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 Dead”.
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 terrorists.
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 death?
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 screens.
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 have caused.
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 how misguided.
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)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.