by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 15, Rajab, 1422)
Afghanistan once again finds itself threatened with war and destruction, this time by the Americans. For nearly 25 years its people have known nothing but suffering. How ironic that they are now opposed by the military might of the very country which achieved the status of “sole superpower” because of the sacrifices of 1.5 million Afghans and the maiming of countless millions who fought the Soviet occupation forces. Once the Soviet forces had been driven out, the US turned against the very people whom it had supported so that they could achieve its aims. The Afghans were left to fend for themselves and their shattered country. Gratitude is obviously not one of Uncle Sam’s strong points.
The US’s war on Afghanistan will not be easy, despite America’s enormous destructive ability. It is not inconceivable that the US will use chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons against innocent people. America’s record against Iraq in 1991 betrays its true character. The US used depleted-uranium shells against Iraqi tank-armour. This has not only caused hundreds of thousands of deaths among the Iraqis, but also the emergence of hitherto unknown diseases among American and British troops. When Madeleine Albright, then US secretary of state, was asked by Leslie Stahl of CBS television on May 12, 1996, whether the killing of 567,000 Iraqis, most of them children, was justified in pursuit of one man (Saddam Husain), she replied, “the price is worth it.” For whom, one might well ask. To date more than 1.5 million Iraqis have died because of the sanctions and, according to the UN’s own figures, at least 8,000 Iraqi children continue to die every month from malnutrition and preventable diseases.
In Afghanistan the situation would be no better. The chief difference is that, given its terrain, America will not find its war easy going. The Afghans’ fighting spirit and their mountainous terrain give them certain advantages that Iraq did not have. In addition, there is little or no infrastructure for the Americans to destroy; much of Afghanistan already lies in ruins. It is the human suffering that will be horrendous. Because of a three-year drought, Afghanistan is already suffering from acute food shortages. At least three million are affected by the drought, with one million facing starvation. War would increase human suffering to unprecedented levels. Millions of Afghans are on the move towards the Pakistan border. In the Afghan tradition, they will leave their families in refugee-camps and head back to defend their country and their honour.
History testifies that no foreign power has ever occupied Afghanistan. During his campaigns in this part of the world, Alexander was forced to retreat because of the Afghans’ tenacity in the face of his troops. Today the nature of warfare has changed, yet still if the Americans send troops into Afghanistan — and there is no other way of overthrowing the Taliban, which Condoleesa Rice, US national security adviser, says is their objective — they will pay a high price. The opposition Northern Alliance is not in a position to fulfil America’s ambitions, despite its offer of help: it lost its military commander, Ahmed Shah Masood, when he was blown up by a booby-trapped television-camera on September 11 and died a few days later.
With the alliance controlling less than 10 percent of Afghanistan’s territory in the northeast, it cannot be of much help to the Americans. Besides, the Taliban, Pushtuns who constitute 65 percent of Afghanistan’s population, also have considerable support within Pakistan’s tribal belt. There are at least 20 million Pushtuns in Pakistan with tremendous sympathy for the Afghans. There are also about 2,500 madrassas in Pakistan, which can mobilize some two million students for jihad. So the Taliban have no shortage of manpower; nor do they lack experience of fighting, which is their way of life as well as their way of death. It is the Americans who fear death. If the two sides are arraigned against each other in a seemingly unequal contest, the Taliban will more than make up in determination and courage what they lack in material.
The Americans’ demand that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Ladin has been rejected because Washington has provided no credible proof of his involvement in the attacks on September 11. On September 24 US secretary of state Colin Powell announced that the US would provide “compelling” evidence of Osama’s complicity, but ruled out giving such evidence to the Taliban. If the evidence is so “compelling”, why are the Americans afraid to confront them with it? The Taliban have said repeatedly that, if the US can come up with credible evidence, they would be prepared to hand Osama over for trial in some Muslim country. The truth is that the US has no evidence against Osama (as it had none against the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan which the US alleged was producing chemical weapons); the US’s real purpose is to occupy the region, or at the very least control it more strongly against Islam and the wishes of its peoples (almost all of whom are Muslim): Osama and the Taliban are merely a convenient cover for this plan.
If the Americans plan to “go after Osama”, they will have to use ground troops and make their way into the labyrinths of caves and tunnels in Afghanistan. Miles of them were dug inside the mountains during the Soviet occupation. These are virtually cities underground; there would be no way of getting Osama even if the Americans or their surrogates managed to get there. The far greater danger is that some agents, possibly from Pakistani intelligence, might lead them to a place where Osama could be apprehended. But even this would not solve America’s real problem: Osama is merely a mouthpiece for what Muslims worldwide feel about America’s policies and objectives. The list of US crimes is mindboggling; the CIA’s overthrow of a legitimate government in Iran (1953), and the attacks against Iraq (1991 to the present) and Sudan (August 1998) are but typical examples. In Sudan, American policies have resulted in the deaths of more than two million because of the civil war in the South since 1983. The destruction of al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory has also caused the deaths of another 150,000 people since 1998.
It is, however, the US’s unwavering support for zionist crimes in Palestine that has inflamed most anger in the Muslim world. The UN anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in September once more demonstrated the close relationship between the US and Israel. It also showed how isolated the two are internationally from almost everyone else. Yet such considerations are not likely to persuade the US to change its policies, whose victims are primarily (though not exclusively) Muslims. America pursues no less brutal policies against the people of South and Central America, for instance.
In building a case against the Taliban, Powell said that they cannot escape responsibility for what Osama has allegedly done. The same logic applies to American support of Israel. If the Taliban can be considered to be “guilty” of protecting Osama, then the US is guilty many times over of a far greater sin: underwriting every Israeli crime against Palestine and the Palestinians. Yet the US claims to be an “honest broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has given no sign that it is thinking of changing its policies, or willing to do so.
Regardless of what happens to Osama and the Taliban, America’s war (really the West’s war) against the Muslims will unleash forces that it will find difficult or impossible to control. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that American symbols will be targeted and attacked in different parts of the world. Similarly, there may be disruption of oil supplies if pipelines in the Middle East are blown up. The US and much of Europe are already in the grip of economic recession; the current crisis is making it worse. It would be far better for the US to look inward and reflect on why so many people in the world hate its policies. It is not enough to say that others are jealous of American prosperity and the “good life” it offers. America is a police state: people cannot venture outside after dark; it has the largest prison population in the world (two million) and more prisons are being built; it also has the world’s highest crime rates. But what kind of life it offers to its people is America’s own business; what it does to other people in other lands is those other people’s concern as well. So the US should not be surprised to find itself occasionally getting back some of what it hands out.
Regardless of who carried out the attacks on September 11 — and the truth about this may never be known — it is important for American policy-makers to consider why people are moved to such desperation. Even if George Bush is not capable of such introspection and analysis, there are surely a few intelligent people in the US government to contemplate these facts rationally, should they wish to. It is as much in America’s interests as in other peoples’ interests not to exacerbate an already dangerous situation. An American attack on Afghanistan will not lessen but increase hatred and resentment of the US, its policies, its arrogance and its stupid, selfish and insensitive complacency.
If America chooses to launch its crusade, it takes on a people who can give a fitting response. Muslims can be killed, even in large numbers, as they have been for several decades, but Islam cannot be defeated. America has neither the staying power nor a faith and trust that can inspire its people to the same level as Islam and the Qur’an can the Muslims. It would be much better for the US and its allies to renounce their unjust and oppressive policies and save their own people, as well as others, the suffering that otherwise surely awaits them.
Afghanistan may yet prove not merely another Vietnam, but even the US’s burial-place.