by Arundhati Roy, October 18, 2001
Originally Published on OutlookIndia.com
The world doesn't have to choose
between the Taliban and the US government. All the beauty of the
world--literature, music, art--lies between these two fundamentalist
As darkness deepened over Afghanistan
on Sunday, October 7, 2001, the US government, backed by the International
Coalition Against Terror (the new, amenable surrogate for the
United Nations), launched air strikes against Afghanistan. TV
channels lingered on computer-animated images of Cruise missiles,
stealth bombers, Tomahawks, 'bunker-busting' missiles and Mark
82 high-drag bombs. All over the world, little boys watched goggle-eyed
and stopped clamouring for new video games.
The UN, reduced now to an ineffective abbreviation,
wasn't evenasked tomandate the air strikes. (As Madeleine Albright
once said, "The US acts multilaterally when it can, and unilaterally
when it must.") The 'evidence' against the terrorists was
shared amongst friends in the 'Coalition'. After conferring, they
announced that it didn't matter whether or not the 'evidence'
would stand up in a court of law. Thus, in an instant, were centuries
of jurisprudence carelessly trashed.
Nothing can excuse or justify an act of terrorism,
whether it is committed by religious fundamentalists, private
militia, people's resistance movements-or whether it's dressed
up as a war of retribution by a recognised government. The bombing
of Afghanistan is not revenge for New York and Washington. It
is yet another act of terror against the people of the world.
Each innocent person that is killed must be added to, not set
off against, the grisly toll of civilians who died in New York
People rarely win wars, governments rarely lose
them. People get killed. Governments moult and regroup, hydra-headed.
They first use flags to shrink-wrap peoples' minds and suffocate
real thought, and then as ceremonial shrouds to cloak the mangled
corpses of the willing dead. On both sides, in Afghanistan as
well as America, civilians are now hostage to the actions of their
own governments. Unknowingly, ordinary people in both countries
share a common bond-they have to live with the phenomenon of blind,
unpredictable terror. Each batch of bombs that is dropped on Afghanistan
is matched by a corresponding escalation of mass hysteria in America
about anthrax, more hijackings and other terrorist acts.
There is no easy way out of the spiraling morass
of terror and brutality that confronts the world today. It is
time now for the human race to hold still, to delve into its wells
of collective wisdom, both ancient and modern. What happened on
September 11 changed the world forever. Freedom, progress, wealth,
technology, war-these words have taken on new meaning. Governments
have to acknowledge this transformation, and approach their new
tasks with a modicum of honesty and humility. Unfortunately, up
to now, there has been no sign of any introspection from the leaders
of the International Coalition. Or the Taliban.
When he announced the air strikes, President
George Bush said, "We're a peaceful nation." America's
favourite ambassador, Tony Blair, (who also holds the portfolio
of Prime Minister of the UK), echoed him: "We're a peaceful
So now we know. Pigs are horses. Girls are boys.
War is Peace.
Speaking at the FBI headquarters a few days later,
President Bush said: "This is our calling. This is the calling
of the United States of America. The most free nation in the world.
A nation built on fundamental values that reject hate, reject
violence, rejects murderers and rejects evil. We will not tire."
Here is a list of the countries that America
has been at war with-and bombed-since World War II: China (1945-46,
1950-53); Korea (1950-53); Guatemala (1954, 1967-69); Indonesia
(1958); Cuba (1959-60); the Belgian Congo (1964); Peru (1965);
Laos (1964-73); Vietnam (1961-73); Cambodia (1969-70); Grenada
(1983); Libya (1986); El Salvador (1980s); Nicaragua (1980s);
Panama (1989), Iraq (1991-99), Bosnia (1995), Sudan (1998); Yugoslavia
(1999). And now Afghanistan.
