December 14, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Dr W P S Sidhu

Dr Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu, an associate at the New York-based International Peace Academy, is currently editing a book on the impact of South Asia's nuclear tests and the regional impact of the Indo-Pak nuclear rivalry.

A Warren Weaver Fellow for International Security at the Rockefeller Foundation, he also coordinates a project on the future of multilateralism in Europe and its implications for regional security arrangements. In an interview with Ramesh Menon on the American war against terrorism, he says Al Qaeda may never be completely destroyed.

Can the US war on terrorism be justified?

The taking of innocent lives -- be they American, Indian, Pakistani, Palestinian or Israeli -- cannot be justified and should be condemned. Therefore, the biggest ever terrorist attack on the USA has to be condemned in the strongest and most unequivocal of terms. This is why organisations as diverse and disparate as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum had no hesitation in unanimously condemning the acts of that terrible Tuesday.

As a logical corollary, therefore, there can be no doubt that any country, which has been the victim of such heinous attacks, has every right to retaliate against the perpetrators. It could be argued that the US has a right to go to war to punish those responsible.

There are, however, several other important conditions that should be met before the war can be justified. Only the guilty should be punished. It should not be an excuse to launch a crusade against people or States that one does not like (even though there are, clearly, many States that Washington loves to hate).

Finally, the ultimate goal of the military operation should be to re-establish peace. In fact, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.

What does this imply?

This implies not only achieving the short-term military objectives, but also taking long-term measures to ensure that the conditions -- political, economic, ideological -- that led to the initiation of these terrorist acts are resolved. Failing to do so is likely to see a recurrence of similar terrorist acts at a later day.

You were talking of the lack of evidence...

How do these conditions hold up when applied to the present war on terrorism, which is now erroneously being equated with the war in Afghanistan? Even today, there is no evidence that will stand up to legal scrutiny (as was accomplished in the Pan Am 103 case) and conclusively prove that these terrorists were linked to Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden.

Even assuming for a moment that these terrorists were connected to Al Qaeda and bin Laden, how does that link them to the Taliban and Afghanistan? There is no evidence to suggest that the corporate headquarters of Terrorism Inc is located there. None of the hijackers were from Afghanistan, nor were they trained in camps run by the Taliban.

By most accounts they were reasonably well-off men from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who used Germany as a base for their operations. Does this make all these countries legitimate targets of retaliation as well?

From day one, the US spoke of how Afghanistan was involved.

The only crime of Afghanistan was to have had the misfortune of becoming the last battleground of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. As a result of this tussle between the two superpowers it was reduced to a non-state that was vulnerable to be exploited by the likes of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

What about innocent victims?

On the issue of innocent victims, there is already some evidence that civilians have become what the military euphemistically calls 'collateral damage'. However, a greater humanitarian disaster is looming on the horizon. According to UN estimates, as many as 7.5 million people -- a quarter of the total population of Afghanistan -- is on the verge of starvation.

Even this time, the indications are that Washington is likely to repeat the past mistake as soon as its short-term military objective of eliminating bin Laden, dismantling the Al Qaeda network and defeating the Taliban is achieved.

Even in the United States, no one seems to be sure of the goals of the war as far as terrorism goes.

Senior members of the present Bush administration, while justifying the war, have admitted that they may fail to achieve even these limited goals. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly confessed that bin Laden may never be caught and that Al Qaeda might never be destroyed. This failure is likely to haunt them not only abroad but also at home.

The American intelligence agencies, while candidly acknowledging the presence of Al Qaeda cells within the US, have been spectacularly unsuccessful in exposing them, let alone destroying them.

Will the United States get involved in the nation-building process in Afghanistan?

Whatever the outcome of the war, the administration's stalwarts have already publicly expressed their aversion to getting their hands dirty with the messy business of nation building. This shortsighted policy will essentially guarantee that Afghanistan would remain ripe for the picking by yet another group of extremists who could be depended upon to exploit the hospitality of the Afghani people and perpetrate the cycle of terrorist violence. The only difference is that this time around, the repercussions are not going to be confined only to Afghanistan, but are likely to affect most of the six countries that surround it.

What are the alternatives?

The way ahead would have to be along three parallel paths: first, there is a need to create a truly global and multilateral coalition and not the fragile alliances of convenience that exist at the moment. This alliance would have to be based on universally accepted norms, ideally located in the various UN conventions, declarations and resolutions.

Second, this universal coalition would also have to be sustained to not only maintain pressure against terrorism, but also to conduct the necessary police and legal action to punish terrorist acts.

Finally, a long-term policy of engagement will have to be sustained with vulnerable States to ensure that they do not play willing or unwilling hosts to terrorists. Here the role of Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi in Afghanistan should be supported and, perhaps, emulated in other countries as well.

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