The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The "War on Terrorism":
From the U.S. War against Afghanistan to the Threat of an Indo-Pakistani War

Jan 16, 2002

More than three months after U.S. leaders launched the bombing of Afghanistan, not one of Bush's objectives for his "war on terrorism" has been achieved. Osama bin Laden, Washington's most wanted man, is still on the run. Whether bin Laden's al-Qaeda network has been destroyed remains to be seen, but Islamic fundamentalism has probably largely replaced these losses with new recruits, thanks to the murderous U.S. bombing of the Afghan population.

As for the whole world the security of which Bush talks about so much it's not a safer place. Just the opposite. Sharon's regime in Israel, using the pretext of the U.S. "war on terrorism," launched a bloody offensive against the Palestinians. In mid-December, the Indian government took the same pretext to threaten a new war on Pakistan. Today, the saber-rattling and the movement of troops to the Indo-Pakistani border raises the threat of an open conflict between these two regional giants.

For the time being, the main victim of Bush's criminal policy has been the Afghan population. As in so many other military ventures carried out by the big powers, the number of casualties and the real extent of the damage caused by the U.S. bombings will probably never be known. Nor will the indirect effects of the war, particularly among the refugee population.

In fact, despite the discretion of the Western media, the war is not even over in Afghanistan. U.S. leaders may have declared a unilateral victory over the Taliban on December 16, designed to coincide with the festival marking the end of Ramadan. But over a month later, the U.S. continues to bomb the country, even if it is on a more limited scale. Under the pretext of hunting down bin Laden, remaining al-Qaeda fighters and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the U.S. continued to bomb whole villages into the ground in eastern Afghanistan. Just to mention a few examples from the English-language Pakistani Dawn News, 65 villagers were killed on the 20th of December, 40 on the 27th and over 100 on the 31st, 32 on the 4th of January, etc. All these raids took place in predominantly Pashtun areas close to the Pakistani border where the Taliban seemed to have had a certain support among the population. Rather than being a hunt for "terrorists," this is a policy aimed at terrorizing the population, ensuring it will submit to the new order installed in Kabul. The provinces being bombed are relatively close to Kabul.

This state terrorism is entirely in line with U.S. policy since September 11th. Its aim was to set an unmistakable example, to demonstrate the cost of attacking imperialism in its own heartland. This example had to be sufficiently spectacular so as to overcome whatever doubts might have been created in the American population by September 11; at the same time, it had to reinforce the feelings of powerlessness that the masses in the poor countries feel in the face of the total military power of imperialism. This is why U.S. leaders did not limit the U.S. to a hunt for the people they accused of being responsible for September 11 bin Laden and his partisans. Instead they chose to attack a whole population, that of Afghanistan, under the pretext that the Afghan regime provided protection to Islamic terrorists.

Using the same pretexts it used against Afghanistan, the U.S. could just as well have attacked a number of other countries first of all Saudi Arabia. A number of the men who carried out the attacks of September 11th came from the top layers of Saudi society, which also furnished a number of leaders of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda, starting with bin Laden himself. The Saudi regime shares the same Islamic fundamentalism; it officially imposes the Sharia on the population; it oppresses and despises women. But there was no possibility of a U.S. attack on the Saudi regime which is one of the pivots of imperialist domination over the region, as well as the possessor of all that petroleum wealth.

Instead, the U.S. chose Afghanistan whose backwardness and weakened state after two decades of war required much less military effort and much less risk as its target. To make as strong a warning as possible to other regimes in the "Third World," Washington decided to overthrow the Taliban regime, which it had saluted only five years before when the Taliban took over power in Afghanistan. Consequently, the Afghan population, who had nothing to do with the September 11th attacks, had to pay with its blood and with the destruction of what little infrastructure remained in the country. This only demonstrates the viciousness of U.S. policy.

The state terrorism used by imperialism against poor countries such as Afghanistan is not less vicious than the attacks of September 11th . To justify his recourse to terrorism, bin Laden invoked the oppression which victimizes the peoples of the poor countries. But, in his mouth, this is only an excuse, a lie. Fundamentally he mocks the interests of the peoples, beginning with the people he pretends to represent. But when the American leaders dare justify their terrorist policy by the interests of the peoples, including first of all the American people, this is, with even more reason, a lie. They are responsible for imperialist oppression around the world; their fundamental motivation for bombing Afghanistan is to demonstrate that the United States remains the dominant world power.

