View from the home front

A roundtable discussion with five locals who have some knowledge of terrorism, Afghanistan, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union

Roundtable participants, L–R: Sarkis Shmavonian, Yitzhak Nates, Beau Grosscup, Jim Jacob and Kim LeBlanc

Roundtable participants, L–R: Sarkis Shmavonian, Yitzhak Nates, Beau Grosscup, Jim Jacob and Kim LeBlanc

photo by Tom Angel

Friday, Nov. 16, the News & Review hosted a roundtable discussion featuring five people whose backgrounds give them some sense of insight into the turmoil surrounding Afghanistan and the attitude of those whose extreme hatred for America led to the Sept. 11 suicide attacks.

Beau Grosscup is a professor of international relations at California State University, Chico and author of The Newest Explosion of Terrorism, which is about his area of study. Jim Jacob is professor of international relations and political science at California State University, Chico. His primary research interest is in the field of terrorism, mostly in the area of European terrorism. Kim LeBlanc lived in Pakistan for four years among Afghan refugees in the 1990s. She traveled in and out of Afghanistan toward the end of 1993 and is writing a master’s thesis on women in Afghanistan and Afghan history. Yitzhak Nates is the rabbi at Chico’s Beth Israel Temple. He has a background in Middle Eastern studies and spent four years in Israel. Sarkis Shmavonian is a contributor to the News & Review and was a Fullbright Fellow to the USSR in the stages just before its collapse.

We asked the questions and tape-recorded the answers and opinions of our guests. What follows is the edited transcription of the 90-minute discussion.

Stating that terrorism is never justified, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops also notes that poverty and oppression provide conditions for resentment and help give rise to terrorism. The bishops then urge the U.S. and other industrialized nations to base their policies less on self interest—maintaining a steady supply of oil at any cost, for instance—and more on relieving suffering in the area. Would such a shift in policy work?

Beau Grosscup: Well I think it would be a good starting point. The problem, of course, is that U.S. policymakers already assert that they are doing that. The mechanism by which they are doing it is called neo-liberalism and privatization of the world economy. They assume that eventually that will happen. So for them that would be a non-starting point. That statement probably will not have any impact on the policy making.

Having said that, I think it’s a good starting point because if indeed we directed our policy in that direction it would move us away from that imagery about the source of terrorism, which basically says it’s due to mental instability. That’s a very simplified notion. That and that the only way to deal with terrorists is through force. It would be a recognition that terrorism is multi-sourced and it comes from economic deprivation, social injustice and things like that.

The problem is, that opens up terrorism to a much more complex analysis and answers and doesn’t allow policy makers who understand the manipulative qualities of terrorism to use it to their benefit—meaning the “us vs. them,” “we don’t do it, they do it” scenario. While it’s a great statement, I don’t think for those two reasons it’s probably going to be adopted by U.S. policy makers.

Jim Jacobs: One of the saddest aspects of American policy as reflected in Congress is that, of the many ways that we could spend our money, foreign aid has the least support of any option. There is very little support from Congress for spending money overseas. Even if we try to explain it in light of our own national interests, not to speak of the evident need of the people in Afghanistan or in the Third World, there is just very little support for it. I think that what that reflects is a tendency for isolationism that is very real in American foreign policy.

Pat Buchanan [in his 2000 presidential campaign] sounded like a member of the Senate in the 1920s. Current President Bush ran on a policy of isolationism. He opposed interventionism. He opposed nation-building. Of course, one of the great ironies of the U.S. position in Afghanistan is not that the United States is leading an intervention, but that in its wake we are going to be responsible for the nation-building that should have occurred in Afghanistan ten years before.

Kim LeBlanc: What is it now? Less than 1 percent of the federal budget goes for overseas aid. And even that less than 1 percent has to be fought for in a very, very difficult manner. You have to be aggressive just to get that money. I think the way in which the Catholic bishops urge the United States and other industrialized nations to base their policies less on self-interest is great, but I’d like to see us getting away from that a little bit and instead acknowledged that people are beginning to care more and realize that there is more going on than they knew about [before Sept. 11] and build on that.

A lot of people get very defensive if you mention at all that what happened on Sept. 11 was the result of our policies. But people are beginning to realize there is more out there than they knew about.

Yitzhak Nates: I always talk a lot about common ground—that we agree that we’re in favor of peace; we agree we’re in favor of innocent persons not being killed; we agree we’re concerned about our security and we have to balance all the issues. So building on common ground is really useful. I’ve found at our own synagogue level, to build a consensus is very important, from the ground up.

