Vengeance and war

Print edition : February 02, 2002

The moral halo that the U.S. donned in the aftermath of September 11 has been shattered, more so after the outrage over the ill-treatment of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners at the U.S. military base of Guantanamo Bay.

THE war against terrorism is inherently one where a truce can never be declared. And ominously, U.S. President George Bush opened the year with the warning to his countrymen that 2002 would be a year of war. Yet, with peace still a distant prospect, the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan moved into high gear with large commitments of aid being made by donors at a recent conference in Tokyo.

Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners held shackled in a holding area at the U.S. military base of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.-GAMMA

The writ of the central authority in Kabul still does not run in large parts of the country. Armed factions that control entire provinces continue to be at odds with the interim administration of Hamid Karzai. Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum was brought into the administration as Deputy Defence Minister in an effort to neutralise his damage potential and recruit his infinitely malleable political loyalties for the mission of restoring peace and stability. But he is now reported to have deployed his forces in threatening postures and engaged in a series of skirmishes with the Tajik element in the Northern Alliance.

The Shia leader Ismail Khan, who controls the vital western province of Herat, is another holdout, reportedly making his own separate deal with neighbouring Iran over security arrangements and transit and trade facilities. The West is unamused by the resurgent power of the Islamic regime in Iran, but is not at liberty to do very much about it at this stage.

The Pushtun warlord Gul Agha Sherzai, who controls much of Kandahar province, is on alert for a possible offensive against Ismail Khan's forces. But he has another problem on his hands in disarming a renegade grouping of close to 5,000 Taliban fighters, who are holding out in a redoubt adjoining his province.

The U.S., meanwhile, has continued with its punishing bombing raids on locations where Taliban fighters and Al Qaeda guerillas affiliated to the fugitive Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden, were known to cluster. But these have long since been evacuated of all military personnel and assets. And the American bombing seemingly has been achieving little of military value while inflicting civilian casualties on a large scale. Even early proponents of the bombing of Afghanistan today tend to believe that there is no residual rationale for continuing the campaign. The bombing in fact is now only comprehensible as superpower spite, a malicious venting of frustration at the inability to capture - whether alive or as forensically verifiable corpses - either bin Laden or the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Elements of the Pushtun leadership in Afghanistan, meanwhile, are in a rebellious mood, resentful at the continuing toll of civilian casualties and the U.S.' intimacy with the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. Mullah Omar continues to be at large. Extreme religious scruple has ensured that he has probably never been photographed, alongside which his ability to mobilise tribal loyalties perhaps provides him enduring protection from capture. By some attributions to the U.S. offensive forces, Osama bin Laden may have already been eliminated in the withering raids that were undertaken in the Tora Bora caves. But the U.S. clearly wants to take no chances with his tendency to surface through video recordings made at unknown locations.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf put his own spin on the matter with the diagnosis that bin Laden had little chance of combating three months of aerial bombardment and a debilitating kidney ailment simultaneously. The Wall Street Journal, a principal media bulwark of the war on terror, thought this to be ridiculous. Musharraf was known to have assumed a variety of roles, it commented, but expertise in medical prognoses was surely a talent that few suspected him of having.

General Tommy Franks, Comman der-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command, clarified shortly afterwards that the U.S. had no basis to suppose that bin Laden was dead. Presumably, until such forensically verifiable proof is obtained, the disproportionate war will continue in Afghanistan, even as the horizon is scanned for other targets.

At this stage, there are several possible targets. U.S. special forces have already landed in the southern Philippines to take charge of the local military's campaign against the Abu Sayyaf guerilla organisation. The move has sharply polarised political opinion and led traditional pro-Western constituencies to rail against the unwarranted U.S. intrusion into the country's domestic affairs.

Closer to the heartland of the U.S. war, Iran has emerged as a prospective target because of Israeli concerns over its security. Iran has been accused of shipping arms to Palestinian militants after a murky maritime drama in which the Israeli defence forces interdicted a vessel carrying 50 tonnes of lethal weaponry in the Red Sea. The sustenance that Iran renders the Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon is also of direct concern to Israel, whose interests will increasingly drive the next phase of the war. For the U.S., Iran is a state of concern also because of the prospective influence it could exert over the affairs of Afghanistan.

