Editorial 9/11

War on Terrorism, the History of an Illusion

Combat outpost 7171, Helmand province, Afghanistan, 28 October 2010. An Afghan army soldier protects himself from a sandstorm
Basetrack 18/Flickr

“Enduring freedom!” This was the slogan, as pompous as it was pathetic, which President George W. Bush used to launch his"war on terrorism” in October 2001.

As he had just explained to the US Congress:

They hate what they see right here in this chamber—a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

“They” were “the terrorists,” whom the US President swore he would track down to the darkest confines of the planet. It would be a long war he admitted, and the battlefield would be the whole world, but soon Good would overcome, Evil would be eradicated and Freedom with a capital F and an American accent would shed its light on the grateful peoples of a subjugated world. The self-proclaimed “international community,” consisting in fact of Western governments alone, could only applaud this martial rhetoric. Exploiting the state of shock caused by 9/11 across the world, many politicians, editorialists, intellectuals and self-proclaimed “experts” on terrorism, did their bit to mobilise against the new enemy, terrorism, often confused with Islamism or even with Muslims in general.

The first “victories” in Kabul led to optimism, not to say self-deception: “The Americans have won that war” proclaimed in December 2001 Bernard-Henri Levy1 who never misses a chance to get it wrong, “at the cost of just a few hundred civilian casualties, maybe a thousand … who can top that? How many wars of liberation waged in the past can make that claim?”

The « new religion»

Others extolled “a resistance” as indispensable as standing up to Nazism. “Oh, I know,” writer Philippe Sollers enthused,

three’s still a lot of work to be done out there, in Kabul, Ramallah, Baghdad (…) but in the end Evil will be laid low, it’s as plain as day. Actually, my feeling is we’ve waited too long. Why all these delays? This hanging back? These false scruples? These UN gesticulations which don’t fool anybody? We must strike and strike again. 9/11 demands it. 9/11 is the unsurpassable horizon of our time. Forget Bastille Day: 9/11. Let’s hope the French, always lagging a bit behind genuine historical awareness, will finally be persuaded to join the new religion.2

That “new religion” is the “war on terrorism”. But what exactly were people talking about? The Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) explained that “war was a continuation of politics by other means.” And he went on to insist: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish (…) the kind of war on which they are embarking, and to define the objectives to be reached in order to achieve victory."

But eliminating “terrorism,” that form of violence which has marked in various guises every stage of human history, resorted to by protagonists whose convictions were often diametrically opposed, is, strictly speaking, meaningless. Even the Crusades, those wars of religion against Islam, had just one concrete objective: to “liberate the tomb of Christ” and not to convert the whole planet.

A glance at the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database tells us in its way of the prevalent confusion, even though the American military-industrial complex once denounced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower has made substantial profits from it. It contains a list of “terrorist attacks across the world”,3 with a number of interesting facts about the main zones of instability—even though these unsurprisingly turn out to be Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq. But the list includes an attack by white supremacists in the USA and a suicide bombing by the Islamic State Organisation in Afghanistan, to which are added a handful of actions by what remains of the Colombian guerilla and an anti-Semitic bombing in Europe, producing a thoroughly unpalatable mishmash.

This confused thinking—with its plethora of enemies and fuzzy objectives—has contributed to the repeated failures of the “war on terrorism." As Marc Hecker and Elie Tennenbaum have written in their book La Guerre de vingt ans (Robert Laffont, 2021):

The broad definition of the terrorist threat adopted by the Bush administration—including not only al-Qaida a good number of armed groups and “rogue States,” from Hezbollah to North Korea—gave rise to what can in retrospect be regarded as one of the major errors of these early years.

But just what is that “error” the name of? Primarily it is the name of Western hubris, whose phone number, as Régis Debray has prettily phrased it, is that of the White House in Washington, because it is there and only there that “Western decisions” are taken. France did indeed voice some objections at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but these impulses soon died away and France fell into line. Freshly elected, Nicolas Sarkozy declared, before the US Congress on 7 November 2007:

France will stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary, for what is at stake in that country are our values and the values of the Atlantic alliance. I say this solemnly before you: failure is not an option.

«A troublemaker who imagines itself a rainmaker»

As for his successor, socialist François Hollande, he extended the war zone to Mali and the Sahel, reviving the colonial ventures of French socialism with the same lack of success.

For, as Régis Debray has pointed out, the whole world, and not just the terrorists, Islamists and other terrifying goblins, challenges this paternalistic navel-gazing West,

self-appointed captain of the vessel Humanity with the task of setting it on the right course; a bogeyman who deals out not sanctions but “punishments” (sic); a First world that doesn’t deign to talk to the Third -let alone the Fourth—but monologues, humiliating any and everyone who doesn’t speak its language; a troublemaker who imagines itself a rainmaker and when its interests are at stake doesn’t give a damn about the principles it professes for the benefit of the gallery.4

Over the last twenty years, the West has also lost the battle for legitimacy and the rule of law. From the penal colony at Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib prison, from the illegal invasion of Iraq to the rigged elections in Afghanistan, from its support of the Egyptian dictator to its contempt for the rights of the Palestinians, the purity of its proclaimed principles—international law, peoples’ right to self-determination, defence of human rights—has been corrupted by the prosaic realities on the ground.

The US fiasco in Afghanistan—in which many European countries have had a share even if they have had no say in the way the war was conducted, as we have just seen during the evacuation of Kabul—marks the failure of the West’s umpteenth effort to restore its domination of the world by simply denying the enormous changes that have taken place since the second half of the 20th century and in particular the collapse of the colonial system. The time has passed when Paris and London could carve up the Middle East as they did after WW1 and without any qualms or against any insuperable resistance impose their domination on reluctant peoples. The rejection of foreign domination, albeit dressed up in the virtues of “democracy” and “human rights,” has become universal.

Other powers are asserting themselves, as the Afghan story has shown. Pakistan, China, Russia, Qatar, Turkey or India have as much to say as the United States, and a lot more than the European Union, about the future of this country. While remaining, and certainly for decades to come, a major power, the USA no longer has the means to lord it over the world, let alone decide the fate of countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, even while retaining the capacity, as we have seen, to destroy those countries.

The war on terrorism has been the last illusion of a Western world which cannot resign itself to accepting the new state of the planet and wants to turn back the clock of History. A fanciful task, of course, but one the pursuit of which can only worsen the disorder of the world, fuel the “clash of civilisations” and destabilise many societies, including Western societies, by dividing g them along religious lines.

1Le Monde, 21 December 2001, quoted in Le Monde diplomatique, September 2002.

2Le Journal du dimanche, 29 September 2002, quoted in Le Monde diplomatique, November 2002.

4Régis Debray, Que reste-t-il de l’Occident ?, Grasset, 2014.