Infinite justice, finite targets

hammer1.gif (1140 bytes) People’s

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)


No. 39

September 30,2001

Justice, Finite Targets:

US War On Terror


THE war on
terrorism declared and launched by the US is taking shape and gathering momentum. Events
are unfolding and a pattern beginning to form, if somewhat slower than may have been
expected given the belligerent noises being made by the US administration and by sections
of the international media seeking both to stoke the fires of hatred and slake the thirst
for blood which this necessarily entails. The broad coalition of nations being enlisted by
the US is taking shape with some familiar actors and roles, such as the UK eager to
display its “special relationship” with the US and at the forefront of the
military preparations, and several newer and even surprising ones even if on the fringes
with as yet undefined roles.

Some moves have
been initiated by the US and its close Western allies to freeze known bank accounts and
other financial assets of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qa’ida network, the campaign
against terrorism is shaping up as chiefly a military one specifically against these
entities. A list of 27 other terrorist organisations has also been released by the US,
with numerous and obvious names missing, making the targets quite limited rather than
taking in a broader sweep as desired by many nations reflecting their concerns and
threats. The war on terrorism, even if played out on a near global scale, is therefore
looking more and more like a US-led war on anti-US terrorists. The much-promised
“second phase” when it comes about, supposedly will widen the scope of the
anti-terrorism campaign and its partners, but this may be quite some time coming if at

even the current operations are likely to see far-reaching strategic implications unfold
for the entire region with significant impact on global geo-politics and of course for


The lifting of
US sanctions against both India and Pakistan which had been imposed after both countries
had tested nuclear weapons in May 1998 are a case in point. The US was already considering
lifting these sanctions, although asymmetrically in the two countries. With the growing
distancing of the US from Pakistan given the increasing awareness of its involvement with
fundamentalist and terrorist forces, the clandestine acquisition of nuclear and missile
technology, the Kargil misadventure and finally the military coup, the US had imposed
several layers of sanctions on Pakistan. At the same time, with growing proximity between
the US and India especially with the BJP-led government’s eager efforts to endear
itself to and serve US interests, the US had begun easing sanctions against India, peeling
off layers one by one.

After the
terrorist attacks on the US and the ensuing developments, this process of lifting
sanctions has been reversed. Pakistan has been rewarded for its agreement to align with
the US against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and India has been graced with lifting of
sanctions in a reciprocal measure. More than this practical reality, the terms of the
debate in the international community regarding nuclear weapons have been drastically
altered, including amongst the 165 countries duped and bullied by the US into signing the
CTBT, thus ratifying the monopoly of the nuclear weapons states.

The Bush
Administration’s abandonment of the CTBT and its relentless pursuit of NMD, combined
with the cynical way in which the sanctions have been lifted, together signify a severe
setback to the international campaign for universal nuclear disarmament. In the midst of
the on-going “war on terror”, the lifting of sanctions and the issue of
de-nuclearisation appear to be mere side-shows. The main show in town is the imminent
military action against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan.


The firepower
and weaponry being mobilised by the US and some of its closest allies is awesome to say
the least, certainly in view of the known capabilities of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban
in Afghanistan. The US now seems determined to oust the latter from power in order to cut
off a key element of what US officials have been calling “support systems of global

US aircraft
carriers Carl Vincent and Enterprise with their complement of

aircraft and
cruise missiles, along with several accompanying naval vessels of the US 5th
and 6th Fleets, are now more or less in place. The battleship USS Roosevelt
and 15 other naval vessels have left Japan for the Arabian Sea. Massive air power in the
form of the venerable B-52 bombers, the deadly B-1 and F-111 Stealth bombers, attack and
troop-carrying helicopters, mid-air refuelling tankers and airborne surveillance aircraft,
have all been flown in and positioned in different countries around Afghanistan. The US
base in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is poised to play a crucial operational role in
the coming weeks.

A British
aircraft carrier, a nuclear submarine, Jaguar and Tornado strike aircraft and close to
20,000 troops earlier scheduled for exercises in the Gulf, some even otherwise based in
Oman, are now being redeployed for action against Afghanistan, the largest biggest British
naval and troop deployment since its war against Argentina over the disputed
Malvinas/Falkland Islands.

Given the likely
nature of the effort to get at Osama bin Laden, the likely battles against the Taliban and
the terrain in Afghanistan, there is certainly an appearance of overkill in this massive
force deployment. This is partly justified by the anticipated long-term campaign
against terrorist groups in the region as a whole. But a large part of it is pure show of
force, a reinforcement of a now permanent US presence in the region already heavily
bolstered during operations against Iraq, all backed by the huge financial outlays
amounting to 40 billion dollars sanctioned by the US Congress for tackling eventualities
arising out of the terrorist attacks.

While the US had
declared its intention to take out “high-value targets” in Afghanistan, there
are hardly any of these left in that benighted country after more than 20 years of war.
There are no major factories, no big industrial installations, no major military bases.
Indeed, there is hardly any infrastructure of any kind left in Afghanistan to service its
population who have few operational hospitals, schools or places of employment. With so
little left to destroy, what will all these forces target?

It seems more
than likely that air power would be used to seek and destroy Taliban tanks, artillery and
aircraft, fuel and ammunition dumps, besides key governmental buildings and military
command structures in Kabul and Kandahar. The latter are likely to be empty by the time
they are actually hit and civilian casualties in nearby areas can be expected. The Taliban
and other terrorist and jehadi training camps would also be hit even though these
too may be empty and in any case have few fixed assets which could not be put together in
some other place. A few bridges may also be targeted although many of the 15 said to have
been identified by the US are already ramshackle structures and may also be required by
other ground forces, say of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

In any case, few
of these operations would call for cruise missiles being launched from the Arabian Sea or
the Gulf which would be largely ineffective as seen during the Clinton-era attack with
over 70 cruise missiles against Osama bin Laden’s camp in Khost in south-eastern

In order to be
effective, therefore, the operations in Afghanistan are not

likely to be
similar to the earlier “TV wars” against Iraq or Yugoslavia, where there were
many large, visible and asset-packed targets both military and civil-industrial, and would
necessarily involve less of remote-control attacks and more of close-quarter operations.
Precision strikes by low flying strike aircraft, use of “smart” bombs and
“cave-busting” munitions would probably be preferred. Importantly, the military
action in Afghanistan would also call for substantial use of helicopter gunships and
helicopter-based “in and out” commando operations. Britain’s elite SAS has
already tried out some dummy commando runs deep inside Afghanistan. Such operations would
almost certainly lead to casualties among the US and allied forces.

Thanks to the US
itself, the Taliban is equipped with anti-aircraft weaponry including shoulder-fired
Stinger missiles which are quite effective against low-flying and relatively slower
aircraft as would be the case in the mountainous terrain, as the Soviet forces had earlier
realised to their high cost. The effectivity of such weaponry would be reduced by
subsequent technological developments such as diversionary flares (which make the
heat-seeking missiles deviate away from the aircraft engine’s heat) and increased
capabilities for night-time operations, but the dangers of higher casualties would remain.

(To be concluded)

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