq,” where the Secretary of War pondered the application of US “liberation” methods to the next stop in the “war on terrorism”. Rumsfeld “pointed to Afghanistan as a sucessful model of what could happen in Iraq if individuals were liberated”. He mused, “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if Iraq were similar to Afghanistan? … If a bad regime was thrown out, people were liberated, food could come in, borders could be re-opened, repression could stop, prisons could be re-opened. I mean it would be fabulous!” Of course it would be wonderful if the US-led economic sanctions on Iraq were lifted and food and medicines could be imported, but that was not what he meant. The report concluded that “It will take time because liberation, freedom and democracy are all untidy processes”. Perhaps Rumsfeld was looking ahead to the untidyness of the blood and gore that accompanies a bombing campaign, or of mobs demanding a say in their country’s future from an occupying army.
Part of the current plan to reshape Iraq, hatched at least as early as 1998, is the empowering of elements of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. Ahmed Chalabi, the president of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), is being “tipped by analysts … as a possible successor to Saddam Hussein.”(17) Chalabi’s situation parallels that ofHamid Karzai. Like Karzai, Chalabi has spent the majority of his life outside his native country and has risen to prominence primarily through the support of the US government. Tens of millions of dollars in aid to Chalabi have been approved by Congress as part of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, passed to “establish a program to support a transition to democracy in Iraq”. Chalabi has little grassroots support in Iraq itself, but his proximity to the US government makes him, like Karzai, an appropriate tool to “democratically” represent the people being “liberated.”
The parallels with Afghanistan extend to possible battle plans for Iraq. After September 11th 2001 and the US war in Afghanistan, Ahmed Chalabi modifed an earlier war plan for Iraq “with the help of a retired four-star Army general, Wayne Downing [who ran a Special Forces command during the Gulf War], and former CIA officer Duane (Dewey) Clarridge, who have served as unpaid consultants to the INC. Clarridge ran the U.S.-backed contras who fought the leftist Sandanista regime in Nicaragua during the Reagan administration.” The so-called Downing Plan “is portrayed as an enlarged version of the operation in Afghanistan — local forces, with American Special Forces and airpower.”(18)
For those in the blossoming anti-war movement in the United States, there is an uncomfortable focus on George W Bush and the Republicans. But let us not forget that it was ex-President Democrat Bill Clinton whose policy of keeping sanctions in place was supposed to convince Iraqis that we cared enough about them that we were willing to starve them to save them. In 1998 Clinton passed the “Iraq Liberation Act” that authorized the expenses to train and support an Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime. It also renewed the commitment to sanctions.
What has “liberation” meant for the people of Iraq? Sadly, it has meant an even worse scenario of death and destruction than for the Afghan people. One year after Clinton’s “Iraq Liberation Act” maintained the wide ranging sanctions on Iraq, it was reported that infant mortality had doubled in the10 year period 1989-1999.(19) Ashraf Bayoumi, former head of the World Food Programme Observation Unit, in charge of monitoring food distribution in Iraq observed, “You kill people without blood or organs flying around, without angering American public opinion. People are dying silently in their beds. If 5,000 children are dying each month, this means 60,000 a year. Over eight years, we have half a million children. This is equivalent to two or three Hiroshimas.”(20) Under a Democratic leadership the US forced it’s concept of liberation onto a helpless people. Perhaps Clinton meant to liberate Iraqis from life itself.
Last November a group of right wingers with close ties to Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney launched a political campaign to rally support for a war on Iraq, predictably called the “Committee for the Liberation of Iraq”. The president, Randy Scheunemann, is a “veteran Republican Senate foreign policy staffer”(21) who happened to draft the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act..
The members of the “Committee for the Liberation of Iraq” overlap largely with the memberships of other extreme right wing organizations dedicated to “liberation” of poor mostly nonwhite people through war: the “Friends of the Democratic Center in Central America” formed in the 1980s(22), the 1991 “Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf”, and the 1999 “Balkan Action Committee” which supported the US and NATO war in Yugoslavia.(23) Wayne Downing, responsible for the “Downing Plan” of battle for Iraq and advisor to the Iraqi National Congress, is also an advisor to the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Additionally, Bruce P Jackson, Vice President of arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin until August 2002, who also chaired the Republican Party’s subcommittee for national security and foreign policy when George W Bush ran for president in 2000, is the chairman of the Committee. Both Jackson and Gary Schmitt, the group’s secretary, are members of a right wing Washington think tank, “Project for the New American Century” (PNAC). Also associated with PNAC is Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and choreographer of Hamid Karzai’s success in the Loya Jirga. These are only a few examples of the incestuous connections between policy makers but the pattern is clear: loose groupings of mostly white powerful men who shape government policy and bolster the arms industry, working ever so hard for the “liberation” of mostly brown peoples of this world.
