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Saturday, Sept. 13, 2003

Get war on terror on track

NEW DELHI -- Violence-extolling Islamists target the United States, Israel and India as their principal enemies. Yet these three democracies are no more secure against terrorism today than before U.S. President George W. Bush launched his global war on terror. In fact, terror at home compelled Ariel Sharon to cut short the first-ever visit by an Israeli prime minister to India, without spending the highly symbolic 9/11 anniversary with his Indian hosts as he had planned.

The second anniversary of 9/11 is a reminder about how far the war on terror still is from achieving its key objectives. Despite the arrest of several key al-Qaeda leaders and the ouster of the thuggish Taliban from power in Kabul, the scourge of Islamic terrorism has spread to more states.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda, after being on the run, are beginning to regroup in Afghanistan with the help of new volunteers from Pakistan. Critical to the revival strategy of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are the sanctuaries and support they enjoy within Pakistan, where a military dictatorship propped up by U.S. aid has neither succeeded in denying terrorists safe havens in the tribal areas of the east nor dismantled its state-run terrorist infrastructure against India.

Even before the antiterror war could score any enduring success in its original mission, it has widened its thrust to take in a new state -- Iraq -- that Bush has labeled "the central front." Worse, the U.S. military confronts the menacing prospect of sinking into a double quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, a development that would surely spur the bloody resurgence of Islamists in several regions.

The additional $87 billion Bush wants for Iraq and Afghanistan is a belated recognition of the enormous costs involved in dollar terms, not to mention human casualties. With $58 billion already spent, the Iraq war has become the costliest campaign in U.S. history. But it will require more than money to contain the forces of jihad that pursue violence as a sanctified tool of religion and a path to redemption.

The challenge is also wider: The entire expanse from the Middle East to Southeast Asia is home to militant groups and troubled by terrorist violence, posing a serious challenge to international and regional security. The footprint of almost every major international terror attack can still be traced back to the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt. The radicalization of Muslims in Southeast Asia, where Islamist groups are becoming increasingly entrenched, undergirds the growing challenge and urgency.

It is in this vast geographical stretch known for its sheikdoms, military dictatorships and other types of autocracies that Israel and India, as the region's two flourishing democracies under siege from Islamic terror groups, are cooperating on counterterrorism. Just as India's security has been undermined by the forces of jihad that the U.S. first encouraged and now battles in Afghanistan, Israel might have to bear the brunt if Iraq becomes a new base for global jihad. But Indo-Israeli cooperation cannot yield lasting results without the active participation of the U.S., with a winnable strategy and vision.

To triumph in the fight against terror, the U.S. needs to learn the lessons from its past policies that gave rise to the Frankensteins it now pursues, including al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar and former Iraq President Saddam Hussein.

The first lesson is to keep the focus on longer-term goals and not be carried away by political expediency and narrow objectives. Terrorism can be stemmed only through a concerted and sustained international campaign that targets terrorist cells and networks wherever they exist and as long as they exist. The U.S. cannot afford to draw distinctions between good and bad terrorists, and between those who threaten its security and those who threaten others. The viper reared against one state is a viper against others.

A second lesson is not to turn the war against terrorism into an ideological battle to serve one's strategic interests. The Bush team is widely seen to have employed the antiterror war to expand U.S. military, diplomatic and energy interests in an unprecedented manner and position U.S. forces in the most nations since World War II.

Another lesson is that the problem of and solution to terrorism are linked. Terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world but also springs from the rejection of democracy and secularism. The swamps that breed terrorism can never be fully drained as long as the societies that rear or tolerate them are not de-radicalized and democratized. It is contradictory for the U.S. to oil the Pakistani dictatorship with billions of dollars in aid and debt write-off while seeking democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The war on terror, in the final analysis, can be won only by inculcating a secular and democratic ethos in societies steeped in religious and political bigotry.

Despite the daunting challenge, the U.S. cannot afford to lose this war. The Islamists would swell their ranks by trapping the last great superpower in Iraq and Afghanistan after having routed the Soviet Union in the latter state. Their resurgence would impinge directly on the security of secular, democratic societies and help win new recruits to the cause they portray as a fight against America-led Christendom.

It is time Bush built a true international antiterror consensus and involved all major powers in the counteroffensive. The U.S. should hand the task of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan to the United Nations and focus its efforts on the larger security dimensions, targeting terrorist cells across the world as well as their state and substate sponsors. The war on terror should be global not just in name but in practice.

Brahma Chellaney, a strategic affairs analyst and television commentator, is professor at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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