WAR ON TERROR
Notes of a Bystander
It was not long ago that in the "Western" eye Jihad was considered a just war, perpetrated against the invading communists who had been occupying a Muslim country. The word Mujahideen (From Persian or Arabic mujâhidîn, the plural of mujâhid "one who fights a jihad.") entered English dictionaries in the early eighties and, in the following decade, Afghan Jihadis, armed with US-supplied anti-aircraft carriers and rocket launchers started to adorn US magazines as freedom fighters.
Hollywood went one step further: In one of the Rambo sequels, Silvester Stallone, the Rambo, the saviour of the world, was seen fighting the Afghan war along with the Mujahideens. Throughout the decade, Hollywood and Western print media portrayed the Afghan guerrillas as a group of "freedom-loving" angry young men, fighting the might of the Soviet empire to save their cultural identity. Jihad became sexy.
Like the way youth from all over Europe joined the Republican Army against Fascist Franco's regime in Spain, Afghan Jihad, as it is known now, attracted flocks of young Muslim men across the world. One of them was Osama bin Laden. Money had never been a problem to this Arab civil engineer and with the US administration in his pocket, Laden and the faithful soon saw the Red Army crumble and withdrawn back to Moscow. Najibullah's regime soon fell apart and Northern Alliance (NA), an US-backed coalition came to power which consisted of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hajaras and some small Pashtun clans. Chaos ensued as instead of establishing law and order in the country, the NA members indulged themselves in rape, killing and extortion.
Another group of young men, meanwhile, joined the Jihad and swept victory in Kandahar, Jalalabad and Ghazni. They were the Talibs, Pashtun Madrasa students; some of them were war orphans and others grew up in different refugee camps in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. Mystery surrounded the birth of the Talibans as a political force as they swept victory in Kandahar and Heart and, by October 1995, laid seige on the capital Kabul. Many believe they were armed and trained by the Frontier Constabulary, a quasi-military unit of the Pakistan Army. Whatever it is, the US remained silent even after the Talibs took control of Kabul and publicly hanged former Soviet-backed president Mohammad Najibullah. It was 1996, the Cold War was a distant memory, and for the policymakers in Washington, Afghanistan had become another poor Central Asian country where poppy grew aplenty. Pakistan lost its strategic importance too, and only to add insult to the country's injury, the US started to sell arms to India, Pakistan's arch enemy. US media, one has every reason to believe, even forgot what Afghanistan was until September 11, 2001.
The incident of US assistance to fanatics is not at all new. During the Cold War, subsequent US governments actively funded the Polish church to get rid of the Soviet-backed regime in Warsaw. The late Pope John Paul II, with the blessings of the CIA, sent millions of USD to Lev Walesa, who organised a violent uprising in the Polish city of Gdañsk.
This trend was sporadic in Muslim dominated regions in Asia; the US remained a seemingly innocent bystander as religiosity and fanaticism increased dangerously in countries across the region.
During Bangladesh's liberation war, scared of the socialist-leaning of the Muktijuddho had, the US government actively supported the Pakistani government, who were butchering innocent civilians in the name of Islam. In fact the US vetoed several times in the UN against the emergence of Bangladesh; in the wake of the country's independence, the US sent its Seventh Fleet to help the losing Pakistani Army.
Islam was not the only weapon at the US's disposal at that time. In Muslim dominated regions, the US tried to impose an eerie mixture of religion, "Freedom of Speech" and "Democracy". The last two were just on paper.
And military rulers of different colours crept in and grabbed power in different Muslim countries, sometimes under the pretence of saving religion from the atheist communists and sometimes to "rescue the toiling masses". The US government silently nodded when Zia-al-Haque grabbed power in Pakistan and gagged free press. He was hailed rather as an ally against Communists. That Zia established Sharia in the country did not matter to the US, as long as he stuck to his anti-Soviet stand.
In another Muslim country Indonesia, where Marxists were gaining strong grounds, General Suharto led a bloody coup. Sukarno, the country's elected president, was ousted and killed; and Suharto launched a witch-hunt that had witnessed, according to a moderate estimate, the killing of around 5,00,000 civilians. Throughout his rule, the US showered Suharto with arms and ammunition that the dictator faithfully used against his own people.
In Bangladesh, when the country's founding father Sheikh Mujib was assassinated along with almost all his family members by some disgruntled army men, the US foreign office remained silent. Generals Ziaur Rahman and HM Ershad grabbed power one after another, of them the latter managed to cling on to power for nine years. When things got sour Ershad made Islam the state religion. US never asked for a regime change neither did it want to export democracy.
In fact, during the Cold War, as an export item, democracy was strictly kept for East Europe. So when Saddam Hussein bombed one Iranian city after another, killing thousands of unarmed civilians, the US sold him military logistics because the Ayatollahs in Tehran did not like the US. But the Reagan administration could not but stop there; it sold arms to both Iran and Iraq who were fighting a ruthless war over the Shatt al-Arab straits. With the profit of arms-sales to Iran, the US armed Nicaragua's Contra rebels.
When the war was going on, Saddam faced an insurgency in his Kurdish north. With the help of the US arsenal he had, Saddam dropped poison gas over the Kurdish city of Halabja from March 16-19 in 1988. The bustling city of 80,000 people, which was run over by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Kurdish rebels, soon turned into a city of ghosts. The US remained silent at its friend's "mischief"; Donald Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, paid the country a visit and gave the Butcher of Baghdad a friendly pat.
In fact, US foreign policy in the Mid East is full of shameless duplicity. The Kings of different Arab countries hold absolute power over their subjects; democracy or human rights is a far cry in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Arab Emirates. Ironically Kuwait, the country that the US so zealously saved from Saddam's clutches during the Gulf War I, did not have women suffrage; the Emir was-- and still is-- an absolute monarch, who controlled the kingdom with an iron fist. Ironic that all the Gulf Sultanates the US used as bases to overthrow Saddam, the vile dictator, did not have democracy by any standards.
Egypt, one of US's staunchest ally in the Middle East, is ruled by Hosni Mubarrak, who does not allow any opposition to his regime. Different White House administrations have been providing Egypt with military and financial aid, as the country maintains diplomatic ties with Israel. That his is one of the most unpopular regimes in the region does not matter to the US, given the dictator clamps down on Islamic Brotherhood or such militant organisations.
The occupation of Palestine and the sufferings the Palestinians are going through on their own land by Israeli forces have become a major source of Muslim anger across the world. Many of them find it difficult to separate the US from the Zionist regime. Though Israel possesses nuclear weapons and denies the UN observers to inspect its Dimona Nuclear Plant, it is Iraq that the US and its allies have attacked to find nuclear weapons, and it is Iran they want to stop from making the N-bomb.
The UK falls in the line too: Because of the country's support to the war on Iraq and "a customary blind eye" towards the plights of the Palestinians, many Muslims consider the UK as the US's partner in crime.
In fact, it is too late for the US to start its campaign to win the hearts and minds of Muslims. A big chunk of the Muslim population, most of whom were born at the height of the Afghan War, have been radicalised; courtesy the war on Afghanistan and Iraq, and, for some, because of the abject poverty in their lives for which they blame the US and its money culture.
By waging its war on terror, the US has become the Frankenstein trying to kill the fiend it once so painstakingly made. On its way to execute that the US is giving birth to more monsters and still wonders why there are so many.
(To be concluded in the next issue)
(R) thedailystar.net 2005