You’ve lost the plot

SO, FIVE years after 9/11, are we back to the beginning? Not quite. Complexity has been replaced by simplicity, but the magnitude of ambition remains steadfast. However, there are subtle changes in the big story, and fresh curves in the small ones: the diameter has changed, there is more than one centre in this circle, and the spokes spreading from these centres to the edge have multiplied.

By M.j. Akbar

Published: Mon 14 Aug 2006, 10:29 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:37 PM

One size does not fit all. The good news, I presume, is that the plot to blow up ten aircraft over the Atlantic was pre-empted. The police had to move on suspicion and information from the shadows of an uncertain world, so there is a natural degree of scepticism in the absence of hard evidence. But those entrusted with our security need the benefit of doubt.

We hear that the famed British intelligence picked up the first signals as early as last December. It was a long wait, but they surely had their reasons. They had a mole from within the British Muslim community, and they received much better intelligence from Pakistan. During the G-8 conference in St Petersburg, George Bush went out of his way to praise General Pervez Musharraf for help in the Bush-Blair war on terror. Did this information travel from Islamabad to London around that time? The focus is again on Pakistan, but that is a known, familiar and legitimate focus for any spotlight.

The real worry for Tony Blair should be at home. Five years ago, he, along with Bush, bombed Afghanistan to destroy the perpetrators of 9/11. This time, almost all the suspects are British-born. Why? What has happened that has alienated British Muslims from Blair? What is Blair going to do now? You can’t bomb the suburbs of London, can you? Bush and Blair are good at winning a war on the ground. They are experts at losing the battle for the mind. Their firepower is impressive. Their persuasive power is abysmal. There is no mystery in this. No one really believes what they say, because they have made a habit of shifting the truth to define their objectives, or shifting the objective when facts have changed.

Armed action always finds support when it is perceived to be just, which is why there was so much support for the war that ended the Taleban government in Kabul. But five years later, the limitations of even a just war are also obvious. Bush and Blair went to war to find Osama bin Laden. If the Taleban had handed Osama over for trial, the ostensible reason for war would have disappeared. Five years of power later, Bush and Blair still cannot find Osama. Osama bin Laden can find any television channel he wants, when he chooses to send a videotape message. Any journalist from a television channel can get in touch with his group. Those videos do not travel from Pakistan to Qatar on a flying carpet, do they? But the combined might of CIA, MI6 and Pakistan’s ISI cannot find Osama.

The true consequences of the unjust war that Bush and Blair perpetrated in Iraq are being measured in slow, painful, bloody, deadly steps. War is a difficult business; occupation of necessity will turn brutal when soldiers come under pressure or succumb to the worst form of temptation, as in cases of rape and consequent murder. Bush and Blair may tabulate death with the cold eye of a statistician. Young men in anonymous streets might react differently. Blair invites so much scepticism that many young Muslims in Britain simply disbelieve that there was a "liquid plot" and that this is another effort to exploit insecurity for political gain. They do not keep such thoughts to themselves anymore. They tell CNN. Bush has a worse problem. The Democrats in America did not waste much time before wondering whether the timing of the plot disclosure had a political dimension.

Five years down a difficult line, there are too many questions, wherever one looks. A favourite phrase of America and Britain five years ago was narco-terrorism. Terrorists were using the wealth from Afghanistan’s poppy crop to finance their evil. It is sometimes dangerous to lose as effective an alibi as the Taleban. In the five years of Bush-Blair management, Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation has reached a record high. This narcotic is not meant for Afghans, or it would fetch a very devalued price. Its true value comes from the euros and pounds and dollars it fetches in Europe and America. Those are the currencies that keep farmers in Afghanistan happy, and the criminals who run the drug trade in comfort. Have you ever wondered why not a single supply line of drugs from Afghanistan to the West is ever busted by the military forces stationed in Afghanistan? I may have missed the news, but have you ever heard of smugglers being caught and punished?

Failure is terrible, and terribly contagious as well. It wreaks havoc on both foe and friend. High on their own agenda, Bush and Blair blithely ignored one of the real causes of international conflict, and thought that an occasional verbal morsel thrown towards Palestine would see them through their terms in office. They contorted the logic of their own favourite moral horizon, democracy, when free elections brought into power a force they did not want. There was more than one way to deal with Hamas. They chose obstinacy. When you have blindsided yourself, reality becomes invisible. Their policy towards Palestine was at least partly rooted in contempt for the Arab, born out of the conviction that the Arab could never fight, and even if he did, was no match for Israel.

Bush and Blair had absolutely no idea of the forces that they had revived, or given birth to. In five years, Arab governments may have remained their usual static self, but the Arab street has become a different place. There was a virtual smile on the faces of Bush and Blair in the first week of the Lebanon war, when with characteristic smugness they rushed weaponry to Tel Aviv and gave Israel "time" to finish the job (that is, eliminate Hezbollah) before they defined the terms of a ceasefire. A month later, Israeli tanks lie disabled before shocked cameras. A small paramilitary force of irregulars without a single tank, battleship or airplane, with rockets that were widely dismissed as defunct, has held its own against the fabled might of the Israeli Defence Force. Time has stripped away the disinformation that all sides use during war. For instance, Israel accuses the Hezbollah day in and day out of hiding behind civilians in order to justify the awful destruction of a nation, but no one tells you that Israeli military installations are in civilian areas in north Israel.

At the moment of writing, it is unclear how the war will pause (it will not end, it will only pause). But this much is clear. The myth of Israeli invincibility lies buried in the hills of Lebanon. The body language, as well as language, of Shimon Peres, a veteran of every war that Israel has fought, has changed in 30 days. The last statement that I heard him make on CNN had more fizzle than fizz: "We did not start this war, so we don’t have to win it... We have to stop it..." When was the last time that Israel’s media were demanding the resignation of their Prime Minister in the middle of war? There was no last time. This is the first time. The days when an Israeli general could stroll into Beirut, conduct operations at will, and stroll back are over. The cost of even trying to stroll towards the Litani river has been very heavy.

Problems cannot be solved unless they are first understood. Bush and Blair now give the impression that their sole purpose is to stretch whatever remains of their credibility to last till they have to leave office. They need the enemy they set out to destroy, or the logic of their survival will collapse. Bush still jumps from one inappropriate phrase to another, unable to see the damage he causes in the process. When claiming the obligatory victory against terrorists who had failed to carry out the ‘liquid hijacking’, he blamed it on ‘Islamic fascists’. I wish someone would tell him that there is nothing Islamic about fascism. Some Muslims are indeed fascists. I could name a few who survived on American cash and goodwill. Why blame Islam for the sins of a few Muslims? Bush and Blair are believing Christians who go to church as often as they can. Does anyone in his senses describe their wars as "Christian wars"? The sadness is that 9/11 was a historic opportunity to find answers in a spirit of collective sorrow. Instead, all we see is the debris of unanswered questions. Bush and Blair perhaps believe that they can survive on the strength of media headlines. Today’s headlines are so often tomorrow’s boomerangs. Bush and Blair have lost the plot.

Eminent intellectual and author M J Akbar is editor-in-chief of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle newspapers. He can be reached at

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