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Action Alert 

Promises, Promises

17 October 2001

Colin Powell tells Pakistan's General Musharraf that he will help solve the problem of Kashmir. Tony Blair offers Yasser Arafat the vision of a Palestinian state. But should we take them at their word?

Tea on the lawn. Perhaps only in the old British Empire do they make black tea and milk in the same scalding pot, poured with lashings of sugar into fragile cups. The bougainvillea blasted crimson and purple down the brick wall beside me while big, aggressive black birds pursued each other over the cut grass of my tiny Peshawar hotel. At the end of my little road lies the tiny British cemetery wherein gravestones mark the assassination of the 19th century Raj's good men from Surrey and Yorkshire, murdered by what were called ghazis, the Afghan fundamentalists of their age who were often accompanied into battle ­ and I quote Captain Mannering of the Second Afghan war ­ "by religious men called talibs".

In those days, we made promises. We promised Afghan governments our support if they kept out the Russians. We promised our Indian Empire wealth, communications and education in return for its loyalty. Little has changed. Yesterday ­ all day long into the sweaty evening ­ fighter-bombers pulsed through the yellow sky above my little lawn, grey supersonic streaks that rose like hawks from Peshawar's mighty runway and headed west towards the mountains of Afghanistan. Their jet engines must have vibrated among the English bones in the cemetery at the end of the road, as Hardy's Channel firing once disturbed Parson Thirdly's last mortal remains. And, on the great black television in my bedroom, the broken, veined screen proved that Imperial history does indeed repeat itself.

General Colin Powell stood on the right hand of General Pervez Musharraf after promising a serious look at the problems of Kashmir and Pashtu representation in a future Afghan government. The US Secretary of State and the general whom we must now call the President of Pakistan spent much of their time chatting above the overnight artillery bombardment by that other old Empire relic, the Indian army. General Musharraf wanted a "short" campaign against Afghanistan, General Powell a promise of continued Pakistani support in the US's "war against terror". Musharraf wanted a solution to the problem of Kashmir. Powell, promising that the United States was now a close friend of Pakistan, headed off to India to oblige.

Vain promises have ever been a part of our conflict. In the 1914-18 war ­ another struggle against "evil", we should remember ­ it was the British who made the promises. To the Jews of the world, especially to Russian Jews, we promised our support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. To the Arabs, Lawrence of Arabia promised independence. There's a wonderful moment in the film of the same name when Peter O'Toole, clad in an Arab gown and looking not unlike Osama bin Laden, asks General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) if he can promise Sherif Husseyn independence in return for Arab support in destroying the Turkish army. For just a brief, devastating moment, Hawkins hesitates; then his face becomes all smiling benevolence: "Of course!" he says. Did I not see that very same smile on Tony Blair's face as he clutched Arafat's hand in both of his before leading him through the door of 10 Downing Street this week?

In the end, we imposed an Anglo-French military occupation on the Arabs who had helped us and, three decades later gave the Jews only half of Palestine. "Promises", as the Palestinian academic Walid Khalidi once pointed out, "are meant to be kept." But not the kind you make in wartime.

By the Second World War, we were promising the Lebanese independence from the French if they turned against their Vichy masters. Then the French broke their promise and tried to stay on until driven out in ignominy in 1946. Two years earlier, President Roosevelt ­ anxious to secure Saudi oil rights from the British as the war came to an end ­ promised the Saudi monarchy that he would not allow the Palestinians to be dispossessed.

By 1990, after the invasion of Kuwait, we wanted the Arab and Muslim world on our side against Iraq. President Bush Senior promised a "New World Order" in which a nuclear-free ­ indeed arms-free ­ Middle East would live in an oasis of peace. Once the Iraqis were driven out, however, we called a short-lived "Middle-East" summit in Madrid and then sold more missiles, tanks and jet fighters to the Arabs and Israelis than in the preceding 30 years. Israel's nuclear power was never mentioned.

