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October 26, 2001
New World Disorder
War is peace. Now we know.
NEW DELHIAs darkness deepened over Afghanistan on October 7, the U.S. government, backed by the International Coalition Against Terror (the new, amenable substitute for the United Nations), launched air strikes against Afghanistan. TV channels lingered on computer-animated images of cruise missiles, stealth bombers, tomahawks and bunker-busting missiles. All over the world, little boys watched goggle-eyed and stopped clamoring for new video games.
The U.N., reduced now to an ineffective acronym, wasnt even asked to mandate the air strikes. (As Madeleine Albright once said, The U.S. acts multilaterally when it can, and unilaterally when it must.) The evidence against the terrorists was shared amongst friends in the coalition. After conferring, they announced that it didnt matter whether or not the evidence would stand up in a court of law.
Nothing can excuse or justify an act of terrorism, whether it is committed by religious fundamentalists, private militia, peoples resistance movementsor whether its dressed up as a war of retribution by a recognized government. The bombing of Afghanistan is not revenge for New York and Washington. It is yet another act of terror against the people of the world. Each innocent person that is killed must be added to, not set off against, the grisly toll of civilians who died in New York and Washington.
People rarely win wars, governments rarely lose them. People get killed. Governments molt and regroup, hydra-headed. They first use flags to shrink-wrap peoples minds and smother real thought, and then as ceremonial shrouds to cover the mangled remains of the willing dead. On both sides, in Afghanistan as well as America, civilians are now hostage to the actions of their own governments. Unknowingly, ordinary people in both countries share a common bondthey have to live with the phenomenon of blind, unpredictable terror. Each batch of bombs that is dropped on Afghanistan is matched by a corresponding escalation of mass hysteria in America about anthrax, more hijackings and other terrorist acts.
There is no easy way out of the spiraling morass of terror and brutality that confronts the world today. It is time now for the human race to hold still, to delve into its wells of collective wisdom, both ancient and modern. What happened on September 11 changed the world forever. Freedom, progress, wealth, technology, warthese words have taken on new meaning. Governments have to acknowledge this transformation, and approach their new tasks with a modicum of honesty and humility. Unfortunately, up to now, there has been no sign of any introspection from the leaders of the International Coalition Against Terror. Or the Taliban.
When he announced the air strikes, President George W. Bush said, Were a peaceful nation. Americas favorite ambassador, Tony Blair (who also holds the portfolio of British prime minister), echoed him: Were a peaceful people.
Speaking at FBI headquarters a few days later, Bush said, This is our calling. This is the calling of the United States of America. The most free nation in the world. A nation built on fundamental values that rejects hate, rejects violence, rejects murderers and rejects evil. And we will not tire.
Here is a partial list of the countries that America has been at war withovertly and covertlysince World War II: China, Korea, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, the Belgian Congo, Peru, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Sudan, Yugoslavia. And now Afghanistan.
Certainly it does not tirethis, the most free nation in the world. What freedoms does it uphold? Within its borders, the freedoms of speech, religion, thought; of artistic expression, food habits, sexual preferences (well, to some extent) and many other exemplary, wonderful things. Outside its borders, the freedom to dominate, humiliate and subjugateusually in the service of Americas real religion, the free market. So when the U.S. government christens a war Operation Infinite Justice, or Operation Enduring Freedom, we in the Third World feel more than a tremor of fear. Because we know that Infinite Justice for some means Infinite Injustice for others. And Enduring Freedom for some means Enduring Subjugation for others.
The International Coalition Against Terror is largely a cabal of the richest countries in the world. Between them, they manufacture and sell almost all of the worlds weapons, and they possess the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destructionchemical, biological and nuclear. They have fought the most wars, account for most of the genocide, subjection, ethnic cleansing and human rights violations in modern history, and have sponsored, armed and financed untold numbers of dictators and despots. Between them, they have worshiped, almost deified, the cult of violence and war. For all its appalling sins, the Taliban just isnt in the same league.
The Taliban was compounded in the crumbling crucible of rubble, heroin and land mines in the backwash of the Cold War. Its oldest leaders are in their early forties. Many of them are disfigured and handicapped, missing an eye, an arm or a leg. They grew up in a society scarred and devastated by war. Between the Soviet Union and America, over 20 years, about $40 billion worth of arms and ammunition was poured into Afghanistan. The latest weaponry was the only shard of modernity to intrude upon a thoroughly medieval society.
