DAWN - Opinion; November 7, 2001

Published Nov 07, 2001 12:00am

Thinking the unthinkable

By Huck Gutman


“All a poet can do today is warn.” Wilfred Owen, 1918

IN the United States today more has fallen than two huge towers at the World Trade Centre. The collapse of the towers, preeminent symbols of modernism, urbanism and capitalism, was spectacular. Through the medium of television, images of their dramatic implosion circled the world; as the dramatic footage of their disintegration was shown over and over again, their collapse seemed a reminder of Yeats’ warning that “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”.

Yeats continued with a pronouncement that “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” words which resound poignantly in America. More Americans died on September 11 than died in any single military battle in US history. The men and women who perished were innocents, people whose only shared characteristic was that they were working in a particular building on that fateful day. They were not even all Americans: more than 250 Indians, over 200 Pakistanis, and many citizens of other nations were among the slaughtered.

But the American nation itself is not innocent, even if the victims were. There is much discussion in America today of the role the United States played in the creation of Osama bin Laden: American support for the mujahideen when they fought against the Soviet presence, the CIA training of bin Laden himself. Likewise, there is public discussion of the significant role played by American imperial hegemony in forming the social conditions that afford terrorism widespread legitimacy. America too easily countenances extreme disparities of wealth between nations and within nations, too often supports military coups against democratic process, too readily impoverishes billions in a relentless drive to augment the profits of multinational corporations.

American politicians and statesmen, American corporations and financiers, play a major role in sustaining and increasing a vastly inequitable distribution of wealth in the modern world. Lest that generality cloud over the stark facts, let it be said that American business, American government, the American military, are in part responsible for a world order in which billions have insufficient food and shelter, a life expectancy shorter than necessary, and a daily struggle for existence harsher than it need be. In assessing culpability, it may be useful to recall the war in Vietnam three decades ago. A misguided and tragic American intervention prolonged an internal conflict in Vietnam and multiplied its casualties, yet many times the leadership of what was then North Vietnam stated that it was the American government, not the American people, which was their enemy.

The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre prodded Americans to re-examine who and what they are. If there is a widespread recognition — even in part among the higher officials of the Republican administration of President George W. Bush — that American policies have helped create a world in which terrorism arises and is even celebrated, there is also a widespread recognition that Americans have laudable qualities. Hundreds of firemen died as they rushed into the burning towers, at what would prove to be the cost of their own lives, to rescue their fellow citizens. All across the United States people have been generous with their help and with donations of blood and money. If there is a special lesson to the tragedy, it is in large measure that Americans can be heroic and generous. At times, in the midst of an economic miracle that provided great material benefits, Americans had forgotten which were their most important characteristics.

But there are also other recognitions, ones less comforting. One is that the world is not always a secure place. Much as Americans may bemoan their loss of innocence, something has been gained from the sudden eruption of violence, tragedy and death in American life. For too many people in too many nations, daily life is profoundly insecure. Hounded by hunger and homelessness, forced to migrate by persecution and poverty, imprisoned or silenced by totalitarian powers, individuals and families struggle to maintain life itself. Too many of the world’s citizens find the word ‘joy’ alien to their daily experience. I very much wish the terrorist attack had not happened, and by no means do I wish to justify it. But sometimes salutary consequences issue even from dastardly deeds. While each of us might wish our globe to be a secure haven for all its inhabitants, until that glorious day arrives when all live with their basic needs met and their freedom and safety guaranteed, there is value to reminding every resident of the planet how precious, how desired, how needful, such security is.

The least comforting of all the recognitions that emerge from the wreckage of the World Trade Centre is so dire that I hesitate to write about it. Perhaps only through indirection can I address an issue so fearsome that I tremble at the thought of acknowledging it in print.

A few weeks ago in a post-graduate seminar on modern American poetry at the University of Vermont, my students were reading a long work from the 1950s by the poet, William Carlos Williams. Noting that in several passages Williams wrote about ‘the bomb,’ a student asked, “Why do so many writers of the 1950s seem to write about the bomb?” I answered as best I could, explaining that in 1945 in a controversial endeavour to end World War II, the United States had dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vapourizing both cities and their inhabitants. The ensuing ten years saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a second nuclear power, and a ‘defence’ strategy that came to be known as ‘mutually assured destruction’. Both nations built more and more nuclear weapons (the recent nuclear history of India and Pakistan echoes this former competition) on the premise that having enough bombs to damage your enemy as heavily as he could damage you — being capable of totally demolishing your enemy if he decided to demolish you — would lead each country to desist from ever using a nuclear device.

