Dear Mr. President: Words of Resistance, Reason, and Peace

The War In Afghanistan:
47 Questions and Answers
By Michael Albert and Stephen R. Shalom

October 14, 2001

In the course of our discussions since the bombing of Afghanistan began, we have encountered certain questions over and over. Here we assemble those questions and provide short answers to each. In some cases we also provide a link or two for additional immediately relevant information or commentary. Much more information can be found via: ZNet's Complete Terrorism & War Coverage. Also, we have ourselves previously offered September 11 Q/A Talking Points and Five Arguments Against War which provide backdrop for this essay.

Click a question below to skip to the answer...

  1. What is Islamic fundamentalism?
  2. What is the attitude in the Arab and Islamic worlds to (a) the Sept. 11 attacks, and (b) the current US war in Afghanistan?
  3. What grievances fuel hatred for the U.S. in the Middle East?
  4. Does trying to understand/explain the grievances of the people of the Middle East constitute excusing bin Laden, excusing terror, softness on fascism, etc.
  5. What is Terrorism?
  6. Are Bin Laden and his network terrorists?
  7. Is the Taliban terrorist?
  8. Is Hamas a terrorist group?
  9. Is the U. S. government terrorist?
  10. Why did the World Trade Center terrorists do it?
  11. What is the legal way of dealing with terrorism?
  12. If all terrorists were pursued through legal channels, what would the international response have been to the September 11 attacks?
  13. If all terrorists were pursued through legal channels, what would be the international response to the embargo of Iraq, the bombing of Kosovo and Serbia, and the bombing of Afghanistan?
  14. Is what the U. S. is doing consistent with a legal approach?
  15. Which nations have been supporting the US war in Afghanistan and why?
  16. What has been the role of the UN in the current war in Afghanistan?
  17. What are the reasons to oppose U.S. bombing of Afghanistan?
  18. But isn't it obvious bin Laden did it?
  19. Is it possible that there is decisive evidence, but that its disclosure would compromise important intelligence gathering capabilities?
  20. But didn't Afghanistan reject out-of-hand US demand to turn over bin Laden?
  21. But can you negotiate with terrorists?
  22. But doesn't the U.S. have the right of self-defense?
  23. But isn't the U. S. getting a vast coalition of support?
  24. What do we think about the Sept. 14th Congressional resolution (passed 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House) authorizing President Bush to use force?
  25. But aren't the targets being bombed in Afghanistan legitimate targets?
  26. But aren't civilian casualties being avoided in Afghanistan?
  27. But aren't U. S. food drops a sincere effort to help the people of Afghanistan?
  28. What about the anti-terrorism bill passed by Congress, isn't that a step in the right direction?
  29. How about the Bush administration's campaign to dry up terrorism's financial networks?
  30. How about supporting the Northern Alliance, doesn't that hold out positive promise for Afghanistan?
  31. How about invading Iraq, won't that be good for Iraqis?
  32. How about increasing U.S. defense and military spending?
  33. How about building a national missile defense system?
  34. How about repealing the executive order prohibiting assassinating foreign leaders?
  35. How about using racial profiling to counter terrorism in the United States?
  36. What is a "war on terrorism," and why is it being elevated as the capstone of U. S. foreign policy?
  37. But what about the role of oil in the current crisis?
  38. So how long will the war in Afghanistan go on?
  39. What dangers will we face in South Asia and the Middle East as a result of the current war?
  40. But won't the "war on terrorism" reduce terrorism, and isn't that worth it?
  41. Wouldn't changing US foreign policy under the threat of terrorism mean that we are giving in to terrorism?
  42. Does the US support a Palestinian state? Should it?
  43. What should the U.S. have done in response to September 11?
  44. What other policies should our government be following to reduce the likelihood of people will undertake terrorist agendas?
  45. The peace movement says "Justice, Not War." But with terrorists, how can justice be achieved without war?
  46. In what ways if any should the peace movement adjust its positions in the light of Sept. 11?
  47. What should be the relation of other movements to the peace movement, and vice versa?

1. What is Islamic fundamentalism?

The term "fundamentalist" is used in a number of different ways. One definition is someone who interprets the texts of his or her religion in a literal way or who adheres to the original, traditional practices and beliefs of the religion. Another definition is someone who is intolerant of the views of other religions or sects. These two definitions often overlap -- traditional religions tend to be authoritarian and misogynist, which lend themselves to intolerance -- but they are not the same. (For example, some pacifist religious sects might be fundamentalist in the first sense, but not the second. ) Every religion has its fundamentalists -- Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and so on -- and some of these engage in terrorism.