Young boysmany of them orphanswho grew up in those times, had guns for toys, never knew the security and comfort of family life, never experienced the company of women. Now, as adults and rulers, they beat, stone, rape and brutalize women; they dont seem to know what else to do with them. Years of war have stripped them of gentleness, inured them to kindness and human compassion. They dance to the percussive rhythms of bombs raining down around them. Now theyve turned their monstrosity on their own people.
More than a million Afghan people lost their lives in the 20 years of conflict that preceded this new war. Afghanistan was reduced to rubble, and now, the rubble is being pounded into finer dust. By the second day of the air strikes, U.S. pilots were returning to their bases without dropping their assigned payload of bombs. As one pilot put it, Afghanistan is not a target-rich environment. At a press briefing at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked if America had run out of targets. For one thing, were finding that some of the targets we hit need to be re-hit, he said. Second, were not running out of targets, Afghanistan is. This was greeted with gales of laughter in the Briefing Room.
On the ground in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliancethe Talibans old enemy, and therefore the coalitions newest friendis making headway in its push to capture Kabul. (Let it be noted that the Northern Alliances track record is not very different from the Talibans.) The visible, moderate, acceptable leader of the Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was killed in a suicide-bomb attack early in September. The rest of the Northern Alliance is a brittle confederation of brutal warlords, ex-communists and unbending clerics. It is a disparate group divided along ethnic lines, some of whom have tasted power in Afghanistan in the past.
Among the global powers, there is talk of putting in a representative government. Or, on the other hand, of restoring the kingdom to 89-year-old Zahir Shah, who has lived in exile in Rome since 1973. Thats the way the game goessupport Saddam Hussein, then take him out, finance the mujahedin, then bomb them to smithereens; put in Zahir Shah and see if hes going to be a good boy. (Is it possible to put in a representative government? Can you place an order for democracywith extra cheese and jalapeño peppers?)
Reports have begun to trickle in about civilian casualties, about cities emptying out as Afghan civilians flock to borders that have been closed. Main arterial roads have been blown up or sealed off. Those who have experience working in Afghanistan say that by early November, food convoys will not be able to reach the millions of Afghans (7.5 million according to the United Nations) who run the very real risk of starving to death during the course of this winter. They say that in the days that are left before winter sets in, there can either be a war, or an attempt to reach food to the hungry. Not both.
As a gesture of humanitarian support, the U.S. government air-dropped 37,500 packets of emergency rations into Afghanistan. It says it plans to drop a total of 500,000 packets. That will still add up to only a single meal for half a million people out of the several million in dire need of food. Aid workers have condemned it as a cynical, dangerous, public-relations exercise. They say that air-dropping food packets is worse than futile. First, because the food will never get to those who really need it. More dangerously, those who run out to retrieve the packets risk being blown up by land mines. A tragic alms race.
Nevertheless, the food packets had a photo-op all to themselves. Their contents were listed in major newspapers. They were vegetarian, we are told, as per Muslim dietary law. Each yellow packet, decorated with the American flag, contained: rice, peanut butter, bean salad, strawberry jam, crackers, raisins, flat bread, an apple fruit bar, seasoning, matches, a spoon, a towelette, a napkin and illustrated user instructions.
After three years of unremitting drought, an air-dropped airline meal in Jalalabad! The level of cultural ineptitude, the failure to understand what months of relentless hunger and grinding poverty really mean, the U.S. governments attempt to use even this abject misery to boost its self-image, beggars description.
Put your ear to the ground in this part of the world, and you can hear the thrumming, the deadly drumbeat of burgeoning anger. Please. Please, stop the war now. Enough people have died. The smart missiles are just not smart enough. Theyre blowing up whole warehouses of suppressed fury.
With all due respect to President Bush, the people of the world do not have to choose between the Taliban and the U.S. government. All the beauty of human civilizationour art, our music, our literaturelies beyond these two fundamentalist, ideological poles. There is as little chance that the people of the world can all become middle-class consumers as there is that they will all embrace any one particular religion. The issue is not about Good vs. Evil or Islam vs. Christianity as much as it is about space. About how to accommodate diversity, how to contain the impulse toward hegemonyeconomic, military, linguistic, religious, cultural and otherwise. Any ecologist will tell you how dangerous and fragile a monoculture is. A hegemonic world is like having a government without a healthy opposition. It becomes a kind of dictatorship. Its like putting a plastic bag over the world to prevent it from breathing. Eventually, it will be torn open.
