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Against a lurking enemy

Print edition : Sep 29, 2001

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The Bush administration's response to the terrorist attacks is tempered by the realisation that the U.S. cannot win a war against terrorism on its own.

A STUNNED United States is still trying to understand what happened on September 11. The Bush administration is putting together the various pieces of the puzzle. And American society is bracing itself for tougher internal security mechanisms, hoping that ordinary civil rights will not be thrown to the winds in the process. Will things ever be the same? This is a question often raised by people.

The country is slowly coming out of the shock of the events of that tragic Tuesday, which have been compared to the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. The conviction in some quarters is that the retaliation will be even more devastating. In 1941, not a single sober Japanese person would have believed that the country could get away with an attack of that scale on U.S. military installations. The big difference this time around is that the U.S. is going after an enemy that is literally all over, at home and abroad. This makes the task of taking on the "enemy" all the more difficult.

What happened in a span of about an hour on September 11 was unbelievable. All hell broke loose, not just in the two cities that were under attack but all over the country. The initial impression in New York was that a small Piper plane had veered off course and hit one of the towers of the World Trade Centre. But about 18 minutes later, to everyone's horror, a second plane was seen slicing through another tower. And then came reports of the Pentagon taking a direct hit. There was panic in the streets of the nation's capital, and key buildings and offices were evacuated. A hypothetical situation of terrorist attack that scholars and analysts were discussing in conference rooms all these years was a reality, and with devastating consequences.

New Yorkers were dumbstruck. This was quite visible in hotel lobbies and street corners where people crowded around television monitors and radio sets. Manhattan, which hardly ever shuts down, looked deserted, evoking an eerie feeling. Ten days after the shocking incidents, New York was still clearing the debris with sinking hopes of finding survivors.

No one had yet put a firm estimate of the costs of the collapse of the WTC towers and adjacent buildings and of bringing down structures that were weakened by the crashes. The only hint of the costs can be inferred from the fact that President George W. Bush asked Congress for special appropriations of $40 billion for recovery efforts and additional security provisioning.

The President, who was in Florida at the time of the terrorist attacks, did not return immediately because the Secret Service had to ensure that the security environment in the capital was acceptable. Moreover, no one was sure whether the White House, or for that matter Air Force One, was an intended target. After making two high-security stops in Louisiana and Nebraska, Air Force One finally touched down late in the evening of September 11.

There are too many angles to what happened to the U.S. on that day. The terrorism angle was there for all to see. The terrorists hit targets that mean a lot to Americans. The World Trade Centre was seen as a symbol of the U.S' economic might and the Pentagon reflected its military power.

Although scores of people have been detained, there is widespread apprehension that the authorities may not have got even the correct names of the hijackers because too many fake names, documents and papers have been found. Nevertheless, the authorities are determined to get to the roots of the problem even if it means going to Congress seeking approval for tougher sanctions against nations and individuals behind the attack.

What surprises people is the fact that many of the terrorist-hijackers entered the U.S. legally and some or all of them lived off a system that has its share of faults and faultlines. They held different types of visas - student and business visas, for instance. They paid wads of cash for flying instructions. At least one terrorist had told his instructor that he was not interested in learning to take off and land but only to manoeuvre a plane in the skies. It is unbelievable that no one brought all these details to the attention of the authorities.

Many people have criticised the airport security system for its lack of professionalism. Federal Aviation Authority rules allow plastic knives but it was not clear how the hijackers got on board carrying box cutters with metallic components. Finally, whatever had happened to the intelligence system, domestic and international, which was said to be so hi-tech? Another question raised is whether the human angle has been sacrificed to the extent of inviting a catastrophe. In the first few days after the attacks, law-makers rallied behind the administration and the intelligence agencies but they have reserved some searching questions for a later date.

THE administration has worked out a sophisticated plan for what Bush termed "the first war of the 21st century" - against the forces of terror. The conventional way of looking at nation-states as friends and foes does not have a place in its scheme of things any longer. Washington has made it known that it will hunt down not only terrorists but also their supporters, sympathisers and sponsors. And this is just the beginning of a long-drawn-out war on terrorism that will go beyond the use of conventional weapons and adopt even the extreme and unconventional method of killing terrorists and the high-level operatives behind them.