Fundamentalists in the second sense have been on the rise worldwide. One reason has been the absence in so much of the Third World of a meaningful Left. Without a left alternative to the oppression and alienation of modern capitalism, many have sought solace in the easy explanations and promises of intolerant religion. Left organizations in many Arab and Muslim nations have either been smashed by right-wing forces (often backed by the major Western states) or discredited by ruthless dictatorships (as in Iraq) or Soviet-style parties. In this void, fundamentalism flourished. Fundamentalism was also supported by the opportunism of various states (for example, the United States backed reactionary fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and aided mullahs against the left in Iran; Israel gave early backing to Hamas in an effort to provide a counter-weight to the secular PLO).

The Taliban, the rulers of most of Afghanistan, adhere to a particularly extreme and intolerant variant of fundamentalist Islam. They came to power out of the in-fighting among the various Mujahedeen (religious warriors) groups following the Soviet withdrawal. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the principal international backers of the Taliban

Pakistani intelligence maintained extremely close ties to the Taliban and Pakistani troops assisted their rise to power. Most Taliban leaders and many of its foot-soldiers were trained in the madrassas -- religious schools -- in Pakistan set up with funding from wealthy Pakistanis, Saudis, and others in the Gulf, which taught a version of the fundamentalist Wahhabism that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Despite the anti-American and generally reactionary teachings of these madrassas, Pakistan has been a U.S. ally and Saudi Arabia has been one of Washington's closest allies

See also:

Ali: Q/A About Taliban and Islam... (
Said: Clash of Ignorance (

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2. What is the attitude in the Arab and Islamic worlds to (a) the Sept. 11 attacks, and (b) the current US war in Afghanistan?

Every government in the region other than Iraq condemned the September 11 attacks, and even Iraq sent its condolences to the victims. The enormity of the slaughter horrified many people in the region, and there were many deeply felt expressions of sympathy for those who lost their lives. But a large reservoir of anti-Americanism led many people to feel that the United States was finally getting back some of what it deserved, or to believe one of the idiotic conspiracy theories so common in the Middle East (the Israeli Mossad did it, the CIA did it). Among Palestinians, a poll in early October found that two-thirds considered the attacks to violate Islamic law, while a quarter thought them consistent with it. The poll showed Palestinians angry about U.S. foreign policy, but not at Americans.

But even among those who were horrified by the September 11 attacks, most people in the region seem to oppose the war on Afghanistan. (The same Palestinian poll found 89 percent criticizing a U.S. attack on Afghanistan, with 92 percent believing that it would lead to more attacks on the United States.) Many pro-U.S. governments were tactfully silent when the air strikes began, sensing the popular opposition. The unilateralism of the U.S. response was especially criticized; Iran -- which had indicated its willingness to support a UN action -- sharply condemned the U.S. attacks.

See also:

Fisk: Awesome Cruelty (
Roy: Algebra of Infinite Justice (

[ Back to Questions ]

3. What grievances fuel hatred for the U.S. in the Middle East?

Anti-American sentiment is widespread in the Middle East, not just among Islamic fundamentalists. This anti-Americanism has a variety of sources. Some comes from specific U.S. policies in the region -- backing Israeli oppression of Palestinians, enforcing devastating sanctions on the civilian population of Iraq, supporting authoritarian governments, often by deploying U.S. troops on land considered holy by Muslims. Some comes from resentment of Washington's economic and political arrogance more generally. And some comes from religious opposition to the secular world, of which the United States is the leading power, an intolerance fed by sexism, anti-Semitism, and other reactionary doctrines. One indication of the weight of all these factors is provided by the videotape Osama bin Laden released on October 7 -- not because it tells us anything about the motives of bin Laden (who is probably totally unconcerned with oppressed or suffering people, hoping only to precipitate a holy war engulfing the entire region) -- but because bin Laden is an astute judge of what issues inflame people. In that video, bin Laden referred to 80 years of Muslim humiliation, Israeli oppression of Palestinians, Iraqi starvation, and the atom bombs dropped on Japan. America, he warned, "will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad...." He felt these were the issues that people hearing him would be moved by, not an attack on Hollywood, much less democracy.

See Also:

Shalom: Why Do They Hate Us? (
Herman: Distaste for Civilization? (

[ Back to Questions ]

4. Does trying to understand/explain the grievances of the people of the Middle East constitute excusing bin Laden, excusing terror, softness on fascism, etc.

