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Justice Not Vengeance: A MADRE Tool Kit in Response to the September 11 Attacks and the US War Against Afghanistan

Posted on: Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Keywords: Afghanistan, Asia, US Foreign Policy

The attacks of September 11 in New York and Washington, D.C. have given people in the US a terrible but important insight into the experiences of so many of our sisters and their families around the world, who regularly feel the terror and vulnerability that we in the US came to know firsthand on September 11. MADRE is committed to helping people translate this awareness into a call for a new kind of US foreign policy–one that will promote justice and genuine security for all women and families around the world.

If we oppose the killing of civilians in New York and Washington, then surely we oppose the killing of women and families abroad. As we take this stand, we must also work to stop racially motivated attacks against Arab-Americans and immigrants here in the US. And we must defend civil liberties that the government is restricting in the name of national security. MADRE’s Justice Not Vengeance campaign aims to give people the tools to take a firm stand on all of these issues and to provide direct support to those most affected by the crisis.

We hope that this Justice Not Vengeance Tool Kit will help people formulate a progressive response to this crisis by developing a critical understanding of the September 11 attacks and the US war against Afghanistan.

Wasn’t the bombing campaign a necessary response to the September 11 attacks?

  • We believe that bombing civilians and civilian infrastructure is never justified. Surely if we oppose the killing of civilians in New York and Washington, then we oppose the killing of civilians in Kabul and Kandahar.
  • Recall that once it was determined that the main suspects in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building were US citizens, the attack was treated as a crime. There was no talk of bombing Michigan, no racial profiling of white men with crew cuts. 
  • But saying no to war is not a call for inaction. The September 11 attacks, too, are "crimes against humanity," a term in international law for a mass killing of civilians. As such, they should be addressed through international legal channels of investigation, arrest, trial and punishment and not primarily through military violence.
  • The only legitimate military response is one authorized and led by the United Nations. The recent air strikes, unilaterally conducted by the US and Britain, are illegal under international law, which stipulates that only the UN Security Council can authorize a military action and that a military strategy should rely on a minimal use of force to achieve its goal and be absolutely targeted to avoid civilian casualties and protect human rights.

International Justice

  • Clearly, the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks must be found and punished. The justice process we choose to achieve this end will both reflect and shape our society.
  • In the US, the parameters of public debate regarding justice are the extra-judicial killing of bin Laden ("Wanted, dead or alive") or trial by military court. 
  • Extra-judicial execution is obviously illegal under US and international law. The military court also violates international human rights standards, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by the US in 1995. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have expressed concern about the court’s violation of norms of due process, particularly its lack of an appeals procedure and the use of secret evidence. 
  • The military court also violates the US system of checks and balances by giving the President power over the judiciary. In a military court, the Executive can decide who will be prosecuted and under what rules and has the prerogative to review convictions and sentences. 
  • If the aim of a justice process is to restore peace and minimize the possibility of future attacks, then justice should be pursued through an international tribunal under the auspices of the United Nations.

The Semantics of Terrorism
There is no internationally agreed-upon definition of terrorism, an ambiguity that allows the label to be applied selectively. For example, throughout the 1980s, when the armed groups to which Osama bin Laden belonged were supported by the US, the State Department officially referred to these groups as "freedom fighters." Meanwhile, the US designated Nelson Mandela as a terrorist for his opposition to South Africa’s Apartheid regime. In short, the "terrorist" label has been reserved for those whose acts are not condoned by the US. But a principled stand against terrorism requires a consistent definition. At MADRE, we understand terrorism as violence that targets civilians in the hope of influencing their government. If we apply the definition even-handedly, it would have to include certain policies supported and implemented by the US.

Didn't the US provide humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan?

