The Fog of War
By Irfan Husain
The day the news about the US
missile attack in Bajaur Agency broke, one evening
paper carried this headline: “Al-Zawahri Feared
Feared? I would have thought this would be a cause
for some satisfaction, if not outright celebration.
The fact that he, together with his fellow-terrorists
running Al Qaeda, are responsible for thousands
of deaths around the world seemed not to have bothered
the editor of the newspaper.
The truth is that we are very ambiguous about our
attitude to Muslim terrorists. On the one hand,
we secretly cheer them on when they kill westerners,
and on the other, we seethe at the West for tightening
their visa and security requirements for Muslims.
In particular, we rail against the tendency to lump
all Muslims into a single category of potential
While there has been much righteous anger over the
missile attack that killed 18 civilians, including
women and children, the government has now announced
that four Arabs were also killed, and their bodies
removed. Intelligence sources have told this newspaper
that those killed included senior members of the
Al Qaeda organization, including Abu Khabab al-Masri,
a top bomb-maker.
If this is true, then it puts the tragic incident
in a different light. Collateral damage —
that cold, Newspeak word for innocent civilians
killed in the crossfire — is never easy to
digest or accept. But in the calculus of conflict,
it must be weighed against the loss to the enemy.
In short, how many innocent lives justify one foe’s
In an ideal world, such an obscene question would
never have to be asked. No decent person should
have to make such a choice. But we live in a flawed
world, where these deadly equations are the stuff
of everyday decisions, often delegated to mid-level
officers. After 9/11, the American perspective has
been reduced to President Bush’s famous edict:
“You are either with us or against us.”
In this black and white worldview, there is no middle
ground. Innocent Afghans, Iraqis and Pakistanis
can die through battlefield mistakes or intelligence
failures, and the survivors are left to mourn their
loss, while the perpetrators move on. And yet, in
all fairness, nobody would deliberately kill women
and children. As ever, the victims happen to be
in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well over
50 million people died in the Second World War.
Only a relatively small proportion of them were
soldiers. As warfare becomes more high-tech, those
doing the killing move further away from their victims.
Thus, the controllers of the predator unmanned drones
that launched the Hellfire missiles in Bajaur could
have been sitting in the United States as intelligence
and local weather updates flashed on their computer
This distancing of those pulling the trigger from
those at the receiving end of the missiles has the
effect of reducing the whole thing to a video game.
Just put the target in the crosshairs, launch your
weapons, and watch the explosions. You don’t
see the death, the agony and the misery your actions
Countering this array of high-tech weaponry is another
kind of perfect killing machine: the suicide bomber.
For him, the mayhem is up close and personal. No
security system has yet been devised to stop a determined
terrorist willing to die for his cause, no matter
Returning to Bajaur, the issue is not as clear-cut
as we would like. If, as reports now suggest, a
number of foreign terrorists had been invited for
an Eid feast, then obviously their host must have
been involved with Al Qaeda activities, if only
on the periphery. I agree that nobody should have
the right to act as judge, jury and hangman. Above
all, civilized nations cannot use the actions of
terrorists as a justification for illegal acts.
So what’s the answer? Clearly, terrorists
cannot be allowed to run around and wreak havoc
around the world. Equally clearly, Pakistan’s
tenuous writ does not extend to most of the wild
tribal areas. Should we then allow Osama bin Laden,
Al-Zawahri and their cohorts sanctuary on our soil?
From the American perspective, the tribal areas
of the Frontier province are part of the war zone
they are operating in. They have seen Taliban and
Al Qaeda fighters use this lawless area as a base
of operations against American and Afghan forces
with impunity. ‘Hot pursuit’ is a widely
accepted military option. And for western forces,
every adult male with a beard and dressed in shalwar-kameez
is a potential enemy. And in that part of the world,
he probably is.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of our government
to protect Pakistani citizens on our soil. Thus,
it is for President Musharraf to work out the rules
of engagement with his American allies. And Shaukat
Aziz’s decision to proceed with his scheduled
visit to the United States confirms that the government
does not take the incursion and the attack very
seriously. If we do not value the lives of our citizens,
it is hypocritical to expect foreigners to do so.
Protesters have made much of the ‘loss of
sovereignty’ caused by this attack. But sovereignty
is never absolute. If we cannot control our own
borders, can we seriously expect neighbors not to
do something about it, especially when our territory
is being used to harbor terrorists?
It is politically safe and correct to denounce incidents
like the one in Bajaur, but when we signed on as
an ally in the American ‘war on terror’,
surely we knew there would be costs involved, just
as there are rewards. It is tragic that innocent
women and children have had to pay the price of
our partnership with Washington, but perhaps their
relatives should ask what senior Al Qaeda operatives
were doing in their village to start with. It was
not the government of Pakistan or the United States
which invited these terrorists into the compound
that has been turned into rubble.
Although this incident has united liberal and conservative
elements, and brought the MMA and the MQM into the
streets to protest, calm reflection demands that
we re-examine the matter. If killers are entertained
on Pakistani soil and the government is powerless
to arrest them, should they be allowed to go free?
On the other hand, does anybody have the right to
indulge in ‘targeted assassination’?
More moral dilemmas of our times.... (Courtesy Dawn)