A “pro-Western” Arab world and American Empire
The Wall Street Journal last year editorialized that “If America is going to spill blood and treasure again, the goal has to be about more than replacing one Iraqi thug with another. The goal this time should not merely be disarmament or even ‘regime change’, but the liberation of the Iraqi people and a more stable Middle East.”(24) The editorial further states that “if the war is prosecuted well and plants the seeds for a pluralistic pro-Western Iraq, that country could serve as an example to the rest of the Arab world”. The pro-Western government in Afghanistan is clearly in line with this vision. In fact, the United States seems to be creating an empire on the very lands its predecessors colonized. Wall Street Journal columnist Max Boot wrote “It is striking – and no coincidence – that America now faces the prospect of military action in many of the same lands where generations of British colonial soldiers went on campaigns. These are all places where Western armies had to quell disorder. Afghanistan and other troubled foreign lands cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”(25) The parallels of the US installing pro-Western governments in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world with British colonial exploits are striking.
The implicit racism of today’s rhetoric of liberation emanating from the United States leadership should be obvious. It is far too reminiscent of the language of racist colonizers of past decades and centuries who felt they were divinely motivated to civilize the heathen savages on whose shores they arrived. My home country of India is rife with such examples under the British Raj. British Viceroy Curzon spoke in the late 1800s of the British Raj being a mandate from God. “I do not see how Englishmen, contrasting India as it is with what it was or might have been, can fail to see that we came here in obedience to what I call a decree of Providence, for the lasting benefit of millions of the human race.”(26)
Similar motivations were expressed by Emperor Bush who said in his state of the union address, “Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”(27)
The British empire could not have sustained itself without the general approval of its citizens. The growing US empire looks to “liberate” the Arabs, the Afghans, the Iranians, North Koreans, Colombians, Venezuelans and others. Let us not forget the history and implications of this racist rhetoric. Let us not follow in the footsteps of tacit approval.
1 George W Bush Speech, Little Rock, Arkansas, August 29, 2002
2 Charles Aldinger and Nadim Ladki, “Bush Talks of Liberating Iraq, Troops Mass in Gulf”, 01/03/03, Reuters
3 James, Lawrence, “The Rise and the Fall of the British Empire”, 1995, p xiv
4 Omar Zakhilwal, “Stifled in the Loya Jirga”, 06/16/02, Washington Post Opinion Column, p B07
5 James Ingalls, “The United States and the Afghan Loya Jirga: A Victory for the Puppet Masters”, 090/02, Z Magazine
6 “Bomb explodes on roof of UN office in Northern Afghanistan”, 01/30/03, Agence France-Presse
7 “Blast kills 18 in southern Afghanistan”, 01/31/03, Agence France-Presse.
8 “Afghanistan: Security concerns remain for NGOs”, 02/03/03, UN OCHA Integrated Regional Information Network
9 “Afghanistan: Interview with Afghan President Hamid Karzai”, 01/28/03, UN OCHA Integrated Regional Information Network
10 Danish Karokhel, “Illegal checkpoints enrage travellers”, 01/17/03, Institute for War & Peace Reporting
11 Marc Herold, “A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States’ Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting”, 12/01, www.cursor.org
12 “Fatally Flawed: Cluster Bombs and Their Use by the United States in Afghanistan”, 12/18/02, Human Rights Watch
13 Danish Karokhel, “Returning Afghans fear mine menace”, 01/31/03, Institute for War & Peace Reporting
14 David Turton and Peter Marsden, “Taking Refugees for a Ride? The Politics of Refugee Return to Afghanistan”, 01/31/2003, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit
15 Zama Coursen-Neff and John Sifton , “Falling Back to Taliban Ways with Women”, 01/21/03, International Herald Tribune
16 “Afghanistan: Torture and Political Repression in Herat”, 11/05/02, Human Rights Watch
17 “Profile: Ahmed Chalabi”, 10/03/02, BBC News Media Reports
18 “Attacking Iraq – Downing Plan / Afghan Model”, GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/iraq-downing.htm
19 “Results of the 1999 Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Surveys”, 08/27/99, UNICEF
20 Amira Howeidy, “Two Hiroshimas, twenty Lebanons”, 12/24/98, Al-Ahram Weekly
21 Jim Lobe, “New Champions of the War Cause”, 11/06/02, Inter Press Service
22 Jim Lobe, “The War Party Gets Organized”, 11/14/02, Alternet
23 Op.cit. note 19
24 “How to Liberate Iraq: Toppling Saddam isn’t Enough”, 10/08/02, Wall Street Journal Editorial
25 Max Boot, “The Case for American Empire”, 10/15/01, Weekly Standard, vol 7, no 5
26 S. Gopal, “British Policy in India”, Cambridge 1965
27 George W Bush’s State of the Union Address, 01/29/03