War on Afghanistan

A Western coalition strikes with full fury at the supposed perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Taking the impact is a nation that has already been ravaged by decades of strife.

Published : Oct 13, 2001 00:00 IST

F/A-18 Hornets ready for take-off from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, on October 7 at an undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean.-RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP

F/A-18 Hornets ready for take-off from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, on October 7 at an undisclosed location in the Indian Ocean.-RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP

THE world has seen these images before with a mixture of despair and dread: a clear night sky scarred by the tracks of lethal projectiles streaking towards undefended targets. Cities being roused from sleep by deafening explosions, learning at daybreak that a familiar urban landscape has changed beyond recognition. Civic amenities that are a part of daily life vanishing as the sources that provide them are attacked with deliberate precision.

These images are now accompanied by the bewildering thought that the land taking the full fury of the new wars of Western imperialism is one that has already been devastated by decades of strife. Recognising the moral indefensibility of attacking a country already suffering a humanitarian crisis of immense dimensions, aircraft of the United States were between dropping deadly payloads of explosives on Afghanistan, alternating with food, medicines, blankets and other relief supplies. And as the smoke began to rise from bombed-out sites in Kabul, Kandahar and numerous other cities, the fog of war descended heavily across the world.

The pilot of a bomber aircraft that had participated in the strikes reported that his mission had proceeded like a "finely-oiled machine". Another said that his bombing run over Afghanistan had been easier even than a routine training sortie. But the triumphalism that was seen in the bombing of Iraq and Yugoslavia seemed missing, as also the exultation that comes from raining death and destruction on defenceless people from behind the protection that high technology affords. The official perspective on the raids on Afghanistan in Western circles was that they were essentially directed against Osama bin Laden, his Al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But it has been reliably reported that one of the two functioning power stations in Afghanistan was hit in the first round of air strikes, as also the country's main radio broadcast centre.

The strikes began just after nightfall on October 7. As day broke after several rounds of air and missile strikes, news agency reports from Kabul indicated that a large number of civilians had been killed. The Taliban claimed that it had shot down an enemy aircraft but the U.S. Defence Department denied that any of the 15 bombers and 25 strike aircraft used in the operations had suffered damage. The United Kingdom for its part confirmed that its role in the first day's military operations had been confined to launching a number of Tomahawk cruise missiles from submarines. Although the location of these submarines was not revealed, it seems a reasonable surmise that they were operating within Pakistani territorial waters.

Rioting had meanwhile broken out in a number of cities in Pakistan. In Peshawar and Quetta, marches held to express solidarity with Afghanistan turned violent and had to be dispersed by the police. Islamic groups staged noisy demonstrations outside the Pakistan Army's General Staff Headquarters in Rawalpindi, condemning the military leadership's endorsement of the air strikes against a neighbouring country. And in Islamabad, protestors set off for the American Centre in tumultuous waves, defying prohibitory orders and facing down repeated police warnings to clear the streets.

Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf lost little time in taking to the air waves to explain matters to his restive nation. The operations would be brief and relatively painless, he claimed, since the U.S. and British forces had a well-defined objective and ample information available to choose the most appropriate targets. But even as he provided this broadly phrased endorsement of the Western powers' battle plan for Afghanistan, he held out a warning to the Northern Alliance - a disparate coalition of armed groups representing Afghanistan's ethnic minorities - that it should not "take advantage" of the situation on the ground. He also responded to an imaginary threat of military action from India by declaring that Pakistan forces were on the highest state of alert and were prepared to repel any adventurism from across the border.

With all the aura of confidence that he projected, Musharraf had taken ample measures to protect his flanks. Two of the most prominent leaders of the Islamic Right in Pakistan had been placed under house arrest hours before the air offensive began. And a major reshuffle within the top ranks of the Army saw two associates being promoted to the rank of four-star General and the Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant-General Mahmood Ahmed, being dispatched into retirement. These were read as a measure of abundant precaution by the embattled President, despite all his protestations that they were part of a routine rearrangement of responsibilities in the military hierarchy.

