October 30, 2001


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Arvind Lavakare

Bunch of thoughts & questions

Terror Tuesday has thrust the world into a tumult of thoughts and doubts. It is not possible for a single print media column to dwell on one of them at a time for the simple reason that even as you deal with one at some length and leave one or the other for next time, thoughts have become questions and questions have become rhetoric. It seems better then to tackle the various issues and concerns in one cluster -- like the bombs Al Jazeera says the US is dropping to get one man "dead or alive".

First, there's the post-Taleban scenario in Afghanistan. Even before President Bush's "war on terror" was a fortnight old with the enemy unruffled, almost a tome had been written on who and what should run the next government in that Allah-forsaken country.

We have thus been educated on the concept of "moderate Taleban" by mush Musharraf and sheriff Powell on one side and Jaswant Singh's "oxymoron" team of Russia and Iran on the other. The result, presumably, will be declared by the match referee called United Nations aka USA.

We have also been educated on the percentages of ethnic and tribal populations of Afghanistan that should be the guide for representation in the new power equation in Kabul -- a proportionate division of spoils, so to say, rather than a careful selection of meritocracy. One senior from the Sangh Parivar fraternity became so frenetic with this idea that he got hold of the comparative ethnic demographic percentages of Afghanistan and Pakistan, plotted them location-wise on the maps of the two neighbours and, hold your breath, advocated that the UN redraw their geographical borders!

Then there's that exotic sounding Afghan concept of loya jirga -- dubbed a 'grand assembly' by some and a 'ruling council' by others. Gatherings for producing this loya jirga have begun and a series of them are planned for the next few weeks -- assuming, for reasons unknown, that the Taleban will last till then.

Strangely, no one mentions that the Northern Alliance (who prefer to be called the United Front, but are denied that label by the rest of the world for reasons unknown) should be given back the government that was seized from them in 1996 in a civil war. After all, the UN till this day recognises the Northern Alliance as the representative government of Afghanistan; why then should it not be given back its government once Mullah Omar's regime falls? Nobody even asks that basic question, leave alone answer it. Why?

Nor does anyone except India's own Afghan scholar, Sreedhar, talk of installing a National Reconciliation Commission as an interim arrangement to bring order and sanity to that country. Though details of that commission have not yet become known, one can well imagine its contours and objectives. A set of administrators from various arms of the UN with a select council of advisers under the respected former monarch, Zahir Shah, could, in a "cool-off" period of two years, set in motion plans for widespread relief, law-and-order, and restoration of basic infrastructure with funds from UN members and interest-free assistance from the World Bank and similar agencies.

Side by side, it can put in place a mechanism for democratic elections so that Afghanistan can ultimately have a popular government elected through universal adult franchise. Shouldn't that be the supreme goal in the tome of debates we have got so far? Or is it continued to be assumed that conventional democracies are just not Islam's cup of tea?

Now to some more thoughts and more questions.

Will the Taleban regime really fall as swiftly as the world has, somehow, been led to believe? Since the first few US bombs exploded on October 7 the Taleban forces have shown themselves to be a tricky and tenacious lot. Ultra-modern military hardware has not encountered the white flag of surrender in a jiffy. Hand-to-hand combat seems inevitable. And if the coming winter sees lots of body bags among the Taleban, the Northern Alliance and the so-called world coalition, will the Islamic world remain silent spectators? Do we thereafter get an actual enactment of Huntington's prediction? What would that lead to? Have Bush, Blair & Co worked out a contingency for that scenario?

Next, Osama bin Laden. He remains so elusive that even the defence secretary of the mighty USA has had to do a flip-flop in the media. "He may elude us in the end," he says one day. "I didn't say that," he protests the next day. Meanwhile, America and the rest of the world wait with bated breath for the capture or death of he whom Bush describes as "that evil man".

B Raman, director of the Institute of Policy Studies, Chennai, has twice gone on record that Laden requires regular dialysis and gets it done at Pakistan's military hospital in Peshawar. In that case, has Laden escaped the coalition net by just not having his dialysis treatment since Bush took Pakistan on board for his 'war on terror'? Hasn't the US kept a watch on that Peshawar hospital? Or has Pakistan, USA's current blue-eyed ally, conned Uncle Sam?

In this context, has anybody noticed the number of times the Taleban ambassador in Pakistan moved from Islamabad to home base and back in the last few weeks? Has USA kept a watch on who accompanied the ambassador on these visits? Did he go home alone, but come back with someone in tow, take that someone back and return to Islamabad unaccompanied? Is Laden's dialysis the reason why Pakistan is the only country to retain diplomatic relations with the Taleban government?

And what's the reason for Colin Powell's sudden loss of ardour for Pakistan? He seemed such a chastened secretary of state at the congressional hearing on October 24. Bombing of Taleban frontlines ordered against the wishes of mush Musharraf; Pak publicly denied godfather's role in the expected new government in Kabul. Was this volte-face because of some American press editorials and feature articles casting suspicion on the duplicity of mush Musharraf? Was it because of the pressure from Russia's not-so-veiled criticism of Pakistan's role in world terrorism? Had the CIA or FBI finally brought home the truth? Or, finally, had he himself inhaled the anthrax spore from a Paki mail?

Lastly, there's the confusion in the Indian scenario.

Shekhar Gupta, chief editor of The Indian Express, ridiculed Prime Minister Vajpayee for creating nervousness in the country by hinting at likely austerity measures consequent to the Afghan conflict when, in fact, Gupta believes the Indian economy runs on local demand and supply factors. A few days later, Tavleen Singh, a noted columnist, lamented in India Today that the Vajpayee government seems unconcerned by the war's impact on the national economy. So who's wrong among our eminent journalists? What's the truth -- is it that some Indian chief editors don't have a clue on the world economy's intrinsic relation with the Indian economy?

Look at the Vajpayee government's attitude towards a dialogue with Pakistan. For months after Kargil '99, it was "no talks till end of cross-border terrorism". Then came the Agra red carpet. Now again there's talk of "no talks" mixed with "we're always willing to talk". Pray, what's going on?

Advani too is in flip-flop mode. It's "hot pursuit policy" for him after the October 1 blast outside the J&K assembly. Then, suddenly, "no hot pursuit". Why?

All of it, abroad and here, seems like a pseudo modern art painter at work on his canvas. He's feverish with his brush movements dabbing into a palate with multiple colours, hoping that what he's working on will be billed by some critic as the 21st century's evocation of Picasso.

Arvind Lavakare

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