  • The Administration’s "bombs and bread" strategy appeared to contain a humanitarian component, but was actually a case of cynical opportunism.
  • In mid-September, the United Nations estimated that more than seven million people in Afghanistan would be at risk for starvation if the US attacked. (Many Afghans were already facing famine after years of civil war and the worst drought in 30 years).
  • When the US threatened to bomb, mass panic ensued. Tens of thousands of Afghans fled their homes, fearing air strikes. The US responded by demanding that Pakistan seal its borders. The order was ostensibly meant to block the escape of terrorists, but in fact, it prevented thousands of families from reaching relative safety, including access to food.
  • Worse, the US ordered Pakistan to terminate all food aid to Afghan refugees (The New York Times, 9/16/01). Aid workers warned that this demand was tantamount to a death sentence for thousands of hungry families. 
  • Meanwhile, aid organizations evacuated their staff for fear of being caught in a US attack. Many critical food distribution programs inside Afghanistan were suspended. 
  • Before the US attack, the United Nations was providing food rations to five million Afghans a day. The US disrupted this program and replaced it with food drops for less than 1% of that number (37,000 people a day). 
  • In early December, food distribution by humanitarian agencies dropped again by more than half. Spokespeople for Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee and other agencies explained that violence and lawlessness in areas captured by the US-backed Northern Alliance forced them to further scale back food distribution. 
  • Why would the US knowingly cause suffering to the civilians it claims to be defending? Because mass hunger helped to destabilize and topple the Taliban – a central objective of the US campaign. The strategy is the same as the US sanctions against Cuba and Iraq: deprive families of food in the hope that hunger will cause them to rise up against their governments. Recall that the definition of terrorism is violence aimed at civilians in order to influence their governments.

Osama bin Laden
Who is Osama bin Laden?

  • Osama bin Laden is a Saudi Arabian millionaire who has dedicated his fortune to institutionalizing an ultra-puritanical and repressive version of Islam, which is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims in the world, including most Afghans. Bin Laden was one of thousands of Islamic militants trained and funded by the CIA in the 1980s as a counterforce to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
  • The CIA calls this phenomenon "blowback"– a dynamic created by the US that blows back in its face. For example, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism internationally is partly a product of the US strategy for undermining the Soviet Union. Other examples of blowback are Saddam Hussein (supported by the US throughout the 1980s when he killed thousands of Kurds with poison gas) and Manuel Noriega (the Panamanian dictator, drug smuggler and long-time CIA asset who became an embarrassment to the US when he was indicted by a Miami grand jury for his role in cocaine smuggling).

Is Osama bin Laden behind the attacks?

  • Only hours after the September 11 attacks, Senator Orrin Hatch remarked that "all the evidence points to bin Laden." The problem is, there was no evidence – at least none that was presented to the public. And that is still true today. Bin Laden is a prime suspect, but without credible evidence that he masterminded the attacks, it is not surprising that many people in the world are angry at the US for its total disregard of due process.
  • The State Department document "proving" bin Laden’s culpability is very weak. As journalist Robert Fisk points out, "only nine of the 70 points in the document relate to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and these often rely on conjecture rather than evidence. Claiming that ‘an operation on the scale of the 11 September attacks would have been approved by bin Laden himself’ [point 63] is not going to cut much ice in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf States."

What does Afghanistan have to do with all of this?

  • In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up an Afghan communist government that was facing insurrection. In response, the CIA launched its biggest covert operation ever, in partnership with Pakistan’s secret service. Their purpose was to expand the Afghan opposition to the Soviets into a ‘holy war,’ in which Muslim countries within the Soviet Union would turn against it, and ultimately, destroy the Soviet Union from within.
  • In fact, even before the Soviet invasion, the Carter Administration helped to create the Afghan opposition in a successful bid to draw the Soviet Union into an unwinnable war. This was the ‘holy war’ for which the CIA trained and funded thousands of Islamic mujahideen (holy warriors), including bin Laden. 
  • The Soviet Union was indeed badly defeated in Afghanistan. In 1989, the Russians finally withdrew and the Soviet Union collapsed. Once the US had finished using Afghanistan for its own strategic purposes, it left the country to be ravaged by the warring gangs it had helped organize.

Who are the Taliban?

  • Even once the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, the civil war raged on. For the next six years, the mujahideen splintered and fought each other in a bid for power that killed 45,000 people and destroyed much of the country.
  • Then, in 1995, one of these groups, the Taliban, a set of hard-line fundamentalist seminary students supported by Pakistan, seized power. The Taliban unleashed a regime of terror, particularly against Afghan women (see "Gender Apartheid and Afghan Women’s Resistance" later in this toolkit).

Who are the Northern Alliance?

