Follies compounded

Print edition : September 29, 2001

Unless the U.S. is restrained by an international body like the Security Council, it may rain wanton destruction on Afghanistan.

AMERICA'S leaders are baying for blood. Revenge is in the air as the United States prepares to settle scores with those it suspects of having triggered the unspeakably brutal terrorist acts of September 11. Blind rage and calls for retribution to "teach the terrorists the lesson of their life", have all but replaced the horror, pain and anguish that Americans felt at the stunning savagery of that day. Initial descriptions of the attacks as crimes against humanity - which they undoubtedly were - are giving way to a different language: attacks against "Western civilisation", "our way of life", and against Western "prosperity", presumably symbolised by the World Trade Centre.

Coupled with this shift from the universal language of humanity to Western parochialism is a transition from metaphor to literalism. By describing the ghastly September 11 attacks as "war", the U.S. is proceeding to declare "war" on global terrorism in "self-defence" - without accountability to the international community. It now threatens unlimited destruction upon its ill-defined "enemy" even before its official agencies have collected compelling evidence linking the suspects with Osama bin Laden, now wanted "dead or alive". The U.S. has been less concerned with substantiating suspicions than with countering force with force, terror with terror, claiming an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth... However, as Martin Luther King said, "an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind".

As America besieges and blinds itself with fear, suspicion and hatred, civil liberties and individual freedoms - on which its Constitution rightly takes pride - take a beating. Paranoia competes with hate-speech. As sales of U.S. flags increase tenfold, vile abuse is equated with "patriotic pride". "I'm angry," fumes a grandmother in suburban Atlanta. "I'm hoping we wipe these people out and... wipe out [their] country.... Just get rid of them all..." Another patriotic American demands: "Justice should not take precedence over vengeance.... We ought to turn [the culprit country] into a glowing desert."

As this ugly mood for massive retribution prevails, the U.S. is actually threatening horrible excesses and wanton damage to civilian life in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on earth. Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz has declared that the aim of the coming war is "not to capture a few terrorists and hold them accountable; it is removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism." There could not have been a more open threat to destroy what remains of Afghanistan - surely an excess disproportionate to the bin Laden menace, however grave that menace may be.

Such action is bound to produce a terrible reaction, creating an unending spiral of violence, terror, counter-terror and further violence. The colossal folly of an overpowering, and probably indiscriminate, U.S. response - as distinct from the use of measured, moderate force to bring the culprits to book - will be further compounded if America acts unilaterally under the cover of an "international coalition", or cynically manipulates the Security Council into giving itself or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) blanket power to use military force.

There is every likelihood that the U.S. will get away with such unilateral action if it persists with the literal and legal use of the metaphors of "war" and "self-defence", and cites Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which permits the use of armed force by a state in "self-defence" alone. It is hard to understand how "war" may be declared against a method or tactic or form of violence - this would be akin to Franklin D. Roosevelt declaring war not on Japan, but on "bombing", after Pearl Harbour - but nobody is asking questions. President Bush has armed himself with an unprecedented authorisation from Congress to use force wherever and howsoever he likes. Blanket authorisation from the Security Council too, under Article 51, will give him the power to unleash overwhelming force.

Bush must be restrained. But that can only be done if crucial provisions of the same Article 51 are invoked: "Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council... to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security." It is far from clear if any major state or group of states will do so formally - despite the reservations that Russia and China, and some NATO allies, have expressed about U.S. unilateralism.

Arrogance of power has blinded the U.S. to many home truths. It simply cannot comprehend why there is so much hatred against it in Palestine, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, even Pakistan. Americans are rightly horrified at the New York attacks which have probably killed 6,000 people. But they do not even register the deaths of over four million people in U.S. military interventions or covert operations in four continents: from Angola, Argentina and Brazil, through Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Greece, to Vietnam, Timor and Zaire. They are unconcerned over the fact that half a million children have perished in Iraq alone under cruel, mindless sanctions which brought that "middle-level human development" country (with far higher levels of literacy and nutrition than India) to its knees - to a point where major surgical operations had to be performed without anaesthesia. Americans are equally blind to their government's complicity in Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine, or its role in the Sabra and Chatilla massacres of 1982 - which left 17,500 dead - that were engineered by Ariel Sharon.

The present confrontation is not between democracy and terrorism. The mass media, and the Indian government, constantly remind us that the Taliban is a creation of Pakistan. But they suppress the fact that bin Laden is himself the creation of the U.S. His al-Qaeda was fathered and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as part of America's holy war against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Atal Behari Vajpayee government dutifully joins Washington in condemning "terrorism", but it conveniently forgets that the U.S. has for decades bred terrorists and trained sadistic generals and right-wing guerillas in methods of sabotage and torture in facilities such as Camp Peary, next door to Washington.

The U.S. is the world's mightiest and most militarised state, with a 1.4 million-strong regular Army and another 1.1 million reservists. Yet, this could not protect it against the pocket-knives and cardboard-cutters used to overpower four civilian airliner flights. The $30 billion it spends on intelligence gathering could not even warn it against determined fanatics enraged by the arrogance of American power, and especially by the ruthless repression of the Palestinian intifada. Instead of reflecting upon its policy failures and the stupidity of reliance on purely military and physical means for security, the U.S. has set out to compound its epochal follies.

