T h e

K a s h m i r

T  e  l  e  g  r  a  p  h

Inaugural Edition

A Kashmir Bachao Andolan Publication

May 2002


I N S I  D E

Spotlight    Chalmers Johnson


Special Report Sundeep Waslekar Ilmas Futehally

Fundamentals      Jagan Kaul

Book Review Romeet Watt

Inside Track          Dr Subash Kapila

Himalayan Blunder              Romeet Watt

In Black & White An Assessment

Statecraft             S a p r a   says

Bottomline            Dr Subash Kapila


A b o u t   U s

F e e d b a c k

D i s c l a i m er

C o p y r i g h t s



 S  P  O  T  L  I  G  H  T


The September 11 Blowback

By Chalmers Johnson

The author is the known critique of the American foreign policy and is widely known for his critically acclaimed book, Blowback: Costs & Consequences of  the American Empire. Written before the September 11 incident, he examines the reasons behind his success in the post September 11 scenario.

Blowback was finished in 1999. My intention was to warn my fellow Americans about the nature and conduct of U.S. foreign policy over the previous half-century, focussing particularly on the decade after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. The book appeared in the early spring of 2000. I argued that many aspects of what the American government had done abroad virtually invited retaliatory attacks from nations and peoples who had been victimized. I did not predict the events of September 11, 2001—Saudi Arabian and Egyptian hijackers diving airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in the suburbs of Washington DC. But I did clearly state that acts of this sort were coming and should be anticipated: “World politics in the twenty-first century will in all likelihood be driven primarily by blowback from the second half of the twentieth century—that is, from the unintended consequences of the Cold War and the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post-Cold War world.”

For the first year after its publication, Blowback was largely ignored in the United States. Few of the mainstream book review sections took any notice of it, and a former member of the first President Bush's national security staff, Philip Zelikow, wrote in the house organ of the Council on Foreign Relations that “Blowback reads like a comic book.” Not surprisingly perhaps, the response elsewhere in the world was somewhat different. It was quickly translated into German, Italian, and Japanese, and the foreign news editor of Der Spiegel even flew to California to interview me about it.

Domestic lack of interest changed dramatically after September 11, 2001. The book was reprinted seven times in less than two months and became something of an underground bestseller among Americans suddenly sensitized to, or at least desperate to know about, some of the realities of the world they lived in. The catastrophic events of the first year of the new millennium not only threw a new light on the United States's self-proclaimed roles as “indispensable nation” and “last remaining superpower” but also posed serious questions and new dangers for other governments that were suddenly asked whether they were “for” or “against” the U.S.'s “war on terror.”

The Nature of Political Terrorism

The suicidal assassins of September 11, 2001, did not “attack America,” as political leaders and news media in the United States have tried to maintain; they attacked American foreign policy. Employing the strategy of the weak, they killed innocent bystanders (at least in the case of the New York office workers) who became “enemies” only because they had already become victims. It was probably the most striking instance in the history of international relations of the use of political terrorism to influence events.

Political terrorism is usually defined by its strategic objectives. Its first goal is normally to attempt to turn those domestic or international conditions terrorists perceive to be unjust into unstable revolutionary situations. To a wavering population they are intended to demonstrate that the monopoly of force exercised by incumbent authorities can be broken. The essential idea is to disorient the mass of the population “by demonstrating through apparently indiscriminate violence that the existing regime cannot protect the people nominally under its authority. The effect on the individual is supposedly not only anxiety, but withdrawal from the relationships making up the established order of society.”

Of course, such a strategy rarely works as intended: indeed, it usually has the opposite effect of calling people's attention to the seriousness of a situation and encouraging them to support any strong reassertion of authority. That was indeed what happened within the United States following the attacks of September 11, but not necessarily throughout the Islamic world, where the terrorists' objectives of displaying the vulnerabilities of the United States and destabilizing the world of the advanced capitalist nations seemed to have a real effect.

