A deeper, wider war

Print edition : December 08, 2001

How the many manifestations of terror expose the claims that are being made for the war by the richest against the poorest in the world.

WARS waged in the cause of civilisation impose a heavy burden of responsibility, not the least of them being the obligation to abide by international covenants. The use of heavy explosives in populated civilian areas, the bombing of hospitals and old people's homes and the deliberate targeting of hydroelectric dams may have largely escaped adverse media attention. But the massacre of Taliban prisoners of war (PoWs) at the Qala-i-Jhangi fort may be precisely the incident that exposes the inflated claims that are being made for the war by the richest against the poorest in the world. It needed a horrific carnage to wake the international community up to the monstrous injustice of the U.S. war of terror against Afghanistan.

U.S. Light Armoured Vehicles in southern Afghanistan.-JIM HOLLANDER/AP POOL

Whatever information is available of the three-day long massacre at the 19th century fort just outside Mazar-e-Sharief, speaks of a gross atrocity. The U.S. and the U.K., the principal belligerents in the war against Afghanistan, have deflected the demand made by Amnesty International and the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights for an immediate inquiry into the incident. War is an awful business, runs the morally tenuous apology, and the hostile factions in Afghanistan have never been renowned for their respect for the Geneva Convention. The U.S. and the U.K., in turn, could have done little to safeguard the PoWs since the responsibility for detention procedures on the ground is entirely with the United Front of Afghanistan, as the Northern Alliance militia has been renamed.

The reconstruction of the Qala-i-Jhangi event, however, points to the intimate involvement of American military and intelligence personnel in determining the location at which the surrendered Taliban fighters were sent for detention. It also suggests that aggressive interrogation by two operatives of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) may have provoked the initial outbreak of violence. One of the CIA men was killed almost immediately while the other shot his way through the melee and scrambled to the roof of the fort from where he sent out messages calling in American air power to quell the rebellion.

The application of air power that followed was prolonged and devastating. The entire armoury of the fort, which was used as an operational base by Abdul Rashid Dostum's Uzbek militia, was blown up by means of aerial bombardment. Inflammable oil was poured into a basement, where some of the rebellious prisoners remained holed out, and set afire. Tanks and heavy artillery were then brought in to complete the job.

It is now clear that the surrender of the prisoners had been negotiated by a Pashtun commander who recently switched sides to join the Northern Alliance. But the terms of the surrender were perhaps not explained to the prisoners, nor were they fully disarmed. Initial signs of recalcitrance were met with the highly questionable decision to bind and fetter the prisoners who were deemed dangerous. This possibly created the impression that a mass execution was about to take place under the supervision of the two CIA operatives. This may have been the immediate cause of the prison rebellion. And once it broke out, there was a clear recourse to maximum force by the U.S., in gross violation of the norms prescribed under the Geneva Convention for the treatment of PoWs.

THE massacre of Qala-i-Jhangi was the sequel to another incident at the southern town of Takteh Pol involving an almost identical cast of players. Unlike the prison massacre, which was documented by media teams who happened to be present, there have been few attempts to establish the truth with regard to the earlier incident. It is now believed that up to 160 Taliban prisoners who surrendered after a pitched battle were lined up and executed by the victorious Northern Alliance troops, as U.S. military personnel who had been filming the fighting stood by.

The U.S. Defence Department has reportedly launched an investigation into this incident, though there is little possibility of the truth being revealed in the near future. After the initial reticence of their mutual embrace, the U.S. and the Northern Alliance are now locked in a strategic alliance that makes each complicit in the crimes of the other.

Amidst the grim news of summary executions and lawlessness, it was also learnt that two members of a family were killed when an air-drop of humanitarian supplies by the U.S. Air Force flattened their house.

Haji Abdul Qadir, the 'governor' of Jalalabad, who walked out of the conference protesting against inadequate Pashtun representation.-WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS

Apart from the extensive use of the cluster bomb, a weapon stigmatised by a proven record of indiscriminate killing and maiming, the U.S. has brought into play the most powerful explosive outside its nuclear arsenal. The 7,000-kg BLU-82 bomb - also known as the 'Daisy Cutter' because of the distinctive shape of the crater it makes - was first used over forward positions of the Taliban north of Kabul. It has since been used in Kandahar. Reportedly as large as a moderately-sized car, the Daisy Cutter is dropped from the largest bomber aircraft in the U.S. inventory. It does not, like most other air-dropped munitions, explode on ground contact. Rather it disperses a cloud of incendiary material over a wide area and ignites it at a height that maximises the impact of the resultant fireball. It incinerates everything over a wide expanse and causes a shock-wave that literally eviscerates everybody within range.