BG: I think that what Jim was saying about the lack of commitment to public funds for foreign aid is reflected in the ideology that says “let the private sector do it.” It’s happening here at home, and it’s happening abroad. It’s a part of an analysis that says [that] with globalization comes the developing international global marketplace and the magic of the market should go global.

So keep government out of the way because it doesn’t do anything right. And that is part of the ideological approach here about “How can we end suffering?” Well, let the market do it. I think that’s their approach, and it reflects on where monies do and do not get spent by the government. It’s the whole attitude about what government can and cannot do.

Sarkis Shmavonian: Well, this kind of multinational capitalism we have in 2001 just seems to outrun all national frontiers. I guess something to think about—I know next to nothing about terrorism—is how do we deal with this as it comes up against certain other ethics and other religions and other ways of doing things? Maybe there are several kinds of terrorism; it isn’t all in one box. If it is, it’s got a lot of sub-variants. I don’t know, but it seems that somewhere along the line capitalism has something to do with this.

Now that the Taliban have been driven out of power in Afghanistan, what should be done in this country in which warlords are as common as field mice and so many men are accustomed to fighting as a way of life? Is it possible for a coalition government to work, or are we likely to see more fighting and bloodshed?

JJ: One of the great slogans of Marxism/ Leninism is that there are no innocents. I think that’s clear as we look at the range of alternatives of potential leaders in Afghanistan. Other than an 86-year-old king who’s been in exile since 1973 in Rome, most of the other players not only have bloody hands, but also have changed sides. There’s apparently a tradition in Afghan culture that readily accepts people who engage in treachery and betrayal. As a result, we say, “Thank goodness the Taliban is out of power and the Northern Alliance is in power.”

I don’t think there’s ever going to be a moment’s peace in Afghanistan from now on, unless the Afghans and the powers around them, and the United Nations, decides that OK, this is going to be your government<br>— Sarkis Shmavonian

photo by Tom Angel

Well, the Northern Alliance were the ones who defeated the Soviet Union and began a period of repression in Afghan history. I read that at the time of the overthrow of the king, fewer than 2 percent of the women, possibly in the urban areas in Afghanistan, wore the berqas. And suddenly it’s been mandated 100 percent universal. And so that, while the Taliban has now been defeated, it remains to be seen how clear the commitment to human rights is going to be of the group than now comes to power.

JJ: I think the fact that many women are still wearing the berqas means that they are cautious, that the winds of change sweep back and forth across that country. People are waiting to see whether things are going to solidify or there’ll be a reversal of fortunes.

SS: I don’t think the Afghans are going to be able to fix this themselves. That’s not to say the U.S. ought to be out there fixing it, but I think that there ought to be, somewhere in the ideal world, some kind of a role for Afghanistan’s neighbors. That would be Iran, Pakistan, perhaps Uzbekistan—so many Uzbeks are in the north. Even India in some way. And how that role plays out I really have no clue because Pakistan itself is a composite state. It used to straddle India. They had Bangladesh. If I were in the Pakistani government, it would create some anxiety that my country is falling apart from under me.

Pakistan itself is almost paralyzed in some ways. They made the devil’s bargain, because in order to keep the army in power and things more or less stable in the country, they let these Islamic elements rather than Pakistani nationals be the unifying force in the country.

JJ: Well, if you remember there have been U.N. peacekeepers in Cypress for more than 30 years and there is no end in sight. It becomes a local economic profit center. My belief is that the only solution that is going to work is for there to be United Nation-sanctioned elections that would lead to the creation of a multipartite government in which everyone had a seat at the table, including the non-Taliban Pashtuns, and that the king serve as a figurehead, perhaps as a constitutional monarch, for the rest of his natural life.

Of course, he’s got a son and grandson who are already in a line of succession. But it may be a constitutional monarchy, with all of the traditional tribal councils forming the basis of what will ultimately be a legislature. That might be the greatest possibility for peace in that country. The problem, of course, is that according to Afghan tradition no one wants women to sit at the table, and one of the things that’s the most unfortunate is that I’m afraid that women are going to be voiceless in any administration that takes place in the country.

Is there a role that women can play or will play? Is that even feasible?

KL: Yeah, I think there is. There was kind of trend, a feeling of modernization, coming to Kabul. Women worked in ministries and they were teachers and they were exchange students with Russia. And for a while they were exchange students with the United States.

