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Bombing Could Lead to Increase in Terrorism

6 November 2001

THERE IS a growing discontent in the West with the war against Afghanistan. In the United States, it manifests itself as impatience. In Canada, those skeptical of the war seem less hesitant to air their doubts. In Britain, Sweden, Finland and Germany, polls show that a majority now wants a pause in the bombing.

Supporters of the war dismiss this as the public's desire for instant gratification. They point out that it took six years to defeat Hitler. Wars take time, they say. All of this is true. Wars do take time. But that is not what bothers the public. Rather it is the disconnect between the problem (world terrorism) and the actions of America and its friends (bombing one of the poorest countries in the world).

Why, exactly, are we bombing the Afghans?

The war hawks say we have no choice. Osama bin Laden, they say, is responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. Afghanistan's Taliban regime shelters bin Laden. Therefore, we must destroy it to get at bin Laden.

This explanation sounds logical - until it is probed.

First, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's claims notwithstanding, there is still no proof that bin Laden ordered the Sept. 11 attacks. It is quite possible he did. A lot of people (including me) think he was involved. If this were a normal criminal case, there would probably be enough evidence to arrest and charge him - although not necessarily enough to convict him.

But is this evidence sufficient to bomb an entire country? Surely, if the U.S. and its allies are prepared to kill hundreds of people, there should at least be incontrovertible evidence that the man they are harboring is guilty. Added to this is another problem. U.S. officials now say they may never get bin Laden; he might get away. This means that are bombing a country because its government won't surrender a man we now think we may not capture anyway. Many find this logic weird. Equally odd is the fact that, before the bombs began to fall, the Taliban offered to let bin Laden be tried in a neutral state. Theoreti cally, this seemed sensible. A similar deal was worked out with Libya to try those allegedly involved in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

If Washington had really wanted bin Laden, one would think it might have explored this avenue. But it didn't.

Maybe the Taliban was fibbing when it made that offer. Yet the Afghan government is not without credibility. It did fulfill its promise to the United Nations to end opium production last year. Before Sept. 11, the Taliban was deemed sufficiently trustworthy that Washington let U.S. firms make foreign investments in Afghanistan.

For a while, Washington said it was bombing Afghanistan to liberate the country from a cruel and oppressive regime. The only problem with this line of argument was that any alternative regime - such as that promised by the rebel Northern Alliance - seemed equally cruel and oppressive.

Now the U.S says it wants to include what it calls moderate Taliban elements in any new Afghan government. Many find this line of reasoning odd, too: We are now committed to getting rid of the Taliban so that we replace it with - the Taliban. Meanwhile, the bombs continue to fall. The U.S. says it is an entirely new kind of war. In fact, to those who remember Vietnam, it seems eerily familiar: massive carpet bombing, the use of helicopters to ferry U.S. special forces in and out of trouble spots; an increasingly embittered and anti-American civilian population; political alliances with convenient dictators.

Even the language of Vietnam is back. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley speaks of winning "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan. You'd think he'd know better. That's the same phrase U.S. war-makers used to describe their invariably disastrous attempts for support among Vietnamese peasants.

The U.S. And its friends will almost certainly drive the Taliban from Kabul (although, perhaps, not until next year). They will almost certainly not end the Afghan civil war, which, now fueled by a new nationalist and Islamic rage, promises to drag on indefinitely.

Will a pro-Washington government in Kabul be able to prevent future terrorists from continuing to train in the hidden caves of this chaotic and devastated country? I'm not convinced. In fact, the real effect of the bombing may well be the creation of a new generation of Islamic warriors determined to avenge themselves.

That is the problem with this war. It is not a war on an abstract idea, terrorism. It is a war on a real country, Afghanistan. We should not be surprised if the citizens of that country take it personally. We should not be surprised if what was supposed to combat terrorism ends up creating more terrorists.

Thomas Walkom.
Published in the Toronto Star.
(c) 1996-2001 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.

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