October 9, 2001
The Empire Strikes Back
By Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair
As he gave an official debut to the bombing of Afghanistan (entirely illegal under international law and the UN charter) with high explosive and food packages (a day's worth of food for 37,000 was dropped on a land of 20 million people, some 7 million of whom are on the verge of starvation,) Bush's performance on Sunday was a reversion to his habitual wooden delivery and inappropriate flaps of the hand. Can't his people see that like most people W. talks better standing up, addressing a live audience rather than peering into a camera while reading the teleprompt. On Sunday evening a couple of the networks were cross-cutting between Bush and Osama bin Laden, and bin Laden, offered by far the more compelling iconic presence, with pithier sound bites.
"America was hit by God in one of its softest spots. America is full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that. This is something, very little, of what we have tasted for decades. For nearly 80 years we have been tasting this humility.
"I say by God the great, America will never dream, not those who live in America will never taste security and safety unless we feel security and safety in our lands and in Palestine."
It's easy to imagine millions of Muslims and other folk who have been on the receiving end of Uncle Sam's boot thrilling to this kind of stuff. Two Arabists being interviewed by Peter Jennings on ABC Sunday night couldn't contain their enthusiasm for the potency of bin Laden's message to the Arab "street". He's the most popular figure in the Arab world since Nasser, probably since Saladin.
But in terms of the actual balance of forces, the bin Laden video looked to us more like political obituary than a fearsome call to arms. Though there are plenty of mountain caves for him to hide in and probably plenty of bin Laden lookalikes roaming the Hindukush as decoys, it may not be long before he's either sitting up there with Allah and the houris, or writhing in the seventh circle of hell, depending on which God you believe in. Included in Dante's seventh circle are those who offer violence against self (the suicide bombers), violence against neighbors, violence against God. The eighth circle was reserved for ordinary fraud and the ninth for complex or treacherous fraud, meaning that Dante got stung in some bad business deals. As a seventh circle man, bin Laden is scheduled by Dante to be buried in burning sand forever which, considering he comes from Saudi Arabia, is his natural habitat anyway.
We're passing from appalling human loss and suffering, live in the front yard of the media capital of the world, to the traditional parameters of imperial retribution. We switched on the tv Monday morning to hear some idiot on CNN intone solemnly that Diego Garcia, the island in the Indian ocean from which the B-52s fly their missions to Afghan istan, is known as the "footprint of freedom", thus purporting to conflate its physical shape and its political role. This tells us everything one needs to know about propaganda in times of conflict. Diego Garcia is notorious for being one of the most distressing sinkholes of imperial injustice in recent history.
"The Footprint of Freedom"
In the Chagos archipelago Diego Garcia was not so long ago populated by some 3,000 descendants of African slaves and Indian labourers known as the Ilois. In 1965, when Diego Garcia was under British control, Harold Wilson's Labour government made a secret deal with the US. Diego Garcia was rented to the US to establish a major air and naval base. In return for handing over Diego Garcia, Britain was allowed a five million pound sterling discount against the purchase of a single US-manufactured Polaris nuclear submarine. The US pays no other rent or charge for its occupation.
In a ghastly saga supervised by the British, with a mixture of trickery and force, the Ilois were kicked out of their homeland and transported to Mauritius, over a thousand miles south-east. People born on the Chagos between 1965 (when the government claimed there was no indigenous population) and 1973 (when the last Ilois were forcibly removed) have been refused birth certificates. Lacking skills to cope with a modern urban society, many succumbed to alcoholism and drug addiction. Ilois women were forced into prostitution. Thirty five years later, unemployment among the islanders runs at 60 per cent. Suicide rates are high. They are one of the poorest communities in the world and of course they have been struggling to return to Diego Garcia. In November 2000, the Ilois won a great victory in the English High Court. Their right to return to their homeland was upheld. The Ilois' plight has not ended. In defiance of international law, the US refuse to recognise the court's ruling.
There have been a number of bold United Nations Resolutions about the illegality of Anglo-American occupation of the Chagos. Britain also clearly violated Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 at the time, as: "No-one should be subjected to...exile". The US military base and associated facilities occupy around half of Diego Garcia. It would be practical for the Ilois to live on the other half of the island and also their legal right. The US now concedes that it cannot prevent the islanders from returning to the neighboring islands of Peros Banhos and Salomon, but it will not allow them on Diego Garcia.
So much for Diego Garcia, footprint of freedom. The bombing of targets in Afghanistan is mostly for show, to demonstrate US resolve. The Pentagon concedes there are few worthwhile targets and as with the sorties directed at Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, there's been the usual attempt at aerial assassination, striking at Mullah Omar's compound, the usual claims of attacking "command and control centers" (any place with a telephone, most likely) and the usual result: the uniting of previously discontented inhabitants in common hatred of the assailants from the air. What does the claim of destroying "a training camp" actually mean in substantive terms? Blowing up a few huts or tents at enormous expense.
