Phil Scraton on Afghanistan War Files

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, bombing and early atrocities committed by allied forces in Afghanistan I edited a collection Beyond September 11: An Anthology of Dissent (London: Pluto). It was the first collection to be published in English and has since been translated into several languages including Arabic. What follows are the introductory and concluding paragraphs to the final chapter ‘In the Name of a ‘Just War’’. When I included a chapter on Afghanistan and Iraq in my 2007 book Power, Conflict and Criminalisation (London: Routledge) one reviewer of the proposal stated that s/he could not understand what a chapter on the ‘war on terror’ had to do with criminology!

I’m posting these paragraphs now because of the revelations this week in the international media.

The prosecution of the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan was constructed to maximise the destruction of the Taliban regime and to minimise the possibility of US and allied soldiers returning home in body bags.  Aerial bombardment, using cruise missiles, carpet and cluster bombing, guaranteed a war offensive without retaliation.  The lack of effective anti-aircraft defences or anything resembling an air force, enabled bombing virtually without risk.  On the ground the war was conducted by the notoriously fractured Northern Alliance whose own history of human rights violations made it an uneasy bedfellow for Western democratic governments espousing a rhetoric peppered with the vocabulary of ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘community’ and ‘rights.  Whatever its claims of special forces’ intelligence directing the military action, as the war progressed, it became increasingly clear that Northern Alliance commanders were instrumental in defining targets and establishing priorities.

With the trenches and caves no match for sophisticated, deadly ordnance, the Taliban forces – despite media and political hype to the contrary – could not withstand the bombing.  The full extent of the casualties inflicted by the air strikes remains unclear but it became obvious that once the ground war developed there would be little effective resistance to the advance of the Northern Alliance.  The US military command could not but have anticipated that the Northern Alliance would show no mercy to the Taliban forces, particularly the hated foreign recruits.  Rumsfeld must have known that his preference for the imprisonment or killing of foreign nationals would be interpreted as tacitly condoning torture, brutality and summary execution.  It also appeared to locate al-Qaida forces beyond the reach of the Geneva conventions …]

[… Four months on from the September 11 attacks and many deaths beyond those at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in the Pennsylvanian countryside, the enduring casualty – as so often the case – is truth.  The struggle for truth is about making public and private institutions accountable for their definitions, policies, strategies and actions.  It is about challenging what Foucault analysed as ‘regimes of truth’ through the critique of power relations.  Power that has the ability, capacity and ideological appeal to harm with political confidence and legal impunity.  Power that has the authority to confer legitimacy on external military action and on internal law enforcement.  To this end it can establish partial investigations, deny disclosure of information and evidence and place restrictions on findings.

Conversely, it is formidable in its capacity to deny legitimacy, neutralise opposition and disqualify knowledge – ruling alternative accounts out of court.  It pathologises victims, survivors and campaigners, using patriotism, loyalty and ostracism as means of silencing.  The condemners become condemned.  The demonisation and vilification at first directed towards the ‘terrorists’ is redirected towards ‘sympathisers’, ‘appeasers’ and ‘traitors’.  Within this distorted world of ‘with us or against us’ the casualties of war, regardless of their status as military or civilian, are held responsible; their losses, their injuries, their suffering reconstructed as self-inflicted.  With so much reporting and commentary derived in the manufacture and selection of news through spin and manipulation, it is not difficult for states and their administrations to deny responsibility for their part in atrocities, their part in the long-term consequences of war.  ‘Refusal to acknowledge’ reveals the power within advanced capitalist states at its most cynical, its most self-serving.  History soon becomes rewritten, truth becomes degraded, the pain of death and destruction heightened by the pain of deceit and denial.  It is from within this experience that the next generation of terror strategists will emerge and develop their consciousness.  And the “sacrifice, determination and perseverance” demanded by Rumsfeld in the US global ‘war on terrorism’ will be matched.

And so it happened … and continues …

Phil Scraton

Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice

School of Law

Queen’s University


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