The Language of War and US Policy in the Middle East

Damaged vehicles are seen on September 2 at the site of a deadly US airstrike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians.

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. — George Orwell, 1946

Dr M Reza Behnam

SINCE 2001, US administrations have used “terrorism” as an instrument to conduct a more openly aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East.

Predictably, there has been no real examination of how the term has been used and of existing conditions that have allowed the US to assume the singular role of terrorism arbiter, deciding who and what is a threat to the world. Nor has there been much reflection on how US policies have caused tremendous anger and pain in the Middle East.

President George W. Bush constructed his war on terror on lies that have yet to be deconstructed. He, and others in the Washington foreign policy establishment, have used the word “terrorism” to stoke fear, to silence and to obscure failed policies.

Bush’s fairytale that the United States was attacked on 9/11 because “they hate our freedoms” persists, because to question that platitude has become equated with a lack of patriotism.

America’s military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq were always about maintaining hegemony in Central Asia and protecting the interests of multinational corporations, arms manufacturers, a privatised military and the State of Israel. They were not, as claimed, about defending freedom and human rights. Like Bush, successive presidents have never leveled with Americans about their true motives and what the costs of war would be.

In 2004, an independent federal advisory committee, the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication, was established to give advice to the secretary of defense on transitioning from hostilities. The committee concluded in its September report that: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf States.”

The report also determined that the majority of Muslims see US policies and actions as a threat to the survival of Islam itself and that America’s aim is to weaken and dominate the Muslim world.

The myth of the “good” war in Afghanistan persists, despite the fact that the United States chose to display its military muscle rather than pursue the diplomatic alternatives which were proposed by the Taliban government in 2001.

Opportunities to end the war were rejected on two occasions, even after US warplanes had destroyed all assigned targets. During the second week of bombing in October, the Taliban offered to hand Osama bin Laden over to a neutral country once they were given evidence of his involvement in 9/11 and after America ended its bombing campaign. And on Dec. 5, 2001 the Taliban offered to surrender Kandahar, disarm, disband and return to their villages. Bush refused both overtures and US military violence continued for 20 more years.

Absent from commemorations of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was any reflective discussion of the war in Afghanistan and that the most powerful military in the world was defeated by men in sandals in a desperately impoverished country the size of Texas.

Like Oceania in George Orwell’s prescient novel, 1984, war has been the scrim, the backdrop of everyday life in America for years. The global war on terror has replaced the Cold War as America’s national security narrative. But as for public attention, it has largely been consigned to oblivion.

Perpetual war has skewed America’s priorities and created an uncritical devotion to all things military. The language of jingoism, as well as public indifference, have led to an ever-expanding military-security state and counterterrorism operations spread across the globe—all with little public debate and Congressional scrutiny.


Despite the withdrawal of troops, President Joe Biden has stated his intent to continue the “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan. Deprived of an Afghan base in Central Asia, the administration has turned to what it calls its “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strategy. The policy consists of identifying and striking targets with drones launched from outside Afghanistan.

Biden, like his predecessors, seems not to believe that drone strikes represent a significant challenge to the international rule of law or to the rules-based international order he touts. He appears unconcerned about the United Nations Charter, which prohibits the use of force by one state inside the borders of another, and international law, which prohibits the use of lethal force outside of armed conflict zones unless it is used as a last resort against grave harm.

The US military admitted that its Aug. 29, 2021 drone strike in Kabul, targeting terrorist operatives, was a tragic mistake. Unlike the violence and deaths Americans never see, the death of ten innocent Afghan civilians, including seven children, drew public attention. According to an estimate from Brown University’s Costs of War project, more than 363,000 civilians have been killed in the war on terror.

There has been little review of the legal standards that govern America’s military operations abroad. US administrations have skirted and broken the rules of international order for decades.

A public airing has yet to be had of Washington’s underreported “targeted-killing” drone program. Details about the executive branch program remain secret. Because it is administered without meaningful oversight, little is known about how much evidence is required before an individual is identified as a terrorist and placed on the military kill list.

President Barack Obama embraced the drone program and normalized the use of armed drones in non-battlefield settings in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. President Donald Trump greatly expanded the targeted-killing program and jettisoned accountability. The strikes killed and injured thousands of civilians.

Biden’s counterterrorism strategy confirms another conclusion in the Defense Science Board’s report, that “America’s image problem…is linked to perceptions of the United States as arrogant, hypocritical and self-indulgent.”

That perception is reflected in a landay (an ancient form of Pashtun spoken poetry popular among women) that speaks to the feelings of many Afghans—“May God destroy the White House and kill the man who sent US cruise missiles to burn my homeland.”

The US troop presence in Afghanistan has ended, but the vast military, intelligence and information infrastructure designed to fight the war on terror remains inveterate. Significantly, the mindset and propaganda that created it continues solidly entrenched. It is dubious that the US will ever do the right thing unless it develops an historical memory about its role in the Middle East and begins to alter it.


Generations of Muslims have had to live with American terror. Never-ending war in the Middle East did not begin 20 Septembers ago. Perpetual conflict was set in motion with the forceful importation of European Zionist ideology into the Middle East, with Zionist theft of Palestinian land and with Washington’s abiding military and financial support for the State of Israel.  Drone attacks, bombing, torture and daily humiliation by American and Israeli occupiers have fueled hatred and added to terrorist ranks.

The development of civic culture and political maturation in most Muslim countries have been virtually impossible because of the malign presence and division stoked by foreign powers. The United States and Israel have cultivated an environment of dependence, distrust and conflict among regional neighbors. Countries have spent billions on defending against each other rather than addressing the problems of poverty, drought, climate change and regional health that plague the Middle East.

After 20 years, the United States has left Afghanistan with an active terrorist network and a collapsing economy. The country is facing a humanitarian crises, including food shortages, drought, COVID-19, economic and environmental deterioration. Fourteen million Afghans are at risk of starvation and 3.1 million children younger than five are acutely malnourished.

Washington has added to the country’s suffering by freezing $9.5 billion belonging to the Afghan central bank. After nearly bombing Afghanistan into the Stone Age, Washington is now expressing concern about human rights and the entitlement of women.

For more than two decades, the United States has attempted to solve the problem of terrorism through military force, but it has instead birthed more terrorists. The answer to ending terrorism rests not with Hellfire missiles, but in understanding its origins and then acting to change the causes that have given it life.

The September hearings in the US Congress, dedicated to discerning America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan, revealed an unwillingness of its members to consider America’s complicity in galvanizing terrorism. It was clear from the testimony of America’s warlords—the country’s top defense official and generals—that they had been mired in a culture they knew nothing about and in a war that had no explanation.

Written on the wall of the abandoned US Embassy in Kabul are these words, “Citizens, congratulations on your newfound independence.” All countries in the Middle East need to be independent and free from US-Israeli influence, domination and terror. For that to happen, the American people need to be liberated from the fairytales—the appearance of solidity to pure wind—that have sustained the global “war on terror.”


Dr M Reza Behnam is a political scientist specialising in the history, politics and governments of the Middle East.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here