Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-2001, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

America’s Enemies

Osama Bin Laden

is an enemy of America, and he admits it. With openly displayed satisfaction at the strike that hit the U.S. on 9/11, he tells the world why this is only just:

“Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed. Grace and gratitude to God. … What America is tasting now is only a copy of what we have tasted. Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more than 80 years, of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated. … A million innocent children are dying at this time as we speak, killed in Iraq without any guilt. … In these days, Israeli tanks rampage across Palestine … and we do not hear anyone raising his voice or reacting. But when the sword fell upon America after 80 years, hypocrisy raised its head up high … after this event, …[they] went on a display of vanity with their men and horses, those who turned even the countries that believe in Islam against us … In a nation at the far end of the world, Japan, hundreds of thousands, young and old, were killed and this is not a world crime. To them it is not a clear issue. A million children in Iraq, to them this is not a clear issue. But when a few more than 10 were killed in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Afghanistan and Iraq were bombed …. As to America, I say to it and its people a few words: I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad, peace be upon him. God is the greatest and glory be to Islam. (Bin Laden, videotape, broadcast on Al Jazeera October 7, 2001, transcription from The New York Times, October 8, 2001.)

The man thinks and argues like a statesman, acting as the leader of a rule whose important concerns he considers to be profoundly justified, just like every politician does. The fact that a convinced nationalist is on the move here can only be overlooked by someone intent on denying this nationalism all legitimacy in theory — legitimacy which for political minds is otherwise all-too-common — because the United States does it in practice.

The man is very good at throwing victims in one’s face — common practice among nationalists — and emphasizes that, if any outrage is due, it is the peoples that suffer under American and Israeli violence that deserve the world’s sympathy. He recites the results of the world power, America, and its ally, Israel: destruction of national means, military force, the misery of refugees; everywhere victims of forceful American intervention and Israeli state terror. These victims illustrate the good cause for which he stands: they are victims insofar as they are as members of a moral community in which all Muslims are indiscriminately united, a community confirmed by its faith and longing for political realization. The activity of the American world power discloses itself to bin Laden from a standpoint he shares with all discontented nationalists: the disappointed claim to a rule of one’s own, which claim is not presented as such, but — as is always the case with convinced followers of an ideal or real state program — as the highest right of all, as the realization of a common national nature of those ruled, and as a service to the values that unite a people and their rulers and distinguish them from the rest of the world of states. In any event, the political collective in the name of which he raises his hand is of the ideal kind: it is the notion of a true Islamic nation comprising the competing Arab-Islamic states, in which membership in the various states would be superseded, in which therefore not only would all social conflicts disappear, as with every national idea, but also the political conflicts between the various countries. This national ‘we’ is to be vouched for by the declared belief in religion as the unifying bond transcending all actually existing antagonisms.

Bin Laden considers this political desire for an Islamic rule of one’s ‘own’ — that has, to his mind, found its heroic expression in the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel as well as in the dead bodies of the long-running American war against Iraq — to be frustrated by America and betrayed by the Arab states that have calculatingly aligned themselves with the power of the United States. Everything in the Middle East that America asserts with its power, pursues in the way of business interests, and undertakes for the strategic control of oil is, seen from this perspective, just one big blow against this fundamental right to realize a political desire encompassing all Arab Muslims for a rule they can acknowledge as the fitting one for them, a rule that feels obligated to these peoples and their moral, political, and social concerns, and can therefore rightfully make use of these peoples for its sovereign interests. As a radical advocate of a powerful and respected sovereign right, which hasn’t a chance within the existing relations among the Arab states forcefully supervised by America, he doesn’t question the system but rather calls the imperialistic balance of power into question and lines up against America.

His perception that the Arab peoples are united by the common fate of political humiliation is shared by many. Yet he doesn’t leave it at propagating his political idea, but campaigns for what in his view is the real duty of Arab-Islamic states: to take up the fight against their enemy, America the world power, by all available means. Since in his view the majority of Arab leaders are failures, he organizes resistance on his own responsibility against the country of origin of the unjust conditions. He knows that he is critically lacking in power; but also that he isn’t totally powerless, what with all his fighters prepared to sacrifice. Therefore he tries to be a guiding beacon.

