The "war against terrorism" - From the US agression against Afghanistan to the threat of an Indo-Pakistani war

Jan/Feb 2002

Almost three months after the US leaders launched their aggression against Afghanistan, not one of the objectives assigned by Bush to his "war against terrorism" has been achieved. Osama bin Laden, Washington's most wanted man, is still on the run. Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network may have been destroyed (although this remains to be seen), but Islamic fundamentalism has probably won many more recruits across the poor countries, thanks to the US's murderous bombing of the Afghan population.

As to the world as a whole, it is certainly not a safer place to live in. Not only has Sharon's regime, in Israel, jumped on the opportunity offered by the US "war against terrorism" to launch a bloody offensive against the Palestinians, but noises of sabre-rattling have now spread to India and Pakistan, raising the threat of a conflict between these two giant countries.

For the time being, the main victim of Bush's and Blair's criminal policy is still the Afghan population. As has often been the case for the past military ventures of imperialism in the poor countries, the number of casualties and the real extent of the damage caused by the US bombings will probably never be known. Nor will the indirect effects of the war, for the refugee population in particular.

But in fact, despite the silence of the Western media during the Winter festive season, the war is not even over in Afghanistan. The US leaders may have declared a unilateral victory over the Taliban on 16 December, designed to coincide with the festival marking the end of Ramadan, but the US bombings are still continuing as we go to press. In fact there is more and more evidence of the US's terrorist policy against the population. Under the pretext of hunting down bin Laden and the remaining al-Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan, whole villages are being bombed into the ground. Just to mention a few examples taken out of the English-language Pakistani daily Dawn News, 65 villagers were killed on 20th December, 40 on 27th and over 100 on 31st. All these raids took place in the Paktia province, a predominantly Pashtun area where the Taliban are known to have enjoyed strong support. This is no "terrorist hunt". It is a deliberate attempt to cow a potentially hostile population into submission.

Of course, this is entirely in line with the US leaders' policy since September 11th. Their aim was to set an unmistakable example, to demonstrate the cost of attacking imperialism in its own heartland, both for the benefit of US public opinion and for the benefit of all those, in the poor countries, who might be tempted to defy the rule of imperialism. For this demonstration to be effective it had to be visible enough. So a whole country, Afghanistan, was chosen as a target, because it was a safe haven for bin Laden's men - although Saudi Arabia, this erstwhile ally of US imperialism, would have fitted the bill just as well in that respect - but also because it was weak and isolated in every respect. To ensure that the US demonstration of strength would be spectacular enough, it was decided that the Taliban regime would be bombed into submission and, if need be, overthrown. And to achieve this objective, the Afghan population, which had nothing to do with the September 11th attacks, was made to pay with its blood and with the destruction of what little infrastructure had been left in the country by two decades of war.

Indeed the terrorist methods used by imperialism against the poor in Afghanistan - and in fact in so many parts of the Third World in the past - display just as much contempt for the populations as the methods used by those who inspired the suicide attack against the World Trade Centre. Except that, unlike bin Laden and his followers, the US leaders cannot even hide behind the ruthless oppression and looting of the Third World by the rich countries to justify their crimes.

However, the crimes committed by the US leaders with the support of their minor imperialist allies in the "war against terrorism" may well result in even greater disasters than the one that has so far affected Afghanistan.

Speculation about Bush's next target has been going on for some time. Political commentators have been talking about further US military operations against Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Iraq, in particular. And there are indications pointing in this direction. For example, in the case of Somalia, a naval task force from the USA, Britain, France and Germany is stationed off the coast of the country - allegedly to stop possible al-Qaeda fugitives coming in from Afghanistan - while the Ethiopian regime has made openings showing that it would be prepared to play an active military role on the ground should the US decide to move against Somalia. In the meantime, in Yemen, the regime has launched a military drive against ethnic minorities accused of harbouring members of terrorist fundamentalist groups. As to Iraq, there is certainly a section of the US political establishment which is keen, for its own demagogic reasons, to revive the media hate campaign against Saddam Hussein. However, whether the US leaders will take the risk of targeting Saddam Hussein, given the military resources and political risks this involves, both in the US and in the Middle-East, is quite another question.

