The US response to the carnage perpetrated on 11 September, could be a catalyst for an unwinnable, long drawn war without frontiers. A ‘shoot first ask questions later’ approach could spark: a) a new confrontation between the United States and the Muslim World;
- b) a conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan; and c) a dangerous cleavage within Pakistani society that would sow the seeds of another Algeria.
Ironies abound amidst the tragedy. The United States, looking for enemies in Pyongyang, Beijing, Baghdad and Tehran (and new allies in places like New Delhi), has suddenly realised that the threat comes from elsewhere. And what of the colossal US intelligence failure? Despite its inability to uncover the plot by 71 Americans or US-based foreign nationals (19 suicide bombers plus 52 collaborators) to strike at the country’s financial and military centres, it is now eager to “smoke out Osama bin Laden” from faraway Afghanistan. There is also the bewildering spectacle of a line of unsavory Third World entities created or supported by the US, who end up on the “most wanted” list—Noriega, Saddam and now the Taliban.
When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the CIA pumped in USD 2.1 billion over a 10-year period (with matching funds from Saudi Arabia and another billion dollars donated by the Chinese) to create a resistance that, at its height, included almost 200,000 well-trained volunteers from 20 Muslim countries, operating out of Pakistan but supported covertly by a disparate coalition comprising Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, China and the United States.
Osama bin Laden was among the early recruits to the Afghan jihad. Once the Red Army was driven out of Afghanistan, these out-of-job freedom fighters had little to do. Some stayed on to fight the remnants of the Soviet regime or dispersed into factions; others returned to their countries to create a new dreaded force of “Afghan Arabs” that became active in destabilising Egypt, Algeria, Palestine, Yemen, Tunisia and Jordan; some even turned on their American mentors. The more motivated fought in Bosnia and Kosovo.
For the US, terrorism is now outside the ambit of its conventional approach of certifying states as being “sponsors of terrorism” and then going after them through traditional military, diplomatic or economic means. With the ‘privatisation’ of terror by those who are highly motivated, the US is dealing with an enemy that has a demonstrated capacity to kill coupled with a willingness to die. This makes the war on terrorism more complex and the enemy more difficult to locate.
The biggest problem that the US faces is on the public opinion front in the Muslim world, most of which is yet to be convinced about the linkage between the 11 September crime and Afghanistan.
Earlier, the United States was seeking to erect a missile defence system, costing around USD 100 billion, based on the assumption of a ‘threat’ to American cities from ‘rogue states’ like Iran and North Korea but aimed more at China as adversary. After 11 September, both China and Iran are de facto partners of the US on the issue of terrorism. More than any other region, the US anti-terrorism strategy crafted in the aftermath of the carnage in New York and Washington has grave implications for South Asia. The American worldview has undergone a radical transformation and with it is gone the premise of the Bush administration’s initial South Asian policy that was propped up by three pillar promoting India as a counterweight to China, projecting China as the new adversary which ought to be contained, and pushing Pakistan into a corner as a virtual pariah.
However, for Pakistan, the main question now is: once the “get Osama Operation” is over, who will be there to remove the rubble of revolt or the debris of discontent that this operation would bring in its wake, plus the 2.2 million Afghans already resident here? Military matters apart, other questions pertaining to Afghanistan’s future have the potential to create dissent in the carefully cobbled coalition against terrorism. At the core of any possible Pakistan-American cleavage would be the competing interests over Afghanistan, particularly the scenario for the post-Osama phase. Were the Taliban regime to unravel in the process, what sort of new political dispensation would replace it?
Pakistan’s concerns on this count would be threefold. First, the anti-terrorism campaign should be limited to nabbing Osama and his cohort, not removing a regime perceived as ‘friendly’ to Pakistan. Second, ensuring that the Northern Alliance is not enlisted in the ‘get Osama’ campaign since, in that case, it would surely be transformed into a ‘get Taliban’ operation as well. Third, addressing the concern that enlarging the American antiterrorism agenda beyond its stated goal would generate instability and uncertainty in Afghanistan, a further exodus of refugees southward, and destabilisation of Pakistan itself.
Since it is clear that the new coalition will not be functional without major Muslim representation, Muslim leaders need to muster up the courage and vision to look beyond their own political survival so that the much talked about ‘clash of civilisations’ does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy. More than the Americans, it is the Muslim nations, and Pakistan in particular, which will feel the first fallout of any military action against any Muslim country.