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Snowballing dissent

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

Opposition to the U.S. action in Afghanistan is growing louder even within NATO member-countries though the Western alliance officially claims that international support to the war is total.

FIRST, the official spin and bluster, according to which the United States-led international coalition against terrorism could not have been in a better shape and the Western alliance is having a wonderful war. Angry, worldwide street protests, we are told, do not represent the mainstream opinion which, it is claimed, remains behind the military action in Afghanistan; and do not read too much into Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel's remarks that there are "limits to solidarity", or the critical statements emanating from Saudi Arabian and other Arab capitals. These are either individual opinions or intended for domestic consumption, reads the official script.

"Support for the coalition remains strong right across the world," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told foreign correspondents in London recently and asked them not to be taken in by street demonstrations. His Director of Communications Alistair Campbell, reading from the same songsheet, insisted that the "coalition is stronger now than ever before", or words to that effect. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, on a separate occasion, acknowledged that there was "unease" but then quickly added that the support for the coalition remained solid. The fact that Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf had taken the "very courageous" step of joining the campaign against the Taliban and Turkey was fully in accord with the U.S. action was a "good indication that across the world there is a great acceptance of the action..."

But a reality check reveals a different picture. Far from global support, the pounding of Afghanistan does not even have full domestic backing.

As the non-stop bombing continues, civilian casualties mount and international aid agencies warn of a humanitarian crisis, there is a growing anti-war sentiment. Within Britain, and within the Labour Party, there are increasing calls for a halt to the bombing so that aid can be reached to innocent civilians, many of whom are on the verge of starvation despite the dropping of those widely publicised 'Made-in-USA' yellow packets that contain peanut butter and plastic cutlery.

Labour Member of Parliament George Galloway has compared the bombing to the moral "equivalent of Mike Tyson in a ring with a five- year-old child." "To mercilessly pound the civilian population of Afghanistan is morally grotesque and to expect that you can keep international opinion on your side... is ridiculous beyond words," he said in the Commons, which recently debated a motion, tabled by six Labour MPs, arguing that "the grief and suffering of innocent victims in the USA cannot be answered by the bombing and starvation of equally innocent victims in Afghanistan." Reports say that the Labour leadership is so worried by the anti-war backlash within its ranks that "dissident" MPs have been told to clear their "media appearances" with whips. "The predominant Labour backbench mood is one of unease and a hope that the Prime Minister's strategy will work," The Guardian said.

WHAT is true of a gradually changing mature domestic opinion is also true of the allies. For all the talk of a global coalition, the fact is that it is essentially an Anglo-U.S. show with most of the other countries finding themselves dragged into a "war" they would rather do without. They want to fight terrorism but not by bombing a down-and-out country and its people who have as little to do with Osama bin Laden and his terror network Al Qaeda as ordinary Americans with their country's foreign policy. Galloway's parallel of the war in Afghanistan with Mike Tyson sparring with a five- year-old child has found widespread resonance and raised questions whether the U.S. would have resorted to similar action if the country harbouring bin Laden, had been someone its own size and politically and economically equally powerful. Besides, it is seen as setting a "rogue" precedent which any country can invoke to intimidate its weaker neighbour - if not a country thousands of miles away as the U.S. is doing.

Israel has already taken its cue and threatened Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat with severe reprisal if the assassins of its Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi are not handed over to it within a fixed time-frame.

The reservations over the U.S.-led offensive are particularly strong in France and Germany, both of which have significant Muslim populations which they do not want to alienate by appearing to support an action against a Muslim country. For, despite protestations that it is not a "war" on Islam, the majority of Muslims around the world remain deeply sceptical of the U.S. motives. Bush's use of the word "crusade" to describe the anti-terrorism campaign has done more damage to the allied effort than any action, and this is one "Bush-ism" that he will find hard to live down.

The Left-Right divide at the government level in France and Germany has contributed to the anti-war sentiment. The socialist Prime Minister of France, Lionel Jospin, and his party are opposed to handing over a "blank cheque" to Washington, and in Germany the rebellion is led by the Greens - a junior partner in Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's ruling coalition. While Foreign Minister Joscka Fischer has toned down his criticism (indeed he now sounds more like a convert), the party remains firmly opposed to continued bombing. A week after the bombing began, Claudia Roth, a leading Green figure, called for a pause and said: "Solidarity doesn't mean yes and amen."

The most damaging comment has come from Belgium, which holds the current presidency of the European Union. Its Foreign Minister Louis Michel has accused Blair of being "overly aggressive" in pushing the campaign against Afghanistan and said: "We won't follow Bush and Blair blindfolded." The pro-war Daily Telegraph noted that Michel's comments were a signal that Britain "might not be able to count on sustained E.U. backing if the going gets tough." Observers argue that even if Michel was voicing an individual opinion, coming from the Foreign Minister of an important E.U. country it was a strong comment and reflected a schism at the top over the issue.

Turkey, the only Muslim country in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), has witnessed public protests demanding closure of the Incirlik NATO air base, near Adana in southern Turkey, and the government is caught up between its NATO obligations and the strong anti-war public opinion. Jack Straw chose to ignore the protests when he cited the Turkish government's backing (as a NATO member, it has no choice) as a measure of the Muslim world's support for the U.S.-led action. In fact there are few countries where anti-war protests have not taken place, but the "democratic, freedom loving" coalition has sought to dismiss them as the work of mavericks who do not represent the "silent majority" that prefers to stay home. Nobody has explained how they are certain that the "silent majority" is necessarily with the war-mongers. For all one knows, it could be with the protesters but is not speaking up.

Meanwhile, even the most gung-ho of U.S.' allies has been unnerved by the talk in Washington of extending the War against Terrorism beyond Afghanistan to include other "rogue" states such as Syria and Iraq, which are suspected of sheltering terrorists. Not only has this provoked reaction in European capitals and in the Arab world; even Britain has made it clear that it is opposed to taking the present campaign beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Blair has been working overtime to hold the coalition together, but the rhetoric in Washington is not helping him. And, as the war prolongs, strains are beginning to tell not only on transatlantic relations but also within the Bush administration. Blair's warning of "testing times" ahead might end up being "testing" in more than one sense.