New WorId Disorder
War is peace. So now we know.
by Arundhati Roy
In These Times magazine, November 2001
As darkness deepened over Afghanistan on October 7, the U.S.
government, backed by the International Coalition Against Terror
(the new, amenable substitute for the United Nations), launched
air strikes against Afghanistan. TV channels lingered on computer-animated
images of cruise missiles, stealth bombers, tomahawks and bunker-busting
missiles. All over the world, little boys watched goggle-eyed
and stopped clamoring for new video games.
The U.N., reduced now to an ineffective acronym, wasn't even
asked to mandate the air strikes. (As Madeleine Albright once
said, "The U.S. acts multilaterally when it can, and unilaterally
when it must.") The "evidence" against the terrorists
was shared amongst friends in the coalition. After conferring,
they announced that it didn't matter whether or not the "evidence"
would stand up in a court of law.
Nothing can excuse or justify an act of terrorism, whether
it is committed by religious fundamentalists private militia,
people's resistance movements- or whether it's dressed up as a
war of retribution by a recognized government. The bombing of
Afghanistan is not revenge for New York and Washington. It is
yet another act of terror against the people of the world. Each
innocent person that is killed must be added to, not set off against,
the grisly toll of civilians who died in New York and Washington.
People rarely win wars, governments rarely lose them. People
get killed. Governments molt and regroup, hydra-headed. They first
use flags to shrink-wrap peoples' minds and smother real thought,
and then as ceremonial shrouds to cover the mangled remains of
the willing dead. On both sides, in Afghanistan as well as America,
civilians are now hostage to the actions of their own governments.
Unknowingly, ordinary people in both countries share a common
bond-they have to live with the phenomenon of blind, unpredictable
terror. Each batch of bombs that is dropped on Afghanistan is
matched by a corresponding escalation of mass hysteria in America
about anthrax, more hijackings and other terrorist acts.
There is no easy way out of the spiraling morass of terror
and brutality that confronts the world today. It is time now for
the human race to hold still, to delve into its wells of collective
wisdom, both ancient and modem. What happened on September 11
changed the world forever. Freedom, progress, wealth, technology,
war-these words have taken on new meaning. Governments have to
acknowledge this transformation, and approach their new tasks
with a modicum of honesty and humility. Unfortunately, up to now,
there has been no sign of any introspection from the leaders of
the International Coalition Against Terror. Or the Taliban.
When he announced the air strikes, President George W. Bush
said, "We're a peaceful nation." America's favorite
ambassador, Tony Blair (who also holds the portfolio of British
prime minister), echoed him: "We're a peaceful people."
So now we know. Pigs are horses. Girls are boys. War is Peace.
Speaking at FBI headquarters a few days later, Bush said,
"This is our calling. This is the calling of the United States
of America. The most free nation in the world. A nation built
on fundamental values that rejects hate, rejects violence, rejects
murderers and rejects evil. And we will not tire."
Here is a partial list of the countries that America has been
at war with-overtly and covertly-since World War 11: China, Korea,
Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, the Belgian Congo, Peru, Laos, Vietnam,
Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq,
Sudan, Yugoslavia. And now Afghanistan.
Certainly it does not tire-this, the most free nation in the
world. What freedoms does it uphold? Within its borders, the freedoms
of speech, religion, thought; of artistic expression, food habits,
sexual preferences (well, to some extent) and many other exemplary,
wonderful things. Outside its borders, the freedom to dominate,
humiliate and subjugate-usually in the service of America's real
religion, the "free market." So when the U.S. government
christens a war "Operation Infinite Justice," or "Operation
Enduring Freedom," we in the Third World feel more than a
tremor of fear. Because we know that Infinite Justice for some
means Infinite Injustice for others. And Enduring Freedom for
some means Enduring Subjugation for others.
The International Coalition Against Terror is largely a cabal
of the richest countries in the world. Between them, they manufacture
and sell almost all of the world's weapons, and they possess the
largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction-chemical, biological
and nuclear. They have fought the most wars, account for most
of the genocide, subjection, ethnic cleansing and human rights
violations in modem history, and have sponsored, armed and financed
untold numbers of dictators and despots. Between them, they have
worshipped, almost deified, the cult of violence and war. For
all its appalling sins, the Taliban just isn't in the same league.
