America's War

Terror struck the U.S. out of a clear blue sky on September 11. The world has been promised that retribution will come as a war of multiple frontiers and infinite hazards.

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

Rescue operations at the World Trade Centre.-ANDRADE PATRICK/ GAMMA

Rescue operations at the World Trade Centre.-ANDRADE PATRICK/ GAMMA

AS the United States of America continues its relentless build-up of military force in South and Central Asia, the world watches with growing unease and trepidation. Lethal weaponry has left the shores of the U.S. on a massive scale along with supportive military assets. Even if the destinations to which these deadly payloads have been transported are a closely guarded secret, there is little ambiguity about the purpose to which they are to be put. Landlocked and impoverished, ruined by two decades of war, drafted into a holy war against communism and then abandoned to a cruel fate dictated by religious fundamentalists who had flourished under U.S. patronage, Afghanistan has become the theatre of the new crusade.

Bringing up an eager rearguard in the U.S. campaign against global terrorism - codenamed Infinite Justice in a deliberate usurpation of a mandate reserved in most systems of faith for a divine, supernatural being - is the United Kingdom. The U.S' most loyal and obsequious ally today seeks to return to the battleground that has several times in the past frustrated its insatiable instincts for imperial expansion. Although never a credible state with a strong central authority, Afghanistan as a amalgam of tribal affiliations and ethnic loyalties was always able to push back any effort at subjugation from outside. For long, it was the uneasy neutral zone between Russian and British imperialism, which often succeeded in penetrating from opposite ends of the compass, though never in establishing a semblance of control. The decisive struggle in the 1980s pitted the forces of modernisation against medievalism, with the U.S. being the principal prop of the latter. Today these forces have returned to haunt their sponsors, who in turn have embarked upon a final effort to extinguish the fires they had unleashed. But Afghanistan will not by any means be the only frontier of the new wars of Western imperialism. The new phase of conflict is indeed one with infinite possibilities.

Pakistan will be among the first countries to be directly touched in the new wars of Western imperialism. This has implications which go right to the core of India's turbulent relations with its neighbour. After a maladroit effort to offer itself as a staging post for the new wars, India has seemingly retreated, reduced to a petulant sulk by the U.S' indifference to its ardour. The tone of superior wisdom, though, is still evident in most official pronouncements. The official pretence now is that on September 11 the U.S. only suffered a grotesque escalation of a terrorist war that India has faced since long. In its obsession with Kashmir, the Indian government has turned its back on a longstanding national commitment to the struggle of Palestine against colonial oppression and sacrificed a vital interest in keeping the neighbourhood free of the intrusive attentions of the U.S.

Pakistan's central importance in the new wars has led to a correction of the U.S. tilt towards India, which until recently was considered the single most important achievement of the Jaswant Singh dispensation in the Ministry of External Affairs. It has for long been known that the U.S. was on the verge of lifting the sanctions imposed against India after the nuclear explosive tests of 1998. The same special consideration was not expected to be extended to Pakistan, since it remained a problem state in U.S. eyes for several reasons. As the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage put it a few months ago, the U.S. had awoken to the realisation that its ties with Pakistan were always based not on mutual values but on the expediency of shared opposition to some other country. With the adversarial phase of world politics having ended with the Cold War, the U.S. had no incentive to maintain its erstwhile bonds with Pakistan at the risk of a long-overdue rapprochement with democratic India.

Sanctions against India and Pakistan have now been concurrently waived, since they are deemed to be contrary to the national security interests of the U.S. It would of course have been an absurd situation for the U.S. to land its most sophisticated weaponry in a country that it still maintained military sanctions against. But more than military cooperation, the promise of increased financial flows into a faltering economy has provided a lifeline to the Pervez Musharraf regime in Pakistan. Trapped between the unrelenting demands of the U.S. and its own deep involvement with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Pakistan military is bracing for a sharp increase in domestic dissent, even violence, in the event of an assault on Afghanistan. When hostilities commence as they must, the humanitarian crisis on the border is likely to be transformed into catastrophe. And there is little indication that the Western powers will assume their share of responsibility in dealing with this. Indeed, under U.S. tutelage the United Nations Security Council has been adopting quite the opposite tack - imposing comprehensive economic sanctions against Afghanistan, collectively punishing a civilian population for the supposed crimes of a government, in violation of all international covenants.

ONLY the naive and the misinformed in India can believe that the expected hostilities will not impinge deeply on life within this country. An undercurrent of popular resentment is already evident against the Atal Behari Vajpayee government for the manner in which it sacrificed national honour in offering a virtual carte blanche to the U.S. to base its retaliatory operations on Indian territory. After resisting the effort to internationalise the Kashmir problem for decades, India is now in tacit connivance with this project, having of its own volition placed the political problem of Kashmir within the context of international Islamic militancy. India's traditional friends within the Third World are unimpressed by the new turn in policy. Their ability to support India on the Kashmir issue would correspondingly be undermined, forcing India to fall back increasingly on its newfound and opportunistic friendship with the terrorist state of Israel.