So he makes his stand with the unyielding self-righteousness of a convinced nationalist, who feels authorized to use force against his foreign opponents because he discerns in their power an offense against his own good cause. For his revolt against America’s world order, he takes the same ‘arguments’ into account as does America for its defense: the very highest national right, God, and the power he is able and willing to use:

  • While the U.S. claims the Middle East as its strategic forefront and the local sovereigns as proconsuls of its interest, he confronts American world power politics with his idea of an Islamic nation that doesn’t need to bow to foreign demands but sovereignly sees to its own justified interests in the world.
  • While the U.S. as the guardian of the world order reserves for itself the political and military control of the region’s most important raw material, which global capitalist business depends on, he lays claim to these resources as the birthright of Arab peoples and accuses America of robbery.
  • While the U.S,. as protector of the state of Israel, supports its fight against Palestinian claims to the ‘Jewish Promised Land,’ he upholds the Palestinians’ right to ‘their own country.’
  • Wherever in the Middle East the U.S. asserts its rights as a world power, he charges America with infringing on the holy rights of Muslims.
  • While ‘innocent victims’ are taken by the U.S. as a proof of a crime against a good America, which must be punished with ruthless military force, he proves America’s criminal intention to destroy the Muslim community by citing the numerous victims of American terror; against which it is only right and proper to fight with all possible force.
  • While the U.S. with its world power interests defends the “fundamental values of civilization” and wages a “just war” in the name of “infinite justice” or “enduring freedom,” he calls for a “holy war” against America in the name of Islamic values treated with contempt.
  • While America deploys all its civilian and military capabilities for enforcing its world order, he considers violent resistance in order to show off his notions of a just world order to advantage. The fact that his capabilities cannot compete with America’s constitutes the difference between war and a terrorist substitute for war.
  • While the U.S. president announces America’s unconditional fight against its enemies in the name of the Most High — “And now the Taliban will pay a price. … there can be no peace in a world of sudden terror. In the face of today’s new threat, the only way to pursue peace is to pursue those who threaten it. … We ask a lot of those who wear our uniform. We ask them to leave their loved ones, to travel great distances, to risk injury, even to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. … We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail. … May God continue to bless America.” (George Bush, Address to the Nation, October 7, 2001) — bin Laden cites his god who approves of the merciless fight against America and blesses the self-sacrificing fighters. As is so customary with declarations of war.

Of course, the all-decisive difference between him and Bush remains. One of them is president of a world power and thereby has the power at his disposal to turn its legal demands on the world of states into an acknowledged world order; but the other one has nothing to back up the national rights he claims apart from a few fighters and the powerless toleration of the Taliban.

The Taliban

have been chosen as enemies by the United States. The guys governing in Kabul were not even given the opportunity to make diplomatic gestures towards the American antiterror program. They were given an ultimatum to hand over bin Laden, break up his network, and for this purpose to provide the U.S. with military access to their country — in other words to resign. Their refusal to respond to the ultimatum is taken as proof of their being in cahoots with America’s chief enemy and therefore that enemies of America are in power in Kabul. To American eyes, the Taliban government is guilty of the crime of attacking America. So war is inflicted on the country just as if it were a matter of a state that rebelled against America’s hegemony.

Yet the course of the war reveals if nothing else that this rule really does not fit such a ‘definition.’ After a few days already, the bombers have reportedly run out of worthwhile targets. The country cannot be “bombed back to the Stone Age,” as observers report it has already been in this condition for ages. It possesses no war machinery, only a bunch of fighters with nothing comparable on the ground to oppose America militarily, and at best is able to mount a guerrilla war in rough terrain, as its abrupt collapse makes clear. One cannot discern the calculations of a powerful state that could forcefully be made to see ‘reason.’ And the people let the events of war wash over them more or less without taking part, or take flight, because they have nothing to lose besides their lives. One cannot speak at all of a well-ordered political system that confronts the American world order with all its might.