A second strategic objective of revolutionary terrorism is to provoke ruling elites into disastrous overreaction, thereby creating widespread resentment against them. This is a classic strategy, and when it works its impact on a potentially revolutionary situation can be devastating. Carlos Marighella, the Brazilian guerrilla leader whose writings influenced many political terrorists of the 1960s's and 1970's, explains its rationale as follows: “It is necessary to turn political crisis into armed conflict by performing violent actions that will force those in power to transform the political situation of the country into a military situation. That will alienate the masses, who, from then on, will revolt against the army and the police and blame them for this state of things.” Of course, in Marighella's case, it proved devastating to Brazilian society (and to him) but hardly in the way he hoped. The Israeli-Palestinian struggle during the so-called Second Intifada of 2000 and 2001 illustrates this goal: terrorist attacks elicited powerful and disproportionate Israeli military reactions that led to an escalating cycle of more attacks and more retaliation, completely militarizing relations between the two groups.

In our globalizing world, the masses alienated by such overreactions may be anything but “domestic.” The bombing of Afghanistan that the U.S. launched on October 7, 2001, inflicted great misery on many innocent Afghanis, which has been the pattern in other American bombing campaigns of recent decades in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Serbia, and Kosovo. It will almost certainly produce unintended negative consequences throughout the Islamic and underdeveloped worlds. Previously vacillating supporters of terrorists will be drawn into militant organizations. Moderate Muslim governments, especially in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan, will almost certainly face growing internal dissent and may even be overthrown. Although the United States set out to track down and capture Osama bin Laden, alleged to be the supreme commander of the terrorists of September 11, it quickly turned out that the only tool the U.S. had at its disposal, its high-tech military apparatus, was next-to-useless if the only goal was capturing a criminal. Therefore, the Bush administration chose a more accessible objective—overthrowing by military force the repressive Taliban regime, which was harboring bin Laden. In most of the world, the spectacle of the world's richest and most heavily armed country attacking one of the world's poorest quickly eroded the moral high ground accorded to the United States as the victim of the September 11 attacks.

It is too early to say how the Afghan episode will be recorded in the history books, but the American reaction has some ominous precedents. Perhaps the prime example of terrorism succeeding in its goals was the Philippeville massacre of August 20, 1955. There, Algerian revolutionaries killed a hundred and twenty-three French colonials. A conscious act of terrorism carried out by revolutionaries who until then had enjoyed only slight popular backing, the Philippeville massacre resulted in a massive and bloody retaliation by the French. The French crackdown eliminated most of the moderates on the Muslim side and caused influential French citizens back home to turn against their country's policies. This chain of events ultimately provoked a French army mutiny, brought Gen. Charles de Gaulle back to power as the savior of the nation, and caused a French withdrawal from Algeria. Franco-Algerian relations are still strained today.

Terrorism by definition strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the seemingly invulnerable. The United States deploys such overwhelming military force globally that for its opponents only an “asymmetric strategy,” to use the jargon of the Pentagon, has any chance of success. Like judo, it depends on unbalancing the enemy and using his strengths against him. When it does “succeed,” as it did spectacularly on September 11, it renders the massive American military machine at least for a time virtually worthless: the terrorists offer no comparable targets.

On the day of the disaster, President George W. Bush told the American people that the country was attacked because it is “a beacon of freedom” and because the attackers were motiveless “evil-doers.” In his address to the U.S. Congress on September 20, he said, “This is civilization's fight.” The president's attempt to define difficult to grasp events as a conflict over abstract values—as a “clash of civilizations” in current post-Cold War American jargon—is not only disingenuous, but also a way of evading responsibility for the “blowback” that America's imperial projects have generated. For if it is acknowledged that blowback played a part in the September 11 calamity, then some people holding high elected, appointive, or administrative office in the U.S. are at least partly implicated in the deaths of several thousand of their fellow citizens.

Retaliation for Covert Operations

For the CIA to carry out a covert action, the president must sign off on a document, called a “finding,” authorizing it. Findings are among the American government's most secret papers. In its narrowest sense, “blowback” means the unintended and unexpected negative consequences of covert special operations that have been kept secret from the American people and, in most cases, from their elected representatives. It does not mean mere reactions to historical events but rather to ill-conceived, short-term, invariably illegal U.S. clandestine operations aimed at overthrowing foreign governments or helping launch state terrorist operations against target populations. The American people may not know what was done in their name, but those on the receiving end surely do—including the people of Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1959-60), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Vietnam (1961-73), Laos (1961-73), Cambodia (1961-73), Chile (1973), El Salvador and Nicaragua (1980s), Iraq (1991 to the present), and very probably Greece (1967), to name only the most obvious cases.

