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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
shape will this retribution take, given the complexity of warring against
not a country but disparate groups?
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.
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!
Islamist cells may operate in a compartmentalised way, so only a few at
the top know what the master-plan is.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.