Horrifying as the policy of mutually assured destruction was, it did serve a purpose. In the ensuing decades neither the United States, nor the Soviet Union, nor Britain, nor France, nor China, ever detonated in combat any of the nuclear weapons they developed and stockpiled. Thus, I explained to my contemporary students, Americans had grown used to living in a nuclear world without the fear that at any moment large segments, or even all, of humankind could be extinguished by nuclear war. Anxiety receded: though ‘mutually assured destruction’ was a terrible price to pay, putting as it did the annihilation of nations on the table, the policy did serve to preclude nuclear war for four decades.

The horrific aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre is that an anxiety over nuclear destruction has returned, and with good justification. The world is, for the first time in the almost forty years since President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev played nuclear brinkmanship over the Soviet Union’s installation of nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba ninety miles from the United States, a place in which nuclear war could erupt. While it is true that perceptive men and women in India and Pakistan — and those in other nations who understand that the existence of both nuclear arms and mutual hostility in South Asia is a dangerous mixture — could see a possibility for nuclear war, that possibility is now global.

The thought is terrifying. We as a world community are imperilled in a way we have never been threatened before, except between 1950 and 1963. It is possible to imagine, not in science fiction nor in malignant fantasy but in a rational examination of the world we inhabit, a nuclear conflagration of nightmarish proportions. It is possible that the annihilation of humankind is on a horizon that will appear in the light of tomorrow’s dawn.

I personally distrust apocalyptic thinking. To think about final and overwhelming cataclysms can, more easily than we acknowledge, shape our hidden desires. Sigmund Freud was eerily perceptive when he recognized that at the core of every dream is a wish. Thus it is that if we dream more and more often about ultimate conflagrations, about the end of the world, we may find ourselves so fascinated by the apocalypse that we head straight for it. Our visions of love and companionship, of joy and art and the liveliness of the body, sustain us and keep human society going. Our visions of apocalypse have their uses — in the midst of the First World War the poet Wilfred Owen said, “All a poet can do today is warn” — but dwelling on them overmuch can only be harmful.

Yet despite my fear of apocalyptic thinking, it seems foolhardy not to acknowledge, not to recognize, that in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, the world we all inhabit is a much more dangerous place. The possibility is so horrific that we cover it with silence: recent events have increased the possibility of a nuclear war.

It is not beyond belief, for instance, that the American response to the terrorism, its attack on Afghanistan, could destabilize the political situation in neighbouring Pakistan. One of the world’s nuclear powers, Pakistan’s destabilization could result in delivering nuclear warheads into the hands of those with militant agendas. Such a situation in turn might incite a new and profoundly dangerous war between India and Pakistan, one that issued in the use of nuclear devices. Whether the first use of such weapons is more likely to come from by Pakistan or India is immaterial: South Asia is currently closer to a possible nuclear war than it has been heretofore.

Tragically, the potential such a nuclear disaster has on the subcontinent is but one possible consequence of the events of September 11.

American and European intervention in Afghanistan, coupled with the terrorism of Islamic fundamentalists, may give creditability to those whose paranoia sees a modernized West as the indefatigable enemy of Islam, or those whose paranoia sets up Islam as the enemy of the West.

So the minority of Muslims who believe in the necessity of a jihad against the infidels may very well gain adherents. What happens if, to take only one instance, the intifada of the Palestinians is converted into regional jihad, since Israel has as its final line of defence a nuclear arsenal? Or, to take another instance, if an Islamic republic declares a holy war against the United States, Britain, or Russia?

Conversely, what happens if western politicians, who believe in the thesis advanced by Samuel Huntington that a global conflict between Islam and the West is inevitable, gain ascendancy and then decide, cowboy-style, to ‘take out Iraq’ with nuclear devices?

What if terrorists have been able to secure the fissionable materials it has been rumoured they have sought? What would occur if a terrorist set off a nuclear device in the middle of New York, Los Angeles, Paris or Moscow? Would not the likelihood of a nuclear response be great?

If the destabilizing forces set in motion by the events of September 11 precipitate new regional wars in Asia or Eastern Europe, the consequences may be equally terrifying. What if, in their own defence, currently non-nuclear nations purchase surplus nuclear bombs from impoverished, cash-strapped former Soviet republics?

These are all questions, not answers; they are all possibilities — hopefully distant ones — and not probabilities. But they reveal the insecurity that has resulted from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre is not something peculiar to Americans alone. “No man is an island,” John Donne wrote several centuries ago. That statement has never been more true than today, when the spectre of massive nuclear destruction lurks behind a horizon that may be closer than we think.

