On the War in Afghanistan

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Stephen R. Shalom

ZNet, January 2002

Shalom: The war in Afghanistan, which policymakers reliably believed might lead to a humanitarian catastrophe, would have been immoral even if there were no plausible alternatives. Nevertheless you and other war critics have frequently been asked about alternatives and I’d like to explore your answers to elaborate and clarify them.

You’ve drawn attention to the fact that the United States dismissed Taliban offers to turn over bin Laden to a third party for trial. Clearly the U.S. sought nothing less than war. But that doesn’t show that there were genuinely peaceful alternatives to war. If the Taliban had given up bin Laden, it probably would have been related to the fact that Washington moved a massive military force to Afghanistan’s borders. While the U.S. rejection of peace overtures demonstrates Washington’s preference for war, it does not show that the absence of coercive power would have succeeded in bringing the perpetrators of September 11 to justice. (And the same follows for other cases where the U.S. rejected concessions designed to forestall war: by Saddam Hussein in 1990- 91 or by Serbia in 1999.)

None of this makes these wars just, but it does raise the question whether pacific means can adequately combat terrorism (or, more accurately, some terrorism, since the U.S. “war on terrorism” is only aimed at the terrorism of enemies, not of allies, nor of Washington itself).

: These and what follows are hard questions, and merit careful thought. I’ll try to run through them step by step, expressing some qualms and not so much trying to give answers as outlining some ways in which we might proceed in the search for answers.

Perhaps it’s useful to begin by reiterating two obvious but important points, just as framework:

(1) If we propose some principle that is to be applied to antagonists, then we must agree — in fact, strenuously insist — that the principle apply to us as well.

(2) While we should certainly seek to reach our own considered judgments about questions of fact, we must recognize that it is a very long step between our opinions, however convincing we find them, and proposals for action. That step requires argument — substantial argument when the actions proposed have large-scale human consequences: bombing some country, for example.

With this as background, let’s turn to the very important issues brought up in the questions.

First, suppose someone were to pose the question: were there “genuinely peaceful alternatives to war”? Before addressing the question, we would clearly have to consider whether it is properly formulated. As put, it seems to presuppose that if peaceful means failed, the US would be entitled to resort to war to gain its ends — in this case, killing or capturing suspected perpetrators of the crimes of Sept. 11 and those associated with them. But both of us reject the assumption that the US had a right to resort to war. As you point out at the outset, war under the actual circumstances “would have been immoral even if there were no plausible alternatives.” Suppose, however, that someone does accept the assumption, and therefore poses the question, as formulated. Here point (1) arises: do we accept the assumption when it applies to us? Do we agree that Nicaragua or Cuba or Haiti or (it’s easy to continue) have had the right to resort to massive violence to kill or capture suspected perpetrators of crimes committed against them who are protected from extradition within the US? Crimes that easily compare to Sept. 11, unfortunately.

The case of Nicaragua is particularly clear, and in fact uncontroversial because of the judgment of the World Court and the (vetoed) Security Council resolutions supporting it. But take a lesser case, lesser in that those charged with for terrorism are not U.S. leaders (among them, those now conducting the second “war against terrorism” that Washington has declared in the past 20 years), but rather are just harbored by the US. History doesn’t offer controlled experiments, but these cases — there are several — are rather close to the one under discussion.

Take Haiti. The U.S. is refusing extradition of Emmanuel Constant, the leader of the paramilitary forces that were responsible for thousands of brutal killings in the early 1990s under the military junta for which the Bush #1 and Clinton administrations were providing not-such-hidden support. Constant’s guilt is hardly in doubt. He was sentenced in absentia by a Haitian court. The elected government has repeatedly called on the U.S. to extradite him, again on September 30, 2001, on the anniversary of the military coup. The request is refused, probably because of concerns about what he might reveal about ties to the U.S. government during the period of the terror, which was not slight: relative to population, it is as if some foreign state, say Iraq, were supporting terrorist forces in the U.S. that had murdered hundreds of thousands of people among other terrible atrocities. The request for extradition is not merely refused, but ignored, scarcely even reported, right in the midst of the furor about the killing of thousands of Americans by suspects harbored by the Taliban. Do we then conclude that Haiti had no “genuine peaceful alternative to war”? And since it does not have the capacity for war against the U.S., that it had no alternative to the resort to other means, perhaps bioterror, or blowing up buildings, maybe small nuclear weapons which could perhaps be smuggled into the U.S.? None of us would ever accept such conclusions in this case, or much more extreme ones like it. Should we, then, accept the conclusion in the case at hand? That would seem to be a prima facie violation of the principle (1).