In other words, the Taliban do not exercise at all any consolidated rule that is enforced and recognized throughout the country, and aims at having influence in the world of states or seizing this or that source of wealth for the nation. Since their conquest of most of the country, they have been completely occupied with imposing their Islamic moral law on the masses, educating and urging them to obedience and strict morality in the name of the Most High:

“The Taliban movement has come into being in order to do away with chaos, cruelty, murder, destruction, looting, robbery, adultery, and everything evil. Their goal is to implement Islamic law,” so runs a declaration of May 1996. … As a result of the fighting, all sorts of evil has been eradicated; the declaration names cruelty, murder, robbery, singing, and music, television, video, satellite antennas, unchastity — they mean clothing that doesn’t conform to Taliban specifications — women going out without being accompanied by a nonmarriageable male relative, shaving one’s beard completely or partly, pictures and photography, and paying interest.

The Taliban do not seem to be pursuing any program for exporting their notion of Islam. … Foreign policy principles cannot easily be gathered from the statement. Opponents of the regime are more likely to be seen in the region itself (especially concerning the former Mujahedeen regime.) The treatise contains no calls for attacks on Western countries or institutions. … The Taliban cannot be compared with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian ayatollahs and other … Islamic trends. So they didn’t found an Islamic republic, but in fact an emirate. Their cultural background is rural, regional, anti-urban. (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, September 17, 2001)

The religious warriors who took power in Afghanistan have dedicated themselves to the idea of a religious national community that is united in common prayers and obeying the strict rules of a pious life under the direction of their religious leaders, and otherwise ekes out its just existence in its wretched circumstances. That’s all there is to their entire program for an Afghan rule that is to unite the population across all tribal and clan relations. Admittedly, they have found a threat to the masses’ conduct of a strict moral life in the Western mores and customs that have penetrated their country, from which the population must be protected by prohibitions and force. Nevertheless, this education of the people enforced with moral precepts and punishment is no declaration of war against the West, but amounts in practice to a withdrawal, to a confinement and sealing off from influences of a morally depraved world deemed harmful. Quite a fine fight against America, a fight that seeks nothing more than to protect the country’s poverty-stricken masses from false influences and encourage them to live a modest life in their own miserable conditions and according to their own moral code.

Even with all their ‘antiquated religious fanaticism’ complained about by enlightened military experts, the Taliban don’t mess up things much in the country. In fact, considerations for state ‘structures’ or any relations whatsoever in which the population works for the benefit of its rule are superfluous. They do not exist. What there are, or were, in the way of basic living conditions are not and were not organized by the state, and as miserable as they may have been, are thoroughly ruined. The Islamic moral terror the Taliban inflict on the country is for that reason the only uniting bond of their rule, however far their power actually reaches. So it is certainly no foundation on which any national power worth mentioning could be established and developed. As a consequence, the power the Koran scholars can wield domestically is more than limited, a fact that has not remained hidden from experts and enthusiasts of a democratic state:

“They have never tried to restore the machinery of state. Strictly speaking there is actually no administration at all. The administration of sovereign tasks by the Taliban is essentially limited to the vice squad, collecting tariffs, and Sharia criminal justice. … One shouldn’t confuse the system with a bureaucratic police state or a dictatorship in the usual sense.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, September 21, 2001)

And the Taliban regime does not challenge any established imperialistic interest outside the country either. That is, it withdraws the country from no established rights of utilization, challenges no foreign business nor further-reaching influence that would be financially established in the country and that the regime lives off. All this does not exist; and offers to tap the country economically are not in sight. The much-cited pipeline project, by which the U.S. intends to ensure control over the flow of oil, requires Afghanistan simply as a transit country, if at all. By the way, the fighters for Allah have simply enough to do establishing their moral code in the country and prevailing with their limited instruments of power against the competing tribal leaders and warlords of the Northern Alliance, who offer them permanent war.