  • The Northern Alliance are a band of militias comprised of mujahideen fighters from the 1980s. When the Taliban came to power, the Northern Alliance joined forces against it to try to gain control of the country.
  • Like the Taliban, the Northern Alliance are notorious for grave human rights abuses against civilians. Amnesty International  and Human Rights Watch have issued major reports documenting these abuses. 
  • In the current conflict, the US has used the Northern Alliance as a proxy army to carry out its military objectives, a partnership that may yet result in another case of blowback for the US. 
  • Most Afghan progressives warn that the Northern Alliance and the Taliban are virtually interchangeable, except that the Alliance has cooperated with the United States as a path to gaining power. 
  • In fact, public killings and other grave human rights violations committed by the Northern Alliance in November when it captured Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz confirmed the fears of many Afghans that an empowered Northern Alliance would bring more bloodshed.

What’s the situation in Afghanistan today?

  • After more than two decades of protracted warfare and repressive government, the United Nations describes Afghanistan as "the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis."
  • Afghanistan suffers from some of the highest infant, child and maternal mortality rates in the world. 
  • 70% of Afghans are undernourished and only 13% have access to potable water. 
  • Average life expectancy is only 40 years. 
  • 25.7% of all children die before the age of five.

What does US intervention in Afghanistan have to do with the drug trade?

The CIA-backed ‘holy war’ in Afghanistan was covert and drawn out and therefore difficult to fund. Arundhati Roy, in her recent essay, "The Algebra of Infinite Justice," explains that, "The mojahedin ordered farmers to plant opium as a ‘revolutionary tax'. Pakistan’s secret service set up hundreds of heroin laboratories across Afghanistan. Within two years of the CIA's arrival, the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland had become the biggest producer of heroin in the world, and the single biggest source of the heroin on American streets. The annual profits, said to be between $100 billion and $200 billion, were ploughed back into training and arming militants."

What does US intervention in Afghanistan have to do with oil?

  • Since World War Two, securing access to the world’s energy resources has been a central component of US foreign policy, an objective that the US considers a matter of "national security."
  • Afghanistan borders Turkmenistan, which contains enough natural gas and oil reserves to meet US energy consumption for the next 30 years.
  • Since the mid 1990’s, UNOCAL, a US-based oil company, has been working to secure a deal with the Taliban to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan. A campaign by US women’s groups opposing the Taliban pressed the Clinton Administration to call off the deal in 1997. 
  • The US effort to topple the Taliban and replace it with a more palatable regime represents a critical new opportunity for US oil interests to capitalize on Afghanistan’s strategic location and access billions of dollars worth of oil and natural gas reserves.

Asking Ourselves Why

  • On September 11, President Bush informed us that we are under attack "because we love freedom and prosperity." In all likelihood, we are under attack because US policies have denied freedom, prosperity and even subsistence to millions of people around the world. Yet, there is no simple correlation between human rights violations stemming from US policy and the attacks on September 11.
  • Abusive US policies clearly do not justify attacks on civilians in the United States. However, these policies are a key to understanding the attacks of September 11 because the US has generated conditions of misery around the world, which in turn, fuel popular support for political extremism. Every underground armed network needs a popular base of support: people that are willing to fight with them, offer food and shelter, spread their message, smuggle documents or supplies. When people are made hungry and homeless, when poverty and violence have pushed them to the brink of survival, then anger and despair may overtake reason and compassion. This is the breeding ground for political fanaticism, including support for acts of terrorism. 
  • That is why there is no military solution to terrorism. In fact, military violence only reproduces the very conditions of poverty, forced displacement, political repression and other human rights violations that create a climate of support for fanaticism. Ultimately, the best way to achieve security is to eradicate conditions that give rise to support for terrorism.

Civil Liberties in the US

  • Historically, when the US government has perceived itself to be under attack, civil liberties have been restricted. These policies, including the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, the Palmer Raids of World War One, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two and the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations against Vietnam War-era activists have all been badly discredited.
  • Nevertheless, we are again being told that civil liberties will have to take a back seat to national security. The Administration’s hastily passed PATRIOT Act greatly expands US government electronic surveillance and search authority; allows the government to seize a person’s assets without proving that he or she committed a crime; and gives federal prosecutors unprecedented access to previously secret grand jury investigations. 
  • Immigrants are particularly at risk. The new legislation allows non-citizens to be detained indefinitely, even if they have not been charged with any crime. This form of "administrative detention" has been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. So far, more than 1200 people have been arrested under procedures that violate basic norms of due process. 
  • Official antipathy toward immigrants reinforces xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. Within the first five days following the September 11 attacks, over 200 hate crimes against Arab-Americans or people thought to be Muslim were reported. While President Bush rightly condemned these attacks, his "us" versus "them" rhetoric and invocation of religious symbolism in the "crusade" against terrorism generates a political climate that fuels violence. 
  • The September 11 attacks must not be used to precipitate a US government attack on the Constitution. In the current climate of fear and jingoism, it’s more important than ever to protect dissent and defend people's right to criticize government policy.