Let’s put that aside, and accept what is often the tacit assumption, that the U.S. had the right to resort to the threat or use of violence if there was no “genuine alternative,” that is, no other way to compel the Taliban to turn over bin Laden and his associates. We now turn to the factual question: was there an alternative? Here too there is a preliminary problem — on which I’m sure we agree, but it’s perhaps worth bringing up anyway, just for clarity. There is a procedure for extradition. The first step is to present compelling evidence against the suspect. Here the situation is quite different from Haiti, or the contra war, or Operation Mongoose and subsequent terror against Cuba carried out from the U.S.; and many cases like it in which the evidence was clear and uncontroversial. Maybe the U.S. had compelling evidence about bin Laden, maybe not. But it flatly refused to present any evidence to the Taliban, in fact, refused even to request extradition, presumably because that would have suggested some limit on the imperial prerogative to act without any authority. The demand was: hand him over, or else; and if you do, we may leave you alone (overthrowing the Taliban regime was a late afterthought). No government, surely not the U.S., would ever accept such a demand, unless compelled to by the threat of extreme violence. There was, then, no alternative to such threat, if that was the demand, as it was. But that offers no justification for the threat of violence, or its implementation.

Putting aside that issue, would the Taliban have turned over bin Laden and others without the threat of violence? My own judgment is much like yours: highly unlikely. But we do not really know, since no efforts were made, and various Taliban offers, however ambiguous, were summarily dismissed. Similar questions arise for earlier years. But even if we are confident of our judgment, principle (2) arises. There are no consequences, unless we fill in, somehow, a missing chain of argument. That doesn’t seem easy.

I think similar considerations arise in the case of Saddam Hussein. The great fear of the Bush #1 administration in August 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, was that in “the next few days Iraq will withdraw,” leaving “his puppet in,” and “everyone in the Arab world will be happy” (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell). That is, Saddam would do pretty much what the U.S. had just done in Panama, except that Latin America was far from happy. Were those expectations accurate? Were Saddam’s subsequent offers of negotiated withdrawal from August to early January 1991 real? We can’t know, because they were rejected outright and scarcely even reported. It’s reasonable to argue that, if real, the offers were based on the likelihood that massive force would be used. But that brings up (2) once again, and unless the missing chain of argument can be supplied, the most we can conclude is that threats issued through the Security Council, to counter aggression, are legitimate. That much seems to me correct.

Similarly, in the case of Serbia, one can debate whether something like the agreement of June 1999 — a compromise between the Serbian and NATO stands on the eve of the bombing — could have been reached by diplomatic means, without 78 days of bombing. We don’t know, for the same reasons. What about the need for the threat of force? Here the situation is complex. We have to explore what was happening up to late March 1999, not a simple story. For example, we should take note of the fact that the British, the most hawkish element of the U.S.-run coalition, attributed most of the atrocities in Kosovo to the KLA guerrillas as late as January 1999 (which seems inconceivable, but that was their judgment), and there is extensive evidence that nothing much changed afterwards. That there was severe Serbian repression and atrocities, for many years, is not in doubt, but overcoming it was not a concern for the West — one reason why Albanians resorted to violence, putting the issue on the agenda finally, by 1998. That does raise a question about the efficacy of violence, though not the one posed in the question: it raises the question of the legitimacy of terrorist violence (as the U.S. and Britain termed KLA actions, up to the time when they began to support them).

Shalom: The proper procedure for dealing with terrorism is to present evidence to the appropriate international bodies and allow them to act according to the dictates of international law. This, you’ve noted, was the approach followed by Nicaragua in response to U.S. terror attacks in the 1980s, though Nicaragua was denied justice by U.S. obstructionism. U.S. hypocrisy is thus evident — but the further implications of the Nicaragua example are not clear. Should we generally urge the U.S. (and others) to go to the UN, or does the UN’s inability to deal with U.S. terrorism discredit it as a venue for justice?

To be sure, if the U.S. had chosen to make its illegal actions legal by going through the UN, this wouldn’t guarantee that the actions would have been just. Actions can be legal and not be just. Putting the population of Afghanistan at risk of mass starvation would not be just whether authorized by the UN or not. But are there any enforcement actions that the UN might have taken in response to September 11 that would have been both legal and just?

Chomsky: It’s true enough that the UN cannot act without authorization of the great powers, primarily the US. For example, the UN could never even take up the US wars in Indochina, because it was understood that if it did, the organization would simply be dismantled. Similarly, the UN could do very little — though it could have done more than it did — when the US rejected the World Court and Security Council judgments on its terrorist war against Nicaragua. But does that discredit the UN “as a venue for justice”? I don’t think that’s quite the proper way to put the conclusion. There’s little doubt that the Nuremberg Tribunal was a case of “victor’s justice.” Even the chief prosecutor conceded that, pretty frankly. But despite the hypocrisy, I don’t think it was wrong to try and convict the Nazi war criminals. Criminal justice systems are invariably unjust, unfortunately. But that is not enough to disqualify them, in the world as it exists. We can try to change that world, surely, but we have to make choices and reach decisions within it. If the US had chosen to follow the course required by treaty obligations and international law, there would have been no impediment.