First reports emerging from Afghanistan seemed to indicate that the Northern Alliance was not quite heeding Musharraf's warning. And with initial battle damage assessments indicating serious damage to the military infrastructure of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance's accelerated ground offensive was yielding it instant dividends. Spokesmen for the military coalition were declaring that it had the strategically vital town of Mazar-e-Sharief within its sights. And a march on Kabul was being talked of as a feasible military option.

THE worldwide reaction was sharply polarised. France, Germany and Italy endorsed the military operations and offered to contribute their own forces if that would help lessen the burden of international law enforcement that the U.S. and the U.K. had manfully shouldered. The Russian government, which has found itself at odds with most major Western military operations in the recent past, provided its unequivocal backing.

Within the Islamic world, Iraq showed little hesitation about issuing a prompt and strongly worded denunciation of the military strikes, which it said would destabilise the entire region. Iran, a traditional adversary of the West, expressed its muted disapproval, characterising the air strikes on Afghanistan as "unacceptable". Malaysia had a deeply argued and reasoned critique. Although it endorsed the general idea of a campaign against terrorism, it was not convinced that this purpose would be served by the conventional instruments of warfare.

For the rest, the reaction from the Arab world was one of deep unease and trepidation, made more profound by the fact that many of the more wealthy and powerful Arab regimes - Egypt and Saudi Arabia notably - are traditional military allies of the U.S. and hence partly culpable for its actions.

There is still no indication of the range of targets and the time-frame for the ongoing military operations. The U.S.' principal need now is to capture or physically eliminate Osama bin Laden. Operating on the premise that the Al Qaeda network will wither away when its head is severed, the U.S. is running a vast military operation with a rather narrowly focussed objective. There are a number of ways in which this aim could be accomplished. The aerial bombing could coerce and intimidate the Taliban regime in Afghanistan into handing over bin Laden. Alternatively, it could shift the territorial advantage towards the Northern Alliance, which would be more cooperative in the task of locating bin Laden and assisting in his capture. If neither of these works, then the Western bombing campaign is designed to establish complete mastery over the air, so that commandos trained for special operations could then be dispatched at little risk on a mission to search out and capture the fugitive Saudi millionaire.

Military strategists were warning early in the campaign that the possibility of eliminating all risk of casualties were slim. The Taliban army was essentially made up of a number of infantry units, with a limited quantum of heavy artillery and some armoured contingents. Heavy bombing runs targeted at command and control centres would be of limited utility in disabling the Taliban's military strength. Since it was organised as a number of dispersed infantry units, the Taliban army was not seriously dependent on centralised command and control.

AN overarching constraint for the U.S. and the U.K. would be to maintain the political consensus that has enabled them to rush into armed action. This is by no means assured, since the consent of various countries has been explicitly withheld and the U.S. has just seemingly managed to win commitments from traditional allies that dissent will not be made public. Indeed, the military operations may have been delayed by at least a week to enable the U.S. to line up these reluctant allies.

Saudi Arabia remains outside the military effort in every sense. It has declined permission for the U.S. to utilise the Prince Sultan air base for flying sorties against Afghanistan, though the unauthorised use of the command and control facilities there cannot be ruled out. Oman was part of the initial mobilisation, since it hosts a large contingent of British troops and went ahead with a set of pre-scheduled military exercises with the U.K. shortly after the September 11 attacks. However, it has not rushed forward to own up any part of the responsibility for the air strikes against Afghanistan. Uzbekistan initially expressed willingness to offer its military bases for forward deployments of U.S. troops and aircraft. It later suffered some qualms and reportedly asked for an "order of battle", detailing the U.S.' military objectives and the possible time frame for their achievement. Following a visit by U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a compromise was worked out, permitting the U.S. to use the Uzbek military bases for humanitarian purposes, such as search and rescue operations.

