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Why A Strike Against Afghanistan Would Actually Help Bin Laden

Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2001

Like most Americans, I watched President Bush's speech to Congress last Thursday night. And like many Americans, I felt a surge of martial ardor when the president warned Afghanistan's Taliban regime to hand over the terrorists or "share in their fate."

This bloodlust should be resisted, at least until we as a nation have understood why radical Islamist ideology enjoys considerable popularity among one sixth of the world's population.

If we attack Afghanistan without seriously addressing this question, we will merely agitate the rubble of a ruined country while serving the interests of the global terror network that destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and murdered at least 6000 innocent civilians on September 11. A massive U.S. military strike against Afghanistan is the biggest favor we could do Osama bin Laden right now.

The Demand For Evidence: What Islamic Law Requires

The Taliban have many practical reasons for sheltering bin Laden: he has paid them millions of dollars for the privilege of living in Afghanistan. He is married to the daughter of the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Bin Laden's Arab fighters are currently helping Taliban forces in their civil war against the Northern Alliance. It was very likely two of his suicide bombers, posing as journalists, who recently assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary Northern Alliance military commander.

That said, the Taliban have asked the United States to provide "evidence" linking their guest with the attack. Since the U.S. has refused, few have bothered to interpret what this request would really require. But the answer is an interesting one — and our inability to answer it may illustrate how little many of us know, or care to know, about Islamic law or thought.

The Islamic law of evidence requires either a direct confession or the testimony of two male witnesses to establish guilt. Since bin Laden has apparently denied any involvement in the events of September 11, the U.S. would have to find two men who personally heard bin Laden give the order to destroy the World Trade Center, and convince those men to testify before an Islamic judge in Afghanistan — at certain risk to their lives.

Even that might not establish bin Laden's guilt in the Taliban's eyes. Islamic legal scholars note that there is no concept of conspiracy in Islamic law (sharia). Nor is there any equivalent of a racketeering statute under which bin Laden could be prosecuted for training, inspiring, or simply associating with known terrorists.

Why They Hate Us

Despite the lack of a legal doctrine of conspiracy, there is a lively tradition of conspiracy theorizing in Middle East and South Asian popular culture. Many Pakistanis are convinced, for example, that Jews destroyed the World Trade Center in order to provoke a U.S. military strike against the Islamic world.

The "proof"? Articles in the Urdu press "reporting" that although many Jews worked in the World Trade Center, no Jews died in the attack because, supposedly, none of them showed up for work on September 11. According to the articles, the FBI is currently investigating this suspicious coincidence.

Untrue? Of course, but very believable if you assume, as many Pakistanis do, that something called the "global Zionist conspiracy" rules the United States and, by extension, the world.

This mindset emerged from Western colonial exploitation of the Middle East and South Asia: People who remember being ruled by mysterious foreigners in the past find it easy to explain any misfortune by reference to a foreign conspiracy. And U.S./Zionist conspiracy thinking flourishes in the Islamic world today because vast numbers of Muslims view U.S. support for the state of Israel as colonialism by another name — the same colonialism they hated in the past.

When President Bush tried to explain why the terrorists hate us, this was certainly not one of the answers he gave. But perhaps it should have been. Americans want and deserve a genuine answer to this question, even if it means delving into some of the less savory aspects of our historical engagement with the Islamic world.

America's Hypocrisy Gap

Many Muslims are infuriated by the U.S. tendency to preach the gospel of human rights and democracy while supporting brutal and profoundly undemocratic Arab and other Middle East regimes in the name of realpolitik. We have consistently tolerated human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, for example, because the definition of our "vital national interests" there has been restricted to maintaining a steady supply of Gulf oil.

In the 1980s, we supported Iraq's Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran–that support ended only with Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. We are currently contemplating a renewed military assault against Iraq while edging closer to the Iranians, despite their long history of support for Islamist terror organizations, because Iran borders Afghanistan and could be useful in our confrontation with the Taliban.