The crimes committed by the American leaders, with support from the second-ranking imperialisms, may in addition engender catastrophes still worse than the one which today hits Afghanistan.

Speculation about Bush's next target has been going on for some time. Some political commentators have predicted that the U.S. will soon carry out military operations against Somalia, Sudan, Yemen or Iraq. There are some indications supporting such predictions. For example, a naval task force from the USA, Britain, France and Germany is stationed off the coast of Somalia allegedly to stop possible al-Qaeda fugitives coming in from Afghanistan while the Ethiopian regime has let it be known that it is ready to play an active military role should the U.S. decide to move against Somalia. In the meantime, the pro-Western regime of Yemen has launched a military drive against ethnic minorities accused of harboring members of terrorist fundamentalist groups. As for Iraq, there is certainly a section of the U.S. political establishment which is eager, for its own demagogic reasons, to revive the campaign against Saddam Hussein. That being said, to conclude from this that U.S. leaders will take the political and military risk of targeting Saddam Hussein, is another question entirely.

For the time being, in any case, all this remains in the realm of pure speculation. There are as many reasons to believe that U.S. leaders could choose to leave things as they are, resting on their victory over the Taliban. But even without any further U.S. military ventures, the U.S. aggression against Afghanistan may itself have unleashed a host of political forces ready to launch new catastrophes, sooner or later.

What Future for Afghanistan?

This possibility exists in Afghanistan itself. The formation of today's interim Afghan government put in place by Washington was a protracted affair, with many twists and turns. This convoluted process illustrates in a striking way the problems which Afghanistan is facing.

The conference organized in Bonn by the United Nations at the end of November was supposed to reach an agreement between all the parties in Afghanistan. But although something resembling a government of national unity was put together after much difficulty a number of problems were left hanging.

Before the conference, U.S. leaders loudly proclaimed that they would not interfere in the negotiations. This was obviously pure nonsense. From the beginning, the majority of the participants at the conference were partisans of ex-king Zahir Shah, who was overthrown in 1973 and who, given his lack of real forces in the country, could play a role only with the support of the United States. The imprint of the U.S. on the conference was so visible that even before discussions started, the only Pashtun member of the Northern Alliance delegation, Hadji Abdul Qadir, walked out, slamming the door in protest, and never came back.

In fact, there were few things on which all the factions agreed except one to make Afghanistan "an Islamic republic" (although some preferred to substitute the word "kingdom" for "republic") and, by implication, to adopt the Sharia law. On this question, Bush was true to his word: despite his hypocritical "concern" for the fate of women under the Taliban, he did not "interfere" in the Bonn conference to see that women's rights would be preserved. Still less did he intervene to raise objections to the decision to keep Afghanistan an "Islamic republic," the enormous step backwards the Taliban had taken when they instituted a religious government in a country whose political institutions had for decades been separate from religious ones. But that should come as no surprise: religion and dictatorship are effective weapons preventing the emergence of social consciousness in the poor masses!

In other areas, however, U.S. leaders proved much less "scrupulous" about throwing their weight around the conference table. Significantly, they succeeded in imposing their own choice as president, Hamid Karzai, a tribal chief who represented numerous advantages for Washington. He was a Pashtun, that is, a member of the largest minority, and associated with Zahir Shah; he had some military forces in Afghanistan (unlike most of the participants outside the Northern Alliance), especially in the Pashtun-dominated province of Kandahar, the bastion of the Taliban; finally, 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 U.S. leaders also succeeded in imposing their own candidate as finance minister: Hedayat Amin Arsala, another Pashtun close to Zahir Shah, whose principal merit was that he had come directly from the highest spheres of the World Bank in Washington.

In exchange, U.S. leaders had to go along with demands made by the only major military force in Afghanistan that is, the Northern Alliance. It gained all the other key posts, including defense, which Washington originally had contested.

Overall, Washington got a government which resembled what it had wanted: it included representatives from all the main factions, with Pashtuns holding the majority of ministerial posts, even if most of their posts were decorative. But it was not a government of national unity, nor did it have full support from all the warlords. In fact, a number of them chose not to participate in the Bonn conference in particular three of the most prominent regional warlords the Uzbek warlord of the Northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif; the ruler of the Western town of Herat; and one of the warlords of the Pashtun region surrounding Kandahar. This led to complex new negotiations, back in Kabul, which resulted in the Uzbek "General" Dostum being co-opted as vice defense minister, while the other two chose to retain their freedom of movement by remaining outside the government.