The writer is a columnist and is Professor of English at the University of Vermont in the US.

As Afghanistan bleeds & burns

By M.H. Askari


AT the early stage of the United States’ ‘Operation Enduring Justice’, President Gen Pervez Musharraf had expressed the hope that the air strikes against Afghanistan would be ‘short and targeted’. As it has gone on for over four weeks, the campaign has been anything but that.

President Bush’s declared objective of destroying the Taliban set-up and the Al-Qaeda organization and of capturing Osama bin Laden seems as far from being achieved as it was when the offensive began on October 7.

Last Sunday the US ‘celebrated’ the entry into the second month of its campaign against Afghanistan with the heaviest of all air raids to date. Nearly 100 bombs were dropped on supposed Taliban positions near the Tajikistan border. It is also clear by now that there will be no let-up in the aerial bombardment during Ramazan which is less than two weeks away.

Gen Pervez Musharraf had called upon the Americans to halt the air strikes during the holy month of fasting, keeping in mind the sentiments of the Muslims. However, the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, made it clear after his talks with the Pakistani leaders in Islamabad on Sunday that this would not be possible. He said that the US sensitive “to the views in the region” but maintained that the on-going bombing could not be stopped or suspended because it was linked to the realization of the ‘underlying objectives’.

Earlier, at his press conference in Washington on October 31, General Tommy Franks, Commander-in-Chief of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), whose area of command extends up to Pakistan, before embarking on a tour of South Asia, denied that there was any sense of frustration either in the Pentagon or in the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan at the “slow pace” of the operation. One of the correspondents suggested that Pentagon had expected Mazar-i-Sharif to be under the control of the Northern Alliance before the winter sets in but the general refused to commit himself to any such specific objective of the campaign and maintained that “we are on the timeline that we established.”

During the four weeks of intensive air strikes the loss of civilian lives has been substantial—-more than the Americans and their allies are ready to admit. Hospitals, villages and aid storage centres have been hit. Thousands of Afghans, including women, children and old people have been seen moving towards the frontier in order to escape the unending onslaught. The landmines, planted all over Afghan territory during the war against the Soviet occupation more than a decade ago, and the coming winter are sure to cause countless more casualties. A reporter who claimed to have visited the headquarters of the Northern Alliance said the other day that hours before the US air strikes began on the northern Taliban front, an outpost was established for supply of arms to the Northern Alliance which “is now flush with military supplies”. Some of these may have come from Russia.

It has been suggested that the situation in Afghanistan could have been handled better and more expeditiously if India and Pakistan had adopted a common approach in respect of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. However, the differences between the two sides on this score are as wide as is conceivable with India manoeuvring for a Northern Alliance-dominated government in Kabul after the ouster of the Taliban and Pakistan insisting on a broad-based set-up representing all sections of the Afghan population. Incidentally, some political observers see an ominous parallel between Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tour of Moscow and the visit which the late Mrs Indira Gandhi made to the Soviet capital in July 1971, leading to the signing of the twenty-year India-Soviet treaty of cooperation and friendship. This had a direct bearing on the events in the erstwhile eastern wing of Pakistan.

With President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly now confirmed and the talks between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers scheduled to be held in New York on the sidelines of the UN Assembly session, one hopes that the two nations would move back from the brink and restore a measure of stability and calm in their tense and brittle bilateral relations.

Although the American air strikes inside Afghanistan are without any specific UN sanction, Washington appears determined not to bring the offensive to an end, not in the foreseeable future anyway. They have been gaining in intensity over the past month. A stable government in Kabul — once the American air strikes break the back of the Taliban forces and their rivals gain control over a stretch of Afghan territory — will not be easy to visualize. The Soviets were never able to do that in spite of their six-year stay in Afghanistan. The civil war in Afghanistan only intensified after the Soviets pulled out.

The Americans may find themselves embroiled in Afghanistan for much longer than they may have anticipated. Even if they succeed in establishing the Northern Alliance as the rulers in Kabul, there is no guarantee that the arrangement will last once they withdraw. Moreover, as Tony Clifton writing in the Newsweek says, only the dreamers believe that the United States, while fighting a war, and the United Nations, might somehow cobble together a future non-Taliban set-up. He also points out that the assembly of the anti-Taliban Afghan leaders, attended by about 800 people in Peshawar about two weeks ago, did not include any representative of King Zahir Shah (who has indicated a desire to help restore stability to his homeland) or of the Northern Alliance (which is bidding for power in Kabul).