For the time being, in any case, all this remains in the realm of pure speculation and one can find just as many reasons for the US leaders to choose to leave things as they are, after their self- proclaimed victory in Afghanistan. But even without any further US military ventures, there are reasons to fear that the aggression against Afghanistan may have unleashed a host of political forces hich could cause dramatic explosions, sooner or later.

Afghanistan - a stable future?

The formation of today's interim Afghan government was a protracted affair. In fact it gave a graphic illustration of the problems which are now facing Afghanistan.

The conference organised in Bonn by the United Nations, at the end of November, was supposed to reach an all-party political settlement for Afghanistan. But although some sort of cross-party government did come out of it, ready to take over from the Taliban regime, this conference was far from being conclusive.

At the time, the US leaders loudly proclaimed that they would abstain from any interference in the proceedings. But the idea that Washington would not interfere in the negotiations was obviously pure nonsense. The fact that the conference was dominated by Washington's preferred political faction - formed by the supporters of ex-king Zahir Shah, who was overthrown in 1973 and has never had any political presence in the country since - was, in and of itself, a major interference in the proceedings. So much so that even before the discussions started, the only Pashtun member of the Northern Alliance delegation, Hadji Abdul Qadir, slammed the door in protest and never came back.

In fact there were very few things on which all the factions agreed. Except one - the setting up of an "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" (although some would probably have preferred it to be called a kingdom) and, by implication, the adoption of some form of Sharia law. On this, it must be said that Bush and Blair were true to their word: despite their hypocritical "concern" for women and democratic rights under the Taliban at the beginning of the war, they certainly did not interfere to push these issues at the Bonn conference. But then should that come as a surprise? After all, for the imperialist leaders, dictatorship and religion are most effective weapons against the emergence of social consciousness among the poor masses!

In other areas, however, the US leaders proved much less restrained in throwing their weight around the conference table. Significantly, they managed to impose their own choice as president, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun politician who presented a 3- fold advantage for Washington. He was associated with Zahir Shah, he had some military strength on the ground (unlike most of the participants outside the Northern Alliance) in the Pashtun- dominated province of Kandahar and in addition, he had been an ally of the Taliban for three years. This latter point was indeed vital since Washington's strategists were still hoping that at least a section of the Taliban hierarchy would rally to the new regime in due time. In addition to Karzai, the US leaders also managed to impose their own candidate for the finance portfolio, Hedayat Amin Arsala, another Pashtun close to Zahir Shah who, in addition, had been groomed in the US headquarters of the World Bank.

In return, outside of these two key positions, the US leaders had little option other than to go along with the demands of the only major military force on the ground - the Northern Alliance. So the key posts of defence, foreign affairs and Interior went to the Northern Alliance, as well as planning (which includes the reconstruction programme), agriculture, mining and industry.

Overall, although Washington got a government which looked the way they wanted it to look - with a majority of Pashtuns and representatives from the main factions - it was not exactly an all- party government. In fact a number of warlords chose not to participate in the Bonn conference - in particular three of the most prominent regional warlords - the strong man of the Northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Uzbek "general" Dostum, the ruler of the Western town of Herat and one of the strong men of the Pashtun region surrounding Kandahar. This led to new complex negotiations, back in Kabul, which resulted in Dostum being co-opted as vice defence minister, while the other two chose to retain their freedom of movement by remaining outside.

Probably the most striking feature of this interim government is the fact that every one of its senior members held a cabinet position in the bankrupt government which presided over the bloody collapse of the country in 1992-96, leading up to the Taliban's seizure of power. Rather than a government, it is an uneasy coalition of rival factions (or even individual warlords), each with its own territory to defend and its own appetite for power. In the early 1990s, it was these same rivalries which finally led to an open armed conflict within the government itself. And the way in which, since the Taliban began to retreat, each one of the main regional warlords has been busy consolidating his grip over his "own" region and evicting potential rivals, suggests that such an implosion in the government could happen again, for the very same reasons.

