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Ten years of the 'war on terror'

James Clark

November 23, 2011

When the US launched its war in Afghanistan, imperial planners in Washington had set their sights on a much bigger prize. Despite all the talk of women’s rights and building democracy, the real aim of the war—just the first step of the “war on terror”—was to guarantee US global dominance in the 21st century.

A decade later, their plan is in ruins, although millions of people continue to feel its deadly effects. But the decade that began with 9/11 has ended with the Arab Spring. This should give us hope that it’s possible not only to resist imperialism, but also to think about building an alternative to it.

The blueprint for the “war on terror” goes back to the Project for the New American Century, a think tank backed by leading US neoconservatives in the 1990s that expressed their vision for a more robust and aggressive US imperialism. In the wake of the Cold War, neoconservatives such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Robert Zoellick worried that the US was too slow in taking advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to advance US interests in newly opened regions of the world. They perceived multilateralism, international law and global institutions as barriers that gave a competitive edge to US rivals. That vision informed US foreign policy under George W. Bush’s two terms as president, and betrayed US ruling class fears about the declining relative strength of the US economy (


Cheney and Condoleezza Rice—Bush’s National Security Adviser during 9/11—saw the event as an “opportunity.” Although the war began in Afghanistan, the Pentagon was targeting Iraq almost immediately. According to the New York Times, a document called “Iraq: Goals, Objectives and Strategy” appeared in August 2002, which laid out US war plans: leave a “light footprint” in Iraq, and then quickly topple regimes in Syria and Iran ( Bush & Co. thought Iraq would fall quickly, allowing the US to redraw the map of entire the Middle East.

In fact, the US was so confident of its plan, US General Tommy Franks announced shortly after his arrival in Baghdad in April 2003 that US troops would be reduced from 140,000 to 30,000 in just two months (

The plan was part of a larger project to entrench US dominance in the region. Instead, it achieved the opposite result. The US was pulled into a quagmire in Iraq, where 1.2 million Iraqis have been killed since 2003. By contrast, the US death toll stands at over 6,000. Tens of thousands of US troops remain in Iraq, propping up an unpopular and undemocratic regime in a country scarred by sectarian violence. Every political party that participates in the Iraqi government wants US troops to leave.


Across the region, the effects of the war have also undermined US influence. In Palestine, the pro-West, pro-US Fatah faction was routed by Hamas in 2006 elections, despite US intervention. Fatah only regained power by force, seizing control of the West Bank a year later, with US and Israeli backing. Hamas still runs Gaza. Under pressure from its base, Fatah has now turned on the US with its recent statehood bid at the United Nations.

Israel, the US watchdog in the region, suffered an unprecedented defeat at the hands of Hizbullah in the 33-day war with Lebanon in summer 2006, boosting resistance movements across the Arab world. In the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza in 2009, anti-Israel and anti-US sentiment spiked, further isolating the US and its allies.

Far from toppling the government in Iran, the war has actually helped strengthen Iran’s influence, which is now one of the biggest powerbrokers in Iraq and the broader Middle East. Despite its sabre-rattling and talk of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iran, the US has been unable to intervene as it had originally planned, although the threat of intervention remains.


To make matters worse, the “good war” in Afghanistan—which the US neglected during its war in Iraq—has now become the “bad war,” with US casualties now surpassing their rate in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed. NATO military leaders and their political counterparts all over Europe now openly speculate about losing the war and the consequences of a US withdrawal. Resistance movements have grown in Pakistan, where the war has spread across the border, fuelling even more opposition and instability in Central Asia.

In early 2009, the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia brought the “war on terror” to Africa. The proxy war was partly in response to the waning political and economic influence of the US across the continent, as rivals such as China sank deeper roots and secured more oil and gas contracts.

Arab Spring

In North Africa and the Arab Middle East, opposition to the war has helped nurture nascent democracy movements that dramatically burst onto the scene in December 2010. Their high point has been the toppling of key US allies, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Since then, a wave of revolt has spread through Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, with movements on the rise almost everywhere else. Even Saudi Arabia, a staunch US ally, has felt the shockwaves of regional revolutions.

By no means are the movements sweeping the region the direct result of the “war on terror.” Their roots can be traced to the Second Intifada in Palestine in 2000, which laid the foundation on which much of the resistance movements have grown. They also owe their success to the internal opposition movements that persevered through years of repression under brutal dictators. In particular, they were boosted by a period of global anti-war solidarity that reached its zenith in February and March 2003, when literally millions marched to stop the Iraq War.

The combination of indigenous resistance movements in the Arab world and international solidarity has helped improve the terrain on which the Arab Spring emerged over the last year. Although the Arab Spring is far from over, and although it continues to face serious setbacks—not the least of which has been NATO’s intervention in Libya—it nevertheless represents a stunning reversal for US imperialism in the region, especially in light of the US’s ambitious war plans in 2001 and 2002.

Economic crisis

In the midst of the “war on terror,” the US has had to face an additional, unexpected setback: the global economic crisis of 2008, which looks poised to throw the world into another global recession. The crisis has created three serious problems for US imperialism. First, it has made the cost of the war even more expensive in a weakened US economy. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates the cost could reach $3 trillion ( After a decade at war with no real gains, the US will soon be unable to afford a war on the scale of the last ten years.

Second, the crisis has generated widespread anger and discontent in the US and elsewhere, which appears to be growing: witness the strike waves in Europe and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US.

Third, and most importantly, the crisis has sparked a deepening discussion about the nature of global capitalism—how it impoverishes billions while prosecuting endless wars—such that ordinary people are now increasingly open to alternatives to the global economic system. The war that was meant to ensure US global dominance in the 21st century appears to have fuelled a reaction that could lead to its undoing.

Herein lies the hope of the Arab Spring, and its potential to spread all over the world. If there is a lesson from the last ten years of war, it is this: resistance matters.

Millions of people, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Palestine and Somalia, have refused to accept the agenda imposed by the “war on terror.” Their resistance has made possible the emergence of movements that are now considering more than just opposition to war and imperialism. They are taking the first steps to change the world around them, and on terms that put the interests of humanity before those of global capital.

We still have a very long way to go, but the entry onto the world stage of masses of ordinary people, taking their lives into their own hands, is a major development. After ten long years of war, there is now hope that we might be able to stop it.

As the resistance movements show, it will be up to ordinary people to do it. The slogan on the homemade placard of a single Wall Street protester seems to say it best:

“We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

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