The future, according to political pundits like Ahmed Rashid, is likely to be extremely grim. In is book Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia Rashid expresses the view that the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance is incapable of conquering or ruling over the southern Pushtun region and the alliance has also failed to set up “minimum state structures or a representative leadership which absorbs even all the non-Pushtuns”. Rashid is therefore of the view that the fear of fragmentation of Afghanistan is a strong possibility — a Pushtun south under the Taliban and a non-Pushtun north divided by the Hindukush mountains. However, in Rashid’s opinion, Kabul would still continue to be contested by both sides.

The outlook is particularly disturbing from Pakistan’s point of view as it is likely to be the country most affected by the continuing unstable situation in Afghanistan.

The US must realize that the indiscriminate and relentless bombing of Afghanistan is causing great alienation and anger among the Muslims in many parts of the world. Not many Muslims accept the reasons given for the punitive action against the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda, nor do they believe that Osama bin Laden could have remote-controlled the suicide bombing of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. They tend to bracket the American bombings of Afghanistan with the excesses committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians with American backing. Peace rallies and anti-American demonstrations are fast becoming a regular feature in countries as far apart as Indonesia and Pakistan.

For Pakistan the American action has created a particularly difficult situation. President Pervez Musharraf has been making an earnest effort to bring to an end religious fanaticism and militancy which he inherited from the preceding governments. The American persistence with the bombing of the Afghans, combined with the refusal to listen to his (Musharraf’s) advice calling for a truce during Ramazan, has the potential to create serious problems for Musharraf’s his government through angry rallies and street violence rocking the country in coming weeks and months.

The plight of women: OF MICE AND MEN

By Hafizur Rahman


A report says the Islamabad chapter of the women’s Action Forum (WAF) is being resuscitated. No mention has been made, however, of why and how it was allowed to die in the first place. Maybe the bureaucratic atmosphere of the capital was stifling. WAF is an almost militant organisation, ready to take on the police if the need arises, as it demonstrated in Lahore some years ago. It is not like APWA, the goody-goody body which is dependent on government goodwill for its welfare work. WAF knows how to fight.

One of our misfortunes is that in normal civilian times political issues tend to overshadow everything else. We forget that when we talk of women’s problems we are talking about half the population. An even greater misfortune is the general outlook towards the female half of Pakistan. Women who try to bring to the fore the question of women’s rights and privileges are roundly condemned by the powerful orthodox religious circles as immoral and un-Islamic.

The trouble with Pakistan’s aware and educated women (who are in a majority in WAF) is that their enlightened minds do not accept the traditional interpretation of the Shariat on matters concerning women. They would like a revival of ijtihad (as advocated by Allama Iqbal) to re-examine such issues in the light of modern needs. But they can’t be openly critical for fear of being labelled as heretics. Like men they too have been influenced by the liberal and egalitarian concept of justice coming from the West. While men too feel the same way about tradition, but since they are not affected they don’t have to speak out their thoughts. In the case of women, though, the dilemma persists.

But apart from what the religious orthodoxy prescribes by way of women’s rights as compared to those of men, and by way of punishments under the Hudood laws, we certainly cannot claim even by half that, as a nation, we are seriously concerned about the treatment of women in Pakistan. It’s almost like our attitude towards the minorities.

An occasional Nawabpur shakes the entire country. The nation’s conscience is smitten and the press goes overboard in condemning the incident (though not PTV which is smug in the thought that unless the act of publicly shaming a woman in the nude is presided over by a federal minister, it doesn’t have to cover it). But then we find that Nawabpur was no solitary aberration. Since then, more Nawabpurs have followed — just as there have been Shantinagars and Bahawalpurs in the case of Christians — but we just shrug them off as “another of those nude women things”.

A popular Urdu daily reported recently that (and I translate) “in various prisons in the country nearly a thousand innocent women, falsely implicated increase under the Hudood Ordinance, are incarcerated. This was stated by a reliable authority in the Women’s Division who said that all these women belonged to the lower strata of society, from backward rural areas mostly. Their contact with the world outside the jail gets completely broken, and then the prison officials consider it their prerogative to submit them to all sorts of indignities, even fornication and rape”.

These women find themselves imprisoned because, in most cases of unlawful sex under the Hudood Ordinance, the male culprits go scot free but the women are prosecuted — I don’t know by what strange process of law. And the height of cruelty and insensitivity is that if a women becomes pregnant after being raped, her crime is proved by the fact that she has become pregnant, while the rapist escapes indictment because the required number of witnesses is often found wanting.

