USA post cold war mission


Quick Links

1995, 1996, 1997

1998, 1999, 2000

2001, 2002, 2003

2004, 2005, 2006

2007, 2008, 2009

2010, 2011

Category: International Date: 30 Sep 01

Part 2 of an exclusive interview by Ira Mathur with UK-based Middle East expert and author of Keesings Guide to the Middle East Peace Process, Lawrence Joffe, on the unfolding of a war.


A New York Times/CBS poll says Americans are in favour of going to war with Afghanistan, even if this means their armed forces will suffer many casualties.


The US has already put on a massive show of military firepower, but there is no clear target, because terrorism is an intangible enemy and one that lives in people’s minds. Has the USA any hope of rooting out the Al-Qa’eda?


Terror organisations are by definition secretive. Their tools of trade can be really rudimentary - which admittedly makes them appear to be far less “substantial” than standing armies, or even guerrilla outfits.


Successful terror groups use cunning and surprise to compensate for their evident “weakness.” It was an act of evil genius to use just box-cutters and pen-knives to force the destruction of the greatest symbols of US commercial power, to disable the Pentagon and kill up to 7,000 people in a matter of hours.


But your point about living in people’s minds is a crucial one. Terrorism thrives on publicity; and like the bomb-carrying anarchists of a century ago, the idea is to shock society out of its bourgeois complacence, to make every person feel scared. Terrorists know they cannot defeat standing armies. Rather, they choose to target civilians, in the hope the latter, wary of the attrition of fear, will pressurise their governments to succumb to terrorists’ demands.


There are differences between terror groups. Some, like the IRA, traditionally warns its British foes of impending attacks, via the use of code-words. Most terrorists have no wish to die, or at least, certainly do not deliberately seek their death. Neither of these features seem, to apply to the network of Islamic extremists reputedly affiliated to Osama bin Laden.


In Lebanon, Palestine, Ireland, and indeed most places, terrorists rush to claim responsibility for atrocities. Yet Al Qa’eda is coy about their role, and seem to thrive on the additional fears caused by their silence and secrecy. Rumour and paranoia, it appears, are new weapons.


It is entirely natural for a nation that has suffered such a blow as the USA has, to seek retribution. They call it justice, and others may condemn it as brutal revenge, but however you dress it up, some determined action is required.


Furthermore, President Bush’s rhetoric demands putting words into deeds. Politically, the fight against terrorism gives the USA a clear role and mission, 10 years after Communism collapsed worldwide. And psychologically, one might argue, the USA has a burning need to expiate once and for all the “ghosts of Vietnam.”


The immediate demand is the arrest or “taking out” of Osama bin Laden. But you are right to point out that the massive array of US firepower on show suggests a broader military offensive. Maybe this is just “gunship diplomacy,” designed to scare the Taliban to surrender bin Laden at the last moment. But I doubt it.


What shape will this retribution take, given the complexity of warring against not a country but disparate groups?


The Renaissance political analyst, Nicolo Machiavelli, once said a centralised polity was difficult to defeat, but, once beaten, easy to control; by contrast, a decentralised polity was easy to beat, but nearly impossible to control. By extension, a diffuse and secretive network like bin Laden’s might be stymied in limited localities, but is nearly impossible to eliminate globally.


Further, US intelligence bodies, the CIA and FBI, appear to lack agents with deep knowledge of the Arabic language and culture, nor, indeed, of the Muslim religion. Shockingly, it is now being revealed that they may have had tapes containing conversations about the impending 1993 World Trade Centre bombing - yet no agents could speak Pashto, Arabic or Farsi, so the tapes meant nothing to them!


Finally, Islamist cells may operate in a compartmentalised way, so only a few at the top know what the master-plan is.


Adolf Hitler claimed to speak on behalf of “Aryans” everywhere. He cloaked his ludicrous argument in disgusting racist invective, yet it took a war costing 54 million lives to prove him wrong and defeat him.


Now Osama and Mullah Omar say they speak on behalf of “all Muslims.” That is equally ludicrous. Again, it seems, lamentably, that only war will prove them wrong. Let’s hope far fewer die in the process.


To a large measure, the onus is on fellow Muslims to disown them and thereby isolate them. But they cannot do so if they appear to be stooges for “US domination.” Colin Powell has hinted that television cameras would not be covering every aspect of fighting, as they did in the 1991 Gulf War. However, that raises other fears.



If US forces have a free rein, out of the public eye, how will public opinion be able to put a brake on their blows, especially against the Afghans who are a people already broken by war and poverty?

The point about the long-suffering Afghan people is well made. Already, more than a million have died; four million made refugees; and over the past three years, thousands more have died in a famine exacerbated by drought, economic collapse and the after-effects of years of fighting.


The Afghan Taliban government has deliberately made it difficult, if not impossible, for the West to assist its suffering population. Aid agencies who provided vital food for starving Afghans have been expelled.


Into the vacuum comes a front organisation for Osama supporters, the Al Rashid Institute, which says it wants to provide bread for Kabul’s starving. President Bush announced the assets of the “terrorist-affiliated” institute were frozen. So, once again, we see how agonising it can be to tally morality with politics.


Remember the My Lai massacre in Vietnam- and imagine the others that were never reported. America has a moral right - even an obligation - to defend itself. But to say America has a monopoly on morality itself is far from the truth.


America may find itself making an apparently callous calculation, but it won’t be unique in historical terms. Its argument is very familiar. Namely, that the current situation is untenable; therefore, if it takes a final war to end a generation of bloodshed in Afghanistan, so be it. This war, they will say, is unavoidable, and, in the long-run, morally justifiable.


To be continued.


horizontal rule



All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur