November 24, 2001


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

The common enemy

Strange are the ways of the world, even stranger the ways of warfare, especially George Bush's first war of the 21st century. Nine-Eleven (September 11) and OBL (Osama bin Laden) have become instant military history. Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres recently noted: 'There was a time you had armies and no threat. Now you have a threat and no armies.' Britain's chief of defence staff, Field Marshal Lord Edwin Bramall, visiting Delhi soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, told me, "We have no enemy now. We're looking for one." In OBL and his successors, the West has met its match.

Mazar-e-Sharif represented the first victory of the military campaign in Afghanistan. Success in the first battle of any war is vital for the morale of soldiers and folks back home, especially in the wake of mounting criticism and disillusionment over the conduct of the war. Till Kabul fell, 36 days after the start of the bombing campaign, most people thought Operation Enduring Freedom had lost its way. Such was also the general feeling I got in my recent interaction with strategic experts in Germany and the UK.

Security at airports is extremely tight now, be it Vienna, Berlin or London. My scissors and cigar cutter -- family heirlooms -- were confiscated at Heathrow. The police officer dismissed my plea to have them mailed to me in Delhi. "You must be joking, mate! We throw away hundreds of these every day." Fortunately, defence analysts in Europe took me more seriously than security officers at airports.

Thirty-five days after the balloon went up in Afghanistan, the predominant view in the West was that it was America's war: the Brits, Germans and others were merely following orders. Clearly, the Pentagon was choreographing the war. Fear replaced the initial shock at the attacks on the Twin Towers. The US is engaged in a two-front war -- one at home and the other abroad -- but wants to fight it alone and also does not want to employ ground troops.

Lack of intelligence about the enemy -- its tactics, terrain and military prowess -- has been the biggest stumbling block in the campaign. But the loudest and harshest critique of the war was from the British media, which said the operational strategy was being driven more by political rhetoric than military logic.

The other area of disagreement among strategic experts was over the aftermath of Nine Eleven. While some argued that nothing would be the same again, others have insisted that nothing had changed. Or is likely to change. Proliferation in narcotics and small arms is here to stay as are laundering of funds and terrorism itself.

The bombing campaign has revived memories of Kosovo. Seventy-seven days of pounding from the air forced Milosevic to throw up his hands and be turned over to face justice. According to Lieutenant General Jurgen Schnell, the retired German vice-chief of defence staff who has worked extensively in calculating the cost of the Kosovo campaign, which included expenditure on military operations, humanitarian relief, infrastructure and economic investment, the amount came to nearly $60 billion. An additional $40 billion is being spent on Kosovo's reconstruction. In Afghanistan, though, after 20 years of war, there is almost nothing to destroy and so, nothing to rebuild!

Schnell had a pithy illustration of the Peres homily on threats and resources. He recalled that the German general staff in 1992 had demanded the creation of special forces. But politicians who said they would never be needed rejected the proposal. The very next year, some 30 visiting German journalists were held hostage in Rwanda and Belgian commandos had to be requested to bail them out.

There is a remarkable turnaround in the German mindset today, which nearly cost the Social Democrats the government last week. Not only has the German parliament endorsed the participation of soldiers out of NATO area -- initially for one year -- but also authorised their employment in combat environments. Already some German combat support troops are on their way to Afghanistan.

This change of heart in military activism is driven by the urge to convert German economic power into greater political influence in NATO as well as cozying up to the US. The joke I heard in Berlin and repeated in London was that Germany wanted to replace the UK as America's poodle.

The war against terrorism has registered greater empathy in Germany than the war against Kosovo two years ago. I saw hardly any protest rallies now. This was a revelation compared to 1999, when rallies were held at every street corner, especially on weekends. In polls conducted in the fourth week of the war, while 57 per cent Germans wanted the bombing to stop, 33 per cent were for it to go on. The anti-bombing lobby was almost entirely from among the Greens and the PDS of former East Germany.

The polls in UK recorded public support of 67 per cent while opposition to the war was 30 per cent. In both countries, many of those who voted against the bombing were not against the war. In the fifth week of the bombing campaign, support for it had declined considerably. The trend in the West seems to be: the longer the bombing, the surer the drop in support for the war.

Germany has earmarked for Afghanistan 3,900 soldiers and personnel trained in bio-terror with specialist vehicles. It has a unit of 1,000 special forces, called KSK, standing by. Sweeping intrusive laws to strengthen internal security are being introduced, which will authorise telephone tapping and surveillance, freeze bank accounts and make ID cards virtually mandatory. The anti-terrorism law is to ensure there is no Nine Eleven in Germany -- the Hamburg connection to the attacks in America has proved very embarrassing.

A highly respected television anchorperson had to apologise for comparing George Bush to OBL at around the time our own Arundhati Roy's articles doing the same were being freely circulated. Reforms in internal security are moving apace with restructuring of defence following the government security review of last year. Lighter, more responsive crisis reaction forces are being tailored for the Bundeswehr.

The war in Afghanistan has had a much louder resonance in London. Anyone who has read Rudyard Kipling or the history of frontier warfare is regarded an expert. Just as they got star billing for the Falklands, British Gurkhas training in Oman were being described as the panacea for liberating Kabul. The British media was full of news and stories of the war and BBC's coverage of it, remarkably sharp.

Like Germany, UK is home to dozens of Islamic outfits, some underground. Several British Muslims joining the war were being warned they could be booked for anti-national activity. Britain has earmarked around 4,200 of its best troops -- specialist paratroopers, marine commandos and elite SAS and SBS -- for the war (the SAS are already in Bagram and scouting for OBL around Kandahar). Former CDS General Sir Charles Guthrie of Sierra Leone fame is special military adviser to Tony Blair. British forces have fired a token two Tomahawk cruise missiles, making it the only country other than the US to militarily target Afghanistan.

Enduring Freedom is the subject of intense debate. Retired British, Russian and American generals are regulars in Bush House debating the course and outcome of the war. They all counsel patience. British commanders allotted for operations are, however, more critical of the military strategy, inadequate intelligence and lack of clarity on objectives. Enduring Freedom, they acknowledge, is a wholly US design with coalition partners providing moral and material support.

One of the immediate spin-offs of the war is the IRA's resumption of the process of decommissioning weapons, no doubt under US pressure.

A discussion has also begun over Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which has been invoked. The treaty envisions 'consultations,' and not, as commonly held, collective action against the enemy. Further, the continent of North America and its territories do not fall within the operational jurisdiction of NATO and therefore an attack on USA would not attract reprisals automatically.

The most significant outcome of Nine Eleven is the rare consensus on laws and conventions on terrorism, which have been languishing in the UN. The new committee on counter terrorism headed by a British diplomat is working on upgrading legislation and capabilities to deal with terrorism. Believe it or not, we may soon have a definition of terrorism distinguishing motive from method. All states are required by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 to promulgate anti-terrorism laws within 90 days and report completion to the secretary general. POTO need not, therefore, be made such a big political issue.

The war is stuck in Konduz and Kandahar may soon be closing down, but tribal warfare is here to stay. Thanks are due to OBL, for the war against terrorism has brought friends and foes together.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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