But that brings up the second question, which is quite pertinent. There’s little doubt that the Security Council would have authorized U.S. actions, had the U.S. not preferred to act without any such authorization, presumably in order to establish firmly that there is no outside authority to which it must defer — a very natural stance for a system of overwhelming power. But that would not have made the actions right and just; only legal, a different matter, as you point out. Were there actions that would have been right and just? Here’s one possibility, so far from a radical stance that it was proposed by the Vatican and many others, and even in the leading establishment journal, Foreign Affairs (Jan 2002), by the preeminent Anglo-American military historian, the very conservative Michael Howard: “a police operation conducted under the auspices of the United Nations…against a criminal conspiracy whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court, where they would receive a fair trial and, if found guilty, be awarded an appropriate sentence” (I’m putting aside his remarkable judgments about other matters, here irrelevant). That seems a reasonable procedure, though it was never so much as contemplated. If so, in accord with principle (1), it would be reasonable if applied to the U.S. as well — though that cannot happen short of substantial changes internal to the U.S.; our responsibility.

Shalom: One alternative you’ve discussed is supporting indigenous forces which might have ousted the oppressive Taliban. Quoting Afghan voices, you noted that opposition elements wanted support from the outside, but no U.S. bombing. But were these oppositionists really in position to defeat the Taliban without external military action? RAWA called for an uprising of the Afghan people — but calling for it doesn’t make it a reality, given who’s got the guns, and other RAWA suggestions seem to acknowledge as much. Sonali Kolhatkar has reported on ZNet that RAWA and others “have proposed for years and which has been completely ignored — the intervention of a UN peace keeping force — one which will disarm all the armed factions in Afghanistan and set the stage, as it did in East Timor (no thanks to the US which was actively selling arms to Indonesia to continue their massacres of Timorese),” for democratic rule in Afghanistan. Foreign arms supplies to Afghan factions seemed not to be aiding an “uprising of the Afghan people,” but instead strengthening one anti- democratic warlord or another. Hence the question of whether the elimination of the Taliban might have required some form of international action. (A similar question applies in the case of Iraq. While it’s clear that the U.S. refusal to back Kurdish and Shi’ite insurgents in March 1991 allowed Saddam to remain in power, by the mid-1990s Iraqi opposition forces were no match for Saddam’s repressive apparatus. As Andrew and Patrick Cockburn have recorded [Out of the Ashes], the U.S. supported various opposition groups who failed miserably in their efforts to depose Saddam.)

Chomsky: Let’s begin by recalling principle (2): we can reach our own judgments about this, but they have no force, unless a long chain of missing argument is filled in somehow.

That aside, were the proposals of Afghans as to how to eliminate the Taliban regime feasible? First, it wasn’t just RAWA. Similar proposals were made by the U.S. favorite, Abdul Haq, who also condemned the bombing as harmful to the efforts by him and others to dismantle the regime from inside, charging that the U.S. undertook the bombing just as a way to demonstrate that it runs the world by force. Even more striking was the endorsement of a similar position in late October in a meeting of 1,000 Afghan leaders — some who came from within Afghanistan, some in exile — that was, for once, reported. The New York Times described the meetings as “a rare display of unity among tribal elders, Islamic scholars, fractious politicians, and former guerrilla commanders.” There was indeed unity on some things, not others: they were unanimous in condemning the bombings, then going into their fourth week, and called for other ways to overthrow the Taliban, rather like RAWA and Abdul Haq. Similar assessments have also been suggested by specialists on Afghanistan, e.g., Pankaj Mishra, in the New York Review (Jan 17, 2002, dated Dec. 20), who is judging in retrospect.

The Afghan proposals seem to me reasonable too, for what it’s worth. But it’s not worth much, for one reason because I don’t know enough to have a confident judgment. In any event, I do not see how to fill in the chain of argument required to establish the conclusion that these are matters to be decided by Washington, or by U.S. and British commentators, rather than by Afghans.

On Iraq, it seems to me as well that the chances of a popular uprising were dim after the U.S. undermined the rebellions of March 1991, preferring Saddam’s “iron fist” and “stability” to the likely outcome of popular rebellions (as the New York Times and others pointed out, honestly). I’d be cautious, however, about U.S. support for opposition groups; that’s not exactly their report. But whatever the judgments we reach, the same questions arise. Indigenous elements have priority in the choice of action — though it is not determinative; no particular factor ever is. If there is a serious proposal as to how to overthrow Saddam, we should surely want to consider it. He remains as much of a monster as he was when the U.S. and Britain strongly supported him. But it’s impossible to discuss in the abstract. We have to consider particular proposals.

These are sound and appropriate questions. Sometimes they have clear answers; specifically, when we are perpetrating crimes or share responsibility for crimes, not a small category by any means, and a category that is not permitted to enter the arena of mainstream discussion, for understandable reasons. In other cases, the questions typically do not have easy answers. Sometimes we may not be able to conjure up any reasonable answer. There is surely not going to be any general formula for such cases, though there are simple principles that provide at least some guidelines.