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Monday, March 22, 2004

Put global war on terror back on track


NEW DELHI -- One year after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S.-led global war on terror stands derailed, even as the scourge of terrorism has spread to more nations. The U.S. occupation of Iraq has proved divisive in international relations, splitting the world and fracturing the post-9/11 global consensus to fight terror.

Instead of targeting terrorist cells and networks wherever they exist, U.S. President George W. Bush is being compelled by critics at home and abroad to justify his invasion of Iraq. In the process, it has been virtually forgotten that 9/11 happened not because of Iraq but because of the terrorist nurseries in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt. In fact, by speciously linking Iraq with al-Qaeda to justify its invasion, Washington created a self-fulfilling prophesy that now haunts it.

The Iraq mess has discredited Bush's doctrine of preemption, weakening his hand against North Korea, for example. Bush showed that while the sole superpower can do as it pleases, it can neither preempt chaos nor win peace. American "soft power" has been a major casualty of the Iraq occupation, which has helped portray the United States as ham-fisted and unconcerned about the opinions of other states.

The contradictions in Bush's own approach are coming to the fore. Take for instance his accent on promoting democracy in Iraq while shoring up a military dictatorship in Pakistan and shying away from direct elections in Iraq itself. Or the way he invaded Iraq to eliminate weapons of mass destruction that were not there and then allowed Pakistan, with real WMD, to escape international censure for selling nuclear secrets to three other renegade nations -- North Korea, Iran and Libya.

International terrorism threatens the very existence of democratic, secular states. Regrettably, the Iraq occupation has not only aggravated a Muslim-Christian divide in the world, it has also given a new lease on life for al-Qaeda by handing it a fresh cause. It is time that the antiterror war was brought back on course through renewed international consensus.

Terrorism is the cowards' weapon, as it involves sneakiness and obviates facing an enemy. The only defense against the sly, murderous terrorists is an offense aimed at hounding, disrupting and smashing their cells, networks and safe havens. Against covert, unconventional aggression, counteraction must also employ clandestine, unconventional methods in order to strike at the heart of a terrorist group and disrupt its cohesion, credibility and operational capacity. Never before has there been a greater need for close international cooperation on intelligence and law enforcement, especially because of the stateless nature of some terrorists.

It will require a sustained campaign to eliminate the forces of jihad that pursue violence as a sanctified tool of religion and a path to redemption. The challenge is also broad: 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. As the recent Madrid bombings show, any nation can become a target.

The terror attacks since 9/11 signal the new face of terrorism: indiscriminate, large-scale killing of civilians to achieve an absolute victory of radical Islam over the West. This is very different from the objectives of so-called traditional terrorists, such as those in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Spain's Basque region -- for whom selective use of terror has been a means to strengthen their negotiating leverage and advance ethnic or sectarian interests.

Battling the new breed of terrorists will require varying, ad hoc political coalitions in the world. The scourge of transnational terrorism, however, cannot be stemmed if attempts are made to draw distinctions between good and bad terrorists, and between those who threaten "their" security and those who threaten "ours." The viper reared against one target state is a viper against another or against oneself.

The U.S. must ensure that it does not repeat past mistakes that have come to trouble its security and that of the rest of the free world. The security of the U.S. and other secular, democratic societies is linked. The war against terrorism is essentially to protect the freedoms and tolerant spirit of pluralistic societies.

To help reclaim the global fight against terror, the U.S. needs to learn the lessons from past policies that gave rise to Frankensteins like al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Taliban head Mullah Mohammed Omar and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Even if bin Laden were captured, his seizure -- like that of Hussein -- is unlikely to provide a respite.

The first lesson is to keep the focus on longer-term goals and not be carried away by political expediency and narrow objectives. By focusing on immediate goals, U.S. policymakers in the past ended up creating monsters that they now have to fight.

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 largest array of 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 terrorism-breeding swamps can never be fully drained as long as the societies that rear or tolerate them are not de-radicalized and democratized.

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. That means building and sustaining an international consensus.

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


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