The Taliban was compounded in the crumbling crucible of rubble,
heroin and land mines in the backwash of the Cold War. Its oldest
leaders are in their early forties. Many of them are disfigured
and handicapped, missing an eye, an arm or a leg. They grew up
in a society scarred and devastated by war. Between the Soviet
Union and America, over 20 years, about $40 billion worth of arms
and ammunition was poured into Afghanistan. The latest weaponry
was the only shard of modernity to intrude upon a thoroughly medieval
Young boys-many of them orphans-who grew up in those times,
had guns for toys, never knew the security and comfort of family
life, never experienced the company of women. Now, as adults and
rulers, they beat, stone, rape and brutalize women; they don't
seem to know what else to do with them. Years of war have stripped
them of gentleness, inured them to kindness and human compassion.
They dance to the percussive rhythms of bombs raining down around
them. Now they've turned their monstrosity on their own people.
More than a million Afghan people lost their lives in the
20 years of conflict that preceded this new war. Afghanistan was
reduced to rubble, and now, the rubble is being pounded into finer
dust. By the second day of the air strikes, U.S. pilots were returning
to their bases without dropping their assigned payload of bombs.
As one pilot put it, Afghanistan is "not a target-rich environment."
At a press briefing at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld was asked if America had run out of targets. "For
one thing, we're finding that some of the targets we hit need
to be re-hit," he said. "Second, we're not running out
of targets, Afghanistan is." This was greeted with gales
of laughter in the Briefing Room.
On the ground in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance- the Taliban's
old enemy, and therefore the coalition's newest friend-is making
headway in its push to capture Kabul. (Let it be noted that the
Northern Alliance's track record is not very different from the
Taliban's.) The visible, moderate, "acceptable" leader
of the Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was killed in a suicide-bomb
attack early in September. The rest of the Northern Alliance is
a brittle confederation of brutal warlords, ex-communists and
unbending clerics. It is a disparate group divided along ethnic
lines, some of whom have tasted power in Afghanistan in the past.
Among the global powers, there is talk of "putting in
a representative government." Or, on the other hand, of "restoring"
the kingdom to 89-year-old Zahir Shah, who has lived in exile
in Rome since 1973. That's the way the game goes-support Saddam
Hussein, then "take him out," finance the mujahedin,
then bomb them to smithereens; put in Zahir Shah and see if he's
going to be a good boy. (Is it possible to "put in"
a representative government? Can you place an order for democracy-with
extra cheese and jalapeno peppers?)
Reports have begun to trickle in about civilian casualties,
about cities emptying out as Afghan civilians flock to borders
that have been closed. Main arterial roads have been blown up
or sealed off. Those who have experience working in Afghanistan
say that by early November, food convoys will not be able to reach
the millions of Afghans ( 7.5 million according to the United
Nations) who run the very real risk of starving to death during
the course of this winter. They say that in the days that are
left before winter sets in, there can either be a war, or an attempt
to reach food to the hungry. Not both.
As a gesture of humanitarian support, the U.S. government
air-dropped 37,500 packets of emergency rations into Afghanistan.
It says it plans to drop a total of 500,000 packets. That will
still add up to only a single meal for half a million people out
of the several million in dire need of food. Aid workers have
condemned it as a cynical, dangerous, public-relations exercise.
They say that air-dropping food packets is worse than futile.
First, because the food will never get to those who really need
it. More dangerously, those who run out to retrieve the packets
risk being blown up by land mines. A tragic alms race.
Nevertheless, the food packets had a photo-op all to themselves.
Their contents were listed in major newspapers. They were vegetarian,
we are told, as per Muslim dietary law. Each yellow packet, decorated
with the American flag, contained: rice, peanut butter, bean salad,
strawberry jam, crackers, raisins, flat bread, an apple fruit
bar, seasoning, matches, a spoon, a towelette, a napkin and illustrated
After three years of unremitting drought, an air-dropped airline
meal in Jalalabad! The level of cultural ineptitude, the failure
to understand what months of relentless hunger and grinding poverty
really mean, the U.S. government's attempt to use even this abject
misery to boost its self-image, beggars description.
Put your ear to the ground in this part of the world, and
you can hear the thrumming, the deadly drumbeat of burgeoning
anger. Please. Please, stop the war now. Enough people have died.
The smart missiles are just not smart enough. They're blowing
up whole warehouses of suppressed fury.
With all due respect to President Bush, the people of the
world do not have to choose between the Taliban and the U.S. government.
