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Category: International Date: 07 Oct 01

A war unfolds


Ira Mathur: US President George Bush began his offensive against Bin Laden, the Taliban and the Al-Qa’eda movement with a strong show of American firepower and ultimatums. Nothing adds up. What’s going on?


Lawrence Joffe: Arab and Muslim regimes are understandably worried about the reaction in “the street”. Perhaps this explains why fissures in the coalition have already started appearing. Most notably, there is Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to have its bases used by the US Air Force to attack a brother Arab or Muslim nation.

The border nations with Afghanistan - Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, have governments that fear their own Islamic rebels are linked to the Taliban, and Bin Laden. They cannot assure America of unequivocal support. If Russia or its Central Asian allies appear to weaken, this may conceivably give the Gulf-funded Taliban and Al-Qaeda new heart.

There are numerous other scenarios, involving internal Central Asian politics. None of those states wish to succumb to militant Islamists, whose allies are the Taliban. They fear a domino effect, with themselves as the main sufferers. Even China worries about secessionist violence in the Xinchiang province, where some militant groups amongst ethnic Uighurs, who are Muslim, have allied themselves with Osama’s outfit.

Iran has refused to allow an attack on neighbouring Afghanistan, certainly by the USA, which certain powerful factions still characterise as “The Great Satan.”

However, there is no love lost between Tehran and the Taliban. Grand Ayatollah Khamenei once characterized the neighbouring regime as primitive and a “travesty of Islam”. Iran’s allies amongst the Shi’ite Hazara people around Herat and Bamian were brutalised by the Taliban, and many in Iran want revenge.

In short, it might not be the Americans’ war to win or lose. Afghans, Iranians, Uzbeks, Chinese and Arabs might win or lose the war for the USA, all by themselves. There is the suggestion that “locals” will do the West’s “dirty work” for them.


Ira Mathur: Given the number of countries involved in retaliatory action, how do you think this war will unfold?


Lawrence Joffe: UK forces have been massing in Oman; UK and US forces bombed Basra in Iraq on Wednesday. The Northern Alliance have stepped up their campaign, so the Taliban may be bracing for the big attack from the North.

Tony Blair visits Pakistan with proof that Bin Laden is culpable. The attack may come from the South. A false move by the Taliban may prompt a massive counter-punch by Iran whose army is stronger, and whose population outnumbers the Afghans by a factor of five. And if joining (even tacitly) in a US assault on Kabul means restored economic and political ties with Washington, that might be a price worth paying (albeit in secret) by moderates represented by President Khatam. The attack may come from the West.

The world is jittery and terror is the first thing that occurs to people’s minds if a plane blows up or a man goes on a rampage killing passengers on a bus. Thousands have been laid off in the airline and other industries, a world recession is imminent. Fear abounds everywhere. In that sense, Bin Laden may be winning the war so far.


Ira Mathur:  What about the wildcard in this equation - Russia? Vladimir Putin has been wooing NATO boss, Lord Robertson.


Lawrence Joffe:  Oddly, the Russians seem to be backing the Northern Alliance - the same people (known then as Mujaheddin) who they fought for nine years. The Taliban know that Russia has better intelligence of the layout of Afghanistan. Perhaps, they fear Russia is out to win their second Afghan war, as they had so ignominiously lost the first!

As the threat of the attack drags on, and the West/Russia/local despots seem to be stalling, thousands of Muslims from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, etc, could “sign up” as volunteers and flock to fight against Moscow’s minions. The West foolishly has not judged the depth of fury, as yet largely unexpressed, by Muslims against Russia for its near-genocide in Muslim Chechnya over the last decade.


Ira Mathur: What does it mean to “fight and beat terrorism”? This seems like an impossible goal.


Lawrence Joffe: War galvanises nations to be prepared to face losses. However, in the charged atmosphere now prevailing, Bush’s campaign has been interpreted internationally, not as a war between nations, but a war between civilisations. That is a particularly dangerous development, redolent in many minds of a global war between Christendom and Islam, like the Crusades of 900 years ago. That is notwithstanding the frantic efforts by US and UK governments to assuage their own Muslim citizens that Islam is not to blame, and that the Islamic religion is essentially peace-loving.             


Lawrence Joffe is author of Keesings Guide to the Middle East Peace Process on America’s war against the Taliban terrorists.


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