The Ripple Effect: Air Strikes Expose Allies' Vulnerability

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An armed Pakistani police officer stands guard in Quetta, Pakistan

Friday afternoon will be a good opportunity to measure the global impact of America's war on terrorism. That's when the Muslim faithful from Jakarta to Jersey City will emerge from their mosques having been given spiritual guidance — guidance on what Washington deems a war on terrorists who defile Islam, but what America's enemies are doing their best to portray as an attack on the universal Muslim "ummah" — the global community of believers which, like NATO, is inclined to believe that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Whenever a Western country attacks a Muslim nation, it runs the risk of sparking a backlash among the "ummah" — even if it drops food as a gesture of goodwill to the civilian population. And that gives the politically precarious regimes of the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia that have backed the U.S. campaign good reason to pay very close attention to this Friday's sermons.

The backlash so far

So far, that backlash has been fairly muted:

  • At least six people have been killed in violent anti-American protests in Pakistan, but these were predicted and have not assumed dimensions that would threaten the stability of General Musharraf's regime. The general has also moved preemptively, placing a number of key Islamist leaders under house arrests and purging Taliban sympathizers from the military's top brass;
  • Yasser Arafat's police found themselves playing a role usually reserved for their Israeli counterparts, putting down an anti-American demonstration in Gaza and killing three Palestinians. Arafat appears to have gambled that the diplomatic gains from ingratiating himself with the U.S. outweigh the danger posed by Palestinian anger — and, perhaps, that he can rely on Israel to provide sufficient incentive to prevent a Palestinian civil war;
  • Anti-American protests in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, turned violent Wednesday, and police warned they would not tolerate any further violence;
  • Malaysia's largest opposition party has called for jihad, and promised demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy on Friday.

    All of these are mostly predictable and mostly manageable. But as the Sept. 11 attacks reminded, we live in an interconnected world in which events and processes in one place can have unpredictable and sometimes cataclysmic consequences tens of thousands of miles away. And nothing destabilizes the international political order as much as a war.

    As the geopolitical shockwaves from the explosions first in New York and Washington and now in Afghanistan race outwards from their epicenters, they invariably test the structural integrity of the regimes in their path, exposing fissures and weaknesses and rocking political foundations.

    Precarious Pakistan

    Pakistan, with its military rule, mounting domestic Islamist challenge and long history of intimacy with the Taliban regime, faces the toughest challenge. The backlash there will mount rather than diminish as the bombing continues and refugees flood across from Afghanistan. And Pakistan will soon find itself scrambling to find a new proxy in Kabul to compete with the Russian-backed Northern Alliance for influence in a post-Taliban Afghanistan. General Musharraf's recent reshuffle of his generals suggests he's also on the lookout for any backlash from within the military. The U.S., too, will keep close watch, knowing that ownership of an undisclosed number of nuclear warheads may hang in the balance.

    Yasser Arafat may be taking a calculated risk in alienating his people in order to win favors from Washington, but elsewhere in the Arab world, the mood is nervous. The Organization of the Islamic Conference on Wednesday issued a statement condemning the Sept. 11 attacks but expressing concern that the air raids on Afghanistan could lead to further suffering by innocents. And also warning the U.S. against extending its fight to Iraq. Most Arab moderate regimes are tolerating peaceful anti-American demonstrations as an outlet for popular anger. But the longer the U.S. campaign persists, the deeper the discomfort of its Arab allies. And if Palestinian radicals choose to challenge Arafat by escalating attacks on Israel and Israel retaliates with a heavy hand, Arab regimes may find their alliance with Washington being fiercely challenged.

    Indonesia is living dangerously

    Indonesia, right now, may be the wobbliest "domino" in Southeast Asia, because of Jakarta's notoriously volatile domestic politics. Four years of economic meltdown and political flux has left the question of power in Indonesia — even of the archipelago's future integrity as a single nation state — dangerously unresolved. If the Islamic parties that previously conspired to keep President Megawati Sukarnoputri out of power use the unrest sparked by the Afghanistan raids to move against her once again, Jakarta could be in for another year of living dangerously.

    On the other hand, the military is solidly behind Megawati — probably even more so now that her agreement to support Washington's anti-terror campaign has revived the Indonesian military's relationship with the U.S., which had been in the deep freeze over human rights abuses in East Timor.

    Future uncertain

    The ripple of effects of the war on terrorism are unlikely to bring down any governments — at least not in the short term. Indeed, the U.S. has moved to stabilize its allies in the current campaign by shoring up some of the more vulnerable among them, regardless of any qualms over their democratic or human rights credentials. Those regimes will, no doubt, survive the after-effects of Friday's prayers. But with no early end in sight to the war, they may have to face the same test next Friday. And the Friday after that. And the test is unlikely to get any easier.