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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

MGG Pillai

The news these days from the United States is the war in Afghanistan and the anthrax scare that forces even Congress to shut down. One feeds on the other, with Washington not unhappy.

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 rightwing anarchist.

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 chattel.

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 power.

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, alliances intact.

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 goes.

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 American public.

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 government's convenience.

The war in Afghanistan would not last as long, only enough to raise millennial Muslim anger at this continued attack on their lands.

M.G.G. Pillai