THE terrorist attacks in the USA on Tuesday September 11, 2001 will go down in history as arguably the most horrendous and audacious act of terror to date. The co-ordinated attacks targeted the heart of the US establishment
and the most powerful symbols of its political, military and commercial might. The 110-storeyed twin-towered World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon, headquarters of US Defence in Washington being deliberately rammed by hijacked passenger aircraft, the Presidential retreat, Camp David, being missed and, almost as a distraction, a car bomb going off outside the State Department in Washington.
The loss of lives is certain to be several thousands including those inside the ill-fated buildings, those aboard the four hijacked planes, firemen, police, other rescue workers and bystanders. Given the character of the New York business centre, victims included people of many nationalities including over 250 Indians and people of Indian origin. The casualties are the heaviest that the US has ever incurred on the mainland, several times more than in the attack by imperial Japan on Pearl Harbour during the Second World War.
And while it is not the first terrorist act in the US it was certainly the deadliest and the most dramatic, shocking the US and the whole world who watched the entire horror unfold on live television. Clearly, no missile defence system would be effective against such an attack.
Given the enormous impact on the psyche of the world’s sole superpower, it was hardly surprising that, starting with the President George W Bush, the US was soon talking of a global war against terrorism. In the manner now made familiar by the US in Iraq, Bosnia, Yugoslavia and elsewhere, a US-led-coalition of nations was soon being called for and put together to conduct this war including military action against major terrorist bases and the man whose name as the main suspect sprang on to the lips of US decision-makers even as the sirens were sounding. At the time of going to press, these actions were taking concrete shape, and much of the focus was on Afghanistan and South Asia. Whether or not, as media hype puts it, these attacks “have changed the world forever”, they are certainly going to have a profound and long-term impact around the world and most definitely in this region.
This article seeks to discuss the major strategic and security implications of what US President Bush described as the “first war of the 21st century”. The article sets out to look at who the enemy in this war is and who the warriors are, at the nature and character of the theatre of war and the broad stratagem being outlined, and the implications in and for India.
The US administration, from the top down, has been stressing that this war against terrorism is not a one shot affair but is likely to be a long-term campaign. Understandably, the immediate attention is on those the
US believes to be behind the horrors of September 11, chiefly Osama bin Laden who President Bush said was wanted “dead or alive”. Repeated statements by top US administration officials that the target is not just one man but the “terrorist architecture which supports him and his network” have not carried conviction but only added to the suspicion that the campaign may not really be as global as proclaimed nor take in other terrorists and other forms of terrorism.
Past US record underlines the likelihood of a selective campaign against targets sighted through US glasses. It would be surprising indeed if the US, especially under George W Bush, were to take a moral or principled position about terrorism, particularly if the threat is not directed against the US.
In Afghanistan itself, all kinds of fundamentalism as well as terrorists and mercenary fighters were not merely tolerated but actively supported and encouraged by the US during the ‘80s in efforts to drive the Soviet Union out of that country. Osama bin Laden himself was specifically brought from Saudi Arabia in the mid-‘80s to head the fund-collection and logistical operations of the Maktab al-Khidmat or the Office of Services, an overt organization to recruit and aid chiefly Arab volunteers for the war against the Soviets. The network established during that period later resulted in the clandestine Al Qa’ida or The Base whose explicit aim is to wage jihad against the West especially the US. To the US, bin Laden was a freedom fighter then, a terrorist now.
India on its part has been shouting itself hoarse about cross-border terrorism and Pak- based groups wreaking mayhem in India with mass killings of minorities in Jammu & Kashmir and bombs in public places throughout India. Training camps have been operating openly not only in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in Muzaffarabad, Baltistan and elsewhere in the Northen Areas from where “mujahideen” have gone out to operate not only in India but in many other parts of the world including in former Soviet republics, Chechnya and China’s Xinjiang and Uighur provinces.
Masood Azhar, exchanged for hostages aboard the hijacked Indian Airlines plane in Kandahar, was escorted to a public hero’s welcome in Pakistan where he openly operates. General Musharraf during the Agra summit denied that Dawood Ibrahim, the notorious Mumbai gangster linked to the serial blasts in that city, was living in Pakistan, even as the Pakistani press widely reported his departure from and arrival back in Karachi a few days on either side of Musharraf’s journey to India. There was also no US response when General Musharraf, again in Agra, decried the use of the word “terrorism”, described civilian casualties in Kashmir as natural if regrettable side-effects of a “freedom struggle”. Your terrorist, my freedom fighter.
The US did declare the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat ul Ansar as “terrorist outfits” and placed Pakistan on a “watch list” of states sponsoring terrorism. But it is important to recall that the US State Department’s reports leading to these decisions said little about activities in Kashmir or use the word terrorism with respect to Kashmir. There is good reason to believe that the US concerns, even in the more “moralistic” Clinton era, had more to do with the unfolding anti-US terrorist profile of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, their links with Pakistan and other terrorist organisations there and the nexus between all of these.