Terror struck New York out of a clear blue sky on September 11, as thousands of ordinary Americans were beginning a workaday morning. Few accounts since then have been able to capture the infinite horror and shock of those moments between the aircraft hits on two of the tallest buildings in the world and their final collapse. And few expressions of grief since have proved quite adequate to the trauma of the occasion. The national capital of Washington suffered one hit on the Pentagon, the nerve centre of the U.S. military command hierarchy. Another was averted in circumstances that are yet to be fully determined, when a hijacked aircraft crashed in the State of Pennsylvania. After careening to distant corners of the continent while his nation was under attack, President George Bush arrived back in Washington late in the evening to outline the broad agenda for retaliatory action.

Deeply embarrassed by their boss' prudent absence from his command post at a moment of crisis, Bush's handlers sought to contain the damage by leaking word, through The New York Times columnist, English language pundit and right-wing ideologue William Safire, that a mole in the White House had provided secret codes to the terrorists, enabling them to make a direct threat to the presidential aircraft through secure telephone lines. This outrageously fanciful conspiracy theory was subsequently debunked.

Equally curious was the absolute invisibility for days after the attack of Vice-President Dick Cheney, designated as the informal head of the administration's counter-terrorism operations. Two days after the event, it was officially announced that Cheney had been transferred to the presidential retreat at Camp David in the State of Maryland, in order to ensure that the line of succession to the presidency was not threatened by a possible terrorist strike in Washington. The less gullible political analysts had a different interpretation: Cheney's enforced absence from the national capital was intended to focus attention on Bush, affording him the opportunity to look the part of a President.

Never at ease at occasions that he has not rehearsed for, Bush repeatedly sought out the vocabulary of the wild frontiers of the colonisation of America. The favoured words, repeated ad nauseam before a largely uncritical global media, were hunting down and smoking out the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. And from Day 2 of the attack, Osama bin Laden, the fugitive Saudi Arabian multi-millionaire with a self-proclaimed mission of liberating his homeland from the occupation of U.S. forces, began to be identified as the prime suspect.

The full dimensions of the proposed campaign were spelt out two days after the terrorist strikes by the ultra-hawkish Deputy Secretary for Defence, Paul Wolfowitz. The administration, he said, would mount a broad and sustained campaign in response to the attacks against the U.S: It is not simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism.

This was just the kind of revelation of intent that the U.S. administration could have done without, as Secretary of State Colin Powell began the tortuous process of lining up allies for the proposed retaliatory strikes. Expectedly, Powell was at pains to tone down the bellicosity of Wolfowitz' statement: "We are after ending terrorism. And if there are states and regimes, nations, that support terrorism, we hope to persuade them that it is in their interest to stop doing that. But I think ending terrorism is where I would leave it."

Even as this disclaimer was issued, the official spokesman of the White House, Ari Fleischer, seemed to undermine its credibility by insisting that all states that maintained a hostile posture towards the U.S. needed to be aware of the full consequences of their attitude.

There was evident from the beginning of the crisis a division within the U.S. administration on the scope of its operations. Powell and his deputy Armitage, were anxious to ensure a global consensus around U.S. military actions, by narrowly focussing the first strikes against targets that were proven to be culpable on September 11. Others such as Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, who have been arguing for a final settling of accounts with U.S.-designated rogue states since January, were believed to be pressing for a broad-ranging effort that would target Iraq, Iran, the Bekaa Valley in southern Lebanon and possibly Sudan.

This divided counsel engendered a number of contradictions in the U.S. approach towards potential allies. Iran, for instance, engaged in a belligerent display of armed might along the long border it shares with Afghanistan just three years ago. It has little affinity for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and has vaguely indicated that it will cooperate with the drive against terrorism. The U.S., which does not maintain diplomatic links with Iran, is believed to be using the U.K. as a conduit to firm up that country's backing and secure its assistance, perhaps most crucially in the matter of access to its airspace. But the U.S. State Department, in the annual catalogue of terrorist organisations it publishes, has listed a number of groups that are known to be extremely close to the Iranian government, putting Iran right in the foreground of the rogue states' gallery. It is not clear what reassurances the U.S. can give at this stage, particularly when Iran's core concerns over the Israeli occupation of Palestine remain unaddressed.

Saudi Arabia, which recognises the Taliban regime, remains another curiosity. It has kept up an enigmatic silence on its attitude towards Afghanistan and the Taliban. For those who are not deluded by U.S. claims that Saudi Arabia is an oasis of moderation and stability in the Arab world, the reasons would seem rather clear. First, bin Laden is known to have a powerful constituency within the desert kingdom, which would be roused to new levels of militancy if the Saudi monarchy were to lend its support to any effort to capture and eliminate him. Secondly, the Saudi monarchy itself is known to maintain ties with bin Laden through various intermediaries, and till as recently as last year was seeking to neutralise his militant movement through generous financial offers and assurances of rehabilitation within the higher ranks of Saudi society.

