The dilemmas of a war

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

The global war on terror is today in a phase of incoherence and confusion.

THE opening chapter of the global war on terror has long since been declared closed. And the story of the second chapter, far from following the script of unrelenting moral and strategic purpose, is one of incoherence and confusion.

For the first time in close to four decades, India recently hosted an active military contingent from the United States. Ironically, there has been a significant enhancement of U.S. armed engagement on both sides of the bristling border between India and Pakistan, even as a top diplomat has been shuttling between the capitals of the two countries, seeking to temper burgeoning antagonisms.

The dilemmas of this phase of the war are acute. India has begun joint military exercises with the U.S. in the vicinity of Agra, where an effort to forge a peace with Pakistan famously ran aground last year. Featuring special commando units from India and the U.S. Army Rangers, these exercises are operationally of little immediate utility. Military pundits have said that their significance lies in the enhancement of the civilised world's ability in the long term to tackle the scourge of terrorism.

The U.S. Defence Department having reportedly concluded that the Al Qaeda chieftain Osama bin Laden survived the battle of Tora Bora and made good his escape, U.S. Special Forces have begun tentatively setting their feet down in the badlands of Pakistan's tribal areas. The Pakistani military regime is under pressure to join in the manhunt, but remains wary about operating in concert with Western forces in the nominally autonomous tribal areas.

India's cooperation, though willingly extended, retains little more than long-term interest. An immediate priority for the U.S. is to ensure that the untempered animosities between India and Pakistan do not undermine its own effort to liquidate the remnant Al Qaeda insurgent forces. Curiously, the arrival of the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, was preceded by an effort to talk up the tensions between India and Pakistan, which had shown signs of subsiding as both sides went about attending to other priorities.

Afghanistan, which was the first theatre of the war against terrorism before the U.S. shifted its attention to the task of "regime change" in Iraq, has meanwhile proved rather intractable to the pacification effort. On May 4, a disgruntled warlord ringed the provincial capital city of Gardez with artillery and began a shower of death and destruction that left scores of people dead and many hundreds injured. Padshah Khan Zadran had been promised the overlordship of Paktia province as a reward for his participation in the effort to topple the Taliban. He was opposed by the local council of elders, which appointed its own man to the governor's post. Retreating from Gardez in some bitterness to take to the battlements in his home province of Khost, Padshah Khan vowed to return.

When he fulfilled his promise in devastating fashion, Western forces were barely beginning the effort to retrieve lost goodwill in a province where they had fought their fiercest and most prolonged ground engagement of the war. Public disenchantment was reportedly on the rise over the large number of misdirected bombing sorties by the U.S., beginning with a December 20 raid that killed 60 people headed for the inauguration of Hamid Karzai as head of the interim Afghan administration. Except for one instance, when it distributed $1,000 to the families of each of the victims, the U.S. has not made any effort to account for the large number of civilian casualties it has inflicted by its indiscriminate bombing.

A week after Padshah Khan's assault on Gardez, Afghan and U.S. forces raided his home province to seize a radio station that was allegedly broadcasting anti-government propaganda. But the warlord is far from being disarmed. And former Afghan King Zahir Shah, who has begun the arduous mediation of a truce between him and the ruling clique of Gardez, may well have a hard task ahead of him.

Gardez is by no means the only city that is proving recalcitrant. Early in April, the interim government in Kabul rounded up close to 300 men for allegedly plotting a coup against the Hamid Karzai regime. The plot was supposedly being brewed under the supervision of the Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a vital cog in the U.S.' jehad against the Soviet Union all through the 1980s. Hekmatyar is back in Kabul after the prolonged exile in Iran, which followed his defeat at the hands of the Taliban in 1996. But he has turned decisively against his erstwhile patrons and remains an outspoken opponent of the U.S. effort to install a puppet regime in Afghanistan. On May 6, the U.S. carried out what could be the first of several attempts to get rid of him, launching a missile at his premises from an unmanned surveillance aircraft. Hekmatyar escaped, though several of his associates were reportedly killed or injured.

HEKMATYAR has never made secret of his aversion to the Tajik faction that is the dominant element in the Karzai regime. A long-time intimate of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), he is known to be working with other Pashtun elements to challenge the regime that has been enthroned in Kabul by the West. Not generously endowed with popular legitimacy, especially while memories remain fresh of his destructive assault on Kabul after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, he has not lacked in disruptive ability or suffered from an excess of scruples. Unless he has been thoroughly deterred by the assassination attempt, he is only likely in the weeks leading to the Loya Jirga or traditional assembly of notables from across the country, to seek extra leverage over the regime that is slated to emerge from the conclave.

