All the elements are in place NOW for an attack against Afghanistan. Carrier-based fighter jets are in position and on alert, heavy bomber squadrons and airborne assault divisions have landed in north Pakistan. An attack may well take place in the dead of night there, hours before President Bush takes the extraordinary step of addressing both houses of Congress tonight at 9pm.
What is going on? Since the government is tightly controlling all information, without challenge from the mainstream media, we can only make educated guesses about the nature of the attack and its potential consequences.
Afghanistan's mountainous eastern border with Pakistan, especially around the city of Kandahar, is the power base of both the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Omar, and Osama bin Ladin and his networks of "Afghan Arab" fighters. We can expect that US fighter jets will secure the airspace and then heavy bombers will pound this region for a sustained period, followed by airborne "search and destroy" missions against Taliban and bin Ladin forces.
There are several immediate strategic problems with this approach:
1. US officials have defined the primary objective as attacking and killing specific human targets, the command elements in the Taliban and bin Ladin networks. But they are the most secure people in all of Afghanistan; they alone have access to remote mountain bunkers and hideouts; their families have already fled to Pakistan while everyone else is trapped at the border. The only way to kill people who cannot be specifically located is to kill everyone in the much larger region within which the targets are presumed to be hiding.
2. A second target is likely to be the Taliban's military forces. But this is not a modern, centralized army as in Iraq. They operate as small, mobile units led by local commanders with intimate knowledge of the terrain. It is impossible to hit them with pinpoint strikes. Carpet bombing may kill some of them, but will certainly kill a far higher percentage of civilians and families who lack the means to reach the safest places in the high mountains.
3. These strikes will be launched from Pakistan, as demanded by our political and military leaders, and against the desires and best judgment of every single political and military leader in that country. Why are they opposed? Because Pakistan is already bitterly divided. Very powerful forces - not just Islamic parties and major elements of the intelligence services and military command, but also a significant portion of the population, especially Pathans in the semi-autonomous northwest region bordering Afghanistan - have vowed to oppose the presence of US troops in their land. They are explicitly threatening civil war against a weak government in a nuclear state already engaged in a low-intensity conflict with nuclear India over the disputed territory or Kashmir.
4. A number of other Arab and Muslim countries face a comparable (though less dramatic) dilemma to Pakistan, notably Saudi Arabia and other Gulf dictatorships, Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia, even Jordan. The domestic backlash against these fragile and repressive regimes could lead to heightened internal conflict with regional and global consequences.
We can expect press briefings from Washington describing targeted attacks against Taliban command and control centers and bin Ladin mountain encampments. We can expect canned footage of smart bombs striking their targets - shot by the Pentagon, fed to the media, and beamed directly into every American home. We saw the same images during the Gulf War ten years ago only to "learn" later that 88% of the bombs were dumb and inaccurate.
We can also expect that this is only the first strike of a long war, a mere prelude of the rising crescendo to come. The Times of London today described "Operation Noble Eagle," a ten-year American-British plan to eradicate global terrorism. Are the flashes of light on our collective horizon merely the blazing of bombs or do they herald the dawn of a new Cold War? Have we discovered another Evil Empire to sustain the circle of violence, fear and hatred that has plagued this bloodiest of centuries? Is there no other way to bring us security other than the familiar, rigid and deathly embrace of us versus them?
We are living in sad times, dangerous times. We have not finished mourning our victims, but soon there will be new victims to mourn. Talk of justice is on everyone's lips today. But we must recognize that justice is contested terrain. Do we mean the justice at the heart of every enduring religious, ethical and legal tradition, the justice born of love, courage and understanding that sees connections between all humanity and seeks the root causes of violence, the justice whose universal principles extend universally to us all. Or the justice born of vengeance and the need to exorcise grief and fear by striking out at ill-defined enemies, the justice that seduces us with easy answers and simple formulas like us good and them bad, the justice that divides humanity and turns the wheel of endless violence and revenge.
No nation, no culture, no religion is all good or all bad. This single world of ours is home to six billion people, each of us capable of love, hate, hope and fear. A few of us are also capable of unimaginable horrors - raping and killing little children, plowing hijacked airplanes into crowded skyscrapers, or ordering the carpet bombing of civilian areas. But most of us, given the chance and the information, will do whatever we can to resist and prevent these horrors.
It is during moments of crisis that all people of conscience must stand together and raise our voices for sanity and hope. With political leaders in Washington advocating restricted civil liberties at home and indiscriminate violence abroad, with media outlets failing to pose any real questions about this promised global war, with people of Arab, Muslim and South Asian descent facing a sharp increase in physical violence, we have NO CHOICE but to take our message to the streets. Only respectful, non-violent but determined protest throughout this country will convince our leaders that Americans are good and decent people who desperately want security - as do all human beings on this planet - but who will not tolerate manipulation of our tragic losses, our innocent blood, to justify spilling innocent blood of other human beings, whose mothers and children will weep for them as ours do.
Our message must be firmly grounded in international law and human rights - the very values embedded in our Constitution. Respect for life. Equality and non-discrimination. Freedom of speech and expression. Protect the innocent and punish the guilty based on convincing evidence and lawful procedure. Above all, we must squarely confront the issue of national and individual security by insisting that respect for civil liberties and human rights - at home and abroad - is the only path towards security, for us and all peoples on our small interconnected planet.
The rule of law or the law of vengeance. The choice is ours, every one of us.
(By arrangement with Zmag)