September 22, 2001


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Ajoy Bose

Who does the US want to vanquish?

Barely a week after US President George Bush declared that his country was at war after the terror attacks in New York and Washington, he is finding it increasingly difficult to define and crystallize what the United States is really at. The president's cowboy bluster and the frenzied diplomatic and military preparations by the US establishment keep the global media on its toes round the clock. But nothing concrete has emerged so far to suggest the kind of war launched by the world's only superpower or even who exactly it aims to vanquish.

Had Bush and his aides limited their military targets to killing or capturing Osama bin Laden and ousting the Taleban regime that harbours him, things may have made more sense. However, the president and his men have gone out of their way time and again to publicly disclaim that a war on Afghanistan is not their primary objective let alone the ultimate goal. On the other hand, for all its rhetoric of wiping terrorism from the fair face of the earth, the US remains bogged down on the ground with moving men and weaponry for a still undefined Afghan campaign.

A major problem appears to be the uncertainty in Washington on what it would actually gain from a military strike on Afghanistan. The easy option would be to hit targets pinpointed by satellites to knock out vital installations and suspected terrorist camps in that country from the air with a thunderstorm of missiles and bombs. But this -- as similar attacks in the past, albeit on a much smaller scale has proved -- does not guarantee either bin Laden's death or the ouster of the Taleban regime.

A land war spearheaded by commando attacks from the Pakistan border and backed by a pincer movement by Northern Alliance rebels can certainly ensure the fall of the Taleban and perhaps the physical elimination of the terrorist leader. However, apart from the American military casualties involved, this cannot but involve the US like the Soviet Union in a long term occupation of Afghanistan and face a relentless guerilla campaign by surviving Taleban fighters. This is a grim prospect which American leaders and commentators alike have warned against.

Most importantly, even if Washington does decide to grit its teeth and plunge into a military occupation of Afghanistan, it may in no way minimize the terrorist threat to Americans at home and abroad. As a matter of fact there is absolutely no hard evidence to suggest that either bin Laden or the Taleban directly orchestrated the terror attacks in the US or some of the recent strikes against American targets abroad. They were the handiwork of shadowy Islamic terrorist networks operating from nearly 50 countries across the globe to whom bin Laden may well be merely a founding father and the Taleban a spiritual icon.

The martyrdom of the terrorist leader and the overthrow of the Taleban, therefore, need not in any major way hamper the efficacy of the Islamic terrorist network. Instead it is quite possible that this could goad the terrorists to launch more strikes against Americans at home and abroad. Shadows who are ingenious enough to pluck American planes out of the sky with the help of just a few box cutters and knives and then use them as missiles are capable of many more unimaginable horrors.

Consider the catastrophic consequences of even a single repeat performance by terrorists in America. A fire at a baseball stadium, poison gas unleashed inside a crowded shopping mall, deadly infection spread through germ warfare -- Hollywood potboilers could suddenly become grim realities. American leaders and commentators have indeed warned of the dangers of more terrorist attacks but no warnings prepare the public, particularly a protected and seemingly invulnerable people like that of the US for non-stop terror and it would not be long before patriotic fervour turns to jingoistic hysteria.

Consider also the problems which will face the Bush Administration on the international front. The US president will have to willy nilly target more countries suspected of harbouring Islamic terrorists and these more likely than not would have Muslim majority populations. In short, with jingoistic hysteria ravaging America and more and more Islamic countries becoming US military targets, Bush would have no option but to turn his war against terrorism into a crusade in its literal sense.

Now, whatever the Samuel Huntington thesis may envisage and despite the predominance of the Christian faith in Western democracies, they would all unanimously reject a crusade in the modern world. Bush did let slip the C word in one of his interactions with the press a few days ago but almost bit his tongue immediately afterwards at the mistake and quickly changed the term to war against terrorism. Asked to comment on the Bush faux pas, former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd told BBC television that it was a most unfortunate mistake. He went on to explain that the US president had most probably used the word in its present day connotation since crusade to contemporary Christians no longer has a religious connotation.

Indeed, not just now but over the past several hundred years even in the course of empire building by Western nations across the world, there has been little evidence of religious fervour dictating their geopolitical ambitions. The accumulation of wealth rather than religion has been the potent force propelling these ambitions and the West has successfully divided nation states professing the same faith particularly those belonging to Islam. Ironically, the only time that Islamic states have banded together against Western dictates is on the issue of Israel, a Jewish and not a Christian State.

Moreover, the entire dynamics of a crusade is as unsuited to the progress of global capitalism as it is to the Western mindset. Combative religious hysteria at home and abroad requiring financial sacrifices for a sustained period will not be tolerable to the overwhelming majority of people in Western democracies except a lunatic fringe whatever be the provocation. The majority opinion would require the Western leadership to solve the problem in a more quiet and less disruptive manner.

Significantly, this is in sharp contrast to the mindset in most Islamic countries where tardy social progress and economic impoverishment keeps religion a potent force. Unlike the word crusade for Christians, the concept of jehad is a crowd puller for large sections of the Muslim population, particularly if they feel under siege from the West. Nor does the disastrous consequences to global capitalism or disruption of their lives and careers by a global religious war affect these impoverished and frustrated sections who regard themselves as losers rather than winners in the present scheme of things.

The declaration of war by Bush compelled no doubt by the humiliating fall of the WTC towers and the disfigurement of the Pentagon, therefore, must be seen in context. Despite the need for a dramatic gesture to restore American pride, the US president will come under increasing pressure at home and abroad not to get carried away by his rhetoric. India -- particularly those in this country who had glibly predicted a crusade against Islam after the terror attacks -- should not get swayed by insecurities about Pakistan but recognise the extremely complex and difficult challenge facing the United States.

Ajoy Bose is a senior journalist who has reported for The Sunday Observer and The Pioneer.

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