These events have passed off without much comment in the U.S. press, seemingly occurring as they are on the peripheries of official attention and not impinging on the main priorities ahead. Fixated by the tasks at hand in West Asia, the U.S. was sufficiently worried over the alienation of all residual goodwill in the Arab world, to make a pretence of counselling restraint on Israel as it cracked down on the Palestinian resistance. But domestic opinion in the U.S., fed on a staple of half-truths and disinformation, has hardened in favour of Israel's military adventurism. And the core constituencies of the George Bush administration - represented in the main by the Christian Right - have denounced even the half-hearted mediation effort with unbridled passion. William Bennett, the pontiff of the American right-wing and a high-ranking official in the preceding Republican regimes of Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, fulminated in early April against the pretended peace negotiations set afoot by the forlorn and increasingly isolated U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. President George Bush's moves, he warned, were "making very angry... his entire political base. A firestorm is beginning to build - a firestorm of criticism".

Lending extra ardour to the right-wing campaign was the former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then in the U.S., meeting top officials, addressing caucuses of influential lawmakers and rallying the crowds at the largest ever public meeting organised by the Israel lobby in the U.S. His message was brutally clear: repudiate the irksome legacy of the 1993 Oslo accord, expel Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat from the occupied territories, and pursue military operations until "victory" was achieved.

Netanyahu also counselled the U.S. to go ahead with its plans for Iraq without waiting for order to be restored in the Palestinian territories. In all that he said, he closely mirrored a petition that was sent to the U.S. President in early April by a cabal of unreconstructed U.S. right-wingers and Zionists. It soon became evident that these lunatic views were dangerously close to the American political mainstream, thanks in large part to special interest groups and the power of the Jewish lobby. Early in May, overriding the feeble and insincere protests of the White House, both Houses of the U.S. Congress passed resolutions expressing unconditional and absolute support for Israel. And just days after Netanyahu left the U.S. shores, with Israel still occupying large swathes of Palestinian territory and baulking the United Nations in its effort to ascertain facts in the refugee camp of Jenin - where war crimes on a horrific scale are known to have taken place - Bush described Sharon as a "man of peace".

Buffeted continually by the self-righteous harangues of the right-wing, Powell meanwhile concluded a week-long trip through the troubled region and announced plans to convene an international peace conference, perhaps as early as July. The Arab world welcomed the initiative, but Israel would have none of it. A spokesperson for Sharon said that Israel would indeed participate in a conference, but within the regional context. "If the idea is to hold a sort of international conference, where Israel finds itself sitting on one side of the table with all the Arab governments, and the Palestinians and different Europeans with specific agendas in the Middle East and the anti-semitic atmosphere in some of these countries and the U.N. on the other side, this is something that Israel would reject," he said.

The White House was quick to take the hint, leaking word to the media that the term "conference" used by Powell was a "misnomer". This was but the latest in a series of slights that have been inflicted upon the sole moderate in an administration manned largely by those veering towards the extremist position. In announcing his plans, Powell himself had been rather specific: the conference, he said, would be broad-based in its participation and would include the quartet of the European Union, Russia, the U.N. and the U.S. The agenda, he said, would cover security issues, economic reform, humanitarian concerns and the "political way forward" to a Palestinian state.

Shortly after the U.S. administration's recantation, Sharon arrived in Washington with a dossier of documents that purported to show Arafat's complicity in acts of terror. He is also reported to have thrown in for good measure an inventory of nations and entities that supported Palestinian terror. Aside from the usual suspects of Iraq, Iran and Syria, the list is believed to include Saudi Arabia, the E.U. and elements within the U.S.

Sharon claimed to have a plan for peace. But if at all such an inherently contrary entity could be conceived of, it proved to be rather brief and perfunctory. Without great elaboration, Sharon proposed three stages in his route to a peaceful settlement. The first would be a complete cessation of violence and especially of the incitement that leads to terrorist attacks. This would be followed by an intermediate agreement of indefinite duration. Then would come the permanent agreement, when the borders of Israel and the Palestinians would be established.

Cutting short his visit on account of a suicide bombing that killed 15 people in Israel, Sharon claimed to have broad U.S. endorsement for his plan to dispense with Arafat as an interlocutor in the peace process. This assertion was promptly refuted by the U.S., though in terms so elliptical and vague, that it amounted to little.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, was brewing a new concoction of right-wing extremism in Israel. Having served as a loyal envoy of the Prime Minister early in April, he had decided by mid-May to shed the coyness and move up front with his intention to topple Sharon from the leadership of the Likud Party. Endowed with a certain slickness that the rough and brutish Sharon conspicuously lacks, Netanyahu is a more agreeable figure for large sections of the U.S. Jewish establishment.

