SCMP Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Attack's fallout still to be measured

So far, so good. The initial instinct to lash out blindly has been curbed. And the rest of the world can feel grateful that America has Colin Powell, a man of mature judgment, as Secretary of State and that America's allies in Europe have been sufficiently supportive to claim some influence over the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Outlines of silver linings are even appearing. President George W. Bush's support for a Palestinian state raises the possibility that this time around - unlike at the time of the Gulf War - the United States will do something to reverse Israel's expansionism-by-settlement and force it back to the Oslo accords. The Palestine issue remains the source of much of the hostility towards the West among non-Arab Muslims and Arabs of all faiths.
There is a chance Syria will see this as an opportunity to come in from the cold, although it is difficult to see how the country can abandon support for the militants of Hamas until Israel is restrained.
The situation should strengthen the reformist elements in Iran headed by President Mohammad Khatami. The Russians have moved swiftly to bolster their military ties with Teheran. This might make the US uneasy but should influence Washington to consider where its interests in the region really lie.
China can sit back and get praise for merely verbal support for the US, gaining advantage meanwhile from the West's tussle with Islamic extremism and the marginalising, for now, of the missile-defence issue.
Afghanistan might be delivered from its years of agony. Money and food will be powerful weapons in detaching the ruling Taleban from the local community, even in the group's Pushtu heartland. Buying the loyalty of tribal leaders has always been possible, which is one reason the war has lasted so long.
By now, all the neighbours - Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan - and now the US must understand their interest lies in the demise of the Taleban. All need to stop using Afghanistan as a place for proxy wars, whether over ideology or ethnic links, and make an effort to put Afghanistan together as a neutral, multi-ethnic buffer state. If they can agree that is desirable, it should be possible. It might be especially difficult for Pakistan, with its own large Pushtu population. But it might also be especially important for Pakistan, as the long-term alternative could be dismemberment of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Defeating the Taleban politically, as well as covertly, will take time but might be a surer means of dealing with them than open war. In a war, they will try to present themselves as god-fearing victims of the enemies of Islam so that even as they lose, they increase the sense of injustice among Muslims who ought to despise them.
So much for the optimistic side. There is also plenty of negative fallout from September 11. One must wonder whether concentrating efforts on the Taleban and on the Afghan camps of Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden, the suspected architect of last month's attacks, is setting the US up for disappointment. The attackers were educated people. Their peers swim more easily in our modern urban sea than in the rock dump that is Afghanistan. Will getting rid of the Taleban, desirable though it is, tackle the problem of Algerians, Egyptians, Saudis and others bent on undermining the West? Does the Afghan campaign go to the heart of the matter?
For the region, one negative could be a serious deterioration in India-Pakistan relations and, perhaps, an end to the previously budding improvement in US-India ties. Pakistan is hoping for some support from the US for its position on Kashmir, and Kashmir represents the fundamental problem with Mr Bush's declaration of war on not just the perpetrators of the September 11 crimes but also "global terrorism". The line between terrorist and freedom fighter is thin. Pakistan views the Kashmiri insurgents it backs as "freedom fighters", even though some of their bomb attacks appear to fall into most definitions of terrorism.
The needs of the hour are also an opportunity for the ex-communist rulers of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to get on with more suppression of dissidents in the name of fighting fundamentalism, and for China to present its suppression of Uygur nationalism as proper and beneficial. Russian President Vladimir Putin is quite blatant in looking for a free hand against his supposed compatriots in Chechnya and by implication any other separatists who have the misfortune to be Muslims as well as non-Russian. Conceivably, the current alliances of convenience will backfire and drive democrats and nationalists into the arms of the religious right.
From Europe come warning signs of a backlash against Islam that could be dangerous for a continent full of countries with large Muslim minorities. And with its low birth rates, Europe might have little choice but to keep its economy on an even keel and its poor neighbours from open hostility by absorbing more people from North Africa and the Middle East.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's indiscreet comments about the superiority of Western Christian civilisation compared with Islamic civilisation were the tip of a large iceberg. Sentiments only marginally less prejudiced have become commonplace in the European media - including the normally reliable Financial Times, which featured a piece on the apparent incompatibility of Islam and modern economic development. Despite Western leaders' protestations that they are not prejudiced against Islam, levels of ignorance are profound. So it is not surprising if Muslim-majority countries, including such aggressively secular states as Turkey, believe Mr Berlusconi is more representative of Europe than are those who criticised him.
One month after the horror of September 11, the potential of the impending reaction to be a power for good or for the creation of more mayhem is finely balanced.
Philip Bowring ( ) is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.