Letter From Ground Zero: December 20, 2001

Letter From Ground Zero: December 20, 2001

Letter From Ground Zero: December 20, 2001

As the Taliban retreat in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has ample opportunity to expand its far-reaching ‘war on terror.’


At the outset of the war on terrorism, President Bush announced a doctrine: Regimes that harbor terrorists will be dealt with as severely as the terrorists themselves. Three months later, the Taliban regime that then ruled Afghanistan is gone, and Washington is scanning the horizon for other regimes to attack. The government of Iraq is the one most frequently mentioned.

There was no sign back in September that Bush imagined that other countries might claim comparable rights, but that is what has happened. On December 13 terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament, killing seven. India announced its belief that extremist Islamic groups in Pakistan were responsible and that they had the backing of the Pakistani government, America's new ally in Afghanistan. A spokesman for Pakistan further enraged Indian opinion by answering that India may have staged the attack upon itself. India's home minister, L.K. Advani, then accused Pakistan of having "the temerity to try to wipe out the entire political leadership of India." In holding the Pakistani government responsible for terrorism by groups in Pakistan, India consciously adopted the US doctrine to the letter. Now it is contemplating military action.

Just how deep India's debt is to the American example is revealed by, among other things, an article by Brahma Chellaney, professor of security studies at India's Center for Policy Research. He wants the December 13 attack to "shape India's response to terrorism in the same unmistakable way that September 11 has defined America's." The solution he has in mind is the use of force and other unilateral measures. Just as the United States pulled out of the ABM treaty, Chellaney writes, so India should pull out of its Indus River Water Treaty with Pakistan. "The resultant water crisis," he hopefully suggests, "will help foment internal disturbances and contribute to Pakistan's self-destruction." But shouldn't Pakistan's nuclear arsenal induce caution, he wonders? In phrases borrowed directly from the high texts of US nuclear theology, he answers that there is nothing to worry about, because India can answer "any level" of attack with a "higher level." So if, for example, Pakistan destroys ten of India's greatest cities with nuclear weapons, India presumably can destroy twenty of Pakistan's, and everything will be fine.

Alarmed, perhaps, by such patent lunacy–and also by the danger that America's own coalition against terror, in which India and Pakistan have vied for leading roles, will be busted up–the White House, through its spokesman Ari Fleischer, counsels "restraint." India is unimpressed. Counsel of restraint from a nation that has just overthrown the government of one country and now has five or six more in its gunsights can hardly be expected to carry weight with one whose Parliament has been attacked, as it believes, by its enemy of almost half a century.

A similar pattern of events has unfolded in the Middle East, where terrorist attacks on Israel have been conducted with increasing frequency. There, it is of course Israel that places itself in the role of the United States; the leader of the Palestinian Authority Yasir Arafat that Israel places in the role of the Taliban; and the terrorist organization Hamas that Israel places in the role of the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan. Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon, employing the Bush formula for purposes that are longstanding, declared Arafat and his regime "directly responsible" for the terrorism and proceeded to cut off all contact with him and then to wage war on the structures of his Authority. If India's war threatens to destroy the US alliance with Pakistan, Israel's threatens to collapse the US coalition in the entire Middle East, whose peoples care much more about the suffering of Palestine under Israeli occupation than they do about anything that Al Qaeda might do to the United States. Weapons of mass destruction are involved in this part of the world, too. Israel has an arsenal of some 200 nuclear weapons, and Iran and Iraq reportedly are seeking to build nuclear arsenals. It has also been reported that two of the scientists who helped build Pakistan's bomb have had wide-ranging discussions on weapons of mass destruction with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. How long will it be before one of these entities–whether a state or something else–obtains the weapons it seeks, and what will happen in the Middle East then?

The American model has had a clear influence in several other parts of the world. The savage Russian war in Chechnya long predates September 11. Russia had its September 11 on September 9-16, 1999, when three apartment buildings were destroyed and more than 200 people were killed in explosions whose perpetrators have never been identified but that Vladimir Putin attributed to Chechen terrorists. "After the first shock passed, it turned out that we were living in an entirely different country, in which almost no one dared talk about a peaceful, political resolution of the crisis with Chechnya," human rights activist Sergei Kovalev wrote last year. Describing the national mood that then carried Putin into the presidency, he wrote, "War and only war is the solution!" The war that followed was criticized by the United States and its Western allies–until September 11, when the White House announced that that conflict was also a war on terrorism.

China, too, has joined in the trend. It has broken its customary silence regarding its repression of the Islamic Uighur movement in its western province of Xinjiang, announcing that since our invasion of Afghanistan, it has arrested 2,500 "separatists." Even tiny Nepal has gotten into the act. It has ended talks with the Maoist insurgency there and turned to military measures.

When the Bush Administration began its war on terrorism, announcing that if you weren't with us you were against us, did it imagine that from the dizzying heights of its sole superpowerdom it would command the nations, rewarding some, raining bombs on others, and dominating all, according to its sole interest and pleasure? The nations have had other ideas. Preferring American practice to American preaching, they have taken up arms in their own causes, just as previously many built nuclear arsenals whose use again urgently threatens the world. We have not one unified war on terrorism but many clashing wars. It's hard to say which are more dangerous–those that, like Israel's, seek to join the American one or those that, like India's, seem to undercut it. All are burning out of control. For now, the instruments that alone might stop them–negotiation, treaties, a readiness to compromise, measures of disarmament–have been cast aside.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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