The Week in Review

We are three weeks into the American military campaign in Afghanistan and it is clear that this war, though it seems a million miles away and at the same time as close as the television screen, will be no exception to previous wars. It is a hell of confusion and fear. When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers on September 11 and we realized that our world had changed, the inevitable military response was part of this equation. The only thing that is clear is that nations – and even people within nations – are split over what the war means and where it is leading. This is a war in which we are all riveted spectators. And even though those who wage it are engaged in the primordial cycle of kill or be killed, the rest of us watch, some with anger, some with sorrow. America’s objective is clear: The elimination of those who wrought such destruction upon it and who have certainly planned more attacks, while at the same time destroying the havens from which they work and discouraging others from following in their footsteps. And here, despite the fact that almost every country in the world has expressed outrage at the terrorist attacks and support for the war on terrorism, America seems to be very much alone. Although it is in the whole world’s interests to eliminate the threat of small groups of madmen deciding on the life or death of thousands, America not only fights on virtually alone, but also has to do so according to the rules and tastes of the billions watching. Furthermore, America fights while also shaken by the fact that deadly germs are spreading through its life blood at home, entering people’s lungs, chilling a nation’s heart. Whether the September 11 massacre and the anthrax epidemic were caused by the same people, the two have become different battles in the same war. This is the fear and confusion. It is the fear and death and pain falling both on the warriors and, inevitably, on civilians in Afghanistan. It is the confusion of those who have to wage the American campaign, who have to deal with so many confusing parameters with the aim of conducting what in the end will be an operation in which, irrespective of success or failure, the patient does not die. In this case the patient is not just the long-tortured country of Afghanistan but the very fabric of the world, both East and West, that we were mostly comfortable with. Most of us go about our lives as we did before. But we all hear the sound of distant thunder and we do not know when or if the storm will fall upon us too. Even if all we experience is the sadness and the fear we feel today, it is certain that we will all be a lot wiser than we were on September 10. And part of that wisdom is knowing that there are no easy solutions for problems such as this one. The United States says that it is fighting a war on two fronts: Stamping out the threat personified by Osama bin Laden and protecting its citizens at home – protecting the economy and the quality of life just as much as fighting the scourge of terrorism. But, as if we are looking through a microscope where the more we look the deeper we go into a troubled organism, we see that each front has many different fronts, which then subdivide further still in a geometric progression of hazards and confusion. And the more confusion we encounter, the more methodical and careful we have to become. This is exemplified by the anthrax attack, which seems to draw in greater and greater swaths of suspected victims as targets and evidence of the deadly spores pop up with increasing speed at the symbols of America – the White House, Congress, the news media, the State Department, the CIA. Expect them at the FBI, the Federal Reserve and anything else that might fit the pattern. So this front is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It demands vigilance and great, expensive measures to combat each real or suspected instance of the plague, while at the same time the American government says the people must remain calm and go about their business and that the economy must not suffer. Can this be done? In addition, measures must be taken to protect businesses that could be destroyed by the crisis and growth must be stimulated. Suddenly the tables are turned, as the Mecca of the free market now heralds a $100-billion stimulus plan that the Europeans denounce as protectionism. This war will change everything. Then there are the Afghanistan fronts. America has to wipe out the terrorists and those who harbor them. This front is all over the country. This means that even the most careful bombing cannot prevent the deaths of civilians. And when you are America, you cannot afford to be seen killing the innocent. So every Afghan is a possible front line in himself – whose death will either be seen as justice for another’s, or an injustice calling for revenge. Then there is the front on which the Taleban are dug in against the hodgepodge coalition known as the Northern Alliance. Only after two weeks into their air campaign did the Americans decide to start softening up the Taleban to help the guerrillas in the north. But even this has been done in what appears to be a half-hearted manner. Because there is yet another front line, and a very important one too – the diplomatic one. Everyone wants to have a say over what happens in Afghanistan, and this means that the countries that the United States needs the most are those that set the most demands. The Northern Alliance itself made such a mess of running things in the country, when its current members were mostly at war with each other until the joyless fanatics of the Taleban swept them away (to most Afghans’ short-lived relief) that they hardly seem a viable guarantor of a better future for the country. Also, Pakistan put all its stakes