The logistics of an operation against Iran are formidable and there is little likelihood of overt military action in the near future. For the same reason, another of the prospective targets - Iraq - could escape the immediate attention of the bombing enthusiasts till the tricky political equations in the region are worked out. A group of exiles sheltering in Washington and London - the Iraqi National Congress (INC) - is known to be pressing hard for the initiation of U.S. operations in the north and south of the country. Modelled on the Afghanistan operations, the idea is to tie up American air power with centres of military resistance to the regime in Baghdad on the ground. With a small invasion force, the INC argues, the U.S. could then secure the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Except within the extreme right-wing of the Republican administration, the INC has failed to win any converts. General Anthony Zinni, a former Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command and a close adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell, recently dismissed the INC as "some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London" whose plans for overthrowing the Iraqi regime would lead to a "Bay of Goats" fiasco. Realistic military strategists have concluded that a regime change in Iraq would call for an American invasion force of at least 500,000 troops, coupled with a large-scale transfer of offensive air capabilities into the region. And with all this, the risk of American casualties on a major scale would be substantial.

There are also strong suggestions from Saudi Arabia that the monarchy is all set to order the U.S. forces out. The U.S. military presence is viewed by sections of the Saudi ruling family as a political liability that the country has to unburden itself of, even if it is seen as a panicky capitulation to bin Laden's charter of demands. The U.S. administration has been sufficiently concerned by these reports to have sent two top functionaries to the kingdom in recent weeks. The White House and Secretary of State Powell have both denied any possibility of an imminent evacuation of U.S. troops from Saudi territory. They are also known to have pressed hard for an explicit disavowal from the Saudi government of any intention to order the closure of American bases. That has not been forthcoming. If anything, there has also been rather withering criticism of the U.S. bombing campaign by senior members of the Saudi ruling family.

More schisms in the fragile global coalition are foretold by the transfer of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners to the U.S. military base on sovereign Cuban territory in Guantanamo Bay. Pictures of the prisoners being confined - kneeling, shackled and blindfolded - in narrow cells open to the elements stirred up widespread public outrage. U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld responded with heavy-handed sarcasm at what he thought was misplaced concern for the rights of those who had supposedly forfeited all such claims.

Rumsfeld's crude and insulting behaviour won him little credit. The International Red Cross and the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights pilloried the U.S. administration for taking upon itself the mantle of determining the status of the prisoners. The appellation of "unlawful combatants", which the U.S. sought to apply, was misplaced, they said, since the Al Qaeda captives were entitled to all the benefits of the Geneva Convention covering the treatment of prisoners of war. Having transported the Al Qaeda prisoners to Guantanamo Bay without a clear notion of what it wanted to do with them, the U.S. soon suspended the transfers. But the moral halo that it donned in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, has clearly been shattered. The U.S. is now seen in various parts of the world, as part of the problem, rather than the solution.

AS it pauses to survey the global horizon for the next target in the war on terror, the U.S. administration remains divided by conflicting perceptions. However, the U.S.' ally in West Asia, Israel, suffers no such problem. It remains singularly focused on a project that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon embraced as a political creed in the 1950s when he began his rampage through the politics of the region with a series of raids on Palestinian villages with deliberate intent to kill civilians on a mass scale. Now seemingly blessed with a mandate from the U.S. to pursue his own final solution to the Palestinian problem, Sharon has repeatedly sent his tanks and bulldozers into Palestinian areas to destroy dwellings and property, and launched aerial assaults on installations of the incipient state, which have already been reduced to rubble.

The peace process that began at Oslo held out a dim prospect for a Palestinian state provided it could become an instrument for the subjection of the Palestinian people and an accessory of Israel's security interests. The people refused to play by the script, and the ethnic cleansing agenda that Sharon has never been too bashful about espousing is back with a vengeance as an integral element of the war on terror.

In the master narrative of the war on terror, there was a relative lull in terrorist activity for close to a month following Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's call for peace on December 13. This account is of course one that devalues Palestinian lives and elevates Israel's blatantly disproportionate military reprisals to the status of legally justified self-defence. And it overlooks the reality that Israeli military actions - such as in the demolition of 50 homes in Rafah that left over 500 people without a roof over their heads - have often been undertaken without provocation.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor