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MGG: Anthrax and the war in Afghanistan
By M.G.G. Pillai
22/10/2001 4:04 pm Mon
22 October 2001
Anthrax and the war in Afghanistan
The country is fearful and horrified at this bioterrorist attack
that few want to investigate it further. CNN and the television
networks, and the talk shows, feed on this frenzy which has
spread to distant shores.
The Malaysian deputy prime minister, no less, has threatened to
jail any one who spreads rumours about anthrax.
The usual suspects are offered: Iraq, Syria, Libya, Osama bin
Laden and his Al-Qaeda network, anyone who could feed the
official frenzy of the war against terrorism.
But not the one who could have the means to: the right-wing
cranks in the United States, with the means and the ability to
scare the people as they have in the past.
When the federal government building in Oklahama was bombed in
1995, the first targets were Muslim terrorists, possibly even
then Osama bin Laden. But Timothy McVeigh, executed for that
atrocity, was not a fundamentalist Muslim terrorist, but a
The anthrax scare, on the other hand, comes in useful for
Washington to divert attention amidst conducting a war. Anthrax
is dangerous, but only if dispensed with proper weapons. This
all but removes terrorist groups from spreading it.
Before the present scare, there is only known use of anthrax as a
bioterror weapon in the United States, when the Rajneesh group of
Hindu fanatics used it to take control of a town in Oregon. It
failed, and its two perpetrators went to jail.
A Japanese group found it too tedious and unstable to spread
terror in Tokyo's undergroup and opted for sarin, an equally
potent poison, but less volatile. That did not work either,
though a few died, and its key perpetrators are also in jail.
In fear and fright
The media, insteading on concentrating on the war in Afghanistan,
runs helter skelter to paint frightening scenes of panic and fear
from anthrax. American citizens are in fear and fright, to allow
the Bush administration and its warmongers a free hand in
Afghanistan, with little opposition.
The United States, it goes without saying, has the means to
dispense the anthrax, along with other countries, but it assumes
only the other fellow would.
So, the critical look at the international coalition on
terror comes from elsewhere, mostly in Britain. That it was to
shore up doubtful support for a president who was, in fact,
elected by the courts, becomes clearer by the day.
But it loses the propaganda war as surely as it must the ground
war. Even US news reports hint at how tough the Anglo-Saxon
coalition campaign would be, once ground war starts.
There is a push to have the war wrapped up by Christmas, but
would Afghanistan leave the Anglo-Saxons alone after that? Or
whoever comes to assuage the feelings with bribes of food and
That must, if this would not snowball into a larger conflict in
the Muslim world. Osama bin Laden is now a folk hero, almost a
Messiah in Peshawar, as Robert Fisk reports in the Independent;
the longer he is out of harm's way, the more dramatic his taunts
that strikes a resonance in the Middle East.
The Taliban could be removed from office, but not destroyed. No
clear policy exists on what after Osama is killed or captured,
nor how to reconstruct Afghanistan after the destruction. It
wants the Northern Alliance to fight with it, but not come to
The octogenarian former Afghan king is brought out yet again from
his forgotten exile in Italy to discuss a post-war Afghanistan
government-in-transition. But he was removed after 40 years on
the throne in a coup d'etat his brother-in-law mounted for the
very reasons he is now in good odour.
Since then Afghanistan was bombed into ruins by a succession of
pro-Soviet governments, until the Soviet Union herself was
finally forced out eight years ago. The parties in the Northern
Alliance captured power, but their record was such that it made
the Talibans take power with relative ease.
Six of one and half a dozen of the other
The United States and Britain have no choice now but move ground
troops in, if they want to keep their global, especially Muslim,
The two countries have a long history of reneging on promises,
the last only a decade ago to get Muslim countries on board in
the Gulf War against Iraq.
In Afghanistan it cannot either. The bombings would have killed
more than the 300 the Talibans claim. Afghans live in tribal
conclaves up in the mountains, and the bombs, however precise and
"smart", would have dropped on them, killed them, mutilated them,
insulted their honour. And they are not about to forget that
because the Allies had "won" the war.
So, the anthrax scare came in handy to not announce these
frightening policy and practical political and global concerns.
Attention is diverted. But for how long?
The bombs cannot resolve anything in Afghanistan, a country held
together with political twine that keeping tribes at bay from
each other, and binds them against other communities and invaders
wanting to steal a march over them.
Neither could ground action. You do not know where Afghan
loyalties lie by the minute. It is easy to fall foul of communal
or tribal loyalties; the rule that "my enemy's enemy is my
friend" an article of faith. The war is conducted as against
Vietnam, with the same likely results.
The Pentagon says the Taliban's command structures are bombed and
destroyed. So, they are, given the scale of it. But, as a report
in the Independent on Sunday (21 Oct 2001) points out, the
command structure is, invariably a man sitting on a rug, with an
ancient weapon, a telephone that does not work, and "the mother
of all teapots".
The airports are bombed? The planes are grounded, and there is
no fear of an aerial battle. It does not matter.
The Allied troops, when they land, now has no airport to land the
planes in. The Northern Alliance, now that they know they are in
as much odour as the Taleban in a post-war government, is now
firmly entrenched in the Afghan mind as Western stooges.
The one effect of this air war is for the Pashtun tribes to hold
on to the better-organised Taleban, however much hated or feared,
to fend the enemy off.
Masking the problem
I notice an irritation in the CNN talk shows at how badly the war
is going. It comes through in the endless discussion on the
anthrax scare, and self-serving commentaries on how well the war
It is assumed, by all speakers, that the United States and
Afghanistan are on equal military terms, and a cinch before
Amercian air superiority turns the tide.
But Anglo-US soldiers have also died. A handful, admits the
Pentagon; more than a score, says the Taliban. The truth is
somewhere in between, and large enough to scare the Bush
administration once the anthrax sace is safely out of the way.
Meanwhile, the Middle East is in turmoil yet again. The Sept 11
attacks forced the US to reconsider its solid support of Israel,
which clearly unhinged go off on its own to pressure Yassir
Arafat and his Palestinian state.
Washington would have been taken aback by the OIC's declaration,
like Nato's, that an attack on one is an attack on all. Even its
staunchest Muslim allies in the region do not want to be
Anglo-Saxon satraps in Afghanistan. Especially, when all this is
over, their regimes could be at risk for that.
The anthrax scare would disappear soon enough, especially if the
casualties mount. The Pentagon has a curious way of describing
casualties. If five men in a 20-strong force are killed, the
casualties are heavy; if 200 men in an invasion force of 10,000
are, they are light. So, this gobbledygook sustains morale, and
allows it to hide casualties.
There was, in my Nieman class at Harvard in 1976, a Vietnam
veteran who told me that one chore of his in Saigon was to
release casualty figures gradually, so as not to frighten the
In one week, he said more than a hundred were killed, but only
eight were announced; the rest spread over a period, the frozen
corpses in body bags until they could be buried in honour, at the
The war in Afghanistan would not last as long, only enough to
raise millennial Muslim anger at this continued attack on their