For some days after the al-Qaeda attacks of “9/11” I was among the Red Cross volunteers assisting some 8,000 passengers and crew from 40 aircraft diverted to Halifax. It was the start of a brief time of heady opportunity, with America’s allies pulling together, and even its enemies acknowledging that the barbaric attacks were a step too far. Reflecting on the United States’ recent surrender to the Taliban, I’ll share something I wrote twenty years ago to a student at Pakistan’s Quaid-e-Azam University where I’d spoken some months earlier. “What do you think of the current Afghanistan imbroglio?” he had emailed. I think much of my lengthy reply has stood the test of time – but with one glaring and deeply disturbing exception near the end. I’ll leave you to judge.
Subject: Events in Afghanistan
Date: Mon, 08 Oct 2001
I began composing this reply last night and awoke this morning to hear the news of the first strikes in Afghanistan. That development has not changed my views at all and I am pleased to share my personal impressions with you. They are mine alone and do not reflect any official positions. I offer them in the spirit of the open debate which we value and terrorists oppose.
This is, indeed a crisis, but what is history but a succession of crises? This too will pass, and in our old age we will tell stories about it to our grandchildren. I believe that crisis is a time to seize opportunities rather than brood over dangers. In this case, we have a golden opportunity to challenge the pervasive and dangerous idea that international relations should be viewed through the lens of the “West Versus the Rest” thesis. It is also an opportunity to improve mutual understanding. Let us, therefore, challenge some prevalent myths.
Myth # 1 – The 11th of September was an attack against the United States:
In fact, citizens of about 50 countries were killed, including approximately 30 Canadians (we still don’t know the final total), I believe that about 650 Pakistanis were-working in the World Trade Centre at the time (although I don’t know if any were killed) so it was an attack against you too. The modem world is, indeed, a “global village”. No matter what contorted logic was going through the minds of the attackers, this was an assault against the entire global family.
Myth # 2 – The attackers were Muslim and Arab:
In my view, it is an insult to the principles of Islam and the honour of the Arab people to describe the attackers (and those still alive who instigated and funded them) as either Muslims or Arabs. Islam is based firmly on principles of social justice. A bloody criminal act of mass murder is an insult to Islam and a disgrace to the honour of the Arab people. If fatwahs are to be declared, they should be against the minority which has shamed the principles of the Faith and the honour of their parents.
Myth # 3 – Response to the September 11th is an attack on Islam and should be opposed:
Following that logic, if someone breaks into my home, murders my son or rapes my daughter, no devout Muslim should help me to defend myself as long as the attacker claims that he is Muslim and I am not. That is surely a gross perversion of the message of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.). The anti-terrorist campaign is not against Muslims. It is against murderers whose distorted logic threatens all who view humanity as a common family and wish their children to live together in peace, security and justice.
Myth # 4 – The response is an attack on the Afghan people:
As far as I know, none of the hijackers were Afghans. The fact that the present regime harboured or supported these foreigners and brought the wrath of the world upon itself as a result is another stark example of how the ordinary people of Afghanistan were victims of their own regime and foreigners like Osama long before today. They have already endured more than they are likely to suffer from a focused, disciplined campaign against their oppressors, combined with the continuing attempts to provide them with humanitarian relief.
Myth # 5 – Although September 11th was terrible, the US had to expect it:
I hear a lot of this “root causes” argument. What nonsense! Certainly liberal democracies are less than perfect because they are human institutions. But it defies all moral proportion to suggest that our faults justify the murder of 5,000 innocent civilians from 50 nations who were guilty of nothing more than going about their daily lives. [The number was the best estimate at the time. It later proved to be closer to 3,000 dead.] I may have suffered some injustices in my life, but that doesn’t give me a licence to kill. The USA, for all its faults, has also contributed more aid to the people of Afghanistan than any other donor. Nothing justifies mass murder or appeasing its perpetrators.
Myth # 6 – Osama bin Laden and the Taliban say that they are not responsible:
If someone breeds and trains vicious dogs, he cannot plead innocence when those same animals attack innocent people, whether he unleashes them deliberately or they escape and act alone. Only cowards deny responsibility for their actions when they are about to bear the consequences.
Myth # 7 – Bringing full military weight of a coalition to bear on the Taliban and Osama is disproportionate:
The terrorists chose to turn their backs on the way of honourable warriors and the internationally accepted norms and laws of armed conflict. They are, therefore, outlaws by definition. There is no honour in the mass murder of innocent civilians and they can scarcely complain at the consequences of that decision. Make no mistake, this is not blind and angry vengeance by the US, NATO or anyone else. It is deliberate, calculated determination by like-minded societies to do whatever is necessary to enforce international standards of justice and humanity. Sadly, in the chaos of conflict, accidents will happen and sane innocent people may be caught in the cross-fire. But as a former military planner I know very well that extraordinary efforts are being made to minimize civilian casualties and to conform to the principles of proportionality, distinction, military necessity, humanity and non-discrimination. That is more than we can say for the terrorists or the Taliban.
Myth # 8 – The democracies are not tough enough to sustain a long campaign:
No one should underestimate the strength of democracies once they embrace a cause. It has taken a month before the first shots were fired because democracies must first reach internal consensus and take the time necessary for initial passions to transform themselves into stern and disciplined resolve. Once that is done, free and united citizens become a formidable foe. Those who murder for their views should not look at Vietnam or Somalia (or even the Russian campaign in Afghanistan) for encouragement. They should look instead at the example of World War Two, especially because more Americans died on September 11th than at Pearl Harbour in 1941. They would do well to remember the assessment of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto who commanded that attack. “I fear” he said, “that the only thing we have accomplished is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”. In the early years of this century, Edward Grey said to Winston Churchill that the United States is like “a gigantic boiler, Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” That hasn’t changed, and it applies to all of us. This campaign will be as long as it takes to succeed.
We must all choose where we stand on principles of justice and diversity. We must also decide in which century we want to live. I suspect that most educated and reasonable people (in Pakistan and Afghanistan as much as in Canada, the US and elsewhere) choose the 21st century and wish to strive toward the common benefit of our global community. These ideals include working together to fight poverty and injustice instead of each other; using technology for the betterment of all and not a means of mass murder; and enabling all people to practice the religion and culture of their choice, not whatever is imposed on them by people of violence. Such a world requires a common commitment to the ideals of moderation, tolerance and respect for the rule of law. Those ideals came under attack on September 11th. The perpetrators are people who choose to live with their minds in the medieval world but their hands on modern technology that can destroy us all. That is a dangerous combination that cannot be allowed to stand.
Clearly I was glaringly wrong about Myth #8. Despite spending almost 40% of the world’s military budget, the United States has, once again, ceded victory to its foes. The retreat from Kabul echoes Vietnam (1975), Beirut (1984) and Mogadishu (1994), not to mention the fiasco of Iraq. In fairness, all that military might has produced one clear strategic victory during the past 75 years – over the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983.
That Myth #8 has proved to be true, at least in the case of the most militarily powerful of the democracies, should be triggering serious soul-searching among all of us. In 1945 the drafters of UNESCO’s Constitution observed that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” The principle, if not the archaic gendered choice of words, remains true.