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The Aftermath: Five Questions

Now that the war is effectively over, it is time for the inevitable post-mortems, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Apr 14, 2003 16:07 IST

The end, when it did arrive, came with a chilling suddenness. One day we were trying to reconcile two different characterisations of the war: the Americans said they were at Baghdad airport while the Iraqis said that the airport was back in the control of Saddam’s forces. And the next day, it was all over. American forces had marched into the centre of Baghdad and the Republican Guard, about whom we had heard so much, had melted into the night.

Now that the war is effectively over, it is time for the inevitable post-mortems. Here is a list of the questions that I hear people asking. And here, also, are some tentative answers:

Was Saddam a really bad guy?

My guess is that we’ll see lots of footage of torture chambers; we’ll hear from people who were persecuted by the regime; and there will be many pictures of ecstatic Iraqis hugging American soldiers.

Now that it has won this war, the US will spare no effort to let us know that a) Saddam was an evil tyrant and that, b) Iraqis feel liberated.

But things are not as simple as that.

Yes, of course, Saddam was a really bad guy. He was a despot, a torturer and a tyrant. He used chemical weapons against the Kurds. He murdered the heads of the Shia clergy and he ran a reign of terror.

But we knew all this way before the Americans entered Baghdad. In fact, Washington knew that he was busy murdering the Kurds at precisely the same time when he was an American ally — in the 1980’s when Washington backed him against Iran. In 1991, the Americans urged Shias to revolt against him and then stood back and watched while he slaughtered all those who had revolted.

As for the welcome accorded to coalition troops, that too is no surprise. Iraq is 60 per cent Shia. Saddam and his Sunni-dominated regime have systematically suppressed Shia aspirations. So, it is only natural that many Shias and all the Kurds will celebrate his downfall.

But do these people represent the majority of Iraqis? Are all Shias as thrilled by the US occupation?

We don’t know.

It would be as unfair to treat the men who pulled Saddam’s statues down as representative of all Iraqis as it would be to treat the looters who stripped a Baghdad hospital bare on Friday as being typical Iraqis. Judging by the TV pictures, at any rate, more Iraqis are looting than cheering. In a city of five million people, the actions of a few thousand people don’t necessarily prove very much.

As for the larger issue — does Saddam’s tyranny justify the invasion? — that’s easy to answer. Even the Americans did not claim that they were attacking Iraq because Saddam was no respecter of human rights. If Washington had offered that defence, then it would have had a lot of explaining to do.

Is it going to depose every tyrant in the world? What about the despots who are US allies? What about America’s own record of siding with murderers? Why did it back Pakistan and oppose India in 1971 when there was genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)? Why didn’t it invade China after Tiananmen Square? And so on.

The US justification for the invasion was not phrased in terms of the human rights of Iraqis. It was framed thus: Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and is a rogue state. If these weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, then world peace is in danger. So the UN must disarm Saddam. And if the UN can’t do it, then America will.

Human rights violations make for compelling TV. But that’s not why America invaded.

Did Saddam have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) after all?

The truth is: we’ll never know. Hans Blix and the UN inspectors didn’t find such weapons. When Blix asked for more time to complete his search, the Americans said no and launched their invasion anyway.

So far, at least, they’ve found no WMDs.

Those who believe that Saddam did not possess WMDs ask the obvious question: if he did have such weapons, then why didn’t he use them when defeat was imminent and he had nothing to lose?

Even if the Americans claim they have found WMDs in the weeks ahead, nobody will believe them. The skeptics will argue that they planted these to justify the invasion.

Is America’s victory a blow to Al Qaeda?

If the original theory — that Saddam’s WMDs could be supplied to bin Laden — had been correct, then yes, this should have been a huge setback for Al Qaeda.

But just as the Americans failed to find any WMDs in Iraq, they have also failed to find any substantive link between Saddam and bin Laden. For all its tyranny, Saddam’s was a secular regime, not an Islamic one; Saddam had more in common with Stalin than with bin Laden.

That’s why bin Laden kept such a low profile during the war — there’s been only one audiotape purporting to come from Osama during the last month. And though the Americans claim to have found foreign fighters in Iraq, they haven’t found (so far, at least), the kind of Al Qaeda-trained terrorists that we’ve come across in Kashmir.

On the other hand, there’s reason to believe that the war may actually work to Al Qaeda’s advantage. Till now, bin Laden has kept the spectre of anti-Americanism alive in the Middle East by making repeated references to US support for Israel. This has proved effective — but only up to a point.

But now, opinion on the Arab streets has turned violently anti-American. The US is seen as a colonial oppressor of the Arab people and as an arrogant bully. This is exactly the kind of sentiment that bin Laden has been trying to provoke.

The military victory in Iraq — and the many thousands of Iraqis who have been killed as against only 105 dead American soldiers — has emphasised the point that America is now so strong that no army can fight it.

That leaves only one kind of offensive: terrorism.

Don’t be surprised if the end result of this victory is a rise in the number of jehadi suicide bombers and terrorist volunteers. Far from damaging Al Qaeda, this campaign might actually strengthen it.

Did the Indian government do the right thing?

Frankly, we were in a no-win situation. If we had condemned America in the strongest possible terms, it would have made no difference to the conduct or the outcome of the war. Equally, if we had supported America, it would also have made no difference to our relations with Washington. George W Bush has too much invested in Pervez Musharraf to alter his policy towards the region because of any statements made by India in the course of the Iraq campaign.

When the US moved closer to Islamabad in the aftermath of 9/11, we took the position that a lasting friendship with Washington was in India’s long-term interests. We accepted American assurances that the alliance with Pakistan was a short-term phenomenon, limited to the period when Afghanistan remained in focus.

Broadly, we have stuck to that policy as much as we could without completely sacrificing our national pride. Over Iraq, we did what we could: we made our position known but were careful to avoid unnecessary abuse of Washington despite the anti-American mood of the nation. It was a policy that both the NDA government and the Congress opposition supported and it gained strength from its bi-partisan nature.

Will the world change as a consequence of this war?

The big question. The answers will emerge over the next few weeks but certainly, many of the institutions that dominated the world in the second half of the Twentieth century face new challenges.

NATO is in deep trouble after the splits between Europe and the US over the war. The UN will have to fight to establish its relevance. Washington has ignored it over the war and may continue to do so.

Some members of the Bush administration say that the US should create a strong, democratic Iraq as a model state for the Middle East. Other US allies in the region (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia etc.) would be asked to follow that model and, one by one, the non-democracies in West Asia would be targeted till they too fall in line.

It is too early to make predictions. But as much as we loathe the emergence of an all-powerful US, let us also recognise that the changes may work to India’s benefit. We can only gain from the collapse of NATO or the reconstruction of the UN, a body where France has a veto power but where the world’s largest democracy is just another member. And democracy in the Middle East is no bad thing for us — or for the world.

So let’s not shed tears for Saddam. And let’s see what we can get from the new world order.

First Published: Apr 13, 2003 00:32 IST