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Political Problems Loom Large, Dicey in America's Hard War on Terrorism
by Holger Jensen, International Editor

[Holger Jensen is International Editor of the Denver Rocky Mountain News and Foreign Affairs Columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. He has written 54 cover stories for Newsweek magazine and his "Foreign Affairs" column is distributed by the Scripps Howard News Service to more than 400 media outlets in the United States and Canada. In a career which has included jobs as a foreign correspondent, magazine writer and newspaper editor, Mr. Jensen has covered 23 wars, revolutions and civil upheavals throughout the world. Here, Holger Jensen examines the loss of civilian life in Afghanistan and the apparent lack of military progress against bin Laden and his friends.  Can the American Coalition hold together long enough to see this through? -- Editor, The Gilded Opinion]

While we find Mr. Jensen's columns particularly informative with respect to foreign affairs, his opinions do not necessarily represent those of Centennial Precious Metals, USAGOLD, its management and clientele.

The Afghan war, we are told, is going well.

U.S. planes have established air superiority -- whatever that means in a country with no discernible air defenses -- and continue to stir the rubble of Afghanistan with relentless bombing while dropping food to its people.

Covert ground operations, besides two highly publicized Ranger drops, also presumably are continuing in conjunction with reported advances by the now U.S.-supplied northern alliance.

But the Taliban remain defiant. Its mullahs brag that Osama bin Laden and his terrorist associates are still very much alive, and they beg Washington to commit more ground troops for a "fight to the death."

Meanwhile, civilian casualties are mounting, the holy month of Ramadan is approaching and thousands of new refugees are showing up on the borders of Iran and Pakistan. It is palpably obvious that they are running away not from the Taliban, but from American bombs and missiles.

This makes our Arab and non-Arab Muslim allies very, very nervous.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has publicly advised Washington: "One would hope and wish that this campaign comes to an end before Ramadan," which begins in mid-November. His warning has been echoed by Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia and other Muslim nations in the Middle East and Asia.

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shows no inclination to be tied to a religious deadline.

Military analysts expect the bombing to end only after opposition forces capture the capital of Kabul and put the Taliban on the run. Without the Taliban, they say, bin Laden and his terrorist network would have little protection from Afghans who despise al-Qaida's "Arabs" as interlopers. They could then be picked off by U.S. Special Forces, or so the theory goes.

It is doubtful all this can be accomplished before the onset of Afghanistan's harsh winter, meaning a military campaign lasting well into next year. Will the coalition hold that long?

Already, the Taliban claims that between 600 and 900 civilians have been killed by American bombing. The Pentagon says these figures are exaggerated, but admits that civilian deaths are impossible to avoid in an air war. Errant bombs have hit the office of United Nations mine-clearing personnel, damaged a home for the elderly, and wiped out civilian housing near Kabul airport and some warehouses operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Pictures of wounded Afghan babies have had a tremendous impact in Pakistan and Gulf Arab states, where the most vocal sector of public opinion is anti-American. While their rulers quietly cooperate with the United States, they worry about placating a populace beginning to believe that this really is a war on Islam, or at least innocent Muslims, rather than terrorism.

Only one Arab leader, not even a member of President Bush's coalition, has come out and said we have a right to go after those responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, which he called "horrifying." That was Libya's "mad colonel," Moammar Gadhafi, ever the maverick, who lost a child in air raids ordered by President Reagan.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our two chief allies in the Arab world, have been less outspoken, prompting angry rebukes from two influential U.S. senators. Arizona Republican John McCain and Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman accused both countries of "playing a double game" by secretly backing Bush while allowing anti-American extremists to "have the megaphone" on the street.

"The tiger, if they continue to ride it," said Lieberman, "is going to eat them up."

That is precisely their problem. The House of Saud and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- both of whom have had to contend with Islamic terrorists long before those terrorists turned their sights on Americans -- have to walk a delicate line between being unpopular in Washington or with their own disaffected subjects.

Though the Saudi royal family has been harsh with those who would seek to overthrow it, it has had to tolerate -- even foster -- Islamic fundamentalism because of its partnership with the Wahhabis, the puritanical sect that gave the royals religious legitimacy for 250 years.

Bin Laden is a Wahhabi, and the Taliban's militant interpretation of the Quran flows from the Wahhabis. In the words of Britain's Economist, the Sauds "succoured their own opposition."

The monarchy was in good standing with the fundamentalists as long as it financed both holy war against the Soviet infidel and the Taliban's subsequent takeover of Afghanistan. But things soured with the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War. And they became decidedly ugly when the royals turned on the Taliban and began helping the Americans, if ever so quietly, by arresting Saudi fundamentalists with possible links to bin Laden.

A number of Wahhabi clerics ruled that whoever backs the infidel against fellow Muslims is a heretic. Some even issued a fatwa, or religious edict, expelling King Fahd and all 30,000 members of his family from Islam.

If the monarchy collapses in the birthplace of Islam, the fundamentalists would undoubtedly take over, threatening Western access to the Middle East's largest oil producer. But the royals are in no position to arrest the offending clerics, for fear of offending mainline preachers throughout the kingdom.

Mubarak is trying to maintain an equally delicate balance between his country's biggest benefactor -- Egypt gets $2 billion a year in U.S. aid for making peace with Israel at Camp David -- and a populace angered by what it sees as blind American support of Israel against the Palestinians.

"Implicating Egypt in the American coalition is a national crime," blared one Egyptian newspaper when Bush first asked Mubarak to come on board.

Of course, Egypt and the United States have been sharing intelligence about Islamic terrorists for years. Having seen his predecessor assassinated by a group now affiliated with bin Laden, Mubarak has cracked down hard on the Muslim Brotherhood and its lethal offshoots.

But he has not been able to eliminate the fanatics who targeted scores of Egyptian officials in the 1990s, shot up Nile River tour boats and killed 58 foreign tourists in a brazen attack at Luxor.

Speaking from experience, Mubarak told Newsweek that terrorism "can be lessened but not stopped." How can it be reduced? By forcing Israel to "end its siege" of Palestinian areas and negotiate seriously for peace, he said. Progress in that arena would make the Arab public understand "that you are not just attacking Muslims."

His last word of advice: "Don't widen the battlefield" by attacking Iraq or any other country accused of harboring terrorists. Arab and Muslim states would immediately withdraw their support and, without their help, the war on terrorism would be lost.

October 25, 2001

Copyright © 2001 The E.W. Scripps Co. All Rights Reserved.

Reprinted by USAGOLD with permission of Mr. Jensen. No further reproduction without permission.


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