What a terrible situation to prevail in the much-trumpeted “Islamized” Pakistan. And yet we go out of our way to show how women in the highly advanced and civilized countries are exploited and insultingly treated, and how Islam gives Muslim women a place of honour and a far better deal in day-to-day life.

I am not being emotional when I say that the men of this country, Muslims most of them, should hang themselves with shame at this state of affairs, not merely hang down their heads. What a fine way to prove the superiority of Islamic law to the outside world! There is only a difference of degrees between us and the universally condemned Taliban? This is one of the outcomes of the so-called eleven-year golden Islamic era in Pakistan.

There was another report about women’s affairs from another Urdu daily, though not so grim and heart-rending. It says that out of the total of more than 190,000 federal government employees in the country the number of women is a little over 9,000, of whom half are working in education. The paper avers that the male colleagues of these women put up various kinds of hurdles in the way of promotion of female officials, and the latter are sort of obliged to retire after reaching Grade 20.

I know it is not easy to accelerate the absorption of more and more women in government jobs. The feeding process is not adequate, since most women who are academically qualified often get married and settle down for reasons of domestic security, and do not look for a job. I also know that for a long, long time the percentage of women government servants is not going to be anywhere near the optimum fifty per cent, perhaps never.

But what the government and the male public servants can do is to shed their prejudices and make a conscious and determined effort to let women employees feel more comfortable. My point is that there is no cause for self-satisfaction, what to say of self-congratulation, in our public and private treatment of women, despite tall talk about honouring mothers, sisters and daughters. We may flaunt our sophisticated foreign education; we may take pride in our individual positions in enlightened society; but unless we bring about a radical change in our entire thinking on the subject of women, we shall continue to carry the stigma of a backward nation.

It is no crime to be backward in material progress and technological advancement. But it is certainly both a crime and a sin to be intellectually retrogressive. That is true backwardness.

The debate over the Afghan air strikes : The new headlines speak volumes - II

By Shahid Javed Burki


A NUMBER of factors have contributed to the change in the American mood and appreciation of its people of the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. The failure of a political alternative to emerge to guide the post-Taliban Afghanistan was one of them.

“Afghan factions far apart on government: Boycott undercuts meeting of leaders”, announced a Washington Post headline on October 25. A day later the same newspaper carried its main Afghanistan story under the title of “Strategy fails to splinter Taliban.” There was a palpable sense of disappointment in America at the failure of the anti-Taliban elements to coalesce into a viable alternative for the ruling group. The initial hope was that the bombing raids on the main strongholds of the Taliban would cause the regime’s collapse. When that did not happen, some hope was placed in the ability of the Northern Alliance to bring together different Afghan elements under its umbrella and march on to Kabul. That did not happen either. The hope that a charismatic Afghan leader could lead the anti-Taliban campaign was also dashed. This strategy came to a tragic end when Abdul Haq, the much celebrated and much connected veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation, was captured by the Taliban on October 26 and summarily executed.

These setbacks allowed various analysts to catch up with the Afghanistan campaign. There is now intense debate in the country on at least three different aspects of the current American strategy in Afghanistan. One, what should be the military strategy in dealing with international terrorism? Two, why were so many young people in various parts of the developing world committing themselves to suicide attacks against what they consider to be the enemy’s assets. The “enemy” in most cases — but not always — are the United States and Israel. As veteran journalist Joseph Lelyveld pointed out in an article in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times on October 28, the Tamil Tigers had the highest incidence of suicides committed per capita of the population. Three, how deeply should the Americans get involved in a process sometimes described as nation-building? Should nation-building be confined only to Afghanistan or should it also include countries such as Pakistan? Let me discuss these three different debates now under way in various US circles.

The context for these debates was set by the US president in what has come to be called “the Bush doctrine”. According to this, the enemy “is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.... Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. This is from President Bush’s address to the US Congress. It is clear that Pakistan was the first country to which this doctrine was applied in securing its support for the war on international terrorism. But doctrines spelled out in such general terms are open to a great deal of interpretation. That interpretation has now begun and revolves around the three areas identified above — how to define an enemy, why have so many people become the enemies of the United States, and should the American involvement go beyond the conduct of military operations against the enemies?

