Refuge in New York?

As Yogi Berra would have put it, it’s deja vu all over again. Eleven years ago, when George Bush Sr launched the Gulf War against Iraq, Indian intellectuals let loose a cannonade of articles on how stupid and dumb Bush was; on how he failed to see the religious consequences of attack; on how Muslims of the Middle East would rise in revolt against their rulers who were kow- towing to American imperialists; on how the US anxiety to avoid casualties led to high-altitude bombing, a worthless tactic that hit civilian rather than military targets.

As things turned out, the Bush military campaign worked like a dream, and Indian armchair intellectuals were soon exposed as more stupid and dumb than the object of their derision.

Some people learn from experience, but not our Indian intellectuals. When George Bush Jr started operations in Afghanistan. They once again let loose a cannonade of articles (and even a cartoon strip) on how dumb and stupid the Americans were.

The bombing of Afghanistan was condemned for some of the same reasons as the earlier bombing of Iraq.

Dire warnings were issued about the adverse reaction of the Muslim masses in the Middle East, exactly as in 1991. Predictions were made of the toppling of Pervez Musharraf and other Muslim rulers who supported the US, just as in 1991.

The long bombing that preceded ground action in Afghanistan was condemned as a stupid tactic, exactly as the 40-day bombing of Iraq was.

And when ground forces moved with lightning speed to smash local opposition in Afghanistan, our intellectuals were even more surprised and dismayed than when the same thing happened in 1991.

No two wars are identical, and there are many differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not wish in this article to go into the legitimacy of US action in the two cases.

I simply want to highlight how wishful thinking passes for analysis in India, how people who cannot stand the US— sometimes for understandable reasons—try to sublimate their anger into dire predictions of American failure that are mainly fantasy.

One of the few Indian commentators who has been bang on target is my colleague K Subrahmanyam. From the start, he said that the Taliban was a small group with little popular or moral support which had been able to take over only because the country was shattered by civil war, and Pakistani support sufficed to give the Taliban the edge over other Afghan warlords. The implication: Few would come to the Taliban’s support in its hour of need.

While many silly people declared that moderate Taliban was a contradiction in terms, Subrahmanyam said that most of the Taliban consisted of opportunistic defectors who would happily defect again if the winds of power changed direction.

Here again he has been proved right. Others sneered at the bombing of what they saw as non-existent military targets in Afghanistan, but Subrahmanyam said this bombing would eliminate all ground resistance by the Taliban, demoralise Taliban supporters and encourage defections, and so facilitate the rapid advance of the Northern Alliance when it finally moved forward. Here again he has been vindicated in spades. So, at least some of our intellectuals are capable of analysis rather than wishful thinking.

What next? I do not think anybody has a clear idea. Many warn that the civil war will continue, and I suspect they are right.

Afghan clans have warred with one another for centuries, blood feuds are part of the local culture, and western notions of rule of law or democracy are non-existent.

Trying to create a united Afghanistan under King Zahir Shah is worth trying, but may well fail, and a break-up of Afghanistan into different ethnic entities remains a possibility.

Some believe that the Taliban will now retreat into the countryside and wage a long guerrilla war.

Soviet control of Afghan cities never translated into control of the countryside, and some critics think the Taliban will do to the Americans what the Afghan resistance did to the Soviet Union. This again is wishful thinking.

The US does not want to carry some version of the Brezhnev doctrine to Afghanistan. It simply wants to send the message, loud and clear, that no Afghan regime (or any other in the region) should give Islamic terrorism a base. Other political details are of a much lesser order.

I doubt whether the Taliban has enough popular support to become a powerful guerrilla force. No doubt the Pushtuns as an ethnic group will refuse to accept dominance by the Uzbeks and Tajiks of the Northern Alliance. But nobody should equate the Pushtuns with the Taliban.

What of Osama bin Laden? I personally doubt that he will keep fighting from sundry caves in the depths of Afghan gorges. People who think so mistakenly compare him with the Viet Cong.

But Osama is no Vietnamese peasant and heads no nationalistic movement. He is a wealthy, globalised capitalist hailing from one of the richest multinational groups in Saudi Arabia.

He will be more home in a five- star hotel in the West than in a cave in Afghanistan: He went to the latter simply for political refuge. Now that he has lost that, it seems to me that he will find it far easier to operate from a western city.

Nobody can predict the future accurately. But it would not surprise me at all if Osama and his henchmen try to escape from Afghanistan and establish a new base in western cities, using forged passports.

They will not be safe in Middle East countries, where the lack of civil liberties makes it relatively easy to detect strangers.

But civil liberties in the West provide anonymity and safety that are unrivalled anywhere else. Osama and Co could use those cities as a new terrorist base for years before being detected.

Remember, it took the US government several years to track down Timothy McVeigh, perpetrator of the Oklahoma bombing. It took the FBI over a decade to track down the Unabomber, Kaczinsky, who killed several Americans with letter bombs.

This leads me to believe that the safest refuge for Osama and Co will be an apartment in New York, preferably overlooking the World Trade Center.

What do you think?