How did we get from Manhattan to Kabul?

What has the West's war in Afghanistan got to do with 11 September?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Suddenly, it seems, all of the doubts about the war in Afghanistan are supposed to have disappeared. Since the Taliban fled Kabul, we have been told that the American strategy has been ‘spectacularly vindicated’. What’s more, after the trauma of 11 September, we are assured that the USA and the rest of the West have emerged stronger and more united.

Not quite. Helping the Northern Alliance and other Afghan factions to chase away the Taliban is one thing. Many have rightly noted that it will be much more difficult to sort out the subsequent chaos in Afghanistan. More strikingly, the war has done nothing to ‘sort out’ the problems of fear, insecurity, fragmentation and alienation within American and Western societies – which was the primary aim of Washington’s response to 11 September.

It beggars belief to suggest that the defeat of the Taliban now vindicates Western strategy. We at spiked opposed this war, but we never doubted that the power of the US-led coalition could blow away a ragtag, stateless force like the Taliban, which eventually left Kabul the same way it entered the city in 1996 – without a fight. The only serious doubts seemed to exist in the minds of Western leaders, whose uncertainty about their own authority found reflection in the continual overestimation of the opposition, and reluctance to take decisive military action themselves.

The short-term military outcome within Afghanistan may not have been in much doubt. But important doubts remain regarding broader political questions. For instance:

Exactly what ‘strategy’ is it that has been vindicated? From the start, the American-led intervention in Afghanistan has appeared aimless and confused, uncertain about any clear, strategic goals.

What has any of this to do with 11 September? After all, the terrorists who attacked New York and Washington did not come from Afghanistan; they were largely made in the West. How did we get from the destruction in Manhattan to the bombing of Kabul and Kandahar and the Balkanisation of Afghanistan?

How has the West been strengthened by this experience? For now, US president George W Bush is riding high in the polls, and UK prime minister Tony Blair can strut about the world stage playing his favourite game of building other people’s nations. But beyond that, the crisis has confirmed rather than resolved the problems that lie barely beneath the surface of our societies: the elite’s loss of nerve; the uncertainty about what we stand for; the inability to hold the line or act decisively; the all-consuming atmosphere of fear and confusion.

Remember how all of this began, after the devastating terrorist attacks of 11 September, with a disoriented President Bush emerging from his bunker first to swear that America would get ‘those folks’ responsible, and then to announce that the USA was ‘at war’ with persons unknown. The unusual step of first declaring war, and then looking for somebody to fight a war against, set the tone for a campaign where war aims seem to have been made up as we go along, with the script being repeatedly rewritten.

Osama bin Laden, said to be the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, was soon put in the frame, followed by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, after it refused Anglo-American demands to arrest and extradite bin Laden on the basis of evidence that it was not allowed to see. (This always seemed one of the Taliban’s more reasonable attitudes.) But even once the war against the Taliban had begun, American policy still appeared inconsistent and lacking direction.

Josie Appleton has already detailed the many shifts in the coalition’s attitude towards the Northern Alliance and the issue of nation-building in Afghanistan (1). It was as if, after four weeks of indecision following 11 September, the US and UK governments finally tried to appear decisive by beginning the bombing, and then declared a war to overthrow the Taliban as justification for the action.

Even then, the main concern of the coalition often seemed to be to limit the damaging propaganda consequences of the military action. Western leaders were at such pains to explain who they were not at war with – the Islamic world, the Afghan people – that the question of what they were fighting for remained unclear. Instead we were treated to the spectacle of battle-hardened US commanders talking like cultural studies professors, explaining to a bemused media that the war was against ‘a concept’ rather than a country.

The lack of strategic clarity about how they got into this war, and how they might get out of it, led many in the West to exaggerate the logistical difficulties of the campaign and to reinvent their opponents as a major force. Even the day before the Taliban regime collapsed, the talk among Western war leaders was of the Northern Alliance and US airforce keeping the Taliban pinned down until the spring, when a proper offensive could begin. Since then, they have been desperately playing catch-up as Afghanistan is carved into pieces. Or was a Balkan-style fragmentation of the country part of this spectacularly vindicated strategy all along?

At the time of writing confusion reigns, not only in Kabul and Kandahar, but in Western capitals. One moment we are assured that the net is closing around bin Laden, the next that he has probably escaped. One day the word is that he will be assassinated, the next that he will eventually be brought to trial.

While the American airforce batters the retreating Taliban stragglers from on high, the Bush administration insists that American troops will not go in to reconstruct Afghanistan. A defence department official with responsibility for ‘relief and peacekeeping issues’ says that the dubious forces of the Northern Alliance can be left to provide ‘security’ in the areas it now controls (2).

Tony Blair, meanwhile, has pledged thousands of British troops to an Afghan mission. Blair seems to be the one statesman who believes his rhetoric about rebuilding the world in his own image. There is no reason why the rest of us should join him on such a dangerous crusade.