The most striking feature of this interim government is the fact that all its top posts are held by men who participated in the government which, from 1992 to '96, precipitated the country into a bloody civil war, opening the way for the Taliban to take power. Rather than a government, it is an uneasy coalition of armed rival factions and aspiring warlords. They exercise power over a parcel of territory with their own troops and they are determined to defend or even extend this territory at the expense of their neighbors. It was precisely such rivalries that led to an open armed conflict within the 1992-'96 government itself. Since the very beginning of the Taliban retreat, each of the main regional warlords has been busy consolidating his grip over his "own" region and evicting potential rivals. This suggests that the current government could well implode for the very same reasons which blew up the 1992-'96 government.

Moreover, contrary to what Western leaders would like us to believe, the military machinery on which the power of the Taliban rested has not been destroyed, nor has it been reduced only to the combatants of al-Qaeda. In the months preceding the 1996 victory of the Taliban, numerous local warlords brought their weapons and their troops over to the Taliban to avoid being caught in the fall of the old regime in Kabul. These warlords subsequently furnished the base of the Taliban power. Today, the reverse process has given the impression that the Taliban regime disintegrated without seeking to put up a serious defense against the troops of the Northern Alliance. The old allies of the Taliban have simply changed their camp, once again, to avoid being caught in the fall of the Taliban. But the loyalty of these warlords toward the interim government in Kabul is above all circumstantial. And if the government begins to show itself too feeble or to lose too much credit, no doubt these same warlords will quite simply refuse to recognize its authority, even rallying themselves to try, once again, to overthrow whoever is in power.

Washington knows all this, of course. It's why U.S. leaders insisted that the U.N. deploy a peace-keeping force: not to prevent the country from being ripped to pieces by rival regional warlords this doesn't bother imperialism but to ensure, at least, that the central government in Kabul remains a government, even if it has little real control over the rest of the country.

The warlords, however, aren't interested in having the imperialist leaders arbitrate their rivalries. Already at the Bonn conference, the U.S. was forced to abandon its demand that the U.N. force be deployed before the inauguration of the interim government. It also had to abandon its proposal that U.N. troops replace the armed combatants from the different Afghan factions in the streets of Kabul. There then followed interminable bargaining, during and especially after the conference, over the number of U.N. soldiers the new interim government would accept and what their role would be. The original figure of 10,000 was scaled down first to 5,000 and then to 3,000. By the middle of January, there seems to have been worked out a final agreement on this matter. But this agreement comes after other ones which were quickly renounced by everyone involved. The same could happen again. Will this U.N. force have more weight than the 220 British marines stationed at the airport of Kabul? Up until now these marines could not patrol in Kabul itself except when accompanied by armed observers from the Northern Alliance, restricted to no more than ten troops in the capital at the same time. In any case, it's doubtful that the U.N. force will ever be able to do more than watch passively as the different rivalries play out among the different factions currently in power.

The U.S. effort to ensure the new regime gives sufficient place to the Pashtuns is certainly not motivated by any concern for ethnic minorities. The American leaders clearly want a counterweight to the military weight of the mostly non-Pashtun Northern Alliance, whose leaders for the most part are not all that friendly toward the United States and are frankly hostile toward the U.S.'s regional ally, Pakistan. Moreover, a regime which appeared to discount the Pashtuns could revive the desire of the Pashtuns of Afghanistan to unite with the Pashtuns of Pakistan, where the Pashtun minority is a little larger than in Afghanistan. This could threaten the territorial integrity of Pakistan, posing strategic problems for the U.S. and menacing the equilibrium of the whole region. That being said, it's obvious that the interim government has done nothing but make a show of integrating Pashtuns. It's likely that the Pashtuns have few illusions in this government.

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, the American aggression could not help but bring to the surface all sorts of factors threatening the future stability of Afghanistan, even of the whole region a threat, if it's realized, for which the population of Afghanistan will once again pay dearly.

India: The BJP Jumps on Bush's Bandwagon

Whatever hidden disasters the U.S. aggression may yet hold for Afghanistan itself, it has already opened the door to the dangerous poker game being played by the governments of Pakistan and India.

The origin of this contest was the terrorist attack carried out on December 13th against the Indian Parliament complex in New Delhi. Five men went through the entrance of the complex in a car disguised as an official vehicle of India's Ministry of the Interior. Rapidly discovered, they opened fire with automatic weapons and grenades. The fusillade, which lasted 30 minutes, caused the death of eight people working in the complex. None of the assailants survived.