The Bombing Is Purely Cosmetic
It won't be bombs that settle the issue, and the Pentagon has small appetite for any substantial foray into Afghanistan on the ground. Cash will be the lubricant of victory, and since unlimited supplies of cash are available to buy support for the US among the Afghan factions, it may not be long before the Taliban are chased out. The only inauspicious factors from Bush's point of view are that the bribing will be the province of the CIA, whose record for screw-ups is ample, and the intermediaries is be Pakistani military intelligence, which sponsored the Taliban's triumph and which has its own agenda, which is not one inclined to peace and reconstruction for Afghanistan.
Much has been been made of the doom awaiting martial forays into Afghanistan, the British debacles of the nineteenth century and the Soviets' in the 1980s. But the British were exceptionally stupid and the Russians didn't suffer unduly. Across ten years they lost some 13,000 in Afghanistan. A Russian colonel, veteran of the campaign, recently disclosed to Patrick Cockburn that about 33 per cent of these mortalities were due to accidents (tanks falling off roads and so forth), which brings down the number of Russians actually killed by the muj to under a thousand a year. (Another numerical perspective is afforded by the fact the Russians killed at least five times as many Chechens in the days of the conquest of Grozny, hailed by Clinton, as died in the World Trade Center, and here we have Bush arm in arm with his soul-bro, Putin, who knows that in these days of world solidarity against terror he can do what he wants to the Chechens without arousing even the pretence of moral reproof.)
The muj, including bin Laden, held out against the Russians and in the end forced their withdrawal because they enjoyed the limitless support of the Pakistani military and of the US, in the form of the CIA running the largest covert op in its history at a cost of $3.5 billion. Who have the Taliban got? A starving, discontented domestic population and external enemies on all sides, wallowing in promises of huge American dispensations. Their original sponsors in the Pakistani military have far larger satisfactions than temporary loss of a client regime in Kabul before a new one can be cobbled together. Pakistan is now certified as OK to be a member of the nuclear club, with its debts rescheduled.
The globe-spinners talk about bin Laden's dangerous appeal to Muslims around the world chafing at the despotism and corruption of their leaders, the occupation of Jerusalem by the Jews and their US protector, the starving of Iraqi children, but if the Arab world is so much of a tinder box, why didn't bin Laden try to apply the match there? All talk of fragile Araby notwithstanding, the regimes there have been astoundingly stable across years of political turmoil.
Putting grief and horror aside, emergencies are usually political godsends to the regime in power, in this case Bush's. Before September 11 he was derided across the world as the beneficiary of a dubious election, a man out of step with world opinion on the Kyoto Treaty and on Star Wars. Domestically his programs were in trouble and the country plunging into recession on his watch after eight go-go years. Now he's leader of the planet, with his only vocal foes in hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan. His presidential authenticity is beyond dispute and his stimulus package looking propitious in Congress. Many people have learned to like the guy. Opposition is nervous and fitful, as Ashcroft pushes his dreadful terror package of attacks on the Bill of Rights. Dante didn't like lawyers, and put them in the Eighth Circle. What would he thought of this, in the Senate version of the Terror Bill:
"(d) UNDERCOVER ACTIVITIES- Notwithstanding any provision of State law, including disciplinary rules, statutes, regulations, constitutional provisions, or case law, a Government attorney may, for the purpose of enforcing Federal law, provide legal advice, authorization,
concurrence, direction, or supervision on conducting
undercover activities, and any attorney employed as an
investigator or other law enforcement agent by the
Department of Justice who is not authorized to represent the United States in criminal or civil law enforcement
litigation or to supervise such proceedings may participate
in such activities, even though such activities may require
the use of deceit or misrepresentation, where such
activities are consistent with Federal law.
"(e) ADMISSIBILITY OF EVIDENCE- No violation of any
disciplinary, ethical, or professional conduct rule shall be
construed to permit the exclusion of otherwise admissible
evidence in any Federal criminal proceedings."
Who else pays the price?
We imagine Ariel Sharon will, though not Israel. He's been having a Bad Emergency, as Bush says for the benefit of the Arab world he's always dreamed of a Palestinian state. Someone asked Shimon Peres if he could remember a time when there had been as tart exchanges as those that occurred when last week Sharon likened Israel's situation to that of Czechoslovakia in 1938, the White House announced that his remarks were entirely "unacceptable" and Sharon publicly apologised. Peres said there had been a time when Menachem Begin had told Jimmy Carter that Israel was not a banana republic.
He may have done, but the truly fraught episode in those years was when Carter got mad at Begin for having lied about withdrawing from Lebanon after the 1978 invasion. Carter sent the deputy US ambassador Richard Viets to Begin with a letter saying that unless he got out within in 24 hours Carter would introduce a resolution in the UN condemning Israel and cut off aid. Viets later recalled to Andrew Cockburn (it pays to have industrious brothers, doesn't it, though the bin Laden family probably wouldn't agree right now)for his 1991 book Dangerous Liaison that Begin "went over to the sideboard and poured two large whiskeys and then said, "Mr Viets, you win."