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Collateral damage

The current US-led attack on Iraq is significant in that it is an attempt to use the post-Cold War global dominance of the US to realign political and economic realities in West Asia.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2003 21:29 IST

The current US-led attack on Iraq is significant in that it is an attempt to use the post-Cold War global dominance of the US to realign political and economic realities in West Asia.

This American operation is very different from the 1991 Gulf War. That war was primarily aimed at liberating Kuwait and destroying the capabilities of the Iraqi military to wage war. Regime change was not a goal then. The Soviet Union was still in existence and the Cold War had not ended decisively in favour of the US.

It was only in October 1998 that the US Congress enacted the Iraq Liberation Act, calling for the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and its replacement by a democratic regime in Baghdad. A sum of $ 97 million was allocated for carrying out this task through covert operations.

However, despite the creation of the northern no-fly zone to assist the Kurds and the southern no-fly zone to encourage the Shias, the covert operations were not successful. This was primarily because introduction of democracy would have led to Shia-rule in Iraq — something not acceptable to the pro-American rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.

It is ironic that the genesis of the current attack on Iraq lies in the 9/11 attacks on the US. These attacks led to US operations against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It also led to considerable cooling off of relations between the US and Saudi Arabia as the latter was perceived to be encouraging global terrorism. George W. Bush in his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, outlined the American resolve to combat terrorism and rogue States that he termed as the ‘Axis of Evil’. Iran, Iraq and North Korea initially constituted this axis which was later expanded to include Syria, Libya and Cuba.

The moot question is why has the US decided to target Iraq and not any of the other countries even though North Korea has more WMD. US geopolitical interests are best served by having a pliable pro-US regime in Iraq. The US presence in Iraq and Kuwait would give it access to huge reserves of oil.

This would also allow encirclement of Iran and curb Teheran’s options of taking independent action. It would also greatly reduce US dependence on Saudi oil. The presence of American troops in Iraq would, according to the US, help to control tensions in West and Central Asia, give it energy security and lead to a permanent solution to the Israel-Palestine problem.

The attacks on Iraq are a part of the new US policy of pre-emption. It also brings out the US willingness to act unilaterally to pursue its global objectives without bothering about the UN etc. A successful war on Iraq would serve American and British interests while adversely affecting France and Germany’s commercial interests.

The reasons for the attack on Iraq may be varied and have political, economic and long-term objectives. However, in large parts of the Arab and Islamic world, they are seen as yet another example of US bullying and disregard for Muslim sentiment. There has been seething anger, indignation and feelings of revenge among radical Muslim and Arab youth due to the US policy

on Israel. Various measures introduced post-9/11 in the US, including racial profiling and finger-printing of citizens of certain countries, have further fuelled this anger. It is this anger which led to the creation of Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama bin Laden.

The US counterterrorism operations carried out in Afghanistan, Pakistan and within the US have added to this anger. This has led to the strengthening of jehadi forces and the weakening of moderate regimes in many Islamic countries. Given the huge asymmetry that exists between the US and its allies on the one hand, and the Islamic underclass on the other, there is almost no other way in which the angry vent their anger but to resort to terrorism. The perceived injustice leads to more and more violence, culminating in suicide attacks.

The threat from terrorist attacks is very real particularly to the US and Britain. It is possible that terrorists could enter the US on travel documents from ‘friendly’ Arab countries. It is not even necessary that ‘fresh’ terrorists enter, as a signal could activate ‘sleeper cells’ already present in the US. Terrorist groups would like to attack high-value targets like nuclear power stations, refineries and media organisations.

A persistent nightmare for US security agencies has been the threat of toxic or dangerous substances being smuggled into the country. Although surveillance in ports and airports has been stepped up, there is no way that each and every container entering the US can be checked. Europe is even more vulnerable, given the large floating Muslim population that works in major industrial centres and ports. A few of them have links with criminal underground groups that could be motivated to transport such material at a price.

Although Iraq has no significant connection with Al-Qaeda, its linkages with anti-Israeli groups such as the Hamas are well-known. The likely regime change in Iraq may lead to weakening of the Hamas and there may be a temporary decline in violence against Israel. However, jehadi groups in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region can be expected to undertake actions against American interests and citizens.

The position of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan would become even more difficult as he is perceived to be propped up by the Americans. These groups may target American interests and citizens in Pakistan and Bangladesh. To these groups, India is also a US supporter and, therefore, a fair target.

In the short run, the threat from such groups is bound to increase. Ironically, it is the South Asian region which may see heightened terrorist activity.

(The writer is a senior IPS officer and terrorism expert on deputation to the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis)

First Published: Mar 26, 2003 00:00 IST