Alan Bock: Collateral Damage

Poor Victoria (Torie) Clarke, a Pentagon spokesperson, got the tough job yesterday, that of flak-catcher. When the subject is bombs that seem to be destroying or disabling the Taliban and al-Qaida infrastructure, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld usually takes the assignment himself and comes off as affable and confident. Yesterday the subject was acknowledging that maybe the Taliban was right this time, that a 1,000-pound bomb seems to have missed its target and fell near what was described as a senior citizens’ home in Herat on Sunday (UN employees said it was a hospital and that it was destroyed). "Although the details are still being investigated," Ms. Clarke said, "preliminary indications are that the weapons guidance system malfunctioned. As we always say, we regret the loss of civilian life – we take great care in our targeting process to avoid civilian casualties." While the Taliban claims 100 people died, Ms. Clarke said that estimate was exaggerated. She had no U.S. estimates, however. TESTY REPORTERS I might be reading too much into the televised news conference – such affairs are seldom as smooth and logical in their flow in reality as they later seem when their results are converted into print – I sensed a certain emerging testiness, perhaps even skepticism in some of the reporters. Some of the questions were simply attempts to clarify the few details apparently available. But some verged on concern that so few details were being made available. The paucity of details is perhaps warranted, and at least to be expected during wartime. There are reasons, including not tipping off the enemy, for official briefers to be sometimes vague and even evasive. But there is the American tradition of openness to consider – not to mention the fact that Congress still has not declared war. WHAT KIND OF WAR? The current military target seems to be the Taliban, which is as close to a nation-state as exists in Afghanistan these days, although all concerned reassure us that the real target is Osama bin Laden. It would be appropriate, if the enemy is a nation-state and the US Constitution still means anything, for Congress to declare war. But that could present conceptual and practical problems. As awful as the Taliban might be, it has not attacked the United States directly or declared war on the United States, as Hitler did in the wake of Pearl Harbor. It is accused of "harboring" Osama bin Laden who is accused – probably correctly, although the official statements to date hardly constitute ironclad proof – of being intimately involved in masterminding the September 11 atrocities. Evidence is emerging that the regime is quite tightly connected to bin Laden and his terrorist enterprise, which could mean that it is not only harboring but facilitating and perhaps even working hand-in-glove with him. The simple fact is, however, that the United States has unilaterally declared the Taliban to be a hostile regime, issued a series of demands it knew full well would not be met, and refused to negotiate with it. It might well be that destroying the Taliban is the necessary prelude to getting at the terrorist networks in Afghanistan. But the formal hostilities were begun by the United States. OTHER SUSPECTS? If harboring or facilitating terrorists are the criteria by which the United States will decide to go to war, however, other possible suspects exist. Just yesterday US Attorney General John Ashcroft – who really should takes some time off to get a sense-of-humor implant – said that at least three of the September 11 hijackers were connected to a terrorist cell operating out of Hamburg, Germany, allegedly since 1999 at least. "It is clear that Hamburg served as a central base of operations for these six individuals [three dead hijackers and three current fugitives] and their part in planning of the Sept. 11 attack," Ashcroft said. Twelve FBI agents have been assigned to various locations in Germany to move the ongoing investigation forward. If the United States is to be consistent, however, when are we to expect the announcement of bombing runs on Hamburg – or at least "pinpoint" attacks on the apartment where the terrorist cell allegedly stayed? Of course, the German government is cooperating, probably quite frenetically, with the US investigation, without even protesting the presence of foreign law enforcement agents on "its" soil. Would the US declare Germany a hostile regime subject to bombing if this were not so, or if it deemed German cooperation insufficiently helpful or enthusiastic? THE SAUDI CONNECTION The question might be a little more pertinent in connection to Saudi Arabia. The bin Laden family itself, of course, has long claimed that it long ago severed ties with Osama the black sheep of the family and drummed him out of the family. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that that is true. However, as Neela Bannerjee put it in the Sunday New York Times: "The Bush administration has refrained from criticizing Saudi silence over the U.S.-led counterattacks against Osama bin Laden, nor has it spoken out about evidence that Saudi citizens finance Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network and other radical Islamic organizations." "Moreover, although the FBI identified most of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks as Saudis, Saudi Arabia has refused to provide passenger lists of flights to the United States, an act the Bush administration has been unwilling to criticize." Furthermore, the Saudi Arabia has refused to allow the US to use bases planted there during the Gulf War, even as staging grounds for attacks on networks in Afghanistan. So is the Saudi regime harboring, facilitating, or aiding and abetting terrorism? Everyone knows it is, and some Middle East authorities even see the repressive regime as something of a font of terrorism. The Saudi regime is repressive and hypocritical, which stirs up fundamentalist righteous wrath. In part to compensate for this hostility, it funds terrorist or quasi-terrorist groups. A case can be made that ousting the Saudi regime would do a lot more toward the ostensible goal of defusing and reducing terrorism worldwide than ousting the pitiful Taliban regime. So when does the bombing begin? A MODEST PROPOSAL The bombing won’t begin, of course, because Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s chief producers of oil (essential to modern Western warfare) and full of people who are longtime associates of Texas oilmen – one of whom is US commander-in-chief. These facts need to be considered, of course. But they make the US position notably inconsistent and vitiate the argument that the real goal is to punish those who contribute to or support terrorism. I have a modest proposal, however. The United States could issue something of an ultimatum to the Saudis: Either cooperate fully in the ongoing investigations of terrorists and allow US bases in Saudi Arabia to be used in the military aspects of the conflict or we’ll pull those bases right out of there. It could well be that the Saudis – who undoubtedly fear a resurgent Saddam Hussein less than some spokespeople might claim to do – would be privately pleased with such a demand. The bases might have some military and symbolic value to the regime, but they are also a source of friction and resentment, and not just from Osama clones. SPINNING AND COUNTERSPINNING Pulling the US bases, of course, would also eliminate one of Osama bin Laden’s ostensible grievances. That’s why it would have to be spun as a demand from a righteously indignant and testosterone-driven United States rather than as a concession to the evil one. Osama (or his successors or aides if he’s not around personally) would spin it as a victory for them, of course. But the United States would have at least a counterspin and possibly (if its diplomats blustered credibly enough) a preemptive spin. It might even be a prelude to taking the propaganda aspect of the war seriously, something the United States, for all its history of wanting to see its wars as righteous crusades, almost never does. There’s my modest contribution to neutralizing terrorism. I’m sure it would be more effective than creating more Afghan rubble.

Alan Bock

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