Russia's initiative in aligning itself closely with stated U.S. military and political objectives played a key role in the coalition-building effort. President Vladimir Putin is believed to be disgruntled with the Taliban regime which he considers to be instrumental in keeping the conflict in Chechnya raging. Known to be rather resentful of U.S. military expansionism to its west, Russia has now with seemingly little reserve consented to share intelligence on Afghanistan and tolerate a U.S. military presence in the Central Asian republics just south of its borders. In going this far, Putin is believed to have overruled the judgment of his top military officials and brushed aside the objections of the communist and nationalist parties. Russia's approval cannot for this reason be taken for granted indefinitely.

IN the four-week period of preparation for battle, the U.S. worked along three dimensions. First, there was a massive deployment of military force within striking range of Afghanistan. Second, diplomatic initiatives were launched across a broad front to line up commitments of moral and material support for the military operations. And finally, an enormous intelligence gathering effort was set under way, using every possible source - Pakistan, Russia, the Central Asian Republics - to evolve a menu of targeting options for the initial air campaign.

These were arduous tasks which taxed the meagre political skills of the George Bush administration in the U.S. There was first the matter of cultural sensitivity which is now considered as much a part of the new wars of Western imperialism as military strategy. 'Infinite Justice' was the code name first conferred on the mobilisation in the war against global terrorism. Islamic countries, whose support the West was anxious to enlist, pointed out that justice - especially in its infinite variant - is an attribute of the singular and indivisible divine being and not something that can be delivered by B-52 bombers flying at 30,000 feet.

These objections were heeded and the codename 'Enduring Freedom' devised - indicating a mandate for military action that is not quite infinite yet sufficiently open-ended. But whatever reassurances may have been conveyed by the renaming were undermined by the assertion by Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. Deputy Secretary for Defence, that the objective of the new wars would be among other things, to "end the states" that support terrorism. This outburst of bellicosity created unwelcome difficulties for the coalition-building effort, but it was allowed to hold the field as an official declaration of U.S. government policy for close to a week.

Israel was emboldened in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks to capitalise on the heightened sense of vulnerability in the U.S. and brutally suppress all manifestations of Palestinian resistance. Alarmed at the negative repercussions for his coalition-building effort, Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a directive to Israel - to stop its provocative military actions and resume negotiations with Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat. Yet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon repeatedly refused his Foreign Minister Shimon Peres permission to meet Arafat. He relented only after a virtual ultimatum from the U.S.

On October 4, Sharon shocked the world and his few allies by denouncing the U.S. for its "appeasement" of Arabs. Israel, he warned, would not allow itself to be converted into a testing ground for this policy as Czechoslovakia was prior to the Second World War. Rather, Israel would continue its own struggle against terrorism, if necessary in isolation from the rest of the world. Sharon was soon chastised by Powell, but U.S. perceptions of the Palestinian intifada are still far removed from reality. An influential section within the U.S. strategic establishment believes that the intifada has run out of steam and is only being kept alive through the tacit connivance of the Palestinian Authority. This then leads them to the belief that the Authority is part of the problem and not the solution. Disbanding it and destroying its infrastructure, in other words, would bring the unrest in the occupied Palestinian lands quickly under control.

This perspective was firmly proven wrong when the first anniversary of the intifada - dating from Sharon's provocative visit to the Al Aqsa mosque last year - led to an upsurge of Palestinian protest. Consistent with his record for brutish behaviour, which seemingly won him the Prime Minister's job in February, Sharon responded with a massive application of force. The spiral of violence in Palestine shows no signs of abating. And it is by now established political practice in Israel that every time it faces a security dilemma it shifts further to the Right. In fact, Israeli obduracy is the one factor that will likely force the U.S. to abandon its consensual approach, adopt a more unilateral attitude and turn its attention to a broader range of targets.