There are a lot of educated women there, and a lot of them are sitting in Peshawar and a lot of them are in Kabul. … The biggest group [in Afghanistan] are the rural women. If we want to be helpful to them, we help with basics because they’re really interested in the family structure, primarily. And then at the very top are women like RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan. They are very modernized. And in the middle are all these women who were educated in Afghanistan or in Pakistan or elsewhere, and they have a lot to contribute. Those are the women I met while I was there. And there are roles for them. And they’ve been so patient for so long, saying, “OK, use us, use us.” When the mujahedin came everybody assumed they’d be going back and they’d have a voice. But they didn’t.

SS: I’ve read all these press accounts, and they’re somewhat romantic. They talk about Afghanistan as the last place on earth, and conquerors have tramped through this way and the other and they’ve all gone away. Sorry, folks, that’s over now. Over, over, over.

For 30 years, the country has had invaders coming and going, and there isn’t going to be a moment when that’s going to end. The Afghans, quote unquote, somewhere in their subconscious have now gotten used to seeing foreigners in their country, and I think the women’s issue feeds here, too. Parts of Afghanistan may turn out to have some of the values that you think are still there. Other parts may be primitive, but I don’t think there’s ever going to be a moment’s peace in Afghanistan from now on, unless the Afghans and the powers around them, and the United Nations, decides that OK, this is going to be your government. Too much has happened.

BG: This is the scenario that I think is going to happen and I think it’s going to be driven by the United States, particularly if the war against the Taliban begins to take some bodies, American bodies. The United States at the moment is looking at the Northern Alliance and trying to determine who are really the power brokers within that alliance. And they’re also looking at the largest ethnic majority, which is the Pashtuns, represented by the Taliban, because any government that is going to be successful in Afghanistan has got to have the Pashtuns in it.

But American policymakers have strategic interests—wanting that pipeline to go through Afghanistan. The Taliban simply refused to agree with that. Few people know that when the Taliban came to power in 1996, the first place the leadership went was to Houston, Texas, where they were offered this deal. They refused it. And that’s the real problem with the Taliban, that they refused it. So, if I’m an American strategic thinker, I’m not going to let the United Nations make these determinations, particularly if some Americans start coming back in body bags.

Do you expect the U.S. is going to maintain some kind of presence there for quite a while?

BG: Well, we’ve had a presence in Uzbekistan now for about 10 years where we’ve been training their troops and things of that nature. I think our presence will be more diplomatic in the region as we have these formal arrangements. The Uzbekistan arrangement being the first of many. Absolutely there is a power vacuum to be filled there. and we are going to fill it. Three billion dollars’ worth of oil and gas is important.

KL: Everybody was so excited in Pakistan when the Soviet Union fell apart. They said, “Yes this is good for us; this is good for everybody.” But then Afghanistan continued to fall apart. That’s why they got so involved in the Taliban—trying to get peace in Afghanistan. It doesn’t have to be this ugly thing that has to happen. Peace in Afghanistan is a good thing ultimately. But it’s going to be tricky, and you are completely right, Beau, that there are going to be some real power plays.

It doesn’t have to be this ugly thing that has to happen. Peace in Afghanistan is a good thing ultimately.<br>—Kim LeBlanc

photo by Tom Angel

YN: I have to share a bit of pessimism. I’m curious what happens in this country in the next year. Because I think a couple of large hits and our economy might just find itself without a bottom. Not only economically, but socially.

At this point, a scheduling conflict forced Rabbi Nates to excuse himself from the discussion.

JJ: You know, if I could just follow along with the point he made. It’s one that I think is absolutely critical today. The last comment that [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar made was calling for the destruction of the United States. He said it’s going to happen soon and to remember his prediction. I think that there is a doomsday scenario that involves the use of either chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Osama bin Laden has the money to buy the weapons, and I can tell you, and Sarkis’ experience there might support this, that anything is for sale in the [former] Soviet Union. The Soviet Union in its final years was governed by a kleptocracy—that is, government by theft—and the relationship between the apparatchiks of the former Soviet bureaucracy and organized crime dominated that society and its extracted resources. My suspicion is that at the time they did inventories of nuclear weapons—depots, for instance, in Tajikistan—there were weapons that were missing and that those weapons fell into the hands of organized crime and that organized crime in effect traded them to the Chechens, who traded them to the Afghans for heroin, and they fell into the hands of Osama bin Laden.

