ISLAMABAD – I did it. My Way. In Arabic. The Osama bin Laden home movie is certainly one of the most chilling bits of cinema-verite in history.
This is not his modus operandi. This is not a carefully choreographed photo op for the Al Jazeera television station – like the previously released Al-Qaeda videos. This is just the “Sheik” sitting on a carpet, in a nondescript Afghan living room, beside two assistants and a visiting Arab sheik, raw and relaxed, under no rhetorical veils, describing a “martyrdom operation.” Michael Jackson or Madonna would kill for that kind of exposure.
The tape leads to the inference that bin Laden designed the overall strategy of September 11 – including the lethal concept of turning planes into missiles – and then sent autonomous cells to perform the operation. It is fair to assume that only Muhamad Atta, the key pilot, was aware of most of the details. As for the others, bin Laden says, “We did not reveal the operation until the moment they boarded the plane.”
Bin Laden may relish the fact that he will go down in history as the structural engineer of such a devastating terrorist act. “We calculated in advance the number of victims from the enemy.” He admits that he was not expecting both World Trade Center towers to collapse. But “I was the most optimistic.” He was certain “the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building.”
Bin Laden seems to be persuaded that September 11 generated unprecedented support for Islam – even in Europe and America. But the repercussions of the video will be no less volcanic. Asia Times Online contacted a senior official from the Foreign Ministry in Kabul immediately after the Pentagon broadcasting. This was on the same day that moderate Pashtun Hamid Karzai arrived in Kabul since being appointed de facto interim prime minister of Afghanistan, with the task of trying to revive the comatose country from December 22 onwards.
The Afghan Tajik official was blunt. “This is the final proof of how [Arab] foreign invaders destroyed Afghanistan – destroyed even the name of our country.” In the Islamic State of Afghanistan – known as the Islamic Emirate under Taliban rule – bin Laden’s global jihad had been condemned even before the smokin’ gun.
Is the war over? No chance: the New Hot War of the 21st century is just beginning. This is how we stand after only three months through the New Afghan War.
The Taliban’s demise represents the destruction of the most barbaric – and implausible – contemporary project of a state built like a Koranic school. But the Taliban were not destroyed because they followed “the purest form of Islam” – as they insisted. They were rejected, as an Afghan professor commented in Kabul the other day, “because of their mentality, puritan ideology, illogical obstination, inhuman behavior, total isolation and complete lack of understanding of Afghan social realities.”
Just for the record: their guest of honor, “Sheik” Osama bin Laden – with a US$25 million bounty on his head – is still alive and on the loose, and still performing the role of Mega Villain.
The American objectives stated at the outset were to capture bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda leadership, and destroy their terrorist network. After nine weeks, this is the record: more than 12,000 infra-red, laser-guided, cave-buster, smart and dumb bombs and missiles; more than 1,500 Afghan deaths – including hundreds of women and children; more than an additional 600,000 terrified and shivering refugees roaming around the Afghan wastelands. End result: none of the stated objectives have yet been attained.
What kind of “victory” is this? Washington may celebrate a victory, but over the wrong enemy: the Taliban. Sinister military jargon might dub it “collateral benefit.” There is absolutely no evidence that any Afghan whatsoever has been or is an Al-Qaeda operative. To smash the Taliban was a war objective that sprang out of a pool of desperation and cynicism – many weeks after September 11. Any IQ above 100 in Washington knew that to capture bin Laden was practically a no-win proposition. So why not smash a universally-hated Islamic theocracy instead?
How to fight a war in the 21st century? First of all, the sole superpower creates an ideal environment: ultra high-tech air force flying at 30,000 feet, “smart” weapons, absence of monitors on the ground to prevent violations of war conventions (like the massacre at the fort in Qila-I-Jangi, near Mazar-e-Sharif), border states bribed into acceptance, and overwhelming – though grudging in many quarters – support from the international community. American weapons, at the cutting edge of information technology, are capable of destroying enemy targets with almost millimetric precision, involving minimal human intervention. The technology is not faultless: collateral damage abounds. America certainly does not need massive conventional armies. Historical irony: Despite the enormous qualitative differences, the new technology has a parallel in antiquity, when Persian and Central Asian invaders conquered Afghanistan with minimum but extremely mobile forces.