By Indian standards such a terrorist attack was by no means exceptional, nor even particularly deadly, compared to the long series of terrorist attacks in the capital in recent years. So the unusually virulent and instantaneous reaction of the Indian government left no doubt that it had decided to make use of the attack for other reasons.

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 to the finish." And Interior Minister L.K. Advani added: "We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors, whoever and wherever they are."

With words directly borrowed from Bush's own statements after the attack on the World Trade Center, the Indian government jumped on the bandwagon of the "war on terrorism" for its own reasons. The question was who would be its targets?

For once, the Indian police were surprisingly quick to get on the terrorists' trail. They announced that the terrorists had obligingly! 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 official statement, this cell was part of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM the Army of Muhammad), 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 investigation and its results raised many eyebrows in the Indian press. Editorials in left papers commented that it just seemed all too neat and convenient to be true; and a number of columnists went so far as to suggest that the whole thing might have been a provocation prepared by the Indian Special Branch (that is, its secret police).

In any case, by then the dice had started rolling. Indian government ministers gave more and more incendiary speeches demanding that Pakistan extradite the leaders of the JeM to India so that they could be "brought to justice" once again very carefully choosing Bush's vocabulary. They also demanded the extradition of the leaders of another organization, close to the JeM, but one which was significantly bigger: the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT the Army of the Pure). These demands were obviously 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 to stop road and train transport between the two countries. At the same time Indian ministers threatened to scrap the Indus Water Treaty which, since 1960, has regulated the partition of the Indus water network between the two countries. This would be a catastrophe for Pakistani agriculture. Troops were being massed on both sides of the nearly 1,800 mile border. For the first time since the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, tens of thousands of people were displaced from border areas both in India and in Pakistan. Reports began to stream in about skirmishes involving artillery fire, not only along the line marking the division of Kashmir, where such incidents are common, but even along the border of Punjab. On January 1st, as announced, India carried out its threats, closing all borders with Pakistan.

In both countries, the vast majority of political forces ranged themselves behind "their" government for the defense of the homeland against the aggressor from the opposing camp. The only groups with any real influence that did not immediately jump to support "their" government were several parties of the Indian left, among whom were three communist parties, although they issued only pacifist statements.

Behind the Military Build-Up

The question now is whether this rapid escalation of tension between the two countries will eventually result in a full-blown war. If so, it would be a disaster of momentous dimensions for the whole region not so much because the two countries have nuclear weapons, which the Western media focuses on, 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 nuclear weapons.

Early in January, the Pakistani regime began taking measures to appease India, announcing the detention of a hundred activists, among which were the main leaders of the organizations which India had targeted.

Clearly Musharraf has been under a lot of pressure from Washington to make some concessions to India's demands, if only because both the JeM and LeT were already on Bush's hit-list of terrorist organizations.

But there are also limits to what the Pakistani dictator can cede without taking too big a risk for himself. 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 such groups are, if not controlled, at least manipulated by the military hierarchy. This undoubtedly explains why the arrests provoked protests from within the judicial apparatus linked to the army, and why the majority of the militants picked up were released within 48 hours.

Musharraf cannot afford to be seen to be too conciliatory toward Indian demands, right after having shown himself so subservient to the U.S., aiding it to crush the Afghan people under its bombs. That would have been giving a gift to the Pakistani fundamentalist parties all the more so because the first legislative election since the coup d'etat is supposed to take place before October. In expectation of this election, practically all the political forces are trying to outdo each other's jingoist demagogy, the main target of which is, as always, India.

On the Indian side, the government's political demagogy is no less obvious. Since 1998, a so-called National Democratic Alliance runs the country. This coalition was formed by a myriad of small regional 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, the character of Hindu fundamentalism is not less reactionary than that of Islamic fundamentalism. In particular, the BJP has built its political influence by inflaming prejudices against all the ethnic and religious minorities which do not conform to Hindu traditions, and especially against Muslims.

Nonetheless, the BJP leaders today find themselves facing a difficult situation in India. A series of corruption scandals involving some of the highest placed ministers in the government (for the most part, leaders of the BJP) has put a cloud over the party, which had once styled itself "the party with clean hands." It was with that electoral propaganda that the BJP in recent elections defeated the Congress Party, itself involved in corruption scandals. Now, with new elections coming up in March, the BJP has every reason to fear for its future. Mobilizing 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 probably other aspects in the BJP's calculations. Since coming to power in 1998, the BJP has initiated a realignment of 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 recognize India as the dominant regional power, within the context of the imperialist world order, while insisting on a certain independence from Washington, in particular by establishing close relations with the USSR, before it collapsed, or by supporting a number of Third World nationalist movements, such as the Palestinian PLO in particular.

