Action and apprehension

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The Bush administration finally hits at Afghanistan but is apparently concerned about the international community's reaction to its action.

OPERATION Enduring Freedom has begun. The intensive bombing of "highly selective targets" in Afghanistan by the armed forces of the United States and the United kingdom is not expected to be called off before the Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Al Qaeda, get the message.

The ruins of the World Trade Centre.-TANNENBAUM ALLAN/GAMMA

Although the George W. Bush administration was critical of Bill Clinton for the manner in which the Democratic President handled reprisals, the fact is that the Republican administration has also not acted in a very different manner. It stuck to the routine - the unleashing of cruise missiles from the air and the sea, coupled with the conventional bombing runs involving smart munitions.

In his address to the nation soon after the military operation was launched, President Bush said: "These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime." The President warned that the Taliban "will pay a price".

Apart from military and civilian utilities, the U.S. and the U.K. targeted the training camps of Al Qaeda, though for the record it was said that Osama bin Laden was not personally targeted. The military strikes had two components. The firepower was directed against Taliban and perceived Osama bin Laden strongholds in Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad. On the other hand, in order to give the much-needed advantage to the Northern Alliance, strike aircraft and conventional heavy-duty bombers targeted Taliban reinforcements in areas such as Tahar, Konduz and Mazar-e-Sharief.

It was evident that the Northern Alliance was acting in concert with the grand "coalition" forces of the U.S. and the U.K. Not only had there been a free flow of intelligence information from the ground, but the Northern Alliance was reportedly given a boost with the supply of weapons. According to one report, the morale of the Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan was low, with the local commanders in a difficult position trying to convince their men to stay on and fight.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld (right), with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, briefs the press at the Pentagon on October 7.-THEW SHANNON/AFP

The strikes came from places like the Arabian Sea off Pakistan and also Missouri, from where the B-2 Stealth Bombers operated. In the first three hours, at least 70 Tomahawk cruise missiles were unleashed from surface ships and submarines. The B-52s and B-1s rolled out of the bases in Diego Garcia, carrying missiles and munitions. An assortment of strike jets, including F-16s and F-15s operating out of the decks of two aircraft carriers, also joined the operation.

Although the Republican administration took its time, there were pockets of domestic opinion that were losing patience. Bush made sure that he had a "coalition" and, in the first hours after the strikes against the Taliban, was anxiously waiting for the world's response. At the time of writing, responses were available only from the West, and none of the Arab "allies" or the friends of the U.S. had rushed in with words of support.

This is why the President does not wish to stop with his telephone calls to world leaders either before or after the strikes. He has deputed Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell to get in touch with world leaders, including leaders of Pakistan and India. The process will be completed prior to the start of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum meeting in Shanghai in the third week of October. But domestic opinion has been on expected lines. Members of Congress threw their weight behind the President and public opinion was already in his favour.

Meanwhile, the administration, led personally by the President, is making two points: enough warning was given, and the intention is not to hurt the people of Afghanistan. Moreover, to show sympathy to the people of Afghanistan, the U.S. and the U.K. pointed out that the military strikes were carried out to soften the ground for airdropping food, medicines and other essential items. Transport planes were dropping packets of food and other items in Afghanistan.

THE Republican administration had its reasons for taking time. It was not because enough firepower was not assembled in the Gulf region, the Arabian Sea, and the forward bases, including Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Rather, the United States understood the War against Terrorism as a multi-pronged effort, the military effort being only one of its components.

Moreover, the U.S. is fully aware of the fact that some of its allies are Arab or Islamic states, many of whom are not convinced of the culpability of bin Laden in the September 11 incidents. Some regimes are even wary of the political and social implications of endorsing the agenda of the U.S.

Heading the list of such nations is Pakistan, whose leader has, in the eyes of many people, taken a major political risk in siding with the U.S. One argument is that President Pervez Musharraf may not have been given a choice in this campaign. Another is that it is an opportunity for Musharraf to bounce back into the limelight after being at the receiving end for a long time.

And Pakistan came through at the critical moment. When the U.S. and the U.K. unleashed their military wherewithal on the Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden, Pakistan was a full-fledged actor - its air space was used and it had passed on vital intelligence information. At the same time, its President was making the point that the operations should cease sooner than later. After all there are not too many targets to go after and the Taliban militia is hardly considered a potent military force.

Pakistan's cooperation in the War against Terrorism came with a price both for itself and for the U.S. To the former, it is one of not only distancing itself from a close ally but also in allowing the U.S. to use its facilities in the military action. For the Bush administration, it is one of coming up with a "package" of goodies, irrespective of whether a "deal" has been made or not.

Anti-war demonstrators in Berkeley, California, rallying also in support of Arab-Americans and South Asian Muslims who have been targeted.-SWIFT THOR/GAMMA

The Bush administration not only understood the compulsions of Musharraf but was willing to soften the role of Pakistan. The apprehension was about not only destabilising the military regime in Islamabad but destabilising a country with nuclear weapons. This may be the reason why much of the action was launched from bases far away from Pakistan.

For a President who enjoyed a high popularity rating of 90 per cent in the first three weeks of the crisis, it is not a question of sustaining the rating. In a time of crisis the White House will make the obvious point that it is not a popularity contest. Yet, from a long-term perspective, George W. Bush needs to ensure that the people of the U.S. do not get distracted from the challenges ahead. However, somewhere down the line there must also be the thinking that although Bush Senior had a rating of 89 per cent at end of the Gulf War in 1991 it got him nowhere in his re-election bid in 1992.

The initial reaction of the people of the U.S. to the terrorist attacks of September 11 was one that wanted to lay waste to Afghanistan. However, the administration, led by the President, quickly and forcefully made the point that it was ridiculous to chase tents worth $10 each with cruise missiles worth a million dollars each. From the beginning the accent was on patience.

Before the operation began, the Bush administration was also seriously looking at alternatives. Washington would have loved to see the Taliban cracking under pressure, that too, without a shot being fired. It had plans on other fronts too, though it maintained that the U.S. was not in the business of nation-building. No one is under any illusion about the extent to which the Bush administration would have to be involved economically if the anti-Taliban forces manage to put together a coalition.

While it gives some attention to the former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, the Bush administration is also getting close to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. In fact, it is possible that the U.S. is more than just flirting with the rebel group. However, Washington is also wary of the Northern Alliance. Apart from a sense of unease over the latter's relationship with the Russians, the U.S. is apprehensive about the group's ability to deliver the goods and also its involvement in drug trafficking.

Washington is seeing if a coalition of sorts could be assembled in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. Of course, the refrain is that only the Afghan people can choose their destiny. Yet, in calling for a broad-based government, there is also the realisation that it might have to include the Taliban as a component. There is also the hope that perhaps a few "moderates" will quit the Taliban and give legitimacy to the evolving scheme of things.

Washington's dealings with Afghanistan are not confined to the political and strategic aspects. There is also the humanitarian angle. Already the U.S. is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan - nearly $200 million - in spite of the fact that it keeps a stranglehold on the Taliban through the United Nations sanctions regime.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and the tightening of the noose around the Taliban, the Bush administration has allotted about $320 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. However, the aid is just to help the "poor souls" in that country; it is also to drive home the point that the U.S.' anger and pique is not directed against the people of Afghanistan.

If the first phase of the War against Terrorism is focussed on bin Laden, the Taliban and Afghanistan, the Bush administration has promised countries like India that the "war" does not end with the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan but will include such areas as Jammu and Kashmir. Washington seems to be keen on allaying the fears of New Delhi on many fronts, mainly because it realises that Pakistan is hardly an ally to be relied upon in the fight against terrorism.

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