INDIA, to its disgrace, has offered to become a willing, if unsolicited and unrequited, collaborator of the U.S. It was among the first states to offer it military cooperation and the use of strategic bases - even before NATO did so. This was before U.S. agencies had collected significant evidence on responsibility for the attacks. Many Indian policy-makers and -shapers could barely hide their glee at the "historic" possibilities that September 11 opened up for a new Indo-U.S. "strategic partnership". The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and important leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, such as Narendra Modi, spoke of the "historic opportunity", India's "finest", to act as America's main "anti-terrorism" ally. Indian security "experts" salivated: here was India's chance to "vindicate" its one decade-long stand on "terrorism" and be drafted as a forward-line state in America's war. Their reaction was no different from that of Israeli hardliners: "From the perspective of the Jews, [September 11] is the most important public-relations act ever committed in our favour," a writer said in the Israeli daily Maariv.

Prime Minister Vajpayee too went on air to reiterate his Pakistan obsession: "We must hold governments wholly accountable for the terrorism that originates from their countries... The world community must get at their organisations, at those who condition, finance, train, equip and protect them... it must isolate, and... compel states that nurture them... The world must join hands to overwhelm them militarily..." This echoed Bush's own intemperate early remarks, obliterating the distinction between terrorism and states which breed it, or which support or condone it - a morally and legally untenable proposition, which would be repugnant to the jurisprudence that has evolved with the Nuremberg trials, with all its distinctions between direct responsibility and degrees of complicity.

Vajpayee & Co are sorely disappointed that the U.S. has chosen Pakistan as its forward-line state - for understandable, if cynical, reasons: the U.S. is not waging a noble war against an international evil; it is basically seeking revenge. As far as Afghanistan goes, Pakistan's logistical and intelligence advantage as well as leverage over the Taliban, far outweigh India's. The U.S. has upgraded Pakistan from a state to be "given a chance" to join the anti-terrorist battle, to a state that has "stepped up" to a responsible position. On September 19, Pervez Musharraf equally cynically linked Pakistan's support to the U.S. to Kashmir, nuclear weapons and to India's exclusion.

America's choice of Pakistan and its understanding of Pakistan's "sensitivities" has thrown would-be Indian collaborators off balance. Some of them peevishly complain that India has "missed the bus". Vajpayee has turned positively sullen: witness his remarks to The Times of India (September 20). Meanwhile, Jaswant Singh has proposed another laughable idea: that a "concert of democracies" should conduct the anti-terrorist operation, after the U.N. holds a conference against terrorism. Interestingly, India is not insisting on a proper Security Council mandate. The "concert" is no more than a tactic to isolate Pakistan and build an exclusive relationship with the U.S., coupled with a sophomoric, semi-academic conference proposal. It is based on the illusion that democracies are irrevocably opposed to terrorism or would not behave in ways that create and strengthen it. This is dangerously untrue, as the U.S.' own history - and as Kashmir and Sri Lanka - show.

With bankrupt and foolishly tactless "alternatives" like these, reinforced by servile pro-U.S. attitudes, India will be in no position to resist hegemonic pressures for a bloody, brutal war in and around Afghanistan. Pakistan too is drifting into this, with a little trepidation, but equally motivated by the "chance" - of becoming America's forward-line ally and overcome the opprobrium that comes with its "failing state" status and its support to the Taliban.

This course is deeply fraught. Such is the strength of the Islamicisation process in Pakistan's armed forces, under the encouragement of a bankrupt leadership, that it will not be easy for Musharraf to pull off any joint operation with the U.S. against "Islamic" forces such as the Taliban. (His September 19 appearance betrayed diffidence and confusion, not self-assurance.) Many perceptive observers, such as Tariq Ali, fear a mutiny in the Army. At minimum, Pakistan will witness horrible social turmoil and further destabilisation and destruction of its already fragile institutions. There is a limit to how much force the Musharraf regime can use. The more it is identified with the U.S., and the deeper the U.S. gets into the Afghan morass, the higher the likely level of social discontent. Pakistan could conceivably undergo some of the self-same processes that led to Afghanistan's collapse - albeit under a more centralised authority. This could have horrifying consequences for that society - and for India. A nuclear power collapsing on India's borders is a nightmarish prospect.

This prospect is not as fantastic as it might appear. By all indications, bin Laden has an extensive military network with reinforced bunkers. Breaking into it will need substantial land-based operations that can result in a high level of casualties. U.S. troops will be extremely vulnerable to fierce attacks on the open, rugged terrain. The danger of the use of weapons of mass destruction and disproportionate force by America is real.

All these circumstances are conducive precisely to the kind of unbearable pressures that generate cracks in state structures and implode societies. Inviting America into this region could constitute a suicidal course. In order to avert this, the U.S. must be tamed - through the only available international body, the Security Council. Instead of doing this, the Vajpayee government is kow-towing to America. It is also doing little to counter the equation of Islam with jehad and terrorism, or to protect the minorities and defend pluralism and secularism at this critical juncture. Terrible times lie ahead of India.

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