It is important for governments and politicians to understand that manipulating these huge, raging human feelings for their own narrow purposes may yield instant results, but eventually and inexorably will have disastrous consequences. Igniting and exploiting religious sentiments for reasons of political expediency is the most dangerous legacy that governments or politicians can bequeath to any peopleincluding their own. People who live in societies ravaged by religious or communal bigotry know that every religious textfrom the Bible to the Bhagavad Gitacan be mined and misinterpreted to justify anything, from nuclear war to genocide to corporate globalization.
This is not to suggest that the terrorists who perpetrated the outrage on September 11 should not be hunted down and brought to book. They must be. But is war the best way to track them down? Will burning the haystack find you the needle? Or will it escalate the anger and make the world a living hell for all of us?
At the end of the day, how many people can you spy on, how many bank accounts can you freeze, how many conversations can you eavesdrop on, how many e-mails can you intercept, how many letters can you open, how many phones can you tap? Even before September 11, the CIA had accumulated more information than is humanly possible to process. (Sometimes, too much data can actually hinder intelligencesmall wonder the U.S. spy satellites completely missed the preparation that preceded Indias nuclear tests in 1998.) The sheer scale of the surveillance will become a logistical, ethical and civil rights nightmare. And freedomthat precious, precious thingwill be the first casualty. Its already hurt and hemorrhaging dangerously.
Every day that the war goes on, raging emotions are being let loose into the world. The international press has little or no independent access to the war zone. In any case, mainstream media, particularly in the United States, have more or less rolled over, allowing themselves to be tickled on the stomach with handouts from military men and government officials. Afghan radio stations have been destroyed by the bombing. The Taliban has always been deeply suspicious of the press. In the propaganda war, there is no accurate estimate of how many people have been killed, or how much destruction has taken place. In the absence of reliable information, wild rumors spread.
Bush recently boasted: When I take action, Im not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. Its going to be decisive. He should know that there are no targets in Afghanistan that will give his missiles their moneys worth. Perhaps, if only to balance his books, he should develop some cheaper missiles to use on cheaper targets and cheaper lives in the poor countries of the world. But then, that may not make good business sense to the coalitions weapons manufacturers.
Then theres that other branch of traditional coalition businessoil. Turkmenistan, which borders the northwest of Afghanistan, holds the worlds fifth largest gas reserves and billions of barrels of oil reserves. Enough, experts say, to meet American energy needs for the next 30 years (or a developing countrys energy requirements for a couple of centuries). America has always viewed oil as a security consideration, and protected it by any means it deems necessary. Few of us doubt that the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf has little to do with its concern for human rights and almost entirely to do with its strategic interest in oil.
For some years now, Unocal has been negotiating with the Taliban for permission to construct an oil pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan and out to the Arabian Sea. From here, Unocal hopes to access the lucrative emerging markets in South and Southeast Asia. In November 1997, a delegation of Taliban mullahs traveled to America and even met with State Department officials in Washington and later with Unocal executives in Houston. At that time, the Talibans taste for public executions and its treatment of Afghan women were not made out to be the crimes against humanity that they are now. Over the next six months, pressure from hundreds of outraged American feminist groups was brought to bear on the Clinton administration. Fortunately, they managed to scuttle the deal. But now comes the U.S. oil industrys big chance.
In America, the arms industry, the oil industry and the major media networksindeed, U.S. foreign policyare all controlled by the same business combines. It would be foolish to expect this talk of guns and oil and defense deals to get any real play in the media. In any case, to a distraught, confused people whose pride has just been wounded, whose loved ones have been tragically killed, whose anger is fresh and sharp, the inanities about the Clash of Civilizations and the Good vs. Evil discourse home in unerringly. They are cynically doled out by government spokesmen like a daily dose of vitamins or anti-depressants. Regular medication ensures that mainland America continues to remain the enigma it has always beena curiously insular people administered by a pathologically meddlesome, promiscuous government.
And what of the rest of us, the numb recipients of this onslaught of what we know to be preposterous propaganda? The daily consumers of the lies and brutality smeared in peanut butter and strawberry jam being air-dropped into our minds just like those yellow food packets. Shall we look away and eat because were hungry, or shall we stare unblinking at the grim theater unfolding in Afghanistan until we retch collectively and say, in one voice, that we have had enough?
As the first year of the new millennium rushes to a close, one wondershave we forfeited our right to dream? Will we ever be able to reimagine beauty without thinking of the World Trade Center and Afghanistan?
Arundhati Roy is the author of The God of Small Things, for which she received the Booker Prize, and The Cost of Living. Her latest book of essays, Power Politics, has just been published by South End Press.