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John Clarke analyses US imperialism in the twenty years since the September 11th terrorist attacks

This 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington will be met with an enormous amount of news coverage and analysis. The great bulk of this will come from the mouthpieces of those who backed and profited from the ‘war on terror’ that was taken up the US and its allies in the wake of 9/11. The legacy of these terrible attacks and the shadow that it casts over the future is, indeed, worthy of very serious consideration but the conclusions to be drawn are at odds with those likely to be formed by the apologists and enablers of global oppression and violence.

The first of these conclusions is that, however politically distanced you may be from Osama bin Laden and his co-thinkers and, however clearly you reject the course of action they took on that day in 2001, those events were entirely linked to the US led agenda of global domination and the strategies that had been pursued in furthering it. George W. Bush would infamously suggest that “they hate us because we love freedom” but this facile assertion is at odds with reality.

The sun may have set on systems of direct colonialism but imperialism still asserts its control over oppressed countries through economic domination, frequent military aggression and unending interference in their political lives. In its rivalry with the Soviet Union, in the 1980s, the US backed the most reactionary elements in Afghanistan and, in so doing, opened a veritable Pandora’s box. Reagan welcomed their representatives at the White House and Hollywood turned them into heroes on the silver screen. Al-Qaeda, specifically, emerged at this time as part of this religiously motivated right wing movement. For Washington, the promotion of rivalries and support for favoured rivals is a pragmatic affair that often leads to unintended results and 9/11 was a particularly horrible manifestation of this.

War of terror

The loss of innocent life that the 9/11 attacks led to is indefensible but there is also no doubt that the response from the US and its allies resulted in death and suffering on a massively greater scale. Moreover, these horrors were inflicted in the interests of strategic objectives and an agenda of economic exploitation that the terrorist attacks provided a pretext for. ‘Operation Enduring Freedom,’ the invasion of Afghanistan, was launched in October of 2001 and it was followed by 20 years of brutal occupation.

In March of 2003, the reach of the retaliatory ‘war on terror’ was extended in an act of imperialist aggression against Iraq. The shameless fabrication of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that was used to justify the invasion of that country have long been exposed and the culpability of George Bush and his war criminal ally Tony Blair are a matter of public record. The blood soaked impact of the West’s endless war spread over much of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

The sheer murderous scale of this armed aggression is staggering. It has been estimated that at least 480,000 have been killed by the direct violence unleashed in the war on terror, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Since September 11, 2001, it is estimated that US airstrikes alone have killed up to 48,000 civilians. The record of the monstrous criminality of US led state terror that followed the toppling of the twin towers is horrific beyond words.

As a response to terrorist attacks on targets in the West, moreover, this enormous escalation of military aggression was far worse than useless. Retaliatory strikes on Western cities predictably intensified. Such attacks and the resulting selective outrage over ‘Islamic terror’ were in turn used to whip up a worsening climate of racism and Islamophobia, directed against immigrant communities. This has fuelled state sponsored initiatives against Muslim people, of which the UK’s Prevent initiative is a particularly sickening example. The orchestrated atmosphere of anti-Muslim hatred has also provoked horrible acts of violence against innocent people.

For all the vast military power and material resources that were deployed in the war on terror and the horrors in has inflicted, the whole undertaking has left a trail of pragmatic shifts and unintended results that are utterly farcical. Over 18 years have gone by since George W. Bush stood on the deck of the  aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and, as the bodies piled high in Iraq, preposterously proclaimed ‘mission accomplished.’ From the vantage point of the present moment, Bush’s bluster couldn’t ring more hollow. In Iraq, at terrible human cost, the bloody invasion led to destabilisation and the rise of Isis. The objectives pursued in that country are in ruins, as even reactionary commentators observe.

The disaster for the architects of the war on terror is most sharply expressed in the recent debacle in Afghanistan. Though there are, of course, major differences, there are also valid comparisons to the defeat the US suffered in Vietnam in the 70s. The unanticipated collapse of the puppet regime in Kabul and the rapid triumph of the Taliban were an absolute humiliation for the Biden Administration. The president’s prediction that no one would be lifted off the embassy roof by helicopter in Afghanistan was mocked, when that very thing happened in the scramble to get out in time. It was, as Boris Johnson put it with unintended humour, “the culmination of a mission unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.”

War threat remains

The post-9/11 war on terror shows us that the US led imperialist alliance is far from invincible. Yet, 20 years after the twin towers fell, the threat it poses is greater than ever. It has been argued that, after 2001, US political leaders forgot the lessons of Vietnam and pursued the course of ‘gradual engagement’ and ‘escalation’ that ended so disastrously in their long war in southeast Asia. The present bitter defeat, however, shouldn’t be taken as any sign that US is about to relinquish its imperialist ambitions.

Biden, who is supposed to represent the restoration of respectable and effective ‘US world leadership’ after the erratic and volatile Trump years, wanted to disengage from Afghanistan and ‘nation building’ projects precisely because the present focus has decisively shifted over to an effort to preserve US hegemony by way of ‘big power rivalry,’ most especially with China. In this regard, the notion is that the US can’t afford to bog down in sustained military occupations of countries it seeks to dominate but will use its vast military power to strike devastatingly from the air and deploy forces on the ground only in short term operations with clear and immediate objectives. This modified form of ‘endless war’ is a recipe for massive and ongoing violence on a global scale.

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, US imperialism and its accomplices remain a terrible threat to world peace. The growth of China’s economic power threatens the dominant position of the US as once the rising strength of the US economy undermined Britain’s leading role. The very fact that US imperialism, with its huge and unrivalled military capacity, is losing ground to its main rival makes it all the more dangerous. The hasty exit from Kabul may speak to the failures of the war on terror but, in 2021, the changed realities of global rivalry make the threat of war and the need to mobilise against it greater than ever.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.