One Year Later: Unintended Consequences of 9/11 and the War on Terrorism
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.
However, 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.
The 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.
Second, 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.
The 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 theyd 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.
The 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 doesnt 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 Bushs 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.
On 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, Americas hands will again be bloody.
To 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.
This 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.
War Against Iraq
The 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.
Bush 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.
How 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 now subjected.
Within the United States
The 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.
Actual 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.
Then 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 anti-terrorism.
Attacks on Civil Liberties
More 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."
That 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.
These 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 youre told."
The Decline of Dissent
The 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 Bushs 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.
In tandem with the nearly daily warnings of an imminent terrorist attack, the news media seem perfectly in tune with the administrations 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.
So 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."
John Tirman is a program director of the Social Science Research Council. His article "Unintended Consequences" is in AlterNets book "9/11: Solutions For a Safer World."