Besides, contrary to what the Western leaders would like us to believe, the military machinery on which the Taliban regime rested has not disappeared into thin air. A large part of this machinery was constituted by the forces of local warlords, who chose to change sides to avoid being caught in the downfall of the regime. This is why the Taliban regime seems to have disintegrated in front of the Northern Alliance, without attempting to fight back on any significant scale. But the same warlords who switched sides from the Taliban to support the factions represented in today's interim government, could very well decide to switch sides again one of these days. And just as they did by siding with the Taliban back in 1994-96, they could choose to support another venture aimed at overthrowing the Kabul regime, should this regime become too weak or discredited.

Washington knows all this, of course. This was the reason why the US leaders insisted on the deployment of a UN peace-keeping force. Not to prevent the country from being taken to pieces by rival regional warlords - which would require a huge military presence across Afghanistan and present the risk of significant casualties for the UN force - but to ensure that at least the central government in Kabul remains a government, even if it has little real control over the rest of the country.

However the warlords have no intention of allowing the imperialist leaders to arbitrate their rivalries. At the Bonn conference, already, the US were forced to abandon their demand that the UN force should be deployed before the inauguration of the interim government. More bargaining followed after the conference, over the number of soldiers who would be involved. The original notional figure of 10,000 was scaled down first to 5,000 and then to 3,000. And at the time of writing, an agreement has yet to be reached on this account as well as on the actual role of the UN force.

Thus the triumphant display on British television, in the last days of December, of footage showing British soldiers patrolling the streets of Kabul, should not obscure the fact that the British were only allowed to have ten soldiers on patrol at any time in the whole town and even then, they had to be accompanied by Northern Alliance policemen! The British army chiefs who accused Blair of "glory hunting" over his insistence that Britain should assume the command of the UN force, obviously consider the task of the UN force as hopeless and they would prefer some other country to carry the can for an inevitable failure. From this point of view, they seem to have a more realistic idea of the situation in Kabul than Blair.

As to the strenuous efforts made by the US to ensure that the new regime appeared to give a large space to the Pahstuns, the most numerous ethnic minority in the country, they are certainly partly motivated by their desire to counter-balance the military weight of the mostly non-Pashtun Northern Alliance. But they are probably also motivated by the risk of centrifugal forces developing among Afghan Pashtuns and spreading to the neighbouring Pakistani Pahstuns, thereby threatening the stability not just of Afghanistan but more importantly of Pakistan, a precious regional ally for US imperialism.

Between the internal rivalries of the interim administration, the intrinsic fragility of a society ruled by rival gangs of armed men and the potential risk of ethnic-based centrifugal forces, there are many factors which could threaten the future stability of Afghanistan. And some of these factors are direct consequences of the past and present policies of imperialism in the region. Of course, in so far as these risks remain contained within the country's borders, imperialism can live with them. But what about the Afghan population? Are they going to be made to pay, once again, after two decades of war and five years under the yoke of the Taliban, for the power games of imperialism?

India - the BJP jumps on Bush's bandwagon

While US aggression against Afghanistan may have prepared other disasters for that country, it has already opened the way to a dangerous overbidding between Pakistan and India.

On December 13th, a five-man commando entered the Indian Parliament's complex in New Delhi and opened fire with automatic weapons and grenades, killing eight people among the complex's employees and security personnel. However, after a 30-minute gun battle, the five men were killed, without having used the 60 pounds of high-power explosive they were carrying with them. In fact it is now believed that they were planning to take a large number of MPs hostage rather than to stage a suicide attack.

By Indian standards such a terrorist attack was by no means unprecedented. In terms of casualty figures, it did not even feature anywhere near the top league of the many terrorist attacks in India over the recent past. So the unusually violent reaction of the Indian government showed that it had decided to make as much political capital out of it as possible.

This reaction was instantaneous. On the day of the attack, prime minister A.B. Vajpayee issued the following statement: "Now the battle against terrorism has reached a decisive moment. This is going to be a fight for the finish." And Interior minister L.K. Advani added: "We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors, whoever and wherever they are."

