There have been claims by pro-war commentators that the US achieved its aims with the ‘war on terrorism’. What is your response?
Obviously the government and media believe they have been vindicated because Al Qaida has had its operation in Afghanistan completely disrupted. But the underlying problems that give nourishment to Al Qaida and so called terrorism have, if anything, been exacerbated. The Taliban’s replacement with the Northern Alliance was never an original war aim. So I don’t think the left has anything to regret in its opposition to the war. The number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan has, by even conservative accounts, been greater than the number of people who died in the attacks on the World Trade Centre. There has also been enormous suffering in Afghanistan and there is increasing instability in the international situation. The US today is even more vulnerable from so called terrorist attacks.
I also believe the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has raised some new issues for the so called liberals who supported the war. It shows a brutal, chauvinistic side to the US, revelling in the exercise of its own military power and acting contrary to the aims for which it claimed it was fighting.
The other aspect of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is that it shows that the US leadership appear completely uninterested in what the rest of world thinks. So it has taken a couple of weeks of the most sustained criticism before it got through to Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, that many people were unhappy with the treatment of the prisoners. Initially the US government thought that US public opinion would welcome the humiliation of people who, as yet, have not been convicted of anything. But it has gone down badly in this country. I have not heard of many people supporting the US, because it does look so brutal. It was interesting that some US commentators have responded by saying this is not much worse than what the British state did to some Irish prisoners–which is true.
How do you see the situation in Afghanistan developing over the coming months?
Firstly, the US has shown very little interest in remaining in Afghanistan for much longer than it takes to secure its military objectives. Secondly, you have the situation of great instability on the ground, where the new government is essentially an international creation which only has limited support. In a number of areas, for example the western part of the country and around Herat, you have the same coalition of forces that came to power in Afghanistan in 1992, with some variation of the personnel in charge. The Afghan government can only be stabilised by a very large military presence and large amounts of economic aid–and there is not much of that forthcoming. So I would imagine that Afghanistan would slip back to something like the anarchic situation it faced between 1992 and 1996. This was the only merit of the Taliban–they did impose some sort of order on the country, and this was one of the reasons why they were welcomed by some sections of the population. I fear that this is the situation to which Afghanistan will return. It’s true that the US would like a stable Afghan government, if for nothing else than to improve access to the resources of the region. Perhaps they will try and stabilise the country, but this will require a greater commitment of troops than they have so far been prepared to give.
What has the war meant for other conflicts around the world?
The war has helped to heighten the tensions between India and Pakistan. Of course, those tensions predate the war on terrorism–they go back to the British partition of India. But clearly these tensions have got worse, and Pakistan has now got itself into a corner on several fronts.
As far as Israel and Palestine are concerned it was quite noticeable that when the military campaign in Afghanistan was not going very well in mid-October, there was a lot of talk that something must be done about the Palestinian question. But as soon as the war started going well for the US all that talk was dropped. Now you have the most aggressive Israeli policy imaginable, with the support of the US and to some extent Britain. This will entrench the hostility to US policy that was expressed on 11 September–although it may take a different form, it will remain an important factor in international politics. Today there is no sign that the US is changing its policy in the region.
No one knows for sure where the US will target next. There was talk of Iraq, although that now seems to be slightly off the immediate agenda because it is very difficult politically and militarily. There have been reports that Saudi Arabia wants to get rid of its US bases because their existence is destabilising the country. So the US faces big problems.
Somalia and Yemen are obviously easier targets because, like Afghanistan, these states are more peripheral to world politics. But even here there must be doubts as to what action the US can achieve. In Somalia there may be a motive of revenge, but there seems to be little evidence of Al Qaida setting up bases there. Interestingly the actual second front of the war on terrorism seems to be in the Philippines, where there is a small Islamic militia movement against the government and the US has sent troops in. This is somewhere the US has wanted to send troops since they were kicked out in 1992.
I think if you look at where the US is establishing bases under the cover of a war against terrorism, such as in the Philippines and in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzistan, it actually looks like the US is surrounding China . There is a lot more going on here concerning the need to meet US regional objectives. And every further step the US takes makes keeping the coalition together more dangerous. After 11 September some thought the US had to do something, but now this margin of support could quickly evaporate.
New Labour and Tony Blair were the most enthusiastic supporters of the Bush administration. How do you see this alliance developing?
I believe New Labour will continue with their support for the Bush administration under most foreseeable circumstances. The British and US establishment are very closely intertwined. However, the domestic problems for Blair might lead to him spending less time travelling.
It’s clear that the US do not require any military support from any of their allies for their military operations. Even the British support in Afghanistan was more about diplomatic cover than anything that was militarily essential. I don’t see any prospect of a rift between New Labour and the US, unless the US embark on action in the Middle East which seems completely reckless–there is the danger of the EU going one way and the US another, and this is where Britain could see itself compromised.
What do think the anti-war movement and the Stop the War Coalition have achieved?
The movement has not yet stopped the war, but it has surprised everyone, particularly in this country, with its strength. It is one of the most powerful anti-war movements in Europe, alongside that in Italy. It is also the first occasion when elements of the Asian community in Britain have been mobilised alongside the ‘traditional’ British left in a joint campaign, and this has got hundreds of thousands of people involved in anti-war activity.
There is an additional strength that I would contrast with the peace movement in the 1980s, which perhaps was bigger in terms of overall numbers. In the 1980s, if you moved past the issue of nuclear weapons, there was no great unity about international politics–it depended largely on what you thought of, and how you defined, the Soviet Union. Today there is a much deeper understanding among all the different elements of the anti-war movement that this is rooted in the new world order and imperialism. There is also a higher degree of unity. So you have a militant mass movement with a high level of politics which is very united–this can be a very important new element in British politics. There needs to be a movement that addresses Britain’s role in the world, and British foreign policy, and how that impacts on racism and civil liberties. The anti-war movement does this, as it brings together elements of different traditions, all of which are opposed not just to this war but to the whole thrust of New Labour’s agenda.
The Stop the War Coalition are organising some teach-ins around the country which are important for deepening and broadening the movement against the war. But the next major national event is a demonstration which will demand a halt to the continuing military intervention in Afghanistan as well as any extension of the war. It will also highlight the plight of the prisoners. So there is a range of important issues which means we can build a big turnout.
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