He spent 10 years trying to develop a weapon or buy a weapon, and I think we need to be very sober about the threat that bin Laden is posing. And for Omar Mullah to call for the destruction of the United States, he’s not talking about a couple of Sarin gas attacks or sending a few letters filled with anthrax to Chico, Calif. He’s talking about something of a greater magnitude, and I think we need to be serious about that.

If bin Laden is captured, will his network survive, will it be as dangerous as before, and beyond that is there more out there to be aware of than just his network?

SS: I don’t know. I think some of this problem can be traced back to the Saudis. If there is trouble in Saudi Arabia and some kind of revolt there against the ruling prince of family, which has made its own bargains both with the Wahhabies and the outside world in different ways, you could see it. But just in my own naive way, from what I gather from the press, I don’t think a network system can survive in a robust and expansive way without some kind of state support. They would have to find that, and maybe that would be Saddam, I don’t know, but I’m sure there are candidates out there that are ready to pick this up.

BG: When we use the term “network,” particularly in terms of terrorism, it means central control, this imagery of something like a Soviet network that was headquartered in Moscow and then it moves to Baghdad and then it moves to Tehran and then it moves to Afghanistan. This is the real world of terrorism, which the network imagery masks. Which gets back to the other point: What are the sources of terror? If indeed the network imagery is correct, then it wouldn’t survive.

But maybe the network imagery is incorrect, and if that’s the case then Osama bin Laden’s death or capture would not undermine the organizational scheme and the operational scheme of others who may be as important in terms of carrying out acts of terrorism than he actually is.

JJ: The history of revolutionary movements I think demonstrates that one of the greatest problems that they have to overcome is the loss of a charismatic leader. Without a charismatic leader defined as Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar or whoever that might be, in their absence someone else is going to rise to the forefront.

The problem that I think we have with al-Qaeda is the fact that we’ve identified cells or strong sympathizers of that organization in 50 to 60 countries. Dealing with this problem in Afghanistan is really cutting the head off what may prove to me a many-headed snake. I think that we are going to have to realize that simply dealing with Osama bin Laden and the group that’s around him in Afghanistan is going to leave untouched his assistants. who may already have their instructions in the United States, in Germany, in England, around the world.

This group can be pretty much traced back to Saudi Arabia—15 of the terrorists from Sept. 11 as well as bin Laden himself. Why is that?

BG: Well, I think it’s the center of Islam. Obviously, if you are going to be able to recruit people who are true believers, then that might be the starting point. My understanding of how one gets to be a fanatic or recruiting fanatics, if that’s the term one wants to use, is often it’s the people who are not necessarily close to the religion or have a history of being a believer who become the more fanatical.

But then again [Saudi Arabia] is where Osama bin Laden is from. That’s where his connections are, even though he’s been banished. And we know that with Saudi Arabia there is a lot of infighting there. We know that because of the terrorist acts of 1996. We know that they have had their acts, so this doesn’t necessarily surprise me that that’s where they came from.

JJ: The challenge to American foreign policy is the fact that in order to secure our own national interests, security and access to oil, our foreign policy in the Middle East has basically involved accepting governments and value systems that are fundamentally opposed to the values of the American people and the American Constitution. I think one of the reasons there are so many Saudis involved on those suicide flights is the fact that the government of Saudi Arabia is a quietly repressive one, that there are tremendous disparities of wealth, and that you have a royal family that governs the country by conquest.

KL: Yeah, I think, though I’m not an expert in this field, there are dynamics going on between Wahhabism and the royal family, and one of the things that people often bring up, especially now that U.S. people are on Saudi soil and Saudi soil holds Mecca, is part of the job of the royal family is to protect Mecca. So having U.S. soldiers on that holy ground makes it very easy to inflame people around that issue.

My hope is that if there is a positive long-term outcome it will be a redrawing and a rewriting of the history of international relations in the 21st Century<br>—Prof. Jim Jacobs

photo by Tom Angel

BG: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. The thing is that with the Cold War, the Middle East was an area that the United States, because of the location of the Soviet Union, never would have dared to put 500,000 troops in that area. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Untied States tightens up its alliance with the Saudi family, and this is the dynamic I think that enables Osama bin Laden, because he keeps making this point to recruit from Saudi Arabia.

KL: Bin Laden was fighting the Soviet Union on behalf of these people who believed in Islam, and that is something that the United States so downplayed. Saudi Arabia and the United States gave the mujahedin about the same amount of money, and we were very proud of getting the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, but we just forgot who we had given that money to. When we realized it, we left.

If Osama bin Laden is captured, what should be done with him? Is he a prisoner of war, a criminal? Bush has just called for a military tribunal.