Certainly it does not tire-this, the Most Free
nation in the world. What freedoms does it uphold? Within its
borders, the freedoms of speech, religion, thought; of artistic
expression, food habits, sexual preferences (well, to some extent)
and many other exemplary, wonderful things. Outside its borders,
the freedom to dominate, humiliate and subjugate-usually in the
service of America's real religion, the 'free market'. So when
the US government christens a war 'Operation Infinite Justice',
or 'Operation Enduring Freedom', we in the Third World feel more
than a tremor of fear. Because we know that Infinite Justice for
some means Infinite Injustice for others. And Enduring Freedom
for some means Enduring Subjugation for others.
The International Coalition Against Terror is
largely a cabal of the richest countries in the world. Between
them, they manufacture and sell almost all of the world's weapons,
they possess the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction
chemical, biological and nuclear. They have fought the most wars,
account for most of the genocide, subjection, ethnic cleansing
and human rights violations in modern history, and have sponsored,
armed, and financed untold numbers of dictators and despots. Between
them, they have worshipped, almost deified, the cult of violence
and war. For all its appalling sins, the Taliban just isn't in
the same league.
The Taliban was compounded in the crumbling crucible
of rubble, heroin, and landmines in the backwash of the Cold War.
Its oldest leaders are in their early 40s. Many of them are disfigured
and handicapped, missing an eye, an arm or a leg. They grew up
in a society scarred and devastated by war. Between the Soviet
Union and America, over 20 years, about $45 billion worth of arms
and ammunition was poured into Afghanistan. The latest weaponry
was the only shard of modernity to intrude upon a thoroughly medieval
society. Young boys-many of them orphans-who grew up in those
times, had guns for toys, never knew the security and comfort
of family life, never experienced the company of women. Now, as
adults and rulers, the Taliban beat, stone, rape, and brutalise
women; they don't seem to know what else to do with them. Years
of war have stripped them of gentleness, inured them to kindness
and human compassion. They dance to the percussive rhythms of
bombs raining down around them. Now they've turned their monstrosity
on their own people.
With all due respect to President Bush, the people
of the world do not have to choose between the Taliban and the
US government. All the beauty of human civilization-our art, our
music, our literature-lies beyond these two fundamentalist, ideological
poles. There is as little chance that the people of the world
can all become middle-class consumers as there is that they'll
all embrace any one particular religion. The issue is not about
Good vs Evil or Islam vs Christianity as much as it is about space.
About how to accommodate diversity, how to contain the impulse
towards hegemony-every kind of hegemony, economic, military, linguistic,
religious, and cultural. Any ecologist will tell you how dangerous
and fragile a monoculture is. A hegemonic world is like having
a government without a healthy opposition. It becomes a kind of
dictatorship. It's like putting a plastic bag over the world,
and preventing it from breathing. Eventually, it will be torn
One and a half million Afghan people lost their
lives in the 20 years of conflict that preceded this new war.
Afghanistan was reduced to rubble, and now, the rubble is being
pounded into finer dust. By the second day of the air strikes,
US pilots were returning to their bases without dropping their
assigned payload of bombs. As one pilot put it, Afghanistan is
"not a target-rich environment". At a press briefing
at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, US defense secretary, was asked
if America had run out of targets.
"First we're going to re-hit targets,"
he said, "and second, we're not running out of targets, Afghanistan
is..." This was greeted with gales of laughter in the Briefing
By the third day of the strikes, the US defense
department boasted that it had "achieved air supremacy over
Afghanistan". (Did they mean that they had destroyed both,
or maybe all 16, of Afghanistan's planes?)
On the ground in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance-the
Taliban's old enemy, and therefore the International Coalition's
newest friend-is making headway in its push to capture Kabul.
(For the archives, let it be said that the Northern Alliance's
track record is not very different from the Taliban's. But for
now, because it's inconvenient, that little detail is being glossed
over.) The visible, moderate, "acceptable" leader of
the Alliance, Ahmed Shah Masood, was killed in a suicide-bomb
attack early in September. The rest of the Northern Alliance is
a brittle confederation of brutal warlords, ex-communists, and
unbending clerics. It is a disparate group divided along ethnic
lines, some of whom have tasted power in Afghanistan in the past.
