Noam Chomsky, born in 1928, is a linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist and social critic. He is also one of the world’s most prominent public intellectuals.
He has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more than 60 years.
Chomsky was an outspoken opponent on the United States’ war with Vietnam and remains strongly critical of US interventionism.
On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, he spoke to Mia Swart, producer at Al Jazeera Centre for Public Liberties and Human Rights:
Swart: What do you think Afghanistan would have looked like today if the US didn’t intervene?
Chomsky: It would probably be very much like it is now but with much less destruction and wreckage. When the US invaded, the Taliban was largely in control of the country. There was a strong anti-Taliban resistance. It bitterly condemned the invasion. At the time of the invasion a Taliban leader charged that the invasion would kill a lot of Afghans and undermine efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within. This position was backed by about a thousand Afghan elders. A major Afghan women’s group also came out with a statement saying the Taliban has to be overthrown from within by Afghans not by an invasion from without. The US had no basis for invading Afghanistan. The US assumed that 9/11 was probably due to the actions of Al Qaeda and bin Laden but they had no evidence for it.
Eight months later, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, in the course of the investigation into 9/11 said that he believed that 9/11 was the responsibility of Al Qaeda. When the Taliban offered to surrender, the US responded by saying we don’t accept that. Donald Rumsfeld said we don’t accept surrenders. As soon as 9/11 took place he issued a directive saying, ‘We have to go big. We have to look beyond Afghanistan.’ Next in line of course was Iraq and then the rest of the Middle East.
It is 20 years later. In February 2020 the President made a deal with the Taliban. But we paid no attention to the people of Afghanistan. His agreement with the Taliban was basically: do whatever you feel like, just don’t shoot any Americans cause that won’t look good for me. So we will pull out and you can do what you like. He also timed it for the worst possible moment: May, the onset of the fighting season. It gave people no time to make some kind of preparation. It showed total contempt for Afghans. This is not untypical. Biden gave in and slightly improved the terms of the withdrawal by delaying it with a couple of months, but not enough.
What is quite interesting and what tells you a lot about the future is the reaction of the Republican Party, a party that may come back to office very soon. The Republican Party is completely owned by Donald Trump. The Republicans praised the historic agreement Trump made with the Taliban in February 2020. The agreement was on the Republican Party webpage until about a month ago when they suddenly withdrew it so they could blame Biden for the catastrophic effect of the withdrawal and call for his impeachment for carrying out a better version as what they had praised as a historic triumph. It tells you a lot about the cynicism and savagery of the Republican Party. Its pretty hard to duplicate around the world. And they’re the ones who are going to come back into power in the most powerful state in history.
9/11 was a pretext and a reason to show their muscle and intimidate everyone. Afghanistan was of no importance to the United States. It was an opening to much bigger game. Iraq was the major prize. And that was on the agenda before and this gave a way to move forward to win Iraq.
Swart: You refer to the contempt of the Afghans. How does one describe this? Is this racism? Is it religious hatred?
Chomsky: I think describing it as hatred of Arabs is a bit misleading. The closest US allies in the Middle East are Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Egypt, under the worst dictatorship of its history, is the darling of the US government. Trump called Al Sisi his favourite dictator. And Egypt gets a huge amount of US aid. Its not Arabs. It’s the ones who do not follow orders. The Abraham Accords were passed with great acclaim in the United States. It formalises what had been a tacit alliance between Israel and the most reactionary dictatorships in the world, the Arab dictatorships.
Morocco is another very valuable dictatorship to the United States because it virtually monopolises phosphate which is an irreplaceable mineral for agricultural purposes. Trump authorised the Moroccan conquest of Western Sahara which is totally against international law but that increases Morocco’s monopoly of phosphates.
Of course its easy to arouse hatred of Islam. The North, including Russia, has been at war with Islam for a millennium. This ‘war’ takes different forms in different places. There is a very good study of this by William Polk, one of the great modern historians and a specialist on the Middle East. He wrote a book called ‘Crusaders and Jihadists’ about the thousand year war between the North and Islam. Its easy to arouse hatred among the population of Muslims even though the closest allies of the United States are Muslim states.
A US flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony from the US army to the Afghan army in Helmand province. [AP photo]
Swart: You have described the US as the most violent country in history. How do you explain the US’ propensity to violence?
Chomsky: Violence is the Western way of life. Why did Northwest Europe, a barbarian outpost, conquer the world? Did they do it by writing poetry? No they did it through violence. Takes the history of the United States. We are talking now about the end of forever wars. From the point of view of the victims, when did the forever wars start? It was in 1783 when the United States became independent. One of the reasons for the Revolutionary wars was that Britain had imposed restrictions on the colonists. The British had their hands full with wars all over the place, in India and Spain and France. They didn’t want any more trouble in the territory of the Indian nations so they resisted expansion. The colonists weren’t having that they didn’t wanted to expand into the territory of the Indian nation. They carried out ethnic cleansing, extermination, breaking of treaties. And as soon as the British yoke was lifted they moved to the West.
Then comes the full century of constant aggressive warfare, extermination, ethnic cleansing, destruction and violation of treaties. They picked up half of Mexico by war and then stole Hawaii from its inhabitants. Then they moved on to Asia. And after that there were constant interventions. There has hardly been a year when the United States wasn’t at war. This is modern history. It is well captured by the satirist Ambrose Bierce who said : ‘Whatever happens we have got the Maxim gun and they do not.’ We have got the guns. Whatever happens we can rely on that. This is an encapsulation of Western civilisation as seen through the point of view of the victims.
Swart: Do you see any possibility that the US will pay reparations to victims of the so-called ‘war on terror’? Can one not argue that Guantanamo detainees have a claim to reparations? Will the US ever make an official apology?
Chomsky: It depends on whether one is talking about this world or some imaginary world. In an imaginary world of justice and compassion and recognition of the facts of history. In that world, yes. But we happen to live in this world. And there are preliminaries before you can even raise this question. One preliminary is to accept the facts of history. But this is not what you learn in school in England and the United States. What you learn is exceptionalism.
Take the invasion of Iraq, take the entire American political class. Try to find someone who criticised the invasion of Iraq. And there are people such as President Obama who criticised it. He called it a strategic blunder. But there were Nazi generals who thought that Hitler carried out a strategic blunder when he opened the two front war. Did Obama say it is a war crime of the kind that people were hanged for at Nuremberg?
It was interesting on the anniversary of 9/11. Who is the most important person to interview on the anniversary? Obviously the person who carried it out, George W Bush, the person who called himself ‘The Decider’. There was only one interview, in the ‘Style’ section of the Washington Post. This nice, lovely, goofy old grandpa playing with his grandchildren and looking at portraits he painted of great men he knew. Afghanistan and Iraq were a kind of side mention.
Most of the articles in the US press on the anniversary was on the cost to us, how many trillions of dollars we spent. You don’t find much about the cost to Afghans. Just a couple of scattered sentences here and there.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
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