The term “blowback” was originally used in relationto poison-gas warfare to refer to the likelihood of battlefield gasses unexpectedly blowing back on the forces that released them. It first appeared in its political sense in the CIA's post-action report on the secret overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953. In 2000, James Risen of the New York Times explained: “When the Central Intelligence Agency helped overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh as Iran's prime minister in 1953, ensuring another 25 years of rule for Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, the CIA was already figuring that its first effort to topple a foreign government would not be its last. The CIA, then just six years old and deeply committed to winning the cold war, viewed its covert action in Iran as a blueprint for coup plots elsewhere around the world, and so commissioned a secret history to detail for future generations of CIA operatives how it had been done. The history, which remains classified, was recently obtained by the New York Times. . . . Amid the sometimes curious argot of the spy world—'safebases' and `assets' and the like—the CIA warns of the possibilities of `blowback.' The word . . . has since come into use as shorthand for the unintended consequences of covert operations. The CIA's covert action in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which led to the empowerment of anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists there in the 1990s, saw to that.”

Actually, there's more to the blowback from that older intervention by the United States in Afghanistan than just the empowerment of anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists. The attacks of September 11 are blowback in a direct line of descent from events in 1979, the year in which the consequences of the CIA's 1953 overthrow of the Iranian government came due. In 1979, the Iranians took the entire staff of the American embassy in Teheran hostage and threw out the Pahlevi regime the U.S. had installed. The succeeding Iranian revolution ushered in the fundamentalism of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Reagan administration's adventurism that led to the Iran-Contra scandal. At that very moment in 1979, the United States was also deliberately provoking the former Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan. In From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, the 1996 memoirs of former CIA director Robert Gates, he writes that the American intelligence services actually began to aid the mujahideen guerrillas in Afghanistan not after the Soviet invasion of that country, but six months before it.6 Two years later, in an interview with the French weekly magazine Nouvel Observateur, President Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, unambiguously confirmed Gates's assertion.

In its interview, the Nouvel Observateur asked Brzezinski, “Is Gates's account correct?” He replied, “Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the mujahideen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.”

The Nouvel Observateur's interview continues. “You don't regret any of this today?”

Brzezinski: “Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: `We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.'”

The Nouvel Observateur: “And neither do you regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists?” Brzezinski: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

Unless Brzezinski has been utterly misquoted, he, Carter, and their successors in the Reagan administration, including Gates—all of whom are alive but have kept not come forward to draw attention to these matters following the September 11 killings—have some responsibility for the 1.8 million Afghan casualties, 2.6 million refugees, and ten million land mines left in the ground there that followed from their decision, as well as the “collateral damage” that befell New York City in September 2001 from an organization they helped create during the years of anti-Soviet Afghan resistance.

The pattern has become all too familiar. Osama bin Laden, the leading suspect as mastermind behind the carnage of September 11, is no more (or less) “evil” than his fellow creations of the U.S. government, Manuel A. Noriega, former commander of the Panama Defense Forces until George Bush père in late 1989 invaded his country and kidnapped him, or Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, whom the Reagan administration armed and backed so long as he was at war with Khomeini's Iran and whose people the U.S. has bombed and starved for a decade in an incompetent effort to get rid of him. All of these men were once listed as “assets” in the secret computers of America's primary clandestine services organization.

The CIA supported Osama bin Laden like so many other extreme fundamentalists among the mujahideen in Afghanistan from at least 1984, including building in 1986 the training complex and weapons storage tunnels around the Afghan city of Khost where bin Laden trained many of the 35,000 “Arab Afghans.” They constituted a sort of Islamic Abraham Lincoln Brigade of young volunteers from around the Muslim world who wanted to become mujahideen and fight on the side of the Afghans against the Soviet Union. Bin Laden's Khost complex was the one that at President Bill Clinton's orders was hit on August 20, 1998, with cruise missiles in retaliation for bin Laden's attacks of August 7, 1998, on the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. For once the CIA knew where the targets were since it had built them.

