We’re promised a new kind of war, but the first blows struck at Afghanistan last week had a decidedly familiar ring. The spectacle was wholly reminiscent of the Gulf War in its air strikes, levied without American casualties and accompanied by carefully chosen Pentagon films purporting to document the deadly efficiency of the cruise missiles and smart bombs in the American arsenal. Thanks to the example of Operation Desert Storm, “war” now seems a remote and bloodless game in the minds of most Americans. Just how distant and abstract was underscored by Saturday’s news that a bomb meant for a Taliban helicopter had instead blown up a civilian site a mile away-owing to a one-digit error in the programming of its satellite-guided payload. On Tuesday U.S. bombs decimated a Red Cross relief center. So what? It’s all collateral damage, and after all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
Small wonder that such an overwhelming number of Americans support whatever Bush elects to do. Framed by the memory of the Gulf War and the horrific events of September 11, their sentiments involve no conception of any downside in lining up with Bush’s war on terrorism. And thus the administration is afforded a war mandate not quite like any other in American history, a license to name enemies and delineate targets with a profligacy that appears constrained only by its own appetites. At the moment the U.S.’s prerogatives are breathtaking. The enemies, and the consequent military commitments, are wherever Bush et al. choose to say they are, whenever they choose to designate them as such.
Granted, the field of possibilities is not really as open as the foregoing implies. American options for carrying the war to other fronts are hampered by the fragile state of U.S. alliances; precariously pro-U.S. Arab nations are not the only ones who wish to see a quick end to military action. On Sunday the array of dissenting voices included many from America’s staunchest ally, Tony Blair’s U.K, whose secretary of state for international development, Clare Short, called for a fast, “elegant” end to the bombing. The most important tactical question is how willing the Americans are to go it alone. If they want allies outside of Israel, they will confine themselves to Afghanistan; if they conclude international opinion is a secondary matter, the sky’s the limit.
Meantime, though, strikes against Iraq in the not too distant future seem almost inevitable. Day by day U.S. officials have taken care to gird the American public for an eventual offensive against Saddam’s hordes. In the past week the press has been seeded with reports of alleged meetings a year ago between suicide bomber Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi diplomat, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir Al-Ani. These tete-a-tetes may or not have been related to the September 11 attacks, and Al-Ani may or may not have been acting as an emissary of the Iraqi government. As regards any Iraqi connection to al-Qaida, bear in mind that Osama bin Laden hates Saddam and his regime for what he views as their heretical secularism. They are the unlikeliest of allies.
No matter. Press accounts likewise finger Saddam and Iraq for the anthrax attacks more recently visited on the U.S., but this is a dubious equation. There’s really no percentage in it for Saddam: Unlike the terror units that have attacked the U.S., which are diffuse and difficult to locate and would like nothing better than to draw the Americans into broad-scale war, the Iraqi state has everything to lose by provoking the U.S. into making war against it. More to the point, to suppose that Saddam must be the source of the anthrax currently being mailed round the U.S. is to ignore how easy the anthrax bacterium is to acquire. It is in ready supply in a number of American laboratories that have had almost no security up to now. Until a scant few years ago, you or I could have ordered a sample of it from a commercial laboratory in Maryland that is assumed to be the source of Iraq’s anthrax cache.
Iraq may be the likeliest of presumptive secondary targets, but it is hardly the only one. Southeast Asia remains an untapped goldmine of potential battlefields. The Americans have already indicated they will send military advisers to the Philippines to combat the Abu Sayyaf group implicated in a failed attempt to blow up numerous U.S. airliners in 1995. Indonesia, too, is a point of concern; with the world’s largest concentration of Muslims and a population in excess of 240 million, it has been the site of some of the most virulent post-September 11 anti-U.S. demonstrations. And Malaysia is on record as the source of a letter containing anthrax bacteria that was mailed to a Microsoft office in Reno, Nevada.
Closer to the main action, Israel is pushing hard for the inclusion of a number of additional targets in the Middle East. Beyond Iraq, they include Syria as well as Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, strongholds of the pro-Palestinian forces of Hamas and Hizbollah. By Bush’s definitions they certainly qualify as sponsors of terrorism, the views of dissenting allies be damned.
The administration approaches a decision point in Afghanistan. With winter coming on and little to show for its flashy hits upon Taliban and al-Qaida sites throughout the countryside, does it hunker down and prepare for ground war in the Afghan mountains, waged either by U.S. special forces or their surrogates in the Northern Alliance, or does it take its show on the road and begin targeting other antagonists in ostensibly easier settings?
Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.