And here we go again. Scarcely three days before Mr Powell acquired his sudden interest in the problems of Kashmir, Yasser Arafat, the discredited old man of Gaza ­ "our bin Laden", as ex-General Ariel Sharon indecently called him ­ was invited to Downing Street where Tony Blair, hitherto a cautious supporter of Palestinian independence, declared the need for a "viable Palestinian state", including Jerusalem ­ "viable" being a gloss for a less chopped-up version of the Bantustan originally proposed for Mr Arafat. Mr Blair, of course, had no need to fear American wrath since President Bush Jnr had already discovered that even before 11 September ­ or so he told us ­ he had a "vision" of a Palestinian state that accepted the existence of Israel. Mr Arafat ­ speaking English at length for the first time in years ­ instantly supported the air bombardment of Afghanistan. Poor old Afghans. They were not on hand to remind the world that the same Mr Arafat had once enthusiastically supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Why do we always play politics on the hoof, making quick-fix promises to vulnerable allies of convenience after years of accepting, even creating, the injustices of the Middle East and South-west Asia? How soon before we decide ­ and not before time ­ to lift sanctions against Iraq, and allow tens of thousands of Iraqi children to live instead of die? Or promise (in return for the overthrow of Sadam) to withdraw our forces from the Arabian peninsula? After all ­ say this not too loudly ­ if we promised and fulfilled all that, every one of Osama bin Laden's demands will have been met. It's intriguing to read the full text of what bin Laden demanded in his post-World Trade Center attack video tape. He said in Arabic, in a section largely excised in English translations, that "our [Muslim] nation has undergone more than 80 years of this humiliation..." and referred to "when the sword reached America after 80 years". Bin Laden may be cruel, wicked, ruthless or evil personified, but he is very intelligent. I think he was referring specifically to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, written by the victorious allied powers, which broke the Ottoman Empire and did away ­ after 600 years of sultanates and caliphates ­ with the last dream of Arab unity. As the American Professor James Robbins has shrewdly spotted, bin Laden's lieutenant, Ayman Zawahri ­ shouting into the video recorder from his Afghan cave 11 days ago ­ stated that the al-Quaida movement "will not tolerate a recurrence of the Andalusia tragedy in Palestine". Andalusia? Yes, the debacle of Andalusia marked the end of Muslim rule in Spain in 1492.

We may sprinkle quick-fix promises around. The people of the Middle East have longer memories. Back in the mid-1990s, I used to visit the bookshops of Algiers. Out in the triangle of death around Bentalha, hundreds of innocents were having their throats slit by an Islamist group ­ possibly also by government forces ­ many of whose members had fought in Afghanistan against the Russians. In the shops I would look for books on Islam. Muslim culture, Islamic history, Koranic thought. They were all there. And on the very next shelves ­ the same applied, I found, in Cairo bookshops ­ would invariably be text books on nuclear science, chemical engineering, aeronautics and biological research.

The aeronautical texts have, of course, a fearful new resonance today. So have the books on biological research. But the reason for their concurrence, I suspected, lay in the history of Arab humiliation. The Arabs were among the first scientists at the start of the second millennium, while the Crusaders ­ another of bin Laden's fixations ­ were riding in technological ignorance into the Muslim world. So while in the past few decades, our popular conception of the Arabs vaguely embraced an oil-rich, venal and largely backward people, awaiting our annual handouts and their virgins in heaven, many of them were asking pertinent questions about their past and future, about religion and science, about ­ so I suspect ­ how God and technology might be part of the same universe.

No such long-term thought or historical questions for us. We just went on supporting our Muslim dictators around the world ­ especially in the Middle East ­ in return for their friendship and our vain promises to rectify historical injustice.

We allowed our dictators to snuff out their socialist and communist parties; we left their population little place to exercise their political opposition except through religion. We went in for bestialization­ Messrs Khomeini, Abu Nidal, Gaddafi, Arafat, Saddam and bin Laden ­ rather than historical questioning. And we made more promises. Presidents Carter and Reagan, I recall, made promises to the Afghan mujahedin. Fight the Russians and we will help you. There would then be assistance in Afghanistan's economic recovery. A re-building of the country, even (this from the innocent Mr Carter) "democracy" ­ not a concept to be sure that we would now be promising to the Pakistanis, Palestinians, Uzbeks or Saudis. Of course, once the Russians were gone in 1989, there was no economic assistance. But last year, there was President Clinton, loud once more in America's promises of economic help for Pakistan, asking for a rejection of bin Laden; yet his only sense of perspective was to tell the Pakistani people that their history was ­ wait for it ­ "as long as the river Indus".

The problem, I fear, is that without any sense of history, we do not understand injustice. We only compound that injustice, after years of indolence, when we want to bribe our would-be allies with promises of immense historical importance ­ a resolution to Palestine, Kashmir, an arms-free Middle East, Arab independence, an economic Nirvana ­ because we are at war ­ tell them what they want to hear, promise them what they want ­ anything, so long as we can get our armadas into the air in our latest "war against evil".

So there was General Powell yesterday promising to deal with Kashmir while General Musharraf pleaded for a short war and while the jets went sweeping off towards Afghanistan from the Peshawar airbase.

1915 - T E Lawrence promises Arab independence in return for the support of leaders such as Sherif Husseyn

1917 - In a letter from Arthur Balfour to Lionel Rothschild, Britain promises a Jewish homeland in Palestine

1944 - President Roosevelt assures King Ibn Saud that the US will not allow the Palestinians to be dispossessed

1979-90 - Presidents Carter and Reagan promise to help to rebuild Afghanistan if the mujahedin expel the Soviet invaders

1991 - George Bush promises an 'oasis of peace' in the Middle East in return for Arab support in the Gulf war

2001 - Tony Blair assures Yasser Arafat of Britain's commitment to a 'viable Palestinian state', including Jerusalem

Robert Fisk.
Published in the Independent.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.

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