The use of this weapon, which is so grossly a violation of the Geneva Convention, has been reported with absolute equanimity in much of the global media. As General Peter Pace of the U.S. Marine Corps, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, put it: "As you would expect, they make a heck of a bang when they go off. The intent is to kill people."

From the time it decided to target immediate military results rather than abide by the political imperatives of holding together a coalition of nations with a disparate set of interests, the U.S. managed to turn the tide of the war in Afghanistan. By the end of November, a new combine of ethnic Pashtun forces, made up partly of defectors and partly of factions that had remained outside the Taliban fold, was taking shape with the evident blessings and logistical support of Pakistan. And as this coalition began mounting its challenge on Kandahar, Taliban elements were choosing one of two strategic options - tumultuous retreat or prudent switch of political allegiance.

Melting into the newly dominant combine was a strategic convenience for the Pashtun factions that had been allied with the Taliban. Bound by common ethnicity, though often divided by the diversity of tribal affiliations, the Pashtun element was keen to keep the Northern Alliance out of its core areas. This switch of loyalties also was seen to be necessary in containing the scale of the conflict and averting the grisly violence that accompanied the fall of Mazar-e-Sharief and Kunduz.

Having suffered a serious setback with the Northern Alliance's sweep into Kabul, Pakistan was obviously intent on exerting a strategic influence over events in the south and east of Afghanistan. It has opened up a channel of dialogue with Haji Abdul Qadir who has declared himself the governor of Jalalabad province, though his claims are yet to be recognised by other elements of the traditional elites in the region. Jalalabad remains outside the Northern Alliance's control, though the Taliban have been forced to retreat. In its desperate rearguard action to hold on to the vestiges of its vanishing influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan will likely focus on securing both Kandahar and Jalalabad under friendly forces. But it would need to maintain a delicate balance since the U.S. has narrowed down its search for the fugitive Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, to the rugged mountains within these provinces.

Claiming to have reached the end-game in its effort to capture the alleged mastermind of the September 11 atrocities in New York and Washington, the U.S. has shifted its focus to other countries. Iraq has been put on notice that it should allow U.N. inspectors back in to trace and destroy its weapons of mass destruction. The demand has been summarily rejected by Iraq, which insists that the entire U.N. weapons inspection programme since the Gulf war ended has been a thinly veiled espionage operation to undermine its political structure. The right wing in the U.S. is now intent on completing the job of dismantling the Iraqi regime, if necessary at the cost of dismembering the country and plunging the region into turmoil. With characteristic pugnacity they have refused to be thrown off course by the growing realisation that the perpetrators of the anthrax scare in the U.S. are from their own ranks.

Other states on the prospective target list are Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. Some of these are deemed to be too weak to tackle the menace of Islamic terrorism on their own. Others are considered to be actively colluding in the terrorist networks. Few states other than the U.K., however, seem happy with this widening scope of the U.S. war of terror.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, began his long-delayed visit to the U.S. at the end of November. He became another dignitary to be escorted by Mayor Rudy Giuliani to 'Ground Zero' in New York. And even while his military forces maintained their iron blockade on Palestinian territories and continued with the policy of extra-judicial executions, he inveighed darkly about the forces of terrorism that threaten all civilised values. But with a Belgian court having begun its hearings on a petition filed by survivors and relatives of the victims of the Beirut refugee camp massacres of 1982, there is a real possibility that Sharon - who was Israeli Defence Minister at the time - may be indicted for crimes against humanity.

It has since come to light that the booby trap device that claimed the lives of five Palestinian children aged between 6 and 14 on November 22 had been planted by Israeli undercover agents. The purpose ostensibly was to interdict Palestinian militants who were firing mortars from that site on a nearby Israeli settlement. The funeral procession for the five children was fired upon by Israeli security forces, killing two persons. And even as he deliberately plunges the region into a spiral of violence, Sharon continues to insist that the Palestinians must ensure a week of uninterrupted peace before peace talks can resume. Few can see anything in this other than a transparent effort to relieve himself of the onus of discontinuing the illegal programme of settlement construction on Palestinian land. The Palestinians cannot forever be denied their inalienable rights to independent statehood, but Sharon is intent on altering the ground realities in the intervening period, to force them to do Israel's bidding.

The U.S., meanwhile, is setting a new example in crushing civil liberties in the pursuit of real and imagined antagonists. U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft, under the cover of a sweeping anti-terrorism law enacted in October, has introduced regulations that greatly expand the scope for wire-tapping operations. He has also introduced methods of racial profiling that have deeply offended civil liberties groups. The final coup came on November 13, when President George Bush issued an executive order permitting the U.S. to create special military tribunals for the summary trial and execution of foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activity. As the economic recession in the U.S. deepens and the right-wing Republican administration continues with its policies of pandering to the rich, the extensive new powers it has armed itself with, are seen as an ill-disguised effort to crush dissent.

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