Now that the venerable and mighty B-52's have finally entered into action to carpet Afghanistan massively with all kinds of destructive weapons, the Americans are launching their war in a style which has become their trademark since Korea and Vietnam. But weary Northern Alliance militiamen were complaining to a BBC reporter that "that was not enough: the Americans have been playing around for four weeks, and, at times, even dropped bombs on our side." When will it be enough, and for what purpose exactly? Will it ever be enough?

Since bin Laden has been reassessed as an implausible target --it remains uncertain whether he is still in the Afghani mountains-- attention has focused on his protectors and hosts --the Taliban-- and the goal has thus shifted, mutatis mutandis, to a complete restructuring of the Afghani political system, if not the socio-economic infrastructures of the Afghanis, thus implying a de facto dismantling of the Taliban. We are thus in the presence of a traditional full-fledged war, one that will eventually require massive ground troops, which will be used to destroy the Taliban, then fill the political vacuum created by the demise of the latter, and thus create a new political system that should in principle become responsible of all the changes that will be needed to beef-up the infrastructure of that country. Specialists at Foggy Bottom have now become familiar with Afghani Islam, and its tribal, ethnic, linguistic, and religious spectrum, hence the sudden renewed interest in the "Loya Jirga," a grand council of tribal, religious and political figures, to decide on Afghanistan's future, possibly involving elections within a one- or two-year period from the demise of the Taliban. The ex-king Muhammad Zahir Shah, in exile in Rome since 1973 after a coup d'état by his brother-in-law (and cousin), would be at the head of the general council, and would therefore with his government of national unity decide how to channel the international funds needed for a rehabilitation of Afghanistan. Needless to say, all this sounds like the good old nineteenth-century French and British colonialisms, but will it work now, in the new millennium? Is colonialism still possible, in particular that there seems to be a major reluctance in deploying massive ground troops? The novelty in World War I was not only in bringing an end to colonialism, but in democratizing war as such through a massive involvement of the civilian populations, thus bringing an end to the Napoleonic war formula of the previous century. And while the Second World War brought an end to Nazism, the undeclared Third War --better known as the Cold War-- brought communism down. We're probably now, as Jean Baudrillard has very recently suggested (Le Monde, 3 November 2001), into the Fourth World War. My guess is that the stumbling of American decision making, which we've witnessed in the past month, comes from the realization that the US (pace Tony Blair) is fighting this war in a traditional style and with traditional weapons, and that this war has already been "lost" without having even effectively begun.

In the first three weeks or so, the F-16 fighters, thanks to an average 70 sorties a day (far less than the 700-a-day in Kosovo), were managing surgical strikes, thus avoiding excessive civilian casualties. The surgical-strike technology was developed and became the norm in the last two decades, and in particular in the Gulf War, to alleviate memories of Vietnam-style carpet bombing. Not only that the world has become more concerned with civilian casualties (close to a million in Vietnam), but the US has become more concerned with its own military body bags. Surgical strikes are thus supposed to reduce both by destroying the moral and military capabilities of the enemy, without much deployment of ground troops. But this has thus far proved ineffective in Afghanistan, in particular when applied to a group as fragmented as the Taliban, hence the introduction of the old B-52 technology this past week --albeit very cautiously, which is making the predominantly Uzbek Northern Alliance even more nervous. I don't think that it would be that great a surprise if the Shi'i stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif is captured at some point this month, or even if Kabul falls within the hands of the Alliance, but what will the end be? (Even though it remains highly uncertain whether that wretched Alliance will ever be able to capture any city.) The total restructuring of a country as unstable as Afghanistan could easily turn into a gigantic nightmare, and one could foresee an exiting of the US-led alliance by simply "dropping" the Afghanis altogether --as it previously happened with the anti-Soviet resistance in the 1980s, or the Iraqi Kurds in the mid-1990s.

But notwithstanding all human casualties and the bleak future of Afghanistan, the sources of general malaise vis-à-vis this war are of a different nature. In fact, the terrorists on September 11 have struck a symbolic target located at the "center" of modern capitalism --not only Manhattan, but more specifically the Twin Towers (le torri gemelle). (There is something mythological in Western civilization about doubles, in particular "twins," like Romulus killing his twin-brother and founding Rome in the eighth century B.C., as a way of perceiving one's exact double before committing a crime in a gesture of self-sacrifice: mimesis at its best --a grandiose gesture of destroying the mirror prior to the act of a radical new becoming.) That was an act of grandiose imagery that was felt around the world, and has created the event of the new century, the mother of all events. In fact, all nineteen suspects have absorbed so well the values of the American Dream that they can hardly be called "outsiders" anymore. In the six- to twelve-month "training" period, they lived normally with their families and friends, mixed with ordinary people in bars and nightclubs, occasionally got drunk and had fights, and had bank accounts and ATM cards. More importantly, however, they absorbed so well the powerful and ambiguous culture of the image, while disdaining "high" culture and élitist discourses and ideas, to the point that it's ridiculous to even advance the claim that they hated the American lifestyle to which they had become so accustomed. Actually, the reverse is true: they must have been fascinated by all those images and their symbols, and must have realized from the Hollywood culture that the most powerful society in history loves apocalyptic rituals of self-sacrifice and destruction. Now that those rituals have been made real thanks to a spectacular event reproduced on video all around the world, Hollywood must have suddenly run out of ideas.