A clear message bordering on a warning has been sent out to the world at large. "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," Bush told a joint session of Congress. To the perpetrators of the crime and their associates, Bush had a blunt message: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."

The "crusade" against terrorism is a multifaceted one, which will take into account domestic necessities and foreign policy compulsions. Internally, the Justice Department is tightening the screws. Wideranging measures - from wiretaps to detentions for up to 48 hours and summary deportation of suspected terrorists without presentation of evidence to courts - are being contemplated. Such measures stem from a realisation that apart from using the loopholes in the law, terrorists might have established a wide network in the country. In their efforts to find out whether there have been attempts to undermine the system, the authorities have paid particular attention to financial networks and markets.

The foreign policy angle of the fight against terrorism has at least two major components - the leadership of the U.S., with its forces and wherewithal, and the role of other nations within the grand coalition that is being built, however shaky the coalition might seem at present.

Militarily the response to the attacks will be both conventional and non-conventional. In many operations the Clinton administration kept out the land forces, but there is a realisation in the Bush administration that terrorists and terrorism cannot be wiped out by cruise missiles. Hence, the inclination to use elite commandos, including the Green Berets and the Rangers. The idea is to paradrop the commandos, who could infiltrate small areas where terrorists have their hideouts and call for air support if needed.

The Bush administration realises that it cannot conduct the war against terrorism on its own. Hence the active solicitation of assistance from other countries. On the one hand, there is the hope that support for the coalition will come voluntarily; on the other, there is the conviction that it is difficult to build and sustain a coalition without using pressure.

It is not as if the U.S. does not understand the dilemma of its Arab "allies" and other Islamic nations. Everyone knows that many of these allies are nothing more than politically bankrupt regimes groping for legitimacy and that they stand to lose if they are seen as backing the U.S.

When it comes to Pakistan, Washington is really in a bind for more than one reason. In the first place, the Bush administration knows the political position of President Pervez Musharraf, who has to deal with the deep resentment within the hardline establishment against the country throwing its weight behind the U.S. What the U.S. expects from Pakistan is not just its "permission" to use its airspace but more comprehensive support. Pakistan, for all practical purposes, will be the launchpad for any U.S. operation against Afghanistan.

Secondly, the Bush administration has realised that for all its tough talk in the recent past about restoration of democracy in Pakistan, only the brass hats in Islamabad can deliver the goods in the present circumstances. Post-September 11, there has not been even a murmur about democracy in Pakistan.

There has been speculation about what Pakistan has "gained" from jumping on to the U.S. bandwagon. Many in Washington and elsewhere are talking about "deals". Although it might be improper to talk about deals at this sensitive hour, the bottomline is that in this line of business, as in any other, there is nothing like a free lunch.

Musharraf may not have insisted on a crude deal of sorts but would have certainly looked at the long-term interests of interacting with the Bush administration. There may be economic benefits in the form of lifting of sanctions, a package from the International Monetary Fund, a liberal debt write-off programme, enhanced developmental assistance, and so on. If nations are to be punished for harbouring and supporting terrorists, there would have to be rewards for those supporting the fight against terrorism. In fact, the Bush administration is thinking of going to Capitol Hill with a demand for additional funding to "reward" nations that have joined the U.S' anti-terrorism efforts.

But Islamabad will be having an eye on the political benefits too, especially in the context of the growing demand for a global meeting to address, among other things, the causes of terrorism. Any such meeting will be used by Pakistan as a forum to reiterate its theories on Kashmir and the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters.

For the past three years or so, the Government of India has been using every occasion to question the anti-terrorism credentials of Pakistan. The Clinton administration took a tough line against Islamabad in this regard. Musharraf's long- term gain may not lie in getting the U.S. involved as a third party in the India-Pakistan dispute. But if he succeeds in turning the Bush administration's focus away from the linkages between Kashmir and terrorism, it would give a fresh impetus to bilateral relations.

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