US support to terrorism in the past, including organised terror by states, in numerous countries in Latin American and South-East Asia as a weapon against revolutionary, radical or even simply national liberation struggles is too well known to require repetition here. For the US, therefore, terrorism has been seen as a useful weapon and supported when directed against its enemies, tolerated and turned a blind eye to when convenient and seen as an intrinsic evil only when it affects the US. In the present context, when the whole world is supposed to have changed, the issue is whether US policy will change significantly to a less US-centric and more universal view of terrorism. India must be concerned whether the Nelson’s eye will open or stay shut with increasing US-Pak collaboration against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
All this is not to argue that the renewed US-Pakistan alliance is against India’s interests. Far from it, for getting Pakistan to participate in an anti-Taliban operation would sever its links with the Taliban state which it virtually props up and also break a crucial link in one of the major hubs of the international terrorist network. But to better appreciate the factors involved, it is necessary to examine why Pakistan is the preferred ally for the US at this point.
From the US point of view of prosecuting a military action against the Taliban, Pakistan is clearly the best possible ally. Physically, Pakistan’s contiguity with Afghanistan enables basing of ground troops there whereas even air strikes from the sea would necessitate crossing hundreds of miles of Pakistani airspace. The Pakistani Army and ISI know the terrain and the Taliban intimately, a large number of Pakistani soldiers actually serving with the Taliban army, and can provide infinitely better human intelligence than anyone else. The US is also far more familiar with the Pakistani armed forces having been close partners not only during the anti-Soviet Afghan operations but throughout the cold war. The ISI itself was virtually put together from scratch by the CIA during the ‘80s. The Peshawar air force station with US-made F-16s and which is certain to be one of the bases for US forces in this operation, is also familiar territory for US forces having been used by the US back in the ‘50s for launching its infamous U2 spy plane which was shot down by the Soviet Union.
From the Pakistani point of view, this was a terrible choice to make between standing by the Taliban, virtually its own creation ensuring a friendly Afghan state for the first time in its history, and accepting the US diktat: join in a military coalition against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, or else the US will bracket Pakistan along with them. The US made an offer Pakistan could not refuse, but there are internal reasons too for Pakistan making this dramatic turn-around.
Fundamentalist forces have sunk deep roots into Pakistani society, its polity and even its most prized institution, the military. Jihadi forces are threatening to overwhelm the Pakistani state and nation, surely a direction not palatable to Pakistan’s ruling elites especially its westernised business and professional classes. General Musharraf himself had earlier proclaimed himself to be an admirer of Kemal Ataturk and his vision of a modernised Islamist nation in Turkey, and had recently tried to rein in the jihadis, not least because of the international isolation in which Pakistan was finding itself in, but with ominously little success. By accepting the US diktat, Pakistan has almost overnight turned from a state virtually in the forefront of fundamentalism and international terrorism to once again being a “frontline state” in the latest US war, this time ostensibly against terrorism itself and ironically in the same battleground as before, Afghanistan.
But all this is not without peril. Fundamentalist groups and political parties, a wide gamut of jihadi forces and a large section of public opinion brought up on years of fundamentalist and jihadi propaganda have already come out on the streets to oppose the Pakistani establishment’s decision.
The depth of public sentiments in Pakistan can be gauged from the fact that even the Jamiat-i-Islami, the most powerful Islamist party in Pakistan and one with little love for the Deobandi fundamentalism of the Taliban, has come out publicly against the decision. Gen.Musharraf and the ruling Pakistani establishment may well be devoured by the tiger they have been riding till now, like so many other illustrious leaders in the sub-continent.
The ruling Pakistani establishment is trying to placate domestic opinion by highlighting the “up” side of the decision viz. a fresh US-Pakistan axis replacing what is perceived in Pakistan to be the highly disquieting US tilt towards India, US promises to intervene on Kashmir, possible lifting of sanctions and a US bail-out of the almost bankrupt Pakistani economy. While all these would no doubt be welcomed by the public, political parties and jihadi forces, of prime concern to all, as well as to India, would be the impact on the Pakistan-sponsored terrorists, militants and other secessionists operating in Kashmir and on the Pakistani agenda in Kashmir.
Response of BJP-led government Typical wishful thinking in South Block and among linked media commentators and strategic experts is that, having willy-nilly joined the coalition against terrorism, Pakistan will sooner or later have to shut down the training camps in PoK and other parts of the country and wind down cross-border militancy, gradually weakening the hold of jihadi forces in Pakistan. On the other hand, there are indications that the US is singing different songs on either side of the Indo-Pak border. US foreign secretary Colin Powell’s remarks that the US “understands their [Pakistan’s] sensitivities… in anything that might involve India… [and] will take those sensitivities into account” was later described by a US Embassy spokesman in New Delhi as “just ad libbing”, shocking enough if true but otherwise portending dangerous games being played. It is quite conceivable that, once the current operations are over, Pakistan would only rein in terrorist actions against civilian targets on the Indian side of the LoC in J&K and elsewhere in India while the cross-border “independence struggle” could proceed with all other forms of militancy and armed actions.