on the Taleban against the Northern Alliance and does not want to see its enemies in power in a neighboring country with a porous border. So the Americans move against the Taleban to help their enemies, but they move slowly. Meanwhile, every guerrilla appears to be a leader and is talking to a different journalist, and every Afghan group in exile presents itself as the opposition, sowing further confusion. Yesterday we all learned suddenly that Abdul Haq, a hero of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, was captured and executed by the Taleban while underground in Afghanistan, where he was trying to forge a coalition against the current rulers. In previous interviews he said that he wanted Taleban moderates in a broad-based government under the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, that would leave out the Northern Alliance. With him dies an all-too-rare ray of hope for his people. Crossing the line But war is spectacle, and, having got into it, the Americans need to produce some results. If they need more time to get bin Laden, then they should at least have some territorial gains by the Alliance in the north to show for it. Otherwise, the longer the campaign goes on without any evident success and with the number of civilian casualties growing, America increasingly risks being seen as both ineffectual against its enemies and devastating to the innocent. Right about now, it is on the verge of crossing this line. But given Haq’s ill-fated mission and seeing the antipathy in which the majority Pashtuns hold the ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks of the north, as well as the Alliance’s dismal record when it was in government, it is perhaps understandable why the Americans have held back from providing it with wholehearted support. Then there is the front presented by the coalition that America has brought together and is working hard to keep intact and to strengthen. But here it faces two great problems: It must complete the bombing as quickly as possible and also keep Israel from crossing a line that will enrage the Arab world. Both factors are important in keeping the war against the terrorists from becoming established in Muslims’ minds as a war against Islam. This is a threat more to the countries that have problems with their own people than to the Americans right now, because radical Muslims have already chosen which side they are on. This has forced several governments to express lukewarm support for America while trying not to antagonize the more radical parts of their populations (ironically, in a kind of fence-sitting that Greece has recently become accustomed to seeing in its own contribution to its alliances). But they know which side their interests are on. Their problem will greatly worsen if popular passions reach such a level that it loosens the governments’ grip. So, aside from everything else, America has to keep Israel – its major ally in the region – in line, even though the two are on the same side. Because what Israel does is often seen as what America does as well. American officials tell us that the war will last many years. This gives them time to work methodically toward success, to identify the whereabouts of bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda operatives and slowly isolate and destroy them. But this war, as we said, is watched by the whole world and so has its own demands and its own rhythms. Only three weeks into the bombing of Afghanistan, and three weeks before the ostensible cut-off point of the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and the rest of the world is already judging that the results of the campaign have been poor. This may be seen, at first, as a kind of judgment of American capabilities, but the result is one that will affect all our lives. The longer it takes to score a decisive victory in Afghanistan, the longer the international crisis caused by the uncertainty will last. From the airline industry to global tourism (which alone is expected to lose nearly 9 million jobs because of the September 11 attacks), severe economic storms are sweeping across the world, affecting every nation and every religion. Whether we like America or not – and this is probably of little interest to America itself as it tackles more urgent business – we all have a desperately big stake in its success. When the terrorists hit America they knew that the world would come after them. Did they have a plan for further devastation or was the certainty of America’s response the end in itself, in the belief that this would precipitate a response from the rest of the world that would, in itself, be the next act of destruction? Bin Laden’s videotaped statement that was prepared before the October 7 commencement of bombing and broadcast the following day, was intended to bring about a worldwide Islamic uprising. It has not done so. Whether it ever does depends on a decisive victory by the Americans against bin Laden and his allies, increased vigilance around the world, and a new tolerance both for our own losses and for the differences of others. The problem is that the more tolerance we show the more the forces of intolerance are encouraged, and the less tolerance we practice the more they justify themselves in the eyes of their allies. In the fog of this war, all that can help us is for each of us to know what is precious to us and to those around us, to be determined to protect it and to stick with those with whom we want to win. And no war is over by Christmas. When war has begun it will not end until one side has won. It is up to every one of us to decide which side he or she is on. This war is too important to be left to the generals, the politicians, or the television set.

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