What are the prospects for the new Afghan “broad-based” government taking power on December 22? Nothing remotely “broad-based” has governed Afghanistan, ever. During the Taliban era, rural Pashtuns controlled 90 percent of the country. Now, Tajiks practically control the interim government. Even the UN recognizes that the Bonn accord was far from representative.
Hamid Karzai, loyal to former king Zahir Shah, viewed by considerably powerful sectors in Pakistan as one of America’s men – the other one, Abdul Haq, was killed by the Taliban – is essentially a weak leader. The really powerful actors are the Northern Alliance, controlling the key ministries: Interior (Younous Qanooni), Defense (Commander Fahim) and Foreign Relations (Dr Abdullah). Hopefully, the emergency loya jirga in six months will be able to elect a more representative transitional government, before the dream of free and impartial elections by the end of 2003.
Is the US bent on occupying Kandahar, the former Taliban spiritual capital, or to maintain permanent bases in Afghanistan? No, they are only interested in capturing Mullah Omar, bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda leadership. They would not dream of getting involved in guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan. And the longer American forces stay, the greater the possibility of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks uniting to flush them out – and then reverting to their age-old practice of fighting among themselves.
Who’s gonna take it in phase two of the war against terrorism? The main candidates are, once again, three Islamic nations: Somalia, Sudan and Iraq. Washington’s hawks are salivating at the prospect of finishing the US’s inconclusive 11-year war against Saddam Hussein. US public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor. International public – and official – opinion is overwhelmingly against it.
Which terrorist organizations are about to face Washington’s wrath? They are all based in Pakistan, and heavily involved in the liberation of Kashmir: Harakat-ul-Ansar, Harakat-ul-mujahedeen, Jaish-e-Muhamad e Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.
Who is going to rebuild Afghanistan? The US has already promised billions of dollars to its circumstantial ally Pakistan. The UN figures that it will need US$6 billion to restart Afghanistan from scratch, and $25 billion to actually rebuild the country. The Pentagon is already thinking about its next military targets. There is a serious risk that the international community once again abandons Pakistan and especially Afghanistan – despite Tony Blair’s avalanche of humanitarian speeches. The UN and all its agencies, and a basket of NGOs, will have to keep full pressure on fatigue-impaired donors.
Who’s the great winner up to now? Russia. The Northern Alliance – armed, counselled and supported by the Russians – now is virtually in control of Afghanistan. Former leaders must be roaring with laughter in their Soviet mausoleums at Vladimir Putin’s new success – and all for free.
Who’s the great loser up to now? Pakistan. The Inter-Services Intelligence’s dream of a client state on the west, its “strategic depth” in the war in Kashmir against India, are in tatters. Pakistan needs a dose of realism. The last place on earth to welcome a Pakistani these days is Afghanistan. The Pakistani military and intelligence establishment should consign megalomania and paranoia to the dustbin of history. And President General Pervez Musharraf – a sensible, moderate Muslim ruler – should focus on health and education, trying to alleviate the plight of dozens of millions living below the poverty line in his country.
Has America learned anything from this war? Hardly. The so-called Bush doctrine reveals itself to be a unilateralist far west: If I as much as suspect that you’re a terrorist, I’ll rip you to shreds. In a country with the best universities in the world, practically no sensible voices were raised to analyze the causes of terrorism: and when they did raise them, they were suffocated. The US will only stop asking itself “why they hate me so much?” when is starts condemning terrorism in all its forms – including Ariel Sharon’s state terrorism; and when it starts pressing for democracy in any given latitude – including ultra-repressive Saudi Arabia.