Over the past decade or so, every war fought by the West (in the Gulf, the Balkans and now South Asia) has been accompanied by a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign. Politics is conducted and presented in the style of intelligence agencies: disinformation, exaggeration of enemy strength and capability, explanation of a television image with a brazen lie and censorship. The aim is to delude and disarm the citizenry. Everything is either over-simplified or reduced to a wearisome incomprehensibility. The message is simple. There is no alternative.
As the bombing of Afghanistan continues for the second week, the Pentagon has admitted that some bombs went astray. Two hundred Afghan civilians have been killed so far and more will die if the bombs continue to fall. During the lull before the war, the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, mused in public as to whether Afghanistan had any “assets worth bombing”. He knew the answer. The fact is that the Anglo-American bombing campaign is in clear breach of Articles 48 and 51 of the Geneva Convention as well as the Nuremberg Charter. Article 48 insists that: “In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”
Article 51 is equally clear in prohibiting indiscriminate attacks and specifies these as attacks “which may be expected to cause incidental loss of a civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”.
Was there ever an alternative to the bombing? If the real intention was not a crude war of revenge, but to seriously weaken and eliminate terrorism and bring to trial those who ordered the crimes committed on 11 September, then the answer is yes. The disproportionality of what is taking place speaks for itself. If the US judiciary was convinced by the evidence of Mr bin Laden’s guilt then a warrant should have been issued for his extradition and a plan prepared to bring him to trial.
A lesson could have been learnt from Israel’s patient stalking, capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann who was accused of a far more serious crime. In going to war, Bush and Blair resorted to a mixture of cowboy discourse and Old Testament imagery to pre-empt any judicial inquiry or action. The model so far has been that of the old lynch-mob, egged on by a populace fed on a regular diet of scare stories. Anthrax today and, no doubt, nuclear briefcases tomorrow.
If the real aim is simply an old-fashioned imperialist one, i.e. to topple the Taliban regime and replace it with a protectorate considered closer to “Western values” (as the Taliban once was), then and only then does the bombing make sense as the Northern Alliance, waiting to commence the battle for Kabul, realise full well. Its leaders boast they can do it alone, but US marines and British commandos are standing by to help them just in case the Taliban defeat them as they did once before.
Meanwhile, there is no news of the pretext for this war. Where is Osama bin Laden? Is his capture part two of this operation? And if he is caught will he be killed or brought to trial? And, if so, will this entire exercise have helped to diminish the attraction for, let alone help to defeat terrorism? I think the result will be the exact opposite and especially in the Arab and Muslim world.
Neither George Bush nor Tony Blair appear to appreciate that, like it or not, Mr bin Laden has become a hero in many parts of the Third World. Young, middle-class graduates in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Maghreb will make sure that his martyrdom will not be in vain. Only last week, President Bush told journalists: “How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America? I’ll tell you how I respond. I’m amazed. I just can’t believe it because I know how good we are.”
Mr Blair, his military confederate, had another solution: “One thing becoming increasingly clear to me is the need to upgrade our media and public opinion operations in the Arab and Muslim world.” The simplicity on display is frightening. Surely the mandarins in the State Department and Foreign Office are aware of the realities. They must know that the medium-term solution is political and economic, not military.
Unless the Palestinians are guaranteed a viable, sovereign state, there will be no peace. Mr Arafat may be content with the shrivelled little Bantustans at Israeli pleasure, but the Palestinian population is not. The latest intifada is also a revolt against the Oslo Accords and the corruption of the Palestinian leadership.
Then there is Iraq. Not a single one of the standard arguments for the continuing bombardment and blockade of Iraq stands up. The notion that Saddam’s cruelties are unique is an abject fiction. The Turkish Generals, valued members of Nato, have killed 30,000 Kurds over the past decade and denied them the use of their own language. Responsible modernity? Saddam never attempted a cultural annihilation of this order. The Saudi Kingdom makes not even a pretence of human rights, its treatment of women would not pass muster in medieval Russia. As for nuclear weapons, the hawkish Unscom inspector, Scott Ritter, insists they cannot be countenanced. Israel, however, possesses nuclear weapons without any sanctions whatsoever.
Double standards of this sort and on this scale drive young people to despair. Here is an immediate solution. The lifting of sanctions and a permanent halt to the bombing of Iraq would have a positive impact throughout the world of Islam, reducing the number of young men prepared to sacrifice their own lives for what they regard as a holy cause. It would be a small step forward if, as US and British jets are dispatched for yet another bombing raid on a the shattered and famished remnant of Afghanistan, a few of our political leaders spoke up in the name of reason.
Tariq Ali, a frequent CounterPunch contributor, is the author of The Stone Woman.