November 8, 2001


 Search the Internet
E-Mail this guest column to a friend
Print this page Best Printed on HP Laserjets
Beena Sarwar

The masters, the media, and the war

Until it actually happened, few people in Pakistan believed that the USA would actually attack Afghanistan. Why would the world's greatest (only) superpower attack the world's most wretched country? To get one man? The very idea seemed preposterous. It still is, but that is if the real objective is to "get Osama" and "end terrorism".

The war makes sense only if it is meant to consolidate economic, business and political interests. In this it may succeed -- in the short term -- unless the peace mongers prevail.

After September 11, US President George W Bush quickly declared a 'war against terrorism'. This catchy slogan, picked up by the big media (in particular CNN), is being used to rally a shocked nation and its allies. But it disguises the complexity of the issue.

Terrorism is a state of mind, manifested in physical violence to support an ideology. Bombing a country where some support 'terrorism' (in this case Laden and Al Qaeda) will cause devastating physical damage. But it will not eliminate this mindset.

We, the people of South Asia, have been fighting terrorism in various forms for years. So have others, in countries ranging from Ireland to Chechnya, Palestine to South Africa. So to now declare a 'war against terrorism' smacks of political opportunism and self-righteousness. This is not a new war. America is involved only because America has been attacked.

One man's terrorist is another man's hero. Bush's declaration that 'you are either with us or against us' resonates with the arrogance that is at least partially responsible for the current imbroglio. Many of us find this simplistic statement unacceptable.

Yes, Mr Bush, we are against terrorism. That is, we are against using violence to propagate a philosophy or set of ideals. But no double standards please (hah, say those familiar with US foreign policy). If it is wrong for one lot to use violence to further their cause, it is equally wrong for another. Therefore, it is wrong to bomb Afghanistan.

But Cowboy Bush and Sidekick Blair -- joined now by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- ignore all arguments calling for restraint. The American public (and the British!), we were told, demanded action. But who is this public and how do we know that this is what they wanted?

Yes, many did call for retaliation. They have been given a lot of space in the mass media. But those with access to more independent and alternative sources also know of anti-war demonstrations in the USA and elsewhere -- a demonstration in Rawalpindi on November 6 drew some 10,000 protestors -- but these are ignored or played down in the mainstream media.

The media has also downplayed the anti-war New Yorkers who insist 'Not in our name!' -- a call echoed by several families bereaved in the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks, who say that their loved ones would not want Afghanistan to be bombed. From the heart of Bush-land comes the protest of Texans United Against the War, who plan to send a delegation to visit Pakistan in solidarity with the peace movement here. Indian film stars in Bombay have protested against the bombing, and Calcutta has seen one of the largest demonstrations against the war.

But going by the mainstream media, you'd think that it is only Muslims who are opposed to the bombing. At a recent demonstration in London, television coverage focused on those wearing the hijab (veil) and beards, who formed just a small percentage of the protestors, numbering between 30,000 (police estimates) and 50,000 (organisers' estimates).

More and more people are convinced of what military strategists warned before the bombing started, that going into Afghanistan would embroil the world in an impossible situation. There were warnings about the terrain and the lack of information about ground realities. Now it is being conceded that there is an 'intelligence vacuum' and that the hunt for Laden is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Politically, the operation was also ill advised, though it initially and conveniently boosted the US president's ratings to an unprecedented 90 per cent. For Pakistan, it provided an opportunity to emerge from the isolation of nuclear sanctions; now that he is helping 'democracy', Washington can overlook General Pervez Musharraf's ousting of an elected government, just as it could overlook General Zia-ul-Haq hanging an elected prime minister.

Of course, General Musharraf has his job cut out for him, trying to convince a sceptical public that supporting the US is in the country's best interests, but support by Washington outbalances that slight hitch.

The bearded fanatics played up by the media are not the only ones enraged by the bombing. As vehemently opposed are those who do not support the Taleban: the human rights groups, which the media ignores because they are not as easily defined (by their religion) as the religious groups are.

When he met Prime Minister Tony Blair just before the bombing started, the late anti-Taleban Pushtoon commander Abdul Haq pleaded for restraint, saying the Taleban could be overthrown without air strikes, given enough financial support. The USA preferred to rain bombs instead, but the CIA simultaneously sent Haq off with money into Taleban areas where he was betrayed and killed. After his death, politicians and media mourned his loss.

Over 3,000 bombs were dropped on Afghanistan in the first three weeks of the air strikes. Pilots, having run out of targets, are now told to hit anything that looks like a target. Casualties include civilians as well as the Taleban and their weaponry. On at least two occasions, Red Cross offices have been hit and their personnel killed.

Supporters of Bush blame the Taleban for having kept their military equipment near those areas. But this, as media analyst Richard Keeble points out, is a familiar argument, similar to the ones trotted out during the Gulf War -- it was Saddam Hussein's fault even when a convoy of refugees was hit, for having created a situation in which this could happen.

Even if the casualty figures provided by the Taleban are exaggerated, it is clear that at least dozens of innocent men, women and children have been killed and injured. UNICEF warns that some 100,000 children could die of cold and starvation if aid is not allowed to get through.

This is dismissed as inevitable 'collateral damage' -- as neat a euphemism for taking innocent human lives as 'ethnic cleansing'. For those behind the attack on the WTC also, the innocents killed were probably collateral damage.

The eminent British military historian Sir Michael Howard said at a conference in London recently that calling this campaign a war had granted Al-Qaeda a status it does not deserve, putting the organisation in a 'win-win situation'. The longer the bombing goes on, the more disastrous the consequences will be, he warned. Extending it to include other 'rogue states', like Iraq, would not only indefinitely prolong the war, but "ensure that we can never win it".

Bombing Afghanistan may physically eliminate Laden and the Taleban, but at a terrible cost to the innocent. And it will not "end terrorism".

For those at the helm of affairs, this may not matter. "This war is as much about getting rid of terrorism as the Gulf War was about 'liberating Kuwait'," as a peace activist put it.

US forces never left the Gulf -- something that Laden has been protesting against (but he is so evil, we can't give credence to anything he says). The Gulf War left Bush, Sr, in a stronger position, just as the current war has bolstered the ratings of Bush, Jr. And let us not forget the economic and business gains that are in sight. Lots of money will have been lost with the bombs, and lots more will have to be spent on 'rehabilitation' (if there is anything left to rehabilitate), but in the end, the United States will be in a position of control regarding the oil-rich Central Asian republics.

Let's not fool ourselves. This is not a straightforward 'war against terrorism'. It is a war for US political and economic interests. But isn't it so much easier to rally support round a snappy slogan?

Tell us what you think of this column