Until the US air strikes, the Northern Alliance
controlled about 5 per cent of the geographical area of Afghanistan.
Now, with the Coalition's help and 'air cover', it is poised to
topple the Taliban. Meanwhile, Taliban soldiers, sensing imminent
defeat, have begun to defect to the Alliance. So the fighting
forces are busy switching sides and changing uniforms. But in
an enterprise as cynical as this one, it seems to matter hardly
at all. Love is hate, north is south, peace is war.
Among the global powers, there is talk of 'putting
in a representative government'. Or, on the other hand, of 'restoring'
the Kingdom to Afghanistan's 89-year-old former king, Zahir Shah,
who has lived in exile in Rome since 1973. That's the way the
game goes-support Saddam Hussein, then 'take him out'; finance
the mujahideen, then bomb them to smithereens; put in Zahir Shah
and see if he's going to be a good boy. (Is it possible to 'put
in' a representative government? Can you place an order for Democracy-with
extra cheese and jalapeno peppers?)
Reports have begun to trickle in about civilian
casualties, about cities emptying out as Afghan civilians flock
to the borders which have been closed. Main arterial roads have
been blown up or sealed off. Those who have experience of working
in Afghanistan say that by early November, food convoys will not
be able to reach the millions of Afghans (7.5 million according
to the UN) who run the very real risk of starving to death during
the course of this winter. They say that in the days that are
left before winter sets in, there can either be a war, or an attempt
to reach food to the hungry. Not both.
As a gesture of humanitarian support, the US
government air dropped 37,000 packets of emergency rations into
Afghanistan. It says it plans to drop a total of 5,000,000 packets.
That will still only add up to a single meal for half-a-million
people out of the several million in dire need of food. Aid workers
have condemned it as a cynical, dangerous, public-relations exercise.
They say that air-dropping food packets is worse than futile.
First, because the food will never get to those who really need
it. More dangerously, those who run out to retrieve the packets
risk being blown up by landmines. A tragic alms race.
Nevertheless, the food packets had a photo-op
all to themselves. Their contents were listed in major newspapers.
They were vegetarian, we're told, as per Muslim Dietary Law(!)
Each yellow packet, decorated with the American flag, contained:
rice, peanut butter, bean salad, strawberry jam, crackers, raisins,
flat bread, an apple fruit bar, seasoning, matches, a set of plastic
cutlery, a serviette and illustrated user instructions.
After three years of unremitting drought, an
air-dropped airline meal in Jalalabad! The level of cultural ineptitude,
the failure to understand what months of relentless hunger and
grinding poverty really mean, the US government's attempt to use
even this abject misery to boost its self-image, beggars description.
Reverse the scenario for a moment. Imagine if
the Taliban government was to bomb New York City, saying all the
while that its real target was the US government and its policies.
And suppose, during breaks between the bombing, the Taliban dropped
a few thousand packets containing nan and kababs impaled on an
Afghan flag. Would the good people of New York ever find it in
themselves to forgive the Afghan government? Even if they were
hungry, even if they needed the food, even if they ate it, how
would they ever forget the insult, the condescension? Rudy Giuliani,
Mayor of New York City, returned a gift of $10 million from a
Saudi prince because it came with a few words of friendly advice
about American policy in the Middle East. Is pride a luxury only
the rich are entitled to?
Far from stamping it out, igniting this kind
of rage is what creates terrorism. Hate and retribution don't
go back into the box once you've let them out. For every 'terrorist'
or his 'supporter' that is killed, hundreds of innocent people
are being killed too. And for every hundred innocent people killed,
there is a good chance that several future terrorists will be
Where will it all lead?
