Now it is war – but for what?
First they told us we were at war with nobody in particular. Now they say we are not at war with somebody we are bombing.
spiked is against the war. That’s the easy bit. Many are finding it more difficult to make sense of what is happening and why.
What would be the reaction of ordinary Afghans, the BBC anchor asked their reporter in northern Afghanistan on Sunday night, to the fact that the USA was dropping bombs and food aid on them at the same time? ‘Utter bafflement’ came the reply. Many in the West must know how they feel.
The reporter suggested that people in Afghanistan would be confused by events because few of them have access to TV. But if anything, those who have closely followed events in the Western media since 11 September might be even more baffled by what is going on.
Almost immediately after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, President George W Bush declared that America was at war with, as we noted at the time, ‘an enemy with no clear identity, aims or country’ (see It’s war – but against whom?, by Mick Hume). Having taken the unprecedented step of declaring war against persons unknown, the American and British governments then went looking for an enemy to wage it against.
More than three weeks later, having selected their enemy, the US and UK military have launched air strikes against Afghanistan. Yet now the Allies seem keen to deny that they are at war at all. In his Sunday night press conference, America’s hawkish defence secretary Donald Rumsfield talked disparagingly about ‘this so-called war’, as if the phrase had been coined by the tabloid press rather than his commander-in-chief. On Monday, UK foreign secretary Jack Straw insisted that ‘this operation should not be perceived as a war against Afghanistan’, a ‘perception’ which some might think had been confirmed by the previous night’s bombardment.
So first we were at war but with nobody in particular, and now we are bombing somebody we’re not at war with.
And what about the military action? Two days after the terrorist attacks on America, President Bush insisted that he was not going to launch symbolic reprisals in the way that former President Bill Clinton might have done. ‘When I take action’, Bush declared, ‘I’m not going to fire a $2million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive’. Yet when US and British forces fired $50million worth of cruise missiles at Afghanistan on the first night of the military campaign, much of it seemed to be aimed at ‘empty tents’ in deserted desert training camps, and the authorities were at pains to claim that nobody had been anywhere near most targets. The Taliban authorities reported 20 civilian casualties. There were no reliable figures for the number of camels’ butts hit.
For almost a month after 11 September, there was a stark contrast between Bush’s war talk and America’s military indecision (see Why has Bush not pushed the button?, by Mick Hume). Even now, as the bombs start falling, confusion and uncertainty reign about what comes next.
We have been told by one Pentagon source that the bombing will continue ‘for days’, while UK foreign secretary Straw suggests that it will go on ‘for weeks’. Some authorities predict that a successful bombing campaign against the Taliban regime will pave the way for ground troops to go in. But UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon says that, on the contrary, if the air strikes have ‘a seriously destabilising impact on the Taliban regime’ then ‘the use of ground troops may not be possible in a hostile environment’. The experience of other recent conflicts such as Kosovo suggests that, in these strange times, the one thing Western governments want to avoid is sending soldiers into ‘a hostile environment’ (aka a war zone).
In the confused post-Cold War world, the West has effectively conceded that a war can only be fought if it is packaged in humanitarian terms. So we are presented with the bizarre and bewildering spectacle of American planes dropping explosives and food on Afghanistan at the same time. Refugees to whom the West turned a blind eye a few weeks ago are now pushed to the top of the global agenda, as a kind of human shield behind which war can legitimately be waged. Meanwhile, cruise missiles and aid packages are deployed as two different kinds of weapon with the same aim.
What began as Bush’s ‘crusade’ against a threat that many in the West tried to compare to the Nazis, has ended up in a bombing campaign against one of the most wretched countries on Earth where, US officials concede, there is almost nothing worth bombing. The resulting mess reflects the state of mind of the Bush administration. In the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks on 11 September, Bush wants to be seen to act decisively, at the same time as he does not have a clue what he should do or how to do it.
The uncertainty over America’s specific war aims in Afghanistan or anywhere else reflects the fact that this is a war being staged primarily for political, PR purposes, and for domestic consumption. Washington wants to give a new sense of purpose to a wounded American nation. In searching for Osama bin Laden in the Afghan hills, the USA gives the impression that it is really looking for itself. Yet at every turn, Bush’s campaign is hampered by its lack of authority and coherence.
The ‘war against terrorism’ provides an external focus for a mission to overcome America’s internal malaise, in the same way that the US ‘war on drugs’ sought to externalise the causes of urban crisis on to the coca fields of Colombia. Amid all the uncertainty, we can be sure that these militarised displacement activities create more problems than solutions.
The one unquestionably accurate thing that our governments have said is that this crisis is only just beginning to unfold.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
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