On May 12, Netanyahu piloted through the national executive committee of the Likud Party a resolution ruling out every possibility of a Palestinian state. Saying yes to a Palestinian state, said Netanyahu, would mean saying no to Israel. And while he may have been only articulating a position that has long been held by Sharon, the vote was a clear challenge to the Prime Minister, who drew Netanyahu's ire for calling off military operations prematurely and releasing Arafat from his confinement in Ramallah. The quiescent Left and centre of the Israeli political spectrum is now uneasily awakening to the realisation that the price of their silence is the rapid acceleration of the shift towards the extreme Right.

Concurrently, there is a growing sense of alienation between the U.S. and Israel on the one hand, and the rest of the world on the other. The rift with the E.U. appears the most significant. In April, just hours before E.U. Foreign Ministers were to meet in Luxembourg to discuss a contingency plan for peace in West Asia, Israel issued a stern warning through its ceremonial President Moshe Katzav. "Europe is making a mistake," he said. "Europe forgets that we are fighting a war against terror which they should be part of. Yet their position encourages terror (and) they have the false target in their sights."

Israeli sensitivities were pricked by reports that the E.U. had worked out a roadmap for peace in Palestine which would involve the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all occupied territories within two years, followed by the constitution of a democratic Palestinian state and the entry of an international peace-keeping force that would guarantee Israel's security. It speaks volumes for the obsessively unyielding mood within the Jewish state that European endorsement for a fairly robust and commonsense plan should have infused new life into the "anti-Semitism" charge. American commentators and official Israeli spokespersons have been free in vending the canard in recent times, evoking almost simultaneous rebukes from the E.U. foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the French Foreign Ministry, which warned of "consequences" if the propaganda went any further.

The anti-Semitism jibe by all accounts is a thin camouflage for a new nastiness that has crept into thinking about the Palestine question. Dick Arney, Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the most senior Republican lawmakers, recently shocked global public opinion with his blunt espousal of ethnic cleansing as a solution to the Palestine problem. Appearing on a widely-watched television interview programme, Arney stated quite unambiguously that East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which were all seized by force of arms in 1967, should be regarded as integral parts of Israel. A "Palestinian state", he said, could be conceived of, but only within some other Arab country. Claiming to have "thought this through for a lot of years", Arney stated that Palestinians living on the West Bank should be removed. "There are many Arab nations that have hundreds of thousands of acres of land, soil and property and opportunity to create a Palestinian state," he said.

Within the U.S., Arney's remarks passed largely unremarked. The two leading newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, buried their reports on him in obscure corners. There were no stirring denunciations in the editorial columns nor any effort by the White House to distance itself from Arney's sentiments. The overwhelming belief seems to be that with Sharon and Netanyahu doing all in their powers to get the job done, there is no need to attract adverse publicity by talking about it.

MEANWHILE, the unfinished agenda of the war on terror, the task of "regime change" in Iraq, remains unattended. The overwhelming consensus within the American right-wing today is that the Bush administration should not worry unduly about doing the job in league with friendly Arab states. It should rather go ahead in spite of them. The U.S.' sole ally in this project has been the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Tony Blair was compelled recently to buckle under the threat of a large-scale revolt within his Labour Party. He assured agitated members that military operations would only be undertaken under U.N. sanction.

With the right-wing calling the shots, the two tasks assigned the highest priority by the U.S.-Israel axis - regime change in Iraq and the final solution of the problem of Palestine - may well merge into a common endeavour. That certainly is the view of Martin van Creveld, an Israeli historian and an authority on Israeli military doctrines. Writing in The Daily Telegraph recently, van Creveld predicted that a U.S. attack on Iraq, apart from inviting unanimous condemnation by the Arab world, could engender a rapid mobilisation of the Israeli armed forces to clear the occupied territories of their Arab population. Sharon himself has been a long-standing proponent of this policy, says van Creveld - this fact is attested by a mere "glance at his memoirs". And the only country that could possibly restrain Israel would be the U.S., which "regards itself as being at war with parts of the Muslim world that have supported Osama bin Laden". The U.S., says van Creveld, would not "object to that world being taught a lesson - particularly if it could be as swift and brutal as the 1967 campaign; and particularly if it does not disrupt the flow of oil for too long".

Clearly, the war on terror has a long way to run before it even begins to exhaust its catalogue of horrors.

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