Setting aside the rhetoric for a moment, consider
the fact that the world has not yet found an acceptable definition
of what 'terrorism' is. One country's terrorist is too often another's
freedom fighter. At the heart of the matter lies the world's deep-
seated ambivalence towards violence. Once violence is accepted
as a legitimate political instrument, then the morality and political
acceptability of terrorists (insurgents or freedom fighters) becomes
contentious, bumpy terrain. The US government itself has funded,
armed, and sheltered plenty of rebels and insurgents around the
world. The CIA and Pakistan's ISI trained and armed the mujahideen
who, in the 1980s, were seen as terrorists by the government in
Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. While President Reagan posed with
them for a group portrait and called them the moral equivalents
of America's founding fathers. Today, Pakistan-America's ally
in this new war-sponsors insurgents who cross the border into
Kashmir in India. Pakistan lauds them as 'freedom fighters', India
calls them 'terrorists'. India, for its part, denounces countries
who sponsor and abet terrorism, but the Indian army has, in the
past, trained separatist Tamil rebels asking for a homeland in
Sri Lanka-the LTTE, responsible for countless acts of bloody terrorism.
(Just as the CIA abandoned the mujahideen after they had served
its purpose, India abruptly turned its back on the LTTE for a
host of political reasons. It was an enraged LTTE suicide-bomber
who assassinated former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in
It is important for governments and politicians
to understand that manipulating these huge, raging human feelings
for their own narrow purposes may yield instant results, but eventually
and inexorably, they have disastrous consequences. Igniting and
exploiting religious sentiments for reasons of political expediency
is the most dangerous legacy that governments or politicians can
bequeath to any people-including their own. People who live in
societies ravaged by religious or communal bigotry know that every
religious text-from the Bible to the Bhagwad Gita-can be mined
and misinterpreted to justify anything, from nuclear war to genocide
to corporate globalisation.
This is not to suggest that the terrorists who
perpetrated the outrage on September 11 should not be hunted down
and brought to book. They must be. But is war the best way to
track them down? Will burning the haystack find you the needle?
Or will it escalate the anger and make the world a living hell
for all of us?
At the end of the day, how many people can you
spy on, how many bank accounts can you freeze, how many conversations
can you eavesdrop on, how many e-mails can you intercept, how
many letters can you open, how many phones can you tap? Even before
September 11, the CIA had accumulated more information than is
humanly possible to process. (Sometimes, too much data can actually
hinder intelligence-small wonder the US spy satellites completely
missed the preparation that preceded India's nuclear tests in
The sheer scale of the surveillance will become
a logistical, ethical and civil rights nightmare. It will drive
everybody clean crazy. And freedom-that precious, precious thing-will
be the first casualty. It's already hurt and hemorrhaging dangerously.
Governments across the world are cynically using
the prevailing paranoia to promote their own interests. All kinds
of unpredictable political forces are being unleashed. In India,
for instance, members of the All India People's Resistance Forum,
who were distributing anti-war and anti-US pamphlets in Delhi,
have been jailed. Even the printer of the leaflets was arrested.
The right-wing government (while it shelters Hindu extremists
groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal) has
banned the Students' Islamic Movement of India and is trying to
revive an anti-terrorist act which had been withdrawn after the
Human Rights Commission reported that it had been more abused
than used. Millions of Indian citizens are Muslim. Can anything
be gained by alienating them?
Every day that the war goes on, raging emotions
are being let loose into the world. The international press has
little or no independent access to the war zone. In any case,
mainstream media, particularly in the US, has more or less rolled
over, allowing itself to be tickled on the stomach with press
hand outs from militarymen and government officials. Afghan radio
stations have been destroyed by the bombing. The Taliban has always
been deeply suspicious of the Press. In the propaganda war, there
is no accurate estimate of how many people have been killed, or
how much destruction has taken place. In the absence of reliable
information, wild rumours spread.
Put your ear to the ground in this part of the
world, and you can hear the thrumming, the deadly drumbeat of
burgeoning anger. Please. Please, stop the war now. Enough people
have died. The smart missiles are just not smart enough. They're
blowing up whole warehouses of suppressed fury.
President George Bush recently boasted: "When
I take action, I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a
$10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It's going to be decisive."
