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When the past awakens

When the past awakens

Author: Shamlal
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: November 1, 2001

Introduction: Till the US reviews its priorities, it will remain insecure 'What is most galling for the US is that some of its allies are supporting the war only for form's sake'

The hopes of a quick fix in Afghanistan are fading fast. Over three weeks into the war, the big boys in the Pentagon do not have much to show for all their bluster. Some of them are even in danger of losing their nerve, unable to answer awkward questions from the media. Why do these hi-tech bombs costing two million dollars a piece go astray so often? Why have so many raids on Afghan cities made no dent in Taliban resistance? Why was there such inordinate delay in bashing the forces barring the Northern Alliance's advance to Mazar-e-Sharif? Why did they make such a botch-up of the mission sent to mobilize anti-Taliban elements among the Pashtun tribes? In any case, moderates are a near extinct species in Afghanistan, thanks to brutalization of the population by Russia, the United States of America, Pakistan, the mujaheddin and the Taliban by turns over the last two decades.

The Americans themselves feel that the war is not going too well. It is not that the US has run out of targets but that the main enemies - the al Qaida men and the Taliban have proved too elusive. Some mediamen have even begun to wonder whether the US is "getting into another Vietnam". In the Pentagon itself the more cynical now refer to the current war as "the quagmire question".

Despite some early warnings about a long haul, most people looked forward to a replay of the Kuwait war. And though 'both George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld continue to put a brave face on the poor show, they cannot altogether help betraying signs of their own courage leaking away.

Why has the war strategy gone haywire? The one-word answer is: hubris. As the only superpower, the US did not think it worth its while to take its allies into confidence. It did not care to heed the Soviet experience or even think twice before accepting the creator and chief patron of the Taliban as an ally. And though it knew that the Saudis had been secretly funding al Qaida through charity trusts it thought it best not to voice its discomfort in public.

The result has been to make the alliance itself a shaky business. Some have joined it under duress. Quite a few are more keen to exploit the situation for self-serving ends than to dismantle the terrorist camps, and many live in fear of their own people who are opposed to the war. What is most galling for the US is that some of them are supporting the war only for form's sake. One columnist in The New York Times spilled the beans, reminding his country that, apart from Britain, it will have to fight the war on its own for all practical purposes.

What the new US strategy will be is not yet clear. But searching for a viable alternative government, which gives due representation to all ethnic groups, before breaking the resilience of the Taliban forces, is like putting the cart before the horse. The first priority is destroying the fighting capacity of the Taliban. This will be an impossible task unless the allies first dismantle the Taliban regime and then exploit the new situation to mobilize large sections of the Pashtun tribes on their side.

The second priority is strengthening the Northern Alliance by every possible means because it has the only ground troops familiar with the treacherous terrain where most of the fighting has to take place and the advantage of the long experience of waging war against the Taliban. Since their own numbers are limited and much of their equipment is antiquated, they cannot possibly defeat the Taliban forces without a large-scale infusion of both ground forces and equipment.

Committing its ground forces on a large-scale will be a painful decision for the American policymakers. Yet, there is no alternative to it unless the US administration wants to wash its hands of the whole sorry business. The argument that the Uzbeks, Tajiks and others, who constitute the Northern Alliance cannot by themselves fill any political vacuum in Kabul should temporarily override the fact that they are the only reliable anti-Taliban forces in sight. The US has to choose between the Northern Alliance and Pakistan where thousands of armed volunteers are already spoiling to join the Taliban in fighting what they call the American Satan.

There are elements of both pathos and self-deception in the US's flinching at the prospect of anarchy in Kabul and other Afghan towns in the absence of a credible coalition to take over the reins of power. But haven't the American bombing raids of the last three weeks been a major contributor to the growing chaos in the Afghan cities and provided an incentive to those opposed to the Taliban at heart to rally to their side? And what did the US administration do but leave the country to anarchy when it washed its hands of the whole affair in 1989, and enabled Pakistan to establish the Taliban regime which has played host to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida network and converted the country into the main base for global terrorism?

If the US administration has the honesty to settle scores with its own cynical past, it has not only to avenge the terrible happenings of September 11 and prevent such heinous acts in the future but also make amends for its arrogance of power and its indifference to the sufferings of scores of poor states, and rethink all its policy priorities. Some years ago, it panicked in the face of a few casualties suffered by its forces in Somalia and quit the country. Nor did it set an example in compassion, of which the US president spoke eloquently the other day, when it did not permit even the death of half a million children in Iraq from malnutrition and poor healthcare to trouble its conscience.

Even today there is no serious inquiry on its part into the causes which have made religious fundamentalism in large parts of the Islamic world take so ominous a form. Did it have no moral responsibility for allowing a substantial part of the large funds it put at the disposal of General Zia ul Haq to set up a network of madrassahs as breeding grounds for religious fanatics, or for leaving victims of international terrorism in other countries to their own devices?

However hard the US may try to conjure them away, ghosts from its past will come back to haunt its present time and again. This is not to berate the belated war the Bush administration has declared on international terrorism, though, in view of its experience in Afghanistan during the last three weeks, it is doubtful whether it will have the heart and the nerve, not to speak of the moral resources, to take on not only al Qaida but the Algerian, Egyptian, Sudanese and Pakistan-sponsored terrorist outfits. Just as it cannot cosy up to dictators whenever it suits its strategic interests and at the same time strut about as the leading crusader for human rights in the world, it cannot accept sponsors of terrorism as allies and also fight this menace with the single-mindedness and integrity of purpose it demands.

Has it ever occurred to the US policymakers to pause and ask themselves why there is so much fear as well as hatred of the US in large parts of the world? Have they ever wondered why the end of the Cold War, instead of bringing peace to the world or inducing the US administration to divert vast amounts still being invested in hi-tech weaponry to building up a more equitable world order, has ushered in an era of more fierce ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts?

Honest and meaningful answers to these questions require a fresh and more searching look by the only superpower not only at the strategy of the war it is waging in Afghanistan but also at its entire policy framework for the post-Cold War era. Are George Bush and his chief aides even aware of the wide ramifications of the job which requires a degree of introspection and soul-searching which are, as a rule, beyond the ken of those who want to dominate the world?

Global terrorism is indeed a challenge not only to the US but to all affluent societies which, in their pursuit of hi-tech prosperity, have lost sight of the moral dimensions of the new economic and political problems facing the world. Whether the menace presented by low-tech parts of the world will jolt them out of their cynicism and make them rethink the priorities of the new global order in the making remains to be seen. They can no longer be unaware of how the answer to this question is bound up with their own security.
 


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