Gender Apartheid and Afghan Women’s Resistance
What is the Taliban’s policy of gender apartheid?

Gender apartheid is a term coined by women’s organizations to describe the Taliban’s extremely repressive policies towards women:

  • Girls in Afghanistan are forbidden to attend school and women are forbidden to hold jobs, travel or leave their homes without a male escort.
  • Women are required to live behind painted windows so that passing men cannot see them. Lack of sunlight and poor nutrition have caused an epidemic of osteomalacia, a softening of the bones caused by vitamin D deficiency. 
  • Women doctors are outlawed and male doctors are forbidden to examine women, leaving women with almost no access to healthcare. 
  • Women who violate the Taliban’s edicts are publicly beaten and sometimes stoned to death.
  • Afghanistan’s grim human development indices are directly related to the status of women, who are primarily responsible for the health, education and nutrition of the vast majority of the population. For example, tens of thousands of Afghan women are war widows and the sole providers for their families. Most of these families became destitute when women were banned from the workforce.

How have Afghan women resisted the Taliban?

  • Before the Taliban took over, women in Afghanistan were educated, employed and active in public life. Women comprised more than half of all students and teachers at Kabul University, 50% of government workers, 40% of doctors and 70% of all schoolteachers.
  • Since 1995, women have used their skills and education to run underground networks that deliver clandestine medical care to women, run secret schools for girls and document and publicize Taliban atrocities abroad.
  • Many women activists have been killed, but a vital network of women’s organizations continues to defend women’s rights inside Afghanistan and work internationally for an end to Taliban rule.

Isn’t the US defending the rights of Afghan women?

  • Since September 11, the Bush Administration has highlighted Taliban violations of women’s human rights as a way of demonizing the regime. The Administration was not particularly concerned about these violations before its need to galvanize public opinion against the Taliban.
  • Genuine concern for women’s human rights would entail a condemnation of some close US allies, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; as well as the Bush Administration itself, which has attacked women’s reproductive and sexual rights in the US and abroad and champions polices that violate women’s rights to decent housing, healthcare, jobs and education.
  • In fact, the Bush Administration has confirmed its unwillingness to prioritize Afghan women’s rights. A senior administration official, asked about women’s rights under a future Afghan government, responded, "Right now we have other priorities." The article explains that "Bush advisers warn that the President’s message must be muted for fear of alienating potential Muslim allies in Afghanistan and the region" (The New York Times, 10/27/01).

What are Afghan women’s groups calling for?

Afghan women’s groups have long opposed the Taliban and the exploitation of their country by foreign powers, including the US. Today many Afghan women urge that:

  • All fighting groups, including the Northern Alliance, should be disarmed.
  • A transitional government (perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations) should be established. This force should oversee the dispensation of humanitarian aid and create a framework for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, starting with the restoration of food supplies. 
  • The longer-term goal is a secular, democratic, inter-ethnic government. Free elections are crucial, but in order for them to be meaningful, Afghan civil society must first be reconstituted. Civil society organizations, including women’s groups, are necessary for authentic popular platforms to emerge and for people to have the information and organizational capacity to make informed policy decisions.

MADRE’s Response to The Crisis

MADRE’s Justice Not Vengeance Campaign is working to:

  • Provide humanitarian relief to Afghan women and families under attack by the United States and support Afghan women’s efforts to participate in the rebuilding of their country.
  • Support some of the most vulnerable victims of September 11 by raising funds for families of undocumented workers who were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. 
  • Lobby the United Nations to assume a leadership role in this crisis; uphold the rule of law over the use of military force; and establish an international criminal tribunal on the September 11 attacks. 
  • Provide people in the US with information and analysis needed to think critically, decode the rhetoric of the mass media and demand a sane and humane US response to the atrocities of September 11.


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