SS: I think that is what will be done. Whether or not it ought to be done, I think this is a level of policy that is outside my region of expertise. I’ve never settled in my own mind whether the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center was an act of war or an act of terrorism. I personally am inclined toward acts of war. On those grounds I would probably lean toward the tribunal idea.

JJ: I think that there is a danger in the language that the American people have a symbolic enemy in Osama bin Laden. I think that we have tended to think of him as the Professor Moriarty—to use Sherlock Holmes—of our age. In reality we think that Osama bin Laden has been funding these acts of terrorism around the world.

In fact there is a substantial network that will ultimately be uncovered, and it will demonstrate that not only have the ruling houses of many of the countries in the Middle East been paying protection money in order to create some sort of stability and avoid insurgency in their countries, but that extremely wealthy individuals from around the world have been contributing to Osama bin Laden. If we can follow the money trail, we’ll have a better idea of what this phenomenon is. It would be wrong for us to assume that bin Laden has been funding this out of his inheritance. I think this is going to be a much bigger and a much broader political phenomenon. It’s going to surprise us when we see who’s been contributing money.

BG: I agree with that, but that is why we’ll never find out. We won’t find that out because it would implicate the United States in supporting the very people who are giving him the money. This is all part of the complexity of this whole issue that we’ve been encouraged not to investigate and simply see it as a single-headed dragon.

JJ: The United States has engaged in politics with strange bedfellows historically. If you look at the cast of characters that we will consider ultimately as allies and legitimately entitled to sit at the table in a post-conflict Afghanistan, it’s going to look like the ethical equivalent of the bar scene in Star Wars. It’s going to be a bunch of strange individuals, and it’s clear that many of these people have been enemies and then friends, they have been allies of the United States, they have been our agents. A clear point-A- to-point-B history of this is going to be impossible.

BG: We’ve already got hints of manipulation, of oil stocks even a week before September that the [Securities and Exchange Commission] is allegedly looking into, but they’ll never get the results of that investigation. We’ve also got a lot of documentation, even in some of the conventional press, concerning the Bush family relationships with Osama bin Laden and his family. That is the tip of the iceberg; nobody is going to go there if that’s going to be made public.

KL: I’m curious about this question Jim raised about nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.

JJ: Well, [the Taliban] abandoned facilities in Kabul in haste, and the documentations that was shown on the ground were basically the diagrams for atomic weapons that were similar to those that were used by the United States on Japan in World War II. There were complex drawings regarding the building of biological and chemical agents. Sarin is a binary agent, for instance, a very simple and stable thing as long as the two components are kept separate—you can walk around with it—but when they are mixed together, you die.

This is the kind of thing that concerns me, that he has the ability to lead to an outbreak of smallpox. The difference between smallpox and anthrax is that if I’m sitting next to you and you have anthrax, I have no risk of catching anthrax at all. Smallpox will sweep through the American population. I just think that whether it is a chemical or biological or nuclear threat, the kind of thing Mullah Omar said, calling for not harm to the great Satan or striking the great Satan, but destroying America—and remember my prediction—tells me that something is afoot and we need to be vigilant about that.

BG: I don’t see the scenario that Jim does. The word “destruction”—did he use it in English, or was it interpreted? If interpreted, I think it places too much emphasis on that word. I don’t think there is any doubt that they are looking to get those weapons.

After all, they are looking at their adversary and they are saying, “Our adversary has them; why shouldn’t we have them?” I think that’s an expected effort. But I don’t see that scenario quite yet.

KL: I think it’s tricky because as soon as you bring all that up then all the putting aside rights and civil liberties is so much easier.

JJ: Well, bin Laden said [that] so long as the Afghan people and the Palestinian people do not know security, then America would never know security again, either. I think that is exactly true. There is a complex game of psychological warfare being waged here, and we need to understand that this guy is not an amateur. He’s a pro.

One last thing as we wrap this up. I think if there is anything that is potentially positive that will come out of the conflict in which we are currently engaged, it’s that we may be in the process of witnessing a redrawing of alliances in the international system.

Beau and I are both professors in international relations, and we may see this differently. But as a professor of international relations, I’m very interested in the fact that we are as close to Russia as we have ever been in our history and that we are making alliances with other countries. I think that at the same time we are recognizing the advantage of using the United Nations as an agent of multinational diplomacy, and so my hope is that if there is a positive long-term outcome, it will be a redrawing and a rewriting of the history of international relations in the 21st century.