President Bush should know that there are no targets in Afghanistan
that will give his missiles their money's worth. Perhaps, if only
to balance his books, he should develop some cheaper missiles
to use on cheaper targets and cheaper lives in the poor countries
of the world. But then, that may not make good business sense
to the Coalition's weapons manufacturers. It wouldn't make any
sense at all, for example, to the Carlyle Group-described by the
Industry Standard as 'the world's largest private equity firm',
with $12 billion under management. Carlyle invests in the defense
sector and makes its money from military conflicts and weapons
Carlyle is run by men with impeccable credentials.
Former US defense secretary Frank Carlucci is Carlyle's chairman
and managing director (he was a college roommate of Donald Rumsfeld's).
Carlyle's other partners include former US secretary of state
James A. Baker III, George Soros, Fred Malek (George Bush Sr's
campaign manager). An American paper-the Baltimore Chronicle and
Sentinel-says that former President George Bush Sr is reported
to be seeking investments for the Carlyle Group from Asian markets.
He is reportedly paid not inconsiderable sums of money to make
'presentations' to potential government-clients.
Ho Hum. As the tired saying goes, it's all in
Then there's that other branch of traditional
family business-oil. Remember, President George Bush (Jr) and
Vice-President Dick Cheney both made their fortunes working in
the US oil industry.
Turkmenistan, which borders the northwest of
Afghanistan, holds the world's third largest gas reserves and
an estimated six billion barrels of oil reserves. Enough, experts
say, to meet American energy needs for the next 30 years (or a
developing country's energy requirements for a couple of centuries.)
America has always viewed oil as a security consideration, and
protected it by any means it deems necessary. Few of us doubt
that its military presence in the Gulf has little to do with its
concern for human rights and almost entirely to do with its strategic
interest in oil.
Oil and gas from the Caspian region currently
moves northward to European markets. Geographically and politically,
Iran and Russia are major impediments to American interests. In
1998, Dick Cheney-then CEO of Halliburton, a major player in the
oil industry-said: "I can't think of a time when we've had
a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant
as the Caspian. It's almost as if the opportunities have arisen
overnight." True enough.
For some years now, an American oil giant called
Unocal has been negotiating with the Taliban for permission to
construct an oil pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan and
out to the Arabian Sea. From here, Unocal hopes to access the
lucrative 'emerging markets' in South and Southeast Asia. In December
1997, a delegation of Taliban mullahs traveled to America and
even met US State Department officials and Unocal executives in
Houston. At that time the Taliban's taste for public executions
and its treatment of Afghan women were not made out to be the
crimes against humanity that they are now. Over the next six months,
pressure from hundreds of outraged American feminist groups was
brought to bear on the Clinton administration. Fortunately, they
managed to scuttle the deal. And now comes the US oil industry's
In America, the arms industry, the oil industry,
the major media networks, and, indeed, US foreign policy, are
all controlled by the same business combines. Therefore, it would
be foolish to expect this talk of guns and oil and defense deals
to get any real play in the media. In any case, to a distraught,
confused people whose pride has just been wounded, whose loved
ones have been tragically killed, whose anger is fresh and sharp,
the inanities about the 'Clash of Civilisations' and the 'Good
vs Evil' discourse home in unerringly. They are cynically doled
out by government spokesmen like a daily dose of vitamins or anti
depressants. Regular medication ensures that mainland America
continues to remain the enigma it has always been-a curiously
insular people, administered by a pathologically meddlesome, promiscuous
And what of the rest of us, the numb recipients
of this onslaught of what we know to be preposterous propaganda?
The daily consumers of the lies and brutality smeared in peanut
butter and strawberry jam being air-dropped into our minds just
like those yellow food packets. Shall we look away and eat because
we're hungry, or shall we stare unblinking at the grim theatre
unfolding in Afghanistan until we retch collectively and say,
in one voice, that we have had enough?
As the first year of the new millennium rushes
to a close, one wonders-have we forfeited our right to dream?
Will we ever be able to re-imagine beauty? Will it be possible
ever again to watch the slow, amazed blink of a new-born gecko
in the sun, or whisper back to the marmot who has just whispered
in your ear-without thinking of the World Trade Center and Afghanistan?