As a consequence, the ‘Koran scholars’ inherently maintain a stance of indifference towards the main imperialist powers and their subalterns. That is why devotees of cosmopolitan relations of subordination accuse them of “self-isolation” as their worst transgression:

“Pakistan’s pupils, by the military support of which Islamabad hoped to secure Pashtun influence in Kabul in the long run, quickly grew up, more and more ruthlessly pursued the aim of establishing a “pure” theocracy, and rapidly isolated themselves from the rest of the world by their puritanically retrogressive interpretation of the Koran.” (Neue Züricher Zeitung, October 20, 2001)

In wielding power at home, however, the Taliban get the message that their sort of jihad is an international affair all the same because — not only — the neighboring states are competing for influence in their country. So they have become the object of positive (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia) and negative (Iran, the C.I.S. republics, Russia) foreign calculations. The support and obstruction of their domestic struggle that they thereby experience leads them on their part to try and obtain aid from foreign states and at least the recognition and toleration of the ‘international community.’ For this they would allegedly even have been prepared to eliminate their most important source of income, the opium trade. They tried in vain, the recognition by and large failed to materialize; but they haven’t been impressed by any of this. Ultimately, they have no motive whatsoever to calculatingly relativize their moral conception of rule to any established relations, nor to prepare themselves appropriately and decidedly for their intended role as nothing but a strategic backcourt for foreign powers. Conversely, they don’t approach foreign countries with their own demands beyond their desire that their doings be recognized as legitimate:

“Until his arrival the Taliban leadership had not been particularly antagonistic to the USA or the West but demanded recognition for their government.” (A. Raschid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 139)

So on the whole, the Taliban are a rather insignificant legacy in world politics of America’s vigorously promoted campaign against the former Soviet Union’s attempt to establish a rule in Afghanistan that would amount to something more than just an unpredictable system of tribes and clans by having a centralized command over a people the Soviet Union could influence and rely on. As is widely known, the U.S. considered it worthwhile to aid and arm a domestic opponent in order to torpedo this endeavor the Russians violently pursued against all sorts of resistance. The anti-Soviet operation was successful, so that, instead of the Russian plan to establish something like a proper statehood, the Taliban’s program of a self-sufficient religious rule eventually gained the upper hand in a permanently destroyed country.

Precisely this combination of religious rigor, abstinence from world politics, and a shattered state are what makes Afghanistan interesting for those who declared war on the U.S. in the name of an ideal Islamic or pan-Arab nation. Their native countries either now take a positive stance towards the U.S. and hence treat anti-American resistance as their own domestic security problem; or see themselves threatened by the U.S. as a ‘rogue state’ and placed under its special surveillance and control. Except for Afghanistan. That qualifies the country as a refuge for combat-ready Islamic nationalists who are no longer tolerated in their homelands due to national calculations. The Taliban receive them as allies in the name of a common faith, particularly if they come with weapons and fighters to stand at their side against internal Afghan enemies. After all, the Taliban have been allies of bin Laden and other international Islamic brothers-in-arms since the days of their common fight against the Soviet occupation — thus this too is a legacy of the American-sponsored war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, as the public has critically made note of, accusing the U.S. of not having its imperialistic instruments under proper control. Now that these fighters have turned against the American world power the former Afghan “freedom-fighters” have morphed into “global terrorism.” And by that the ‘Taliban regime’ gets the status of a ‘refuge of terrorism.’

Not until the American response to bin Laden’s active anti-Americanism has the Taliban, which governs after a fashion and is not capable of nor interested in attacking America, gotten the dubious honor of being elevated to the status of a veritable national leadership that violates the world order and its generally acknowledged dictates, having thus merited nothing else but war. The world power defines it as a hostile ‘rogue’ state, as if it, as in the Serbia of Milošević or in Iraq, had under its control a consolidated political and military power that had to be crushed because it was used improperly. For Washington intends to set an example with its superior use of force: all who grant asylum to its enemies are treated true to the motto, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them” (George Bush, Address to the Nation, September 11, 2001), like a hostile state that the concentrated military might of America puts an end to; if they haven’t yet gotten this far, so much the worse for them.

© GegenStandpunkt 2007