by Eric Margolis
President Bush's declaration of war and impending assault against Afghanistan, a dirt-poor, medieval nation of 24 million, will help assuage America's fury over last week's apocalyptic terrorist attacks. But the dangers of an enraged American bull rampaging through the nuclear china shop of South Asia are not yet understood by politicians or the public.
As of this writing, powerful US and British forces are concentrating in the region for air, missile, and commando strikes against Afghanistan. What they will attack remains a mystery: after 22 years of warfare, Afghanistan lies in total ruins. Two million of its people are starving; 3.2 million are refugees. Some 80 million mines strewn by the Soviets remain, killing people daily.
Afghanistan has no real military forces, just ragtag tribal militiamen. Pulverizing medieval Afghanistan will bring no glory on US arms.
Any large US assault would interpose itself between two feuding nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, who, in mid-1999, were only days away from a full-scale conventional war over Kashmir that could have quickly and terrifying gone nuclear. Today, India and Pakistan clash almost daily along Kashmir's cease-fire line, called by CIA `the world's most dangerous border.'
Last week, Pakistan's Air Force and nuclear forces went on highest alert. India presumably followed suit. Both nation's nuclear forces have at best three minutes warning of attack by enemy aircraft or missiles. US aircraft and missiles flying over Pakistan might trigger false reports of a nuclear attacks by the rudimentary early warning systems of India and Pakistan, provoking an exchange of atomic weapons that would kill 2 million people and wound 100 million.
A conflict in Afghanistan risks spilling over into neighboring Pakistan, whose NW Frontier Province is ethnically identical to southern Afghanistan. Pakistan is a fragile nation, riven by regional, religious, and political disputes. US intervention in Pakistan and Afghanistan could fatally destabilize the moderate, pro-western military government of President Pervez Musharraf, plunging Pakistan into chaos.
This, in turn, would tempt India to intervene militarily. Influential extremists in India's fundamentalist Hindu government, which is now allied with Israel, have repeatedly vowed to crush Pakistan and `reunite' it with Greater India. China's reaction to US military forces deployed on its sensitive western borders presents more dangerous uncertainty.
US forces operating in Pakistan or Afghanistan will find themselves in the midst of a hostile population which sees them as invaders. In other words, another Beirut or Somalia, writ large. Unless the US confines itself to small commando raids and air raids, large numbers of Afghan and perhaps Pakistani civilians may die, provoking yet more fury against the US across the Muslim world.
Meanwhile, Israel and its American supporters are urging the US to launch a new war against Iraq. The stongest pro-Israel voice in the Bush Administration, deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, has called for the `extermination' and `ending' of states accused by Washington of supporting terrorism: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Libya. All oppose Israel and US hegemony in the Mideast.
Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly opposes attacking Iraq at this time. Other senior officials are growing increasingly concerned that the `crusade' proclaimed by President Bush last week may end up ensnaring the US into a low-intensity but long-lasting conflict across the Muslim world. American-owned oil installations, commercial interests, and travelers would become a primary target, inflicting yet further damage on the already battered US economy.
Another concern. The US and Russia
have been secretly planning commando attacks from Tajikistan against bin
Laden and other Afghan targets. Russia seems to have convinced the Bush
Administration that its bloody repression of Chechen independence-fighters is,
in Moscow's words. `our struggle against terrorism.' To date, Russia is reported
have killed 87,000 Chechen civilians. The Russians are trying to cover their
ongoing atrocities and massive human rights violations in Chechnya by joining up
with Bush's Afghan crusade. One hopes America will not be duped into providing
moral cover for Russia's continuing crimes in the Caucasus.
Military men are taught to keep cool heads at times of maximum stress, fear, and anger. This is good advice for Washington. However outraged, the US needs to remember its strategic and economic interests abroad, and its 7 million Muslim Americans, 70% who voted for Bush, who are now the nation's second largest religion.
Taliban has twice offered to send bin Laden to a non-Afghan Islamic court for trial, provided the US shows evidence of his guilt. The US refuses. This is a major mistake: the rest of the world would have far more sympathy for US military action, however dire, if it saw hard proof instead of the kill-all-Arabs and Muslims rhetoric of Secretary Wolfowitz and his allies. Washington seems to have come to its senses on this issue. Secretary of State Powell says he will produce proof shortly, perhaps as a prelude to attacking Afghanistan.
Few Americans have ever been to Afghanistan. Fewer in Washington or the media know or understand anything about this complex, remote land. American ignorance of Afghanistan is exceeded only by the deep ignorance shown by Taliban's medieval-minded leadership which has done so much to bring down the wrath of America on their turbaned heads. Sadly, they appear to be more guilty of stupidity than terrorism.
As Gen. Musharraf said Wednesday, `strength without wisdom is foolishness.' The US needs to pause, and take a deep breathe. And recall, before it destroys wretched Afghanistan, that 1.5 million Afghans died fighting the Soviets so that American troops did not have to war there during the 1980's. The Afghans and Pakistanis stopped the Soviet advance on the oil-producing Gulf. Americans owe all Afghans a debt of honor.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster, and
author of the just released War at the Top of
the World - The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet which was reviewed in
The Economist, May 13, 2000]
Copyright © 2001 Eric Margolis - All Rights