War, Its Machines, and the Women Who Fight Them

by Miriam Cooke

“The subaltern as historical subject persistently translates the discourse of religion into the discourse of militancy” (Spivak 1987, 266).

War, war machines, jihad. These words have entered the vocabulary of everyday practice during the past twenty years. They mark a new stage in the discourse of Empire, what Hardt and Negri call a global project of network power, that knits the world together in a dynamic fabric of exchange, flows but also of conflict.

9-11 was a catastrophic example of the ways in which the threads in this fabric tighten and break. American citizens felt for the first time how the apparently innocent business of moneymaking in New York City and of policymaking in Washington DC are seen as criminal elsewhere. The daily deals struck in the financial and military-political capitals of the U.S. have direct and mostly negative consequences for most of the rest of the world. These consequences are invisible to Joe-6-pack, they are searingly obvious elsewhere.

9-11 has a long history going back through the Gulf War to the establishment of Israel in 1948. It is a history that spans the length of the Cold War and is witness to the growing suspicion and fear of U.S. policies in the region. Indeed, the last great battle of the Cold War took place in a dry dusty landlocked backwater called Afghanistan. Having been chosen for this showdown between the two superpowers placed Afghanistan squarely on the stage of world history.

It is hard to know who got there first, to find the origins of the last great battle of the cold war. One version, which I find compelling, has it that when, on December 24, 1979, the Soviets invaded and took over rule of the country with the help of Afghan tribesmen in the north, they were not venturing into virgin territory. Six months earlier, President Carter had signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. Zbigniew Brzezinski claims in a Jan. 15-21, 1998 interview for the French “Le Nouvel Observateur” that the U.S. government “didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

The CIA recruited Afghan tribesmen separated from their birthplaces by war and displaced into dehumanizing refugee camps where religious education provided their only anchor. The U.S. government armed these men with guns and capitalist ideology and they won. The U.S. declared the Soviets defeated, the cold war over, and their warriors were left to fend for themselves.

Memories of Central Asia, like those of Southeast Asia, were to be repressed. Business was supposed to go on as usual. But it did not. Too far for U.S. citizens to see, Afghanistan seethed and suffered. It became the mirror to the U.S. of the dangerous outcome of its policies and of the poisonous entanglement of American lives with those of others throughout the world.

What we saw on 9-11 was the return of the repressed. Afghans, supposed to accept their sudden relocation to the margins of world history, directed their anger and hatred against the centralized state apparatus. Products of the twin discipline of religion and militarization, they easily transformed capitalist ideology into its religious underside and wrapped it in the rhetoric of Islam.

Afghan fighters, including the Taliban who took over the government in 1996, recall the rhizomic nomads of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s “Treatise on Nomadology” who roam around the fringes of the state apparatus. Driven by “a sense of the absolute… (and) the idea of holy war as the motor of that machine” their movement is directed by a “prophet, as opposed to the state personality of the king and the religious personality of the priest… It has often been said that Islam, and the prophet Mohammed, performed such a conversion of religion (into a war machine) and constituted a veritable esprit de corps… This is what the West invokes in order to justify its antipathy toward Islam… The prophets may very well condemn nomad life… (yet) when religion sets itself up as a war machine, it mobilizes and liberates a formidable charge of nomadism or absolute deterritorialization… it turns its dream of an absolute State back against the State-form. And this turning-against is no less a part of the ‘essence’ of religion than that dream” (383-384).

In light of 9-11 Deleuze & Guattari’s words seem prescient. It is not that the nomads necessarily make war but that the economy within which they function is so informed by a “durable, even unlimited” violence (396) that any collision with the state will produce war. Once the war machine targets the State, the city, it “becomes war: annihilate the forces of the State, destroy the State-form… war is the `supplement’ of the war machine” (417). For the state to respond it must constitute its own war machine, but one whose origin is within that which the war machine originally opposed. Its primary object is annihilation: “Turning the war machine back against the nomads may constitute for the State a danger as great as that presented by nomads directing the war machine against States” (419).

