Unleashing Monsters 29 October 2013
It is interesting teaching undergraduates. My students generally are young—mostly under twenty-years old—with little knowledge about many world issues or events that I take for granted. One matter is the long finished, but strategically challenging, Cold War. Many young people do not realise that, in 1988, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had 45,000 nuclear warheads. Its competitor, the United States (US), ‘only’ had 22,000, although these apparently were technologically superior. Both superpowers could deliver these highly-destructive weapons using long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Surprisingly for my students, the USSR had probably targeted Australian cities like Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. A certain target was the important Australia-US intelligence facility at Pine Gap, Northern Territory. Some Western strategists considered that, given the closeness of Australia-US relations, Moscow could send a strong message to Washington by ‘nuking’ an Australian city. The Soviets may have believed that such an act might not have provoked any US retaliation. Thankfully, this ‘monster’ was never unleashed. Nevertheless, my students’ unease continued when I told them that Russia, the chief inheritor of all things Soviet, still has 8,000 nuclear weapons. (The US ‘only’ has about 5,000 nukes.) Post-Cold War, a Russian nuclear attack against Australia is highly unlikely. Equally, Australia’s ability to deter any nuclear attack has not improved one iota. Australia still does not have nuclear weapons, while North Korea, India and Pakistan are now possible nuclear threats. Canberra still considers that Australia is under the US’s ‘nuclear umbrella’, and therefore is protected. What this arrangement fully entails has never been tested.
Another matter that my youthful students know little about is how some nation-states create organisations that come back to ‘bite’ them. Consider Al-Qa’ida (‘the Base’). Western nations, including Australia and the US, funded, armed and/or trained mujahideen fighters who fought, and ultimately defeated, the Red Army that the USSR deployed in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. In the context of the Cold War, Afghanistan offered Washington a great opportunity to use proxies to weaken its global rival. The US also may have been seeking revenge for its defeat by Communist forces, supported by the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, in south Vietnam. Thus, the US used Pakistan as its chief conduit to funnel arms and ammunition to the vehemently anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen. Soon after the USSR withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the ‘evil [USSR] empire’, as Ronald Reagan called it, collapsed and the Cold War ended. The resilient mujahideen had played an important part fighting the Red Army, draining the USSR’s exchequer, creating war fatigue among Soviet citizens, and in showing that the USSR was not as strong or benevolent as its propaganda suggested.
Interestingly, some mujahideen had been inspired to go to fight in the anti-Soviet jihad (holy war) Afghanistan by Muslims living there. This included two men in Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK; ‘Services office’), a group formed in 1984: Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian ‘father of global jihad’, and Osama bin Laden, a rich Saudi Arabian. Their intention was to garner funds and gather Muslims to fight the ‘Godless’ Red Army. More importantly—at least in the current context of world terrorism—MAK morphed into Al-Qa’ida. It benefitted from MAK’s network, contacts and skills, which have produced ‘kills’. This ‘monster’ was responsible for the complex and well executed—but terrible and tragic—terrorist incidents that stunned US and world citizens on 11 September 2001.
In explaining Al-Qa’ida’s motives, my students struggle to understand some things. First, that a small number of Muslims on the extreme fringe of this generally peaceful religion are so disenchanted that they plan and attack innocent civilians. Second, that these anti-social Muslims justify their stance because they believe that the West has long exploited, suppressed or denigrated Muslims and/or has excessively, unquestioningly supported Israel or repressive pro-US regimes in the Middle East/South-west Asia. Third, that the morals and activities of the West are not always superior to those of the terrorists. Indeed, the Wests’ pursuit of the ‘moral high ground’ is sometimes questionable, as evidenced by the current spying saga involving the US’s National Signals Agency’s spying on supposed US allies. (Equally, in the West’s defence, we know about such activities because Western citizens generally enjoy a free media, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.)
Al-Qa’ida is not the first organisation, or ‘monster’, unleashed on people that has come back to ‘bite’ its initial supporters. In the 1980s, a Sikh, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and his followers who sought an independent Sikh state of ‘Khalistan’ in north-western India, allegedly were creations of Indira Gandhi—as Bharatiya Janata Party leaders again recently claimed. The Sikh bodyguards who assassinated India’s prime minister in 1984 did so because Mrs Gandhi had ordered the Indian Army to enter Amritsar’s Golden Temple and ‘remove’ Bhindranwale holed up there. Similarly, India may have trained dissident Tamils from Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. These Tamils, particularly those in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, nevertheless willingly killed soldiers in the Indian Peace Keeping Force sent by New Delhi to pacify northern Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990. Most significant is the Taliban. In the 1990s, Pakistan’s prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate ‘empowered’ talibs (religious students) in north-western Pakistan and Afghanistan. In recent times, Islamabad has clumsily classified these men as ‘good Taliban’, comprising those who support Pakistan’s position in/re Afghanistan, and ‘bad Taliban’, who attack Pakistanis and destabilise Pakistan. The bad Taliban’s ‘successes’ possibly include the devastating assassination of Ms Bhutto herself in 2007. Most recently, they may have been responsible for assassinating Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Law Minister, Israrullah Gandapur. Unleashing brutal covert organisations whose members are loyal chiefly only to themselves can be dangerous.
29 October 2013