So much for the great victory in Afghanistan. But remember, changing the clique of warlords atop that ruined country was never supposed to be the goal of the Bush-Blair war on terrorism. It was meant to be an effective response to 11 September. Less than a fortnight after those terrorist attacks, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld outlined Washington’s aims in sweeping terms:

‘The ultimate victory in this war is when everyone who wants to can do what every one of us did today, that is get up, let your children go to school, go out of the house and not in fear, stand here on a sidewalk and not worry about a truck bomb driving into us.’ (3)

From this Western viewpoint, the war has been more of a failure than in Afghanistan. But then, how could it be otherwise? The terrorists who carried out the attacks on America did not come from Kabul. Their zealotry was not forged in the caves of southern Afghanistan. Many of them were effectively made in the West, where they lived and studied and then moved in the circles of contemporary exile politics. Their outlook was arguably shaped more by the experience of identity politics in the West than by Islamic fundamentalism in the East. Their nihilistic fanaticism was moulded in the context of widespread alienation in our societies which, as Michael Fitzpatrick has previously argued on spiked, provides fertile ground for the growth of all manner of irrational fundamentalism (4). No amount of military action in Afghanistan could solve that problem.

Since 11 September, many in the West have been in a kind of denial, refusing fully to face up to the home-grown character of the problem. Instead, the Bush administration took America off to Afghanistan in search, not just of bin Laden, but of itself. It hoped to find a new sense of purpose and mission for both the government and the nation, which could replicate the powerful sense of ‘Manifest Destiny’ with which the USA had entered the twentieth century. In effect, as we suggested on spiked, Bush was seeking to export America’s internal malaise on to Afghan soil, in the same way that his predecessors tried, through the war on drugs, to externalise the crisis of America’s inner cities on to the coca fields of Colombia. Blair rushed to join him in an effort to boost the moral authority of his exhausted-looking government.

This focus on the home front has provided the central aim of the war. It helped to explain why the campaign in Afghanistan itself so often lacked direction; the purpose was to be seen to act decisively in order to galvanise a domestic and global audience, rather than pursuing any clear strategic goals on the ground. And it is by these criteria that the war has most clearly failed.

There have certainly been a lot of flags flying in America since 11 September. But the angry, defensive response to the terrorist outrages should not be mistaken for the confident patriotism of the past (5). If anything, the crisis has left America more fragmented, fearful and inward-looking than ever. The all-pervasive anthrax scare has become a powerful metaphor for the newly globalised culture of fear. Many in America have been far more concerned about acquiring an antidote to the hypothetical possibility of anthrax infection, than about the real issues of how the USA should wage war in Afghanistan. (In Britain, too, it was notable that even when an actual Irish republican bomb went off in Birmingham on 3 November, much of the panic that followed centred on rumours that a white powder had been released.)

Bush’s claim that America has become more united and stronger is refuted by everything from the mountains of unopened mail in the capital of the Western world, to the scenes of heroic firefighters fighting with policemen at Ground Zero, to the national wave of fear and paranoia sparked by the latest tragic plane crash in New York. Post-11 September, many in America complain of feeling permanently ill – perhaps the clearest symptom of how American society as a whole is ailing and vulnerable today.

In recent weeks, we have noted on spiked how a mood of something approaching moral defeatism seemed to have settled over the Western elite. This week’s displays of short-term triumphalism cannot stem the underlying corrosion of self-confidence and authority in the West. Throughout, Washington and Whitehall have remained reluctant to send their forces in to fight a war in which they claimed that our very civilisation was on the line. And there has been no wave of public enthusiasm for signing up to fight, even among the angry youth of America.

The West’s inability to hold the line and fight for its own principles has been a hallmark of this crisis, most clearly illustrated by the desperate attempt to accommodate to Islam. In American cities, many of the ubiquitous Stars-and-Stripes flags were accompanied by signs announcing a ‘Hate-free zone’. This must be the first war in which everybody from governments downwards have considered it illegitimate to hate the enemy (6).

Even for those of us who have been opposed to the war all along, these developments raise troubling questions. As we have noted, what does it say of our society that it cannot offer people anything bigger than themselves that they deem worth fighting and possibly dying for? Indeed, many in the anti-war movement appear to have been infected by the general mood of powerlessness and loss of principle, content with making woolly requests to the government not to do anything hasty (7).

While Afghanistan comes apart again, the West stands revealed as a society that stands for little or nothing, infected by fear and depression, fighting destructive wars by proxy as a form of therapy. As a former UK prime minister said of victory in a another foreign war, don’t ask questions, ‘Just rejoice’.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

Now it is war – but for what?, by Mick Hume

It’s war – but against whom?, by Mick Hume

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) Our boys in Kabul, by Josie Appleton

(2) ‘Allies building force to keep order in a vacuum’, New York Times, 16 November 2001

(3) Cited in the Daily Telegraph, 24 September 2001

(4) Blair’s gospel of despair, by Michael Fitzpatrick

(5) See Fear under the flag, by Helen Searls

(6) See A war that nobody wants to fight, by Mick Hume

(7) See The piece movement, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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