Once the BJP was in power, the regime distanced itself ostentatiously from the Arab countries and, having dropped its support for the PLO, proceeded to build links with Israel. Today, Israel has become India's second largest supplier of weapons. The BJP leaders made no secret of the fact that they were prepared to increase their cooperation with U.S. imperialism, but only under the condition that the long-standing privileged relations between the USA and Pakistan were brought to an end. However, despite the enthusiastic, unconditional support given by New Delhi to Bush's "war on terrorism," the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan revived the value of Pakistan as a regional ally of Washington.

Now that the U.S. war on Afghanistan seems to be coming to an end, the Indian government, with all its talk about joining the "war on terrorism," may be trying to use the attack of December 13 to force Washington's hand. Nonetheless, the problems in Afghanistan are too far from being resolved for the U.S. to give up such a handy ally as Pakistan, who is so intimately tied to the Afghan situation.

All of this can only increase the risks in the warmongering game being played between India and Pakistan and even the danger of a real war.

The Responsibility of Imperialism

Only the future will tell whether all this posturing will eventually lead to an actual war between the two countries; in mid-January, the threat of war was still limited above all to saber-rattling. All the local dictators, fundamentalist politicians and demagogues of all types carry a real responsibility for what happens in this area. But the principal responsibility for this situation and whatever wars come out of it rests with imperialism. Imperialisms, by means of their policy at the end of World War II, organizing and presiding over the partition of the Indian subcontinent in general, prepared the future for multiple conflicts. American imperialism, more specifically, with its use of clientelism in the region, most recently during its war on Afghanistan, simply threw oil on the fires of the conflicts that are never far from breaking into the open between India and Pakistan.

Even if the Indo-Pakistani tension does not end up in war, it will still have a whole series of consequences in the long term: deepening the gap between the populations of the two countries; increasing the pressure on the religious and ethnic minorities who are already subjected to frequent attacks in both countries.

Even if this military build up does not lead to an open war between the two countries themselves, it will only feed into another war the civil war which has plagued Kashmir ever since independence 53 years ago and was the trigger of two Indo-Pakistani wars, in 1947 and 1965.

Today, Kashmir is partitioned between Pakistan and India, with nearly two-thirds of its population and of its territory in India. In 1989, the "demobilization" of Pakistani Islamic fundamentalists, who had taken part in the fight against the the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, resulted in a large flow of fundamentalist paramilitary units into the Pakistani part of Kashmir. With the benediction of the Pakistani military, the fundamentalists paramilitary units took advantage of these advanced positions to embark on a large-scale offensive against the Indian part of Kashmir. The attacks were aimed above all at the non-Muslim population on both sides of the border, forcing many of them to emigrate, and then against the governmental organs of Indian Kashmir. The result of this offensive was a bloodbath. The Indian army increased its numbers to 500,000 soldiers and auxiliaries as the Islamic fundamentalists intensified their guerilla and terrorist attacks. The number of civilian casualties increased dramatically, reaching over 60,000 in the seven years up through 1997.

To all intents and purposes Kashmir has been and remains the refuge and logistic base for all the paramilitary Islamic fundamentalist groups in the region Pakistani, certainly, but also Indians. Despite the bloody partition between Pakistan and India, on pseudo-religious criteria, India continues to have a sizable Muslim minority.

Ten years ago these groups in Kashmir were the ones which had been financed and armed by U.S. imperialism to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Today, the same groups are probably receiving significant reinforcements from the many Pakistani fundamentalists who were able to escape from Afghanistan before it was too late; and from the Afghans who, either in the refugee camps in Pakistan or in Afghanistan itself, witnessed the bombing of their country by the U.S. without being able to do anything about it. It is probably no coincidence that, since the beginning of the bombing in Afghanistan, the number of terrorist attacks and casualties in Indian Kashmir has risen dramatically.

Here too, the policy of the American leaders is throwing oil on the fire of the Kashmir civil war, offering a much larger battlefield to the terrorists whom Bush pretends to chase. But, in fact, imperialism doesn't give a damn about terrorism its own, as well as others so long as it's only the poor masses who pay.