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The USA's Afghan Ops: critical analysis IX

Paper No. 370                                             07-12-2001

by B. Raman

 It is already two months since the US-led war against terrorism was launched in Afghanistan and it will shortly be three since the horrendous terrorist strikes of September 11,2001, in the US.

Is the world any the wiser as to how the terrorist strikes were conceived, planned and executed, who were the dramatis personae, where are the surviving members presently, what were the pre-September 11 ramifications of the international terrorist infrastructure radiating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and its network in other countries, how much of this infrastructure has been accounted for, what were the conventional and unconventional capabilities of this network, how much of these capabilities have been identified and  damaged beyond repair? Is the world any the safer from acts of catastrophic terrorism as a result of the post-September 11 counter-terrorism actions by the international community?

Definitive answers to these questions are unlikely to be available in the near future. Terrorist structures do not just collapse dramatically  as a result of State action against them, however determined and sustained it may be.  They gradually wither away over a period of time in an unspectacular manner as it happened to the ideological terrorist groups of West Europe and the religious terrorist groups of Punjab in India and of Egypt.

The allies in the war against terrorism have definitely made progress in the form of identification of the members of the suicide squads which carried out the September 11 strikes and some members of the Al Qaeda network in different countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany, France the UK etc, strengthening the legal  and intelligence infrastructure backing counter-terrorism efforts, a greater and more effective networking of the victim-States to confront that of the terrorists, liberation of large areas of territory in Afghanistan from the control of the Taliban, inflicting severe human and material damages on the Taliban and the terrorist infrastructure supporting it and deriving ideological and other sustenance from it and tentative beginnings in Bonn of the process of the political normalisation and religious moderation of the Afghan society.

The terrorists and their supporters are definitely on the defensive, if not on the run, but they are far from being beaten.  If and when they are beaten decisively and beyond recovery, the world will not witness it from a ringside seat savouring an hour of triumph. It would rather sense it, almost unknowingly, from the absence of successful acts of terrorism over a sustained period of time.  The world is still  far, far, far away from such a denouement.

There are still and there will continue to be in the months and even years to come many lingering uncertainties in the minds of States and their citizens.  Three groups of dramatis personae were involved in the September 11 strikes--- the suicide terrorists who died while carrying out the strikes, those who knowingly made those strikes possible and are still alive and those who might have unknowingly contributed to the success.  It is apparent from the hitherto available details that the counter-terrorism agencies of the US and other countries have been able to only identify all those who belonged to the first group and some of the third.

It is clear that they have not had any significant success so far in smoking out those of the second----whether based in the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan or elsewhere--- and interrogating them.  The present US policy of killing confirmed and suspected terrorists wherever they are found in Afghanistan, instead of capturing them alive and interrogating them, is unlikely to help in the reconstruction of the plot which preceded the September 11 strikes.

Without such reconstruction on the basis of credible evidence, the world would continue to be in the dark as to what and who contributed to the success of the terrorists on September 11 and to be handicapped in preventing an encore.

The military and para-military operations in Afghanistan have confirmed certain facts, which were known to India earlier, but were not accepted by the US for its own political and strategic reasons.  Amongst these facts are:

* The large-scale Pakistani, official and non-official, involvement in the building-up of not only the Taliban, but also of other terrorist infrastructure based in Afghanistan.  More Pakistanis have been killed as a result of the military operations in Afghanistan than even Afghans or Arabs or nationals of other countries.  The estimates of independent Pakistani analysts are that at least 8,000 Pakistanis have been killed with another 2,000 reported as missing in action.  Other sources, who were found to be credible in the past, put the number of Pakistanis killed at at least 14,000, if not more, with at least one-third of them serving and retired members of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment and the remaining from organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), which are also behind the acts of terrorism in India's Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), and the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba.  In an open, democratic society, it would have been impossible for the rulers to conceal from their public and from the world deaths in such large numbers, but in Pakistan, the military junta has had no difficulty so far in concealing from its own public the extent of the disaster suffered by it as a result of its turning Afghanistan into a virtual terrorist colony since 1992 for achieving its strategic objectives.

* The role of the HUM in the hijacking of a plane of the Indian Airlines in December, 1999, some of the papers relating to which were found in an abandoned safe house of the HUM in Kabul.

* The presence of rogue elements in Pakistan's scientific community in the fields relating to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which had been hobnobbing with religious fanatics and have been projecting Pakistan's nuclear capability as a capability developed by them for the benefit of the Islamic Ummah  as a whole.  The contacts of some of these scientists with bin Laden and his terrorist network in Afghanistan might have come as an unpleasant surprise to the US intelligence community, but not to knowledgeable analysts in India.  The arrest and court-martial in 1995 of a group of religious fanatics in the Pakistan Army led by Maj.Gen. Zaheer-ul-Islam Abbasi brought to light the extent of penetration of religious extremist elements into the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment at the lower and middle levels since the days of Zia-ul-Haq, but alerts of a similar penetration of Pakistan's WMD scientific community did not receive from the rest of the world the attention they deserved.  The rogue contacts of Dr.Abdul Qadir Khan, the self-proclaimed father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, with Iraq were well known and were apparently being monitored by the West, but other rogue elements in the scientific community remained unsmoked out.  The post-September 11 discussions in the Western media on likely threats from Pakistan's WMD capability have focussed on the possibility of the Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups one day getting hold of it.  The danger is not only from the terrorists clandestinely getting hold of it, but equally from the rogue scientists willingly and voluntarily doing the bidding of the terrorists and religious fanatics.

* The drawing-up of plans by terrorist organisations of Pakistan such as the HUM to take the jehad to the US territory by recruiting and training not only members of the Pakistani diaspora in the US and Canada, but also American nationals.  Such recruitment and training had been going on at least since 1995, with most of the American recruits being Afro-Americans feeling alienated from the American establishment and society.  This writer had drawn attention last year to the plans and attempts of these elements  to take the jehad to the US.  The reported arrest in Mazar-e-Sharif of a white American convert to Islam and to the ideology of the Taliban/Al Qaeda  and unconfirmed speculation about the arrest of two more show that these elements have had success in winning adherents for their jehad directed against the US not only from the community of Pakistanis in the US and the Afro-Americans, but also from amongst the whites.  How many of these trained recruits to terrorism are functioning as sleeper agents and accomplices in US territory and what role, if any, they might have played in making the terrorist strikes of September 11 and the subsequent Anthrax scare possible are questions which need immediate attention to prevent another September 11.

The US administration is unwisely and unnecessarily focussing on the Saddam Administration in Iraq as the next target of its counter-terrorism strikes if and when its operations succeed in Afghanistan.  A more important and urgent task  is the identification of the rogue elements in Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment and WMD scientific community and neutralising them and the destruction of the terrorist spawning grounds in Pakistan. 


(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: )