It has been no secret that the U.S. strategic establishment has been deeply divided over how to tailor its response to the September 11 attacks. A pragmatic section represented by Powell has focussed on objectives that are achievable within a defined time frame. But since the narrow objective of capturing bin Laden would also involve a broader assault that could undermine the foundations of the Taliban regime, other sections within the U.S. State Department are believed to have attached a possible corollary: encourage a political transition in Afghanistan and ensure a representative government that would live at peace with the neighbourhood and the world.

President Bush seemed specifically to disavow the latter objective when he said that the U.S. was not into "nation building". But it is perhaps a symptom of the malaise of power without accountability that the U.S. establishment should have traversed the entire spectrum from "ending" states to "building" nations in a short span of four weeks.

The Powell brand of pragmatism requires that Israel accept restraints on its policies of unilateral action. Not without a hint of disingenuousness, Bush recently became the first Republican President of the U.S. to endorse the notion of a Palestinian state. But for the September 11 attacks, he said, the U.S. had been prepared to announce its support for a Palestinian state at the U.N. General Assembly session which was to start towards the end of the month.

Unwilling to accept any obligations of restraint on Israel, the powerful Zionist lobby in the U.S. has since the beginning of the crisis been pressing for an ambitious and broad-ranging military campaign. In fact, it is known that an alternative blueprint for the war, which has been competing with Powell's for President Bush's attention, has been submitted by Deputy Defence Secretary Wolfowitz. This conceives, in line with the original codename that was conceived for the campaign, of an "infinite war" - a war of multiple objectives that would be waged without frontiers.

The 'infinite war' blueprint proposes aerial assaults, special commando operations and targeted assassinations. Afghanistan would merely be the first phase of the campaign, which would rapidly take in Iraq, the Bekaa valley in southern Lebanon, Iran and Syria. Wolfowitz and his cronies, who are believed to enjoy the support of Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, believe that the September 11 attacks have given the U.S. an unmatched opportunity to crush terrorism once and for all.

Public opinion is being primed for a larger war by a relentless stream of analysis and propaganda in the right-wing press, particularly the journals that are known to be closely associated with the Jewish lobby. Powell's pragmatic and consensual approach has been ridiculed in these circles, and Wolfowitz extolled as the more far-sighted strategist. However the campaign in Afghanistan goes in terms of its defined objectives, the U.S. could soon be impelled to broaden the front of its military offensive by the inherent logic of the situation it confronts.

In evident preparation for a phase of global warfare, a serious effort at thought control is underway through the U.S. media. A case in point is the recent debate - unedifying in normal circumstances - of what constitutes cowardly conduct. For American philosopher and novelist Susan Sontag, no description was more inappropriate to the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington than "cowardice". Courage, she argued, is a morally neutral term. And "cowardice" is a term that is more suitably applied to those who fire missiles at undefended targets from a safe distance of thousands of miles, rather than to those who put themselves at mortal risk while carrying out a lethal mission.

The theme was taken up by the presenter of a talk show entitled "Politically Incorrect" on a major American TV channel. Not known to be given to the reading habit, Bill Maher merely took the title of his show, and its stated purpose of reflecting the unorthodox and unpopular view, rather too literally. "Cowardice" as an epithet could be disputed in its application to the September 11 attacks, he said. The term in fact was probably a more accurate description of military operations which targeted innocent civilians through cruise missiles fired from thousands of miles away.

Maher's reward was a prompt withdrawal of sponsorship and a temporary suspension from the air waves. Following this, the broadcast company that hosted his programme, issued a public apology. And the presenter himself was obliged to don the robes of penitence when he next appeared on TV.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denounced the Maher programme at a press briefing.

A country protected on two flanks by oceanic expanses, which has not suffered a direct assault on its territory for close to two centuries, tends to forget what courage really is and to misapply both the term and its opposite. Myths manufactured by the media and entertainment industries tend to ingrain the facile use of these words as a habit, posing a major impediment to understanding. Still secure in these myths and the delusion that it is "the indispensable nation", the U.S. is now embarking on a course of global military action that is only likely to shatter the foundations of its already shaky hegemony.

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