Peace is the motor of the the world war machine. It is in the cause of perpetual peace that the U.S. government and its allies are bombing a starved, war-weary people in Central Asia. They are after what Deleuze & Guattari 20 years ago called a “peace of Terror or Survival (which) set its sights on a new type of enemy, no longer another State, or even another regime, but the `unspecified enemy'” (421). Here is the language to which Americans have been exposed over the past five weeks. Usama Ben Laden and the Qaida network, but so many unspecified more enemies, above all, the sleepers!

Peace is the thing. So President Bush appointed Mr. Ridge as the Homeland Security czar and he is joining the counter-terrorists to “put its counterguerrilla elements into place, so that it can be caught by surprise once, but not twice. Yet the very conditions that made the State or World war machine possible… continually recreate unexpected possibilities for counterattack, unforeseen initiatives determining revolutionary, popular, minority, mutant machines” (421, 422). The mutability of the enemy allows the stae of alert to be maintained indefinitely because it is in the cause of what Hardt & Negri “a perpetual and universal peace out of history” (xv) that in practice exacts so much blood for its fulfilment. This peace is Empire’s “paradigmatic form of biopower… an idea of peace is at the basis of the development and expansion of Empire” (167). Empire which expands by absorbing all in its path through network power.

After 9-11 the world is on board the U.S. carrier. What more urgent than the extermination of the vermin? This new kind of war is one that links humanitarian and political rhetoric to military action. The one hundred sorties of October 15 to bomb, cluster bomb not strategic bomb, the primitive town of Kandahar is part of the campaign for peace. But maybe not all the world is on board. Night after night the news anchors quickly comment on yet another anti-U.S. demonstration, interview for the duration of a sound-byte yet another person who calls Usama Bin Laden a hero. Is the goal of this total war the establishment of the peace of Terror through the annihilation of all these nomads? That will indeed be a long war. It might endure until the next U.S. elections. Or even longer. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced on October 11 that this will be “a campaign that will never stop in any of its aspects.”

Maybe we need to think of another way of confronting the nomads. How about dismantling the war machine from within? Not the state/world war machine, but rather the original war machine. We should work with those closest to the Taliban, the women whom they have targeted as part of a jihad (Arabic, for religiously motivated struggle to become a better Muslim individual or community) to render public space male and pure because purged of the disturbing presence of women. In religious fundamentalist contexts, women are the first targets because they are the border markers, compelled to carry their culture’s values. The purity of the culture, its authenticity and separation from contamination are embodied in its women. So, in the interest of the culture, of the nation, of the state, women have to submit to increasingly restrictive measures that threaten their most basic rights.

Many women, however, have refused to submit. In Afghanistan women have been actively pursuing justice against the string of regimes that have worked to deprive them of their rights. During the Soviet occupation some women established RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan. Fearlessly, they took on both the Soviets and the growing number of religious fundamentalists produced by the dire conditions of refugee existence. Some of these women were jailed, tortured and even killed. They are still working with women in refugee camps in Pakistan, despite their serious lack of resources. In their website they list their activities: education, health care, human rights, cultural production. A major item is propaganda which is directed against “fundamentalists’ crimes and (is concerned to) raise awareness of the people (in Pakistan) about the situation in Afghanistan.” Inside Afghanistan their activities are underground: “Our work under the Taliban is difficult and dangerous… (they urge) the need to fight the fundamentalists, the necessity of education and social participation, concepts of democracy and civic freedoms and the ways to solve the Afghan problem and maintaining women’s and human rights.”

What the Afghan women are doing, their sisters elsewhere have done. Fully aware of how dangerous are the men who invoke a perverted religion to pursue power, women both within and outside religious fundamentalist groups have opposed the men who use scripture to oppress them and they have revealed how false is their claim to be acting on behalf of a just cause. Women throughout the Muslim world have quietly declared their jihad against those who want to use women’s bodies as physical targets and cultural symbols to further their diabolical aims. These women know what are the tools, the symbolic capital that underlies these dangerous movements and they are working to undo the master’s house from inside. We in the U.S. must learn from them how we can cooperate and collaborate so that the search for peace and justice not be another cover for the spread of Empire.