Quite obviously these words were directly borrowed from Bush's own statements after the attack against the World Trade Centre. It was clear that the Indian government intended to jump on the bandwagon of the "war against terrorism" for its own reasons. The question was - who were going to be its targets?

The police was surprisingly quick to trace back the initiators of the attack. Officially it was said that the terrorists had left behind a cellular phone which, within just 48 hours, led to the arrest of the two remaining members of a clandestine terrorist cell based in New Delhi. According to the police, this cell was part of Jaish-e- Mohammad (JeM - the Army of Mohamed), a relatively new Pakistani Islamic fundamentalist group, formed by members of a radical faction of the JUI, the Pakistani fundamentalist party from which the Afghan Taliban originated.

The speed of the police enquiry and its results raised many eyebrows in India. It just seemed all too neat and convenient to be true and a number of columnists in the national press started to ask questions, going so far as to suggest that the whole thing might have been a provocation prepared by the Indian Special Branch.

In any case, by then the dice had already started rolling. Government ministers were now busy making incendiary speeches demanding that Pakistan should deport the leaders of the JeM to India so that they could be "brought to justice" - a demand which was obviously entirely unacceptable to the Pakistani regime of general Musharraf. On December 21st, an ultimatum was delivered to Pakistan threatening to ban all Pakistani air traffic over India and stop road and train transport between the two countries. At the same time Indian ministers declared that India might scrap the Indus Water Treaty which regulates the partition of the Indus water network between the two countries - which would be a catastrophe for Pakistani agriculture. Already, massive numbers of troops were being brought to both sides of the border. For the first time since the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, tens of thousands of people were displaced from the border areas both in India and in Pakistan and reports began to stream in about skirmishes involving artillery fire. By January 1st, the Indo-Pakistani border was finally closed to all traffic and the sabre-rattling had taken over the political scene in both countries.

Behind the military build-up

The question now is whether this rapid escalation of tension between the two countries will eventually result in full- blown war. If so it could be a disaster of momentous dimensions for the whole region. Not so much because the two countries have nuclear weapons, as the Western media keeps arguing, but because of the sheer size of the armies and populations involved. With over one billion people living in India and 140 million in Pakistan, the scale of the bloodshed and destruction would be enormous, even without using any nuclear weapons.

At the time of writing, the Pakistani regime has been taking measures of appeasement by announcing the detention of a hundred activists belonging to JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), another similar group, which is also accused by New Delhi of being connected to the December 13th attack.

Clearly Musharraf has been under a lot of pressure from Washington to make some concessions to India's demands, if only because, after all, both the JeM and LeT have been on the American hit-list of terrorist organisations right from the start (it is worth noting in passing that so far, Washington did not seem too bothered by the fact that the LeT in particular had public offices in most of Pakistan's large towns). Besides the US leaders certainly do not fancy an armed conflict in the region, which could only upset business for the imperialist multinationals.

But there are also limits to what the Pakistani dictator can do without taking risks. Both JeM and LeT have connections with the Pakistani state machinery itself, particularly with the ISI, the Pakistani secret police. It is even likely that the terrorist activities of these groups are controlled, or at least manipulated by members of the military hierarchy. Besides, Musharraf cannot afford to be seen to be too conciliatory towards India after having shown such subservience towards the US in their agression against Afghanistan. This would be offering a free ride to the fundamentalist parties. All the more so because there are elections due to take place by October this year at the latest and already all the contenders are involved in a fierce overbidding involving a lot of jingoistic posturing against India.

On the Indian side, the demagogy of the Indian government's stance is no less obvious. It must be recalled that, since 1998, a so-called National Democratic Alliance runs the country. This is a coalition of mostly regional parties (with a few small national parties) led by the BJP (Indian People's Party), the political wing of Hindu fundamentalism. And although the BJP looks like a very respectable party with even, in some respects at least, a modernist slant, there is not much to choose between the reactionary nature of its Hindu fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. In particular, the BJP has built its success on mobilising discontent by scapegoating all minorities which refuse to conform to the Hindu tradition, particularly Muslims.