This is the American hypocrisy gap. It feeds bin Laden's twisted ideology, which purports to justify the murder of innocent civilians by invoking a supposed Muslim religious duty to wage holy war (jihad) in order to rid the Muslim world of U.S. and Zionist domination.

It should be stressed that bin Laden's brand of jihad has no basis in Islamic law. Islamic jurisprudence, which is based on centuries of scholarly interpretation of the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, states explicitly that individuals cannot declare jihad (only states can); that innocent people may not be killed in a jihad; that Muslims may not be killed in a jihad; and that jihad may not be waged against countries where Muslims are allowed to live freely and practice Islam. The September 11 attack broke every one of these rules.

However, the uncomfortable truth is that bin Laden and his associates are able to convince people to kill and die in the name of jihad because their beliefs in a U.S./Zionist conspiracy resonate with the vast majority of Muslims who were horrified by the World Trade Center attack but nevertheless share bin Laden's grievances.

The Case Against Carpet Bombing

The U.S. should avoid a massive military strike against Afghanistan because it is exactly what the terrorists want us to do. They want us to swagger in with guns blazing like a punitive raiding party from British colonial times.

They particularly want us to kill thousands of innocent Afghans and Pakistanis in the process, because that will convince the entire Muslim world that America only cares about American lives.

Instead, we must convince the Islamic world that terrorism is as much a threat to them as to the United States. After all, hundreds of innocent Muslims died in the World Trade Center. And many Muslim countries have a serious internal terrorism problem.

Terrorism in Muslim States

When I lived in Pakistan in the mid-1990s, terrorist bomb attacks were an almost weekly occurrence. They were often blamed on the Indians or the Jews. Sometimes they were blamed on the Indians and the Jews: the "Hindu-Zionist conspiracy" is central to Pakistani political demonology.

But the truth is that terrorism flourishes in Pakistan today because the Pakistani ruling class has encouraged radical Islamist groups at home. The military and civilian elite does so in order to further Pakistan's ambition to dominate Central Asia and the disputed territory of Kashmir, where Pakistan-backed Islamist militants have been bleeding Indian security forces for more than a decade.

Pakistan is not the only guilty party. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S. supported the Afghan resistance movement in a proxy war against the Red Army. During the 1980s, billions of dollars in U.S. military aid flowed through the Pakistani army and intelligence services and into the Afghan mujahidin, who were also supported by young Arab volunteers and cash supplied by wealthy Arab Muslims like Osama bin Laden.

We walked away from what remained of Afghanistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the so-called jihadis (holy warriors) simply looked for new targets in Kashmir, Egypt, the West Bank, Central Asia, East Africa, Yemen, and now America.

Why Jihad Is Our Problem

September 11 was a reminder that the United States must accept some responsibility for the jihadi culture that has afflicted the Islamic world for the past decade. We will only begin to drain the swamp of terrorism, to cite a currently fashionable phrase, once we have faced this responsibility by doing whatever we can to address the legitimate grievances that motivate the pathological behavior of today's jihadi terrorists.

As a start, the United States should work aggressively towards a just resolution of the Arab-Israeli and Kashmir disputes. We should also encourage just and accountable government in all the countries of the Middle East–because it's the right thing to do and because our survival depends on it.

The alternative is to pursue the cynical power politics that reduced the Middle East to its current misery. We may or may not succeed in apprehending or killing bin Laden in the process–since he has become a legend at this point, a dead bin Laden would be just as useful to the global Islamic terror movement as a live one. In any event, the outlines of that alternate future can be traced in the smoking rubble of Kabul and lower Manhattan.

When that rubble is still once more, the National Security Agency's high tech snoops may hear a faint cackling sound on their headphones. It will be Osama bin Laden or his colleagues, laughing at us from caves in Afghanistan and safe houses all over the world.

Richard Murphy is a New York-based writer and editor. He started his career as a reporter in Afghanistan and was later a Fulbright Scholar in Pakistan, where he did fieldwork for his doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University.

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