It is true that the CIA used a formal cut-out to make deliveries of money and weapons to the “freedom fighters.” It did so to maintain a façade of deniability with the Soviet Union. All American money was funneled through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which had taken the lead since 1982 in recruiting radical Muslims to come to Pakistan, receive training, and fight on the Afghan side. In Peshawar, Pakistan, the gateway to the Khyber Pass and Kabul, Osama bin Laden, the well-connected, rich young Saudi (he was born around 1957), became close friends with Prince Turki Bin Faisal, the head of the Istakhbarat, the Saudi Intelligence Service, and Lt. Gen. Hameed Gul, head of the ISI, all of whom joined in common cause with the CIA to defeat the Soviet Union.

It was only after the Russians had bombed Afghanistan back into the stone age and suffered a Vietnam-like defeat, and the U.S. had walked away from the death and destruction the CIA had helped cause, that Osama bin Laden turned against his American supporters. The last straw as far as he was concerned was the way that the U.S. based “infidel” American troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War to prop up that decadent, fiercely authoritarian regime. As I wrote in Blowback, two years before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, “Since the Gulf War the United States has maintained around thirty-five thousand troops in Saudi Arabia. Devoutly Muslim citizens of that kingdom see their presence as a humiliation to the country and an affront to their religion. Dissident Saudis have launched attacks against Americans and against the Saudi regime itself. After the June 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartments near Dhahran killed nineteen American airmen, the international relations commentator William Pfaff offered the reasonable prediction, `Within 15 years at most, if present American and Saudi Arabian policies are pursued, the Saudi monarchy will be overturned and a radical and anti-American government will take power in Riyadh.' Yet American foreign policy remains on autopilot, instead of withdrawing from a place where a U.S. presence is only making a dangerous situation worse”.

In my opinion, the U.S. government's reaction to September 11 has similarly made an already terrible situation worse. The use of the U.S. Air Force against a poor country like Afghanistan is surely producing terrorists faster than young American men are volunteering for the armed forces and much faster than the FBI can find and catch them. The proper reaction to terrorism is patient, thorough police work, good intelligence, and cooperation with friendly police agencies. The terrorists should be apprehended, brought before a properly constituted international tribunal, and evidence presented to convict them—as was done in the case of the terrorists who bombed Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The attacks on Afghanistan may satisfy a popular American demand for revenge and triumph, but in the long run they will worsen the threats to American security at home and abroad.

The blowback from the second half of the twentieth century has only just begun. It is probable that the United States can weather the attacks of September 11 if it restricts its retaliation to Afghanistan and gets out quickly. But blowback is not restricted just to CIA provocations and the reactions of terrorists. In a sense, blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows. Although people usually know what they have sown, our national experience of blowback is seldom imagined in such terms because so much of what the managers of the American empire have sown has been kept secret.

As a concept, blowback is obviously most easily grasped in its straightforward manifestations. The unintended consequences of American policies and acts in country X lead to a bomb at an American embassy in country Y or a dead American in country Z. Certainly any number of Americans have been killed in that fashion, from Catholic nuns in El Salvador to tourists in Uganda who just happened to wander into hidden imperial scenarios about which they knew nothing.

But blowback is hardly restricted to such reasonably straightforward examples. In its extended sense it also includes the hollowing out of key American industries because of the export-led economic policies of our satellites, the militarism and arrogance of power that inevitably accompany the role of global hegemon, and the distortions to our culture and basic values as we are increasingly required to glorify warrior roles. The danger I foresee is that we are embarked on a path not so dissimilar to that of the former Soviet Union a decade ago. It collapsed for three reasons—internal economic contradictions, imperial overstretch, and an inability to reform. In every sense, we were by far the wealthier of the two Cold War superpowers, so it will certainly take longer for similar afflictions to do their work. But it is nowhere written that the United States, in its guise as an empire dominating the world, must go on forever.

>>> back

All Rights Reserved. Copyright©2002 Kashmir Bachao Andolan