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In the name of People

Bush is just pretending to be acting on behalf of Iraqis rather than Americans whose interests he is actually serving, writes Vir Sanghvi in Counterpoint.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2003 14:06 IST

On Saturday, Condoleezza Rice told the press that Washington intended to appoint a US Army general as the administrator of the conquered Iraq once the war was over. Only at some stage in the future, she suggested, would power pass from the Pentagon to an interim Iraqi civilian authority.

If all this smacks of empire building (and what will the general be designated? Viceroy? Governor General?), then we must bear in mind that President George W Bush keeps telling us that the war is not about US power but about helping the Iraqi people — in fact, he claims that he is liberating them.

I’m always suspicious of politicians who claim to act on the behalf of people who have never empowered them to do so (and I don’t mean the American people who probably didn’t elect George Bush as President anyway) but it is interesting that each time America gets involved in another country’s business, it says it is doing so on behalf of the people of that country.

When the CIA funded the Islamic mujahideen against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan, it said it was helping the Afghan people. When Bush attacked the Taliban — the descendants of one strain of mujahideen — he was doing so again on behalf of the Afghan people.

And now, he is handing Iraq over to the Pentagon on behalf of the Iraqi people.

In the American view of the world, people are always pro-American. It is the individuals who lead them who are evil and therefore must be removed from office or terminated. Throughout the Afghan campaign, for instance, we kept hearing about the evil Mullah Omar and the even more evil Osama bin Laden. Though the Afghans were jolly nice chaps, we were told, these two were evildoers who had to be taken out.

Now we are told that the Iraqi people welcome the American invasion (how does Washington know this? Do Iraqis blow kisses at the B-52s as they drop their bombs on them?) but that the evil Saddam must be removed.

My problem with this business of evildoers is that in many cases, they were not evildoers at all as long as they served Washington’s interests. Only when America felt that they had stepped out of line did they cease to be allies and become horrible, evil dictators.

Take bin Laden for instance. I don’t think anybody seriously disputes that he was a millionaire Saudi who was drawn into the CIA-backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. At that time, it suited America to have the war framed in religious terms. The Soviets were godless. The mujahideen were Islamic and so good Muslims from all over the world had to come to Afghanistan to participate in the jehad.

America’s problem was not that the jehad failed but that it was too successful.

Once the Soviets had been driven out of Afghanistan, the jehadis remained. They needed new targets, new holy wars to fight. Some of them ended up in Kashmir (it is no coincidence that Kashmir exploded in 1989 only after the Afghan jehad was more or less over). But many of them — including Osama bin Laden — ended up fighting America.

As a country that has suffered from terrorism, India has reason to fear those who turn our internal differences into holy wars and jehads. But does America have the right to object?

Who created bin Laden? Who financed him? Who directed his original jehad?

And at that stage, was he an evildoer? Or was he a good guy because he was fighting the godless communists?

Take the Taliban. Again, nobody seriously disputes that the CIA operated in Afghanistan through Pakistan’s ISI. Nor does anybody dispute that when the mujahideen regime that succeeded the Soviets did not suit Pakistan’s interests, the ISI created the Taliban and helped it take over Kabul.

Three years ago, before September 11 happened, I wrote in this column about the horrors of the Taliban regime. How, I asked, could anybody stand by while these Pakistani-backed maniacs destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, forced Hindus to wear distinctive yellow clothing (as the Nazis had done to the Jews) and tortured, dismembered and murdered thousands of their own people?

The broad answer was that Pakistan needed Afghanistan for ‘strategic depth’. The Taliban were Pakistan’s creation. And Pakistan was seen as an American ally. Thus, no matter what the Taliban did, America would simply stand around and watch.

That’s why nobody minded that the Taliban sponsored and aided the hijacking (and its aftermath) of IC 814 from Kathmandu. In America’s eyes, that kind of terrorism was fine. It did not make the Taliban sponsors of global terror. Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, may not have been a very good guy but he was certainly not an evildoer.

After September 11, all that suddenly changed. Now Mullah Omar became a very evil man. His regime had to be toppled because it was (hold your breath!) sponsoring global terrorism. America would now fight a war against Mullah Omar on behalf of (yes, you guessed right) the Afghan people.

So it is with Saddam Hussein. Nobody I know seriously disputes that the man is a tyrant. He has tortured and murdered thousands of his own people. He has oppressed Iraq’s Shias and he has gassed the Kurd minority.

The problem is that while most of this was going on, Saddam was an American ally.

In the 1980s, when Ayatollah Khomeini was top of the pops on the list of evildoers, America used Saddam to attack Iran and to weaken what it regarded as its biggest enemy in that region. Had Saddam not made the mistake of invading Kuwait in 1990, the chances are he would still be an American ally — never mind the torture and the murder.

So forgive me if I sound a little skeptical when George W. Bush pretends to be acting on behalf of the Afghan or Iraqi people. I do not grudge him the right to do whatever is necessary to protect American interests. But I do mind when he pretends to be acting on behalf of the people he is invading rather than the American people whose interests he is actually serving.

But there is a final problem with this good people-evil leaders theory. America keeps telling us that it will capture or take out these evil leaders. On the very first day of this Gulf War it told us that it had killed Saddam Hussain. In fact, as we now know, Saddam is very much alive.

So it was with bin Laden. We were assured that he had been killed in the bombing raids on Tora Bora. But a few months later, bin Laden turned up alive and as far as I can see, most of Al Qaida’s leadership is living happily and peacefully in Pakistan.

And what of Mullah Omar? How difficult can it be for a conquering army to locate and apprehend the one-eyed leader of one of the world’s most barbaric regimes? And yet, the Americans failed to find Mullah Omar. Not only did he escape but he’s been busy issuing statements supporting Saddam and attacking America. And here’s the crunch: according to the Americans themselves, he’s still living quite cheerfully within Afghanistan itself.

So much for America’s record when it comes to tracking down and terminating evildoers!

My fear is that though American victory is very much a foregone conclusion, George W. Bush’s problems will begin after he has installed his general in Baghdad.

The truth is that America is not acting on behalf of the people of any other country. And while its military might seems unstoppable, so too does the flood of anti-American sentiment throughout the world. All opinion polls tell us that the Muslim world is now more anti-American than ever before. So is much of Europe and most of Asia. I don’t know about Africa but I doubt if Bush has much support there for his current campaign.

As the international terrorists of Al Qaida have taught us, the most powerful army in the world cannot protect you against a handful of suicidal maniacs. When September 11 happened, the world stood united with America.

George W. Bush’s greatest achievement is not that his army is on the outskirts of Baghdad but that he has dissipated that goodwill.

First Published: Apr 06, 2003 01:36 IST