The embarrassment must have therefore been twofold. First, it was an act from the "inside" rather than the "outside." Unlike the young Palestinian kamikaze bombers who remain at the margins of Israeli society as tools of cheap labor and exploitation, all suspects were perfectly integrated as your most ordinary citizens. The alleged leader of the massacre, the Egyptian Muhammad 'Ata, was from a wealthy middle class family, studied urbanism in Hamburg and wrote a Masters dissertation in German on urban renewal in the Syrian city of Aleppo. We're all familiar with bin Laden's excessive wealth, and his half-brothers' donations to American institutions (including one big generous "gift" to Harvard). The point here is that we would all have felt more secure had the culprits been as poor as those displaced Afghanis --we would have at least "understood" something, and made use of classical warfare notions of poor versus spoiled rich societies.

Second, once we accept this "inside" hypothesis, that act of terror could then be perceived in conjunction with other ones perpetrated by radical extremist groups from within the US (e.g. Timothy McVeigh and his benefactors among the militias of the mid-West). With such perspective, all the talk about Islam and the clash of civilizations becomes of a secondary nature --or, at least, it must be totally revisited. Equal exchange, which by definition is a fundamental rule of capitalism, has been reversed through the symbolic exchange of the perpetrators --primarily, the taking of their own lives in an irreversible act of self-sacrifice-- a gesture which has rendered all the spectacular imagery even more unequal. Even Timothy McVeigh, whose Oklahoma City murderous act looks very similar to that of the WTC, had to face death confined to the space of a clinical chamber with video cameras patiently transmitting a death-penalty case. But that's far less spectacular than the nineteen hijackers who died hand-in-hand with their victims --and in the case of the United Airlines flight that crashed in rural Pennsylvania, they were probably even murdered by struggling victims.

We are thus far away from the logic and tactics of the European terrorists groups, such as the Italian Brigade Rosse or the German Bader-Meinhoff, which flourished in the aftermath of the students revolts in the 1960s. An outcome of a utopian Marxism-Leninism, or Trotskyism and Maoism, they were for the most part believers of a radical shakeup within European societies through their students and labor movements. They took great risks in making their ideologies known to the public and distributed tracts and pamphlets on their revolutionary actions. Their actions were never wide scale and were not meant to be genocidal, and thus perished by the late 1970s with the embourgeoisement of the students and proletarians which they thought constituted their base.

By contrast today's groups are like those "I Love You" viruses which devastate millions of computers around the world, while triggered with a minimalist technological equipment. In a single act they reverse the equation of the liberal free exchange by endlessly circulating and reproducing themselves around the globe. In hindsight the anti-globalization movements, which began in Seattle and ended in Genoa under Berlusconi, look like a muted and ineffective reproduction of the student movements of the 1960s in that they thought that capitalism could be changed, or at least modified by making it more human (or humanistic). By contrast the terrorist movements of the twenty-first century look for the spectacular and symbolic through self-sacrifice and the image. They have no message to deliver, and are not at home with ideas and discourse, nor in face-to-face exchange. In other words, they are like your most common men and women around the globe, as epitomized by the American way of life, which has become the main model of success after the fall of communism and all socialist utopian systems.

Even if Kabul falls to the Northern Alliance, and as a result the Taliban lose their control of Afghanistan, the war on terrorism has already been lost because it is fought by conventional means. While millions of dollars are poured daily to sustain the war effort, it took no more than $500,000 (based on FBI estimates) to reach "ground zero." Those who are punished as the result of the daily bombings are paradoxically the ones the most remote from any form of liberal capitalism and have been unaffected by globalization (or "mondialisation," in the French vocabulary). They in fact have not even reached yet the level of early capitalism that the Italian city-states had implemented in the sixteenth century, and with no TV sets in most Afghani households, they probably did not share the luxury of watching the twin towers going down. Do they even know what took place on September 11?

 

 

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