It is in this context that India has to weigh its options and work out a policy to preserve and advance national interests. India’s official positions have been highly disappointing. Even while US allies in Europe and elsewhere are advising caution regarding the military option, and stress the need for a proper mandate from the UN rather than unilateral action by the US or any US-led coalition, India not only welcomed the military option but also leapt up to participate in it. The attempts by the BJP-led government to enlist itself as a sepoy in the company to be led by the global policeman can only be described as pathetic. Perhaps foreign minister Jaswant Singh was day-dreaming of joint US-Indian sorties smashing training camps in Afghanistan and PoK, but he was soon rudely awakened. India rushed headlong into US arms only to find them reaching out to a rival dancing partner.
More than ever before, the BJP-led government has cast Indian foreign policy into a reflexively pro-US and highly restrictive Pakistan-centred mould. India should have welcomed the Pakistani participation, called for a UN mandate and a wider campaign against terrorism under UN aegis, a document for which is already available. Contrarily, while now paying lip service to the need for a UN mandate, Indian officials led by Jaswant Singh continue to harp on action by a “concert of democracies”. Clearly, the BJP still hankers after a US-India axis from which Pakistan and China are kept out. It is, however, in the interests of both India and the international community if Pakistan and China, irrespective of their internal political systems, both join in the global campaign against terrorism rather than being kept out from some exclusive club to which the BJP would like India alone to belong.
Not that these positions were unexpected given stand on other issues and the well-known proclivities of the BJP and the sangh parivar. India was the first, and among only three countries in the world, to outright welcome the Bush administration’s decision to go ahead with the National Missile Defence system. India under the BJP has also been going out of its way to seek a deeper strategic relationship with the US including greater military ties and, once again breaking the prevailing consensus within the Indian polity, seeking similar strategic alliances with Israel.
THE ENEMY WITHIN
Perhaps the most disquieting aspect of this US-led war against terrorism is the fact that there has been little or no examination of non-military campaigns or even attempts to understand social and political factors giving sustenance to terrorism. Few commentators have even raised such issues and whenever anyone has sought to do so, they have been shouted down as if they were apologists for terrorism.
Unless the US understands and addresses the anger and desperation in Palestine and in much of the Middle-East in general, no amount of military action will put an end to anti-US militancy and its extreme form, terrorism. Frustration at the total refusal of Israel and its chief backer the USA to make peace in Palestine and, on the contrary, continuing with policies of occupation, expansionism, ghettoisation and extra-judicial killings of Palestinians in their own homeland while completely rejecting any form of accomodation or negotiation with mainstream political forces, is daily driving hundreds and thousands of young Arab youth into the waiting arms of fundamentalists and terrorists. Indeed terrorism cannot be excused, but should not the US and the world be looking at causes as well?
But just as the US is totally unwilling to look at its own policies in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, and wants to defeat international terrorism militarily, so too the BJP. The BJP has the very same perspective on Kashmir too and does not want to tackle socio-political ground realities which spawn deep-rooted discontent and militancy and provide a fertile ground for terrorism to grow. The BJP and Sangh Parivar’s aggressive Hindu revanchism and anti-minority postures and actions continue to provide impetus to militant Islamic fundamentalism.
Indeed, apart from cross-border terrorism, the Indian public has had to face the terror of various Sangh Parivar constituents and like-minded groups such as the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Bombay riots, the attacks on art galleries and cinema houses showing paintings or movies disapproved of by the parivar for whatever reason, the diktat by the BJP student wing ABVP in Lucknow against girls wearing jeans and so on.
Most disquietingly, whereas neither the BJP not the motley National Democratic Alliance it heads has openly said so, but all its actions and utterances especially over the last week also underline the fact that it is an avid subscriber to the Huntington thesis of a “clash of civilisations”.
While President Bush, British PM Tony Blair and many other world leaders have at least been verbally stressing that the battle against terrorism is not aimed against any Islam or any one nationality, the BJP is already going to town seeking to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments. BJP leaders have launched anti-Muslim tirades during the many television debates while a meeting of BJP leaders discussing the forthcoming assembly elections in UP reportedly discussed how to extract the maximum value from the terrorist attacks in the
US since the Ram Janmabhoomi card is proving to be quite tired and overused.
One kind of extremism feeds upon another and the vicious cycle needs to be broken. And the answer will not come from military or police action alone. Just as terrorism masquerading as jihad cannot rectify any grievances, vigilantism whether at home or abroad masquerading as a crusade cannot defeat terrorism. Holy wars cannot be won by unholy warriors.