All the beauty of human civilization-our art, our music, our literature-lies
beyond these two fundamentalist, ideological poles. There is as
little chance that the people of the world can all become middle-class
consumers as there is that they will all embrace any one particular
religion. The issue is not about Good vs. Evil or Islam vs. Christianity
as much as it is about space. About how to accommodate diversity,
how to contain the impulse toward hegemony-economic, military,
linguistic, religious, cultural and otherwise. Any ecologist will
tell you how dangerous and fragile a monoculture is. A hegemonic
world is like having a government without a healthy opposition.
It becomes a kind of dictatorship. It's like putting a plastic
bag over the world to prevent it from breathing. Eventually, it
will be tom open.
It is important for governments and politicians to understand
that manipulating these huge, raging human feelings for the* own
narrow purposes may yield instant results, but eventually and
inexorably will have disastrous consequences. Igniting and exploiting
religious sentiments for reasons of political expediency is the
most dangerous legacy that governments or politicians can bequeath
to any people-including their own. People who live in societies
ravaged by religious or communal bigotry know that every religious
text-from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita-can be mined and misinterpreted
to justify anything, from nuclear war to genocide to corporate
This is not to suggest that the terrorists who perpetrated
the outrage on September 11 should not be hunted down and brought
to book. They must be. But is war the best way to track them down?
Will burning the haystack find you the needle? Or will it escalate
the anger and make the world a living hell for all of us!
At the end of the day, how many people can you spy on, how
many bank accounts can you freeze, how many conversations can
you eavesdrop on, how many emails can you intercept, how many
letters can you open, how many phones can you tap? Even before
September 11, the CIA had accumulated more information than is
humanly possible to process. (Sometimes, too much data can actually
hinder intelligence small wonder the U.S. spy satellites completely
missed the preparation that preceded India's nuclear tests in
1998.) The sheer scale of the surveillance will become a logistical,
ethical and civil rights nightmare. And freedom-that precious,
precious thing-will be the first casualty. It's already hurt and
Every day that the war goes on, raging emotions are being
let loose into the world. The international press has little or
no independent access to the war zone. In any case, mainstream
media, particularly in the United States, have more or less rolled
over, allowing themselves to be tickled on the stomach with handouts
from military men and government officials. Afghan radio stations
have been destroyed by the bombing. The Taliban has always been
deeply suspicious of the press. In the propaganda war, there is
no accurate estimate of how many people have been killed, or how
much destruction has taken place. In the absence of reliable information,
wild rumors spread.
Bush recently boasted: "When I take action, I'm not going
to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel
in the butt. It's going to be decisive." He should know that
there are no targets in Afghanistan that will give his missiles
their money's worth. Perhaps, if only to balance his books, he
should develop some cheaper missiles to use on cheaper targets
and cheaper lives in the poor countries of the world. But then,
that may not make good business sense to the coalition's weapons
Then there's that other branch of traditional coalition business-oil.
Turkmenistan, which borders the northwest of Afghanistan, holds
the world's fifth largest gas reserves and billions of barrels
of oil reserves. Enough, experts say, to meet American energy
needs for the next 30 years (or a developing country's energy
requirements for a couple of centuries). America has always viewed
oil as a security consideration, and protected it by any means
it deems necessary. Few of us doubt that the U.S. military presence
in the Persian Gulf has little to do with its concern for human
rights and almost entirely to do with its strategic interest in
For some years now, Unocal has been negotiating with the Taliban
for permission to construct an oil pipeline through Afghanistan
to Pakistan and out to the Arabian Sea. From here, Unocal hopes
to access the lucrative "emerging markets" in South
and Southeast Asia. In November 1997, a delegation of Taliban
mullahs traveled to America and even met with State Department
officials in Washington and later with Unocal executives in Houston.
At that time, t4 Taliban's taste for public executions and its
treatment of Afghan women were not made out to be the crimes against
humanity that they are now. Over the next six months, pressure
from hundreds of outraged American feminist groups was brought
to bear on the Clinton administration. Fortunately, they managed
to scuttle the deal. But now comes the U.S. oil industry's big
In America, the arms industry, the oil industry and the major
media networks-indeed, U.S. foreign policy-are all controlled
by the same business combines. It would be foolish to expect this
talk of guns and oil and defense deals to get any real play in
the media. In any case, to a distraught, confused people whose
pride has just been wounded, whose loved ones have been tragically
killed, whose anger is fresh and sharp, the inanities about the
"Clash of Civilizations" and the "Good vs. Evil"
discourse home in unerringly. They are cynically doled out by
government spokesmen like a daily dose of vitamins or anti-depressants.
Regular medication ensures that mainland America continues to
remain the enigma it has always been-a curiously insular people
administered by a pathologically meddlesome, promiscuous government.