When some students killed their classmates at Columbine high school, people of good will tried to figure out the causes for such horrible events. In so doing, they were hardly justifying or excusing the heinous slaughter. The killers may have had some neo-Nazi sympathies (choosing Hitler's birthday as the day for their assault) -- but this didn't change our obligation to examine the deeper causes of adolescent alienation, to discover how schools might contribute to that alienation and what they could to do reduce it. No grievance of oppressed people can excuse or justify what happened on September 11. (As a PLO official declared: "It is true that there is injustice, terrorism, killing and crimes in Palestine, but that does not justify at all for anybody to kill civilians in New York and Washington.") But if we want to understand and reduce the widespread anti-Americanism that allows terrorism to find fertile soil, we need to attend to the grievances.

See also:

Chomsky, Albert, et. al. Reply to Hitchens (

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5. What is Terrorism?

Dictionary definitions indicate it is creating terror, employing fear for political purposes. More aptly, terrorism is attacking and terrifying civilian populations in order to force the civilians' governments to comply with demands. So Hitler's bombing of London was terror bombing, unlike his attacks on British military bases. The issue isn't what weapon is used, but who is the target and what is the motive. For terrorism the target is innocent civilians. The motive is political, impacting their government's behavior. Attacks on the public for private gain are not terrorism, but crime. Attacks on a military for political purposes are not terrorism, but acts of war.

See also:

Herman: Anti-Terrorist Terrorism (
Shiva: Against Terrorism (

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6. Are Bin Laden and his network terrorists?

Bin Laden has issued public statements calling for the killing of U. S. civilians, among others. Evidence presented at trials compellingly ties the bin Laden network to terrorist attacks (the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the U. S. embassies in Africa in 1998). So even apart from Sept. 11, there is no doubt that bin Laden and Al Qaeda are terrorists.

See also:

Fisk: bin Laden... (

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7. Is the Taliban terrorist?

In its treatment of the Afghan people -- especially women and religious minorities -- the Taliban has behaved in a terrorist manner. It has allowed bin Laden to establish training camps on its territory and prior to September 11, 2001, rejected UN demands that it turn bin Laden over to the United States. There have been no specific charges by the United States regarding any direct Afghan support for international terrorism. Prior to Sept. 11, Afghanistan was not on the U. S. State Department's (rather selective) list of nation's engaging in state terrorism.

See also:

Richter: Z Article Nov 2000 (

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8. Is Hamas a terrorist group?

Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine engage in bombings of Israeli civilians. Despite the fact that Palestinians are oppressed, these attacks constitute terrorism. There can be no justification for blowing up civilians in a Sbarro's pizzeria or a Tel Aviv nightclub. These organizations are not the only terrorists, however. The Israeli government has killed huge numbers of Palestinian civilians. These acts too are terrorism. One terrorism does not justify or excuse the other. The United States has been backing -- with military, economic, and diplomatic support -- Israeli terrorism.

[ Back to Questions ]

9. Is the U.S. government terrorist?

When the U.S. government targets civilians with the intention of pressuring their governments, yes, it is engaging in terrorism. Regrettably, this is not uncommon in our history. Most recently, imposing a food and drug embargo on a country - Iraq - with the intention of making conditions so difficult for the population that they will rebel against their government, is terrorism (with food and medicine as the weapons, not bombs). Bombing civilian centers and the society's public infrastructure in Kosovo and Serbia, again with the intent of coercing political outcomes, was terrorism. And now, attacking Afghanistan (one of the world's poorest countries) and hugely aggravating starvation dangers for its population with the possible loss of tens of thousands, or more lives, is terrorism. We are attacking civilians with the aim of attaining political goals unrelated to them - in this case hounding bin Laden and toppling the Taliban.

[ Back to Questions ]

10. Why did the World Trade Center terrorists do it?

We can't know, of course, but we can surmise. The September 11 attack was a grotesquely provocative act against a super power. No doubt many of those involved felt great anger and desperation due to U.S. policies in the region. But these attacks didn't alleviate such problems. The U.S. response is predictably violent and as any anyone would anticipate, reactionary forces have benefited in the U.S. and around the world.

But perhaps provoking the United States was precisely the intent. By provoking a massive military assault on one or more Islamic nations, the perpetrators may have sought to set off a cycle of terror and counter-terror, precipitating a holy war between the Islamic world and the West, leading, in their hopes, to the overthrow of all insufficiently Islamic regimes and the unraveling of the United States, just as the Afghan war contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.

But if provocation rather than grievances motivated the planners of the terror strikes against the U.S., this wouldn't make grievances irrelevant. Whatever the planners' motives, they still needed to attract capable, organized, and skilled people, not only to participate, but even to give their lives to the planner's suicidal agenda. Deeply-felt grievances provide a social environment from which fanatics recruit and garner support.

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