However, today, the BJP leaders are facing a difficult situation. A series of corruption scandals involving both some of the most senior leaders of the BJP and a number of non-BJP ministers, have rocked the credibility of the ruling alliance and even resulted in a number of defections in its ranks. And with elections coming up in March, the BJP has every reason to fear for its future in office. Mobilising public opinion against Pakistani (and Muslim) terrorism is an obvious way of diverting attention from the real issues and boosting the chances of the ruling alliance.

However there are other aspects in the BJP's calculations. Since it came to power, the BJP has initiated a realignment of the India's foreign policy. Until then, all Indian governments had more or less followed the tradition inherited from the period following independence - a balancing act aimed at getting the USA to recognise India as the dominant regional power, within the context of the imperialist world order, while insisting on a certain independence towards Washington, in particular by supporting a number of Third World nationalist movements, such as the Palestinian PLO in particular.

Once the BJP got into power, the regime distanced itself ostentatiously from the Arab countries and, having dropped its support for the PLO, proceeded to build links with the Israeli right- wing - to the point where, today, Israel has become India's second largest supplier of weapons. With regard to the USA, the BJP leaders made no secret of the fact that they were prepared to increase their cooperation with US imperialism, but only on the proviso that the long-standing privileged relations between the USA and Pakistan was brought to an end. However, despite the enthusiastic, unconditional support given by New Delhi to Bush's "war against terrorism", the US aggression against Afghanistan revived the value of Pakistan as a regional ally in Washington's view, to the great displeasure of the BJP leaders.

The odds are, therefore, that the Indian government's warmongering over the 13th December is also aimed at forcing Washington's hand, now that the issue of Afghanistan seems more or less resolved and Pakistan's help is less vital for the US. From this point of view, the outcome of the present military build- up may well depend on Washington's future attitude towards Pakistan.

The responsibility of imperialism

At the time of writing, the threat of war is still limited to a great amount of posturing and only the future will tell whether all this sabre-rattling leads eventually to an actual war between the two countries.

However, in and of itself, this sabre-rattling can only have long- term consequences, by deepening the gap between the populations of the two countries and increasing the pressure on the religious and ethnic minorities which are already subjected to frequent attacks in both countries.

Above all, even if this military build up does not lead to an open war between the two countries themselves, it can only feed another war - the civil war which has plagued Kashmir ever since independence in 1947, and has been the trigger of two Indo- Pakistani wars, in 1947 and 1965.

At present Kashmir is partitioned between Pakistan and India, with nearly two-thirds of its territory and population in India. In 1989, the "demobilisation" of Pakistani Islamic fundamentalists who had been involved in fighting the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, resulted in a large flow of fundamentalist paramilitaries in the Pakistani part of Kashmir. From these advanced positions these groups embarked in an offensive against the non-Muslim Kashmiri on both sides of the border, forcing many of them to emigrate, and then against the administration of Indian Kashmir. The result of this offensive was a bloodbath. As the Indian army increased its presence to several hundred thousand soldiers and the Islamic fundamentalists intensified their guerilla and terrorist attacks, the number of civilian casualties increased dramatically, reaching over 60,000 by 1997 out of a total population of 13m.

To all intents and purposes Kashmir has been and remains the refuge and logistic base of all paramilitary Islamic fundamentalist groups in the region, with the complicity of the Pakistani military who use them as auxiliaries when need be. Ten years ago these groups were those which had been financed and armed by US imperialism to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Today, the same groups are probably receiving significant reinforcements from the many Pakistani fundamentalists who escaped Afghanistan after the downfall of the Taliban and from Afghan fundamentalists who witnessed the bombing of their country by the US without being able to do anything about it. It is probably no coincidence if, since the beginning of the bombing in Afghanistan, the number of terrorist attacks and casualties in Indian Kashmir has risen dramatically.

With their "war against terrorism", not only are the US leaders providing a pretext for Indian and Pakistani politicians to resort to jingoist demagogy and settle their rivalries, possibly with the blood of their populations. But in addition, once more, the US leaders' policy is fanning the flames of the civil war in Kashmir and providing a battle ground for the very terrorists they claim to be fighting.

2 January 2002