After several days of insistence that the world should accept bin Laden's culpability as an article of faith, the Bush administration seemed, under Powell's prodding, to soften its posture. Allies would be given concrete proof to establish this fact, said Powell, around the same time that he described the Saudi monarchy as very responsive to U.S. concerns. It seems a reasonable inference that the willingness to share information is an effort to win the allegiance of the Saudi monarchy.

Another pillar of the Pax Americana in the Arab world is clearly tottering. In a blunt riposte to the U.S. ultimatum that countries that refused to stand by it would be deemed to be allies of terrorism, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has declined to join the proposed "coalition" against "global terrorism". He spelt out his reasons in a plaintive appeal to the U.S. on September 22: "If you launch an attack against Afghanistan or any other country on your list of rogue states, you will kill many innocent people, just as the terrorists killed many of your people. Don't play the game of the enemy. They want your reprisals to bring forth, from the blood and ruins of your bombing, a new generation of militants who will call for revenge against the United States."

Israel, the singular pole around which U.S. policy towards the Arab world revolves, was, meanwhile, utilising the paralysis of global decision-making for its own narrow purposes. On three successive days, the Israeli Army went into Palestinian controlled towns on ruthless "find and destroy" missions directed against the institutions and physical infrastructure of Palestinian society. Alarmed at the prospect of the Arab world turning hostile at a critical juncture, Powell insisted that a ceasefire be called. This was reluctantly granted by Israel, but a proposed meeting between Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is yet to materialise. The thuggish Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has denounced Arafat as an unrepentant terrorist who is partly culpable for the attacks on the U.S. and denied Peres permission for the meeting. In an unmistakable signal that the "government of national unity" in Israel is besieged from within, Peres boycotted a subsequent meeting of the Security Cabinet and deplored Sharon's recalcitrance at a moment when the U.S. desperately needed all the solidarity it could find among traditional allies.

Three days after the attack, George W. Bush was armed with the widest mandate to conduct war since 1964, when the U.S. Congress empowered President Lyndon Johnson to take all necessary action to protect the U.S. armed forces against the unprovoked aggression of Vietnamese communists. The casus belli that Johnson cited was an alleged attack on U.S. naval vessels in the Tonkin Bay, now recognised as one of the clumsiest and least persuasive concoctions of the U.S. Defence Department. But in contrast to the relatively narrow mandate then conferred - which was subsequently expanded to cover the carpet-bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos - the authorisation for war now is almost infinite in its scope.

This in itself should be reason for concern all over the world, and these worries are only compounded by the manifest incapacity of the incumbent U.S. President to address the problem before him in a manner that has a remote connection with rationality. His address to Congress on September 20, read by an adulatory media as a defining moment when a President retrieves the credibility and leadership qualities that had earlier been lacking, was a virtual declaration of lawlessness.

Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done, declared President Bush. The intent behind the declaration is clear: either the enemies of the U.S. will be smoked out of their places of hiding to face the U.S. judicial system, or they will face summary justice at the wrong end of U.S. missiles and bombs. And then, another gem from the President's speech-writer, that the Taliban must act and act immediately, either hand over the terrorists or share in their fate, is little else than a threat that carpet-bombing of an entire people would be the inevitable consequence of their government's failure to accede to U.S. demands. Perhaps most ominous is the explicit threat handed out to the world: "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded as a hostile regime."

It is learnt that combat search-and-rescue teams have been stationed in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan, which has pledged cooperation, and Tajikistan, which is a more reluctant ally. Ground troops and personnel of the special operations groups of the U.S. Marine Corps and the British Special Air Services (SAS) are also believed to have been deployed in large numbers in the neighbourhood, though it is not clear yet that Pakistan has provided an operational base. Military forces in the West Asian theatre have been augmented and partly redeployed towards Central Asian bases. Naval fleets in the Gulf are being moved towards Pakistan's offshore waters to bring Afghanistan within striking range of carrier-based aircraft and ship-launched missiles. The British press has already run reports about a plan to be launched in early October, after a phase of saturation aerial bombing, to land commando units at select locations in Afghanistan to snatch bin Laden and eliminate his armed contingents.

In the shell-shocked aftermath of September 11, inevitable parallels were drawn with the attack on Pearl Harbour six decades ago. The sound-alike sound-bytes that were harvested by the mass media seemed to suggest strongly that the U.S. had suffered a grievous attack on account of the freedoms that it guarantees. Sage voices were heard, notably from Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, arguing that to rescind any of the basic civil liberties would be to concede defeat at the very beginning of the long war ahead. But the hastily assembled anti-terrorism Bill that the U.S. administration proposes to put before Congress approves of a broad range of restraints upon the liberties of particular groups, especially immigrants. Further internal convulsions are clearly in store for a society already divided by the debates on social security and taxation. Perhaps what was destroyed above all on September 11 is the myth of America, the myth of freedom and liberty that was propagated on the basis of the denial of these rights to the world's poor by an aggressive militarist posture abroad.

And the realisation that the attack of September 11 constituted a declaration of war is surely a belated awakening for a nation that has been at war with the world almost without break for over half a century.

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