A War That Can Never Be Won
Terrorism is a technique, not an enemy state that can be defeated
Saturday November 22, 2003
The bombast has increased with the bombs. We saw two disturbing escalations this week. The explosions that devastated the British consulate and the HSBC bank in Istanbul mark a significant widening in the choice of targets by those Islamist radicals who use terror to express their hatred of British and US policy in Iraq and the Middle East. The Blair/Bush response reached an equally alarming new level of ferocity.
At their swaggering joint press conference on Thursday, the two men repeatedly made the risible claim that they could win their war on terror. The prime minister was the worse. While Bush gave himself a global carte blanche to intervene anywhere, by speaking of his "determination to fight and defeat this evil, wherever it is found", Blair put the issue in terms of a finite goal. He talked of defeating terrorism "utterly" and "ridding our world of this evil once and for all".
The hyperbole of the religious pulpit allows for all-embracing and eschatological language, but these men are meant to be practical political leaders. When Blair, in his opposition days, invented the phrase "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", he knew that crime could never be totally eliminated. The task is to reduce and restrain it by a variety of methods. Violence and terrorism are no different. Like poverty, they will always be with us. At best they can only be diminished and contained. Yet now, with the arrogance of power, we have the Bush/Blair roadshow promising in sub-Churchillian tones to vanquish terrorism as though it were a clearly defined enemy like Nazi Germany.
Terrorism is a technique. It is not an ideology or a political philosophy, let alone an enemy state. Our leaders' failure to understand that point emerged immediately after September 11 2001 when they reacted to the attacks in New York and Washington by confusing the hunt for the perpetrators with the Afghan "state" that allegedly "harboured" them. The Taliban ran avicious regime, but Afghanistan was a disastrously failed state and its nominal leader, Mullah Omar, had no control over al-Qaida.
By the same token the "war" on terror should have remained what it initially was, a metaphor like the "war" on drugs. But instead of being harmless linguistic exaggeration to describe a broad campaign encompassing a range of political, economic and police counter-measures, it was narrowed down to real war and nothing else. The slippery slope that began with Afghanistan quickly led to the invasion of Iraq, a symbolic and political enormity whose psychological impact Bush and Blair have not yet grasped.
When Ariel Sharon, then a middle-aged general, wanted to send Israeli tanks into Cairo in October 1973, it was the arch-realist Henry Kissinger who realised how devastating the emotional effect would be in the Arab world, and stopped him. For a new generation of Arabs, the sight of American tanks in Baghdad is just as humiliating. Osama bin Laden's claim that having US forces at airbases close to the Islamic holy places in Saudi Arabia is a desecration appealed only to a few Muslims, but the daily television pictures of US troops in the heart of an Arab capital, and not just patrolling but using lethal force to back up an administration of occupiers, inflames a much larger audience.
Jack Straw argues that terrorism preceded the war on Iraq and it is therefore wrong to blame the US and Britain for increasing the danger. This is a non-sequitur, which also flies in the face of the evidence, admitted by US officials themselves, that non-Iraqi Arabs have been infiltrating Iraq to commit acts of terror because of the US presence.
Sharon, similarly, says suicide bombings in Israel started before he took office. Does that mean he shares no blame? That is not the view of four former Israeli intelligence chiefs, who argued last week that Sharon's exclusive reliance on hardline responses has weakened Israel's security and increased the number of attacks on Israelis.
Before the war on Iraq several of Britain's intelligence experts, including senior officials, warned that it would increase the risk of terrorism and make British interests potential targets - a view shared by most critics of the war. To suggest they were wrong runs against common sense.
Coming after the war on Afghanistan, the war on Iraq has made al-Qaida's grisly work easier. Dispersed by American bombing from their remote mountain lairs, they have shifted to the much easier terrain of an urban Arab environment where they can be more readily hidden and helped. Resistance to US forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan as well as terrorist attacks on aid workers and other western soft targets are on the increase, but they appear to come from Afghan supporters of the former Taliban as well as other Pashtun radicals from Pakistan. Most Arabs who were in Afghanistan have moved to Iraq. There they have been joined by new Arab recruits, eager to add their energy to Iraq's local resistance.
In the long history of terrorism, al-Qaida has provided two novelties. One is its global reach, marked by willingness to strike targets in many countries. The other is its use of suicide attacks as a weapon of first, rather than last, resort. Under the broad heading of terrorism as a political and military instrument, suicide bombing is a sub-category, a technique within a technique.
In the post-colonial world its first proponents had nothing to do with the anti-Islamic myth that martyrs are motivated by the hope of being greeted by dozens of virgins waiting in heaven. It began with Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, an act of martial self-sacrifice by angry women as well as men. When it spread to Palestine over the past decade, it was an act of last-resort desperation by frustrated people who saw no other way to counter Israel's disparity of power, as Cherie Blair once publicly pointed out. Al-Qaida has merely taken an old technique and made it the weapon of choice.
The shock this week is that Bush and Blair not only still believe that war is the way to deal with terrorists but that even when faced by the escalation of Istanbul they think victory is possible. The real issue is how to control risk. Anti-western extremism will never be eradicated, but it can be reduced by a combination of measures, primarily political.
The first is an early transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people and the withdrawal of foreign forces. An arrangement whereby the new Iraqi government "requests" US troops to stay on will convince few in the Middle East. Second is firm and sustained pressure on Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians, presumably on the lines of the recent accord worked out in Geneva by Israeli and Palestinian dissidents.
There is no guaranteed defence against a suicide attack on a soft target. "Hardening" targets by turning every US or British building, at home or abroad, into a fortress makes little sense. It is better to