A group of conservative strategists are advocating an approach in which the Americans would not aim at one regime (the Taliban in Afghanistan) or at one group of people (Osama bin Laden and his associates). Instead, the aim should be to destroy all the means the terrorists could use to bring harm to the United States and its citizens. Such an approach would necessarily imply widening the theatre of conflict to include all the countries that have developed or were in the process of developing weapons of mass destruction and which have unsettled quarrels with the United States. If this strategy were to be followed, the Americans would bring military operations to locations in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea where research and production facilities are presumably at work for producing such weapons.

This more aggressive stance has the support of a number of influential politicians, including Joe Lieberman, the US Senator who shared with Al Gore the democratic ticket for the presidential elections of 2000. In an article contributed recently to The Wall Street Journal, Senator Lieberman had this to say about the US war effort: “We should focus on Iraq after we have dealt with bin Laden. We must, because Saddam has a special hatred for America and the capacity to do something terrible about it.... But those 3,000-plus Americans will have died in vain, and even more of our fellow citizens will meet the same fate if we do not steel ourselves to see this war to the finish by pursuing and defeating all those who target terror at us. After bin Laden and the Taliban, Saddam is at the top of that list.”

However, for the moment, the proponents of confining the war to Afghanistan seem to be setting the course of the American policy. That may change if the terrorists were to launch another attack on the US interests or if some ties were discovered between the operatives of al-Qaeda and countries other than Afghanistan. If that were to happen, what would be Pakistan’s stance? Would it continue to be a partner with the United States if this war, under this interpretation of the Bush doctrine, is brought to other Muslim countries?

The second debate on finding the focus of responsibility for the events of September 11 has become extremely sharp and divisive. There is an expanding analytical effort directed at finding the reason for the extreme anger displayed by the terrorists who planned and carried out the attacks on America.

Some analysts are probing into literature to unearth the springboard of such hatred. Commander Ahab, the hero of Herman Melville’s American classic, “Moby Dick”, has been invoked. “For long months or days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock as his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfering, made him mad.” What kind of anguish has brought such madness to the people prepared to kill themselves to take the lives of innocent people?

As is the case with the debate on the scope of the war against terrorism, this question also has two answers. But before these answers are provided it is important to mention that there are people who believe that this question should not be asked at all. By asking it, it is said, we are shifting some of the responsibility for these actions on to the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks. The evil that has prompted these crimes should not be explained but should be eradicated at its source.

Nonetheless, those who think that the question about the source of the terrorists’ madness needs to be asked and answered comes with two opposing explanations. One, the system of belief followed by the terrorists is threatened by modernization. Therefore, modernization must be opposed, in particular its spread to the regions and the countries to which these terrorists belong. Since America is by far the world’s most advanced country and since its culture and value system are seeping into other societies, it must be opposed, if need be by the use of extreme violence. Two, the terrorists’ anger is directed at the United States since it has discouraged a number of repressive states to bring political, economic and social modernization to their countries. Politically and socially modern states will be more difficult for the US to control and to have them serve the American interests. According to this view, therefore, the US is to be punished since it has contributed to the perpetuation of backwardness of a number of societies.

This debate has important implications for us in Pakistan. By what kind of despair are people driven towards such madness that they are willing to bring harm to themselves as a way of inflicting pain on others? What can a state do to prevent the accumulation of such despair?

This last question leads us towards the third subject of debate in the United States surrounding the war in Afghanistan. This concerns nation-building, an area in which presidential candidate George W. Bush expressed a clear preference for not wanting to get involved. Now that his administration is embarked on a war in Afghanistan, would he be prepared to act differently? Would he be willing to engage in rebuilding the Afghan state while — or, perhaps, after — bombs fall on Afghanistan?

Henry Kissinger wrote recently that "military operations in Afghanistan should be limited to the shattering of the Taliban and the disintegration of the bin Laden network" and that the objective of nation-building though "desirable" was "not encouraged by the historical record”.

This view, fortunately, is not widely shared for the moment. If the US and its western allies depart after destroying what is left of Afghanistan the implications for Pakistan will be horrendous. As Syed Refaqat reminded us in his article in Dawn last week (October 31), President Ziaul Haq saw that it was in Pakistan’s interest to see a viable government in place before foreign troops were pulled out of Afghanistan. We now know that chaos in Afghanistan will easily seep into Pakistan.

The intense debate in the United States about the various aspects of the current war in Afghanistan is, therefore, of enormous consequence for Pakistan. We must join it at all levels — in our on-going dialogue with the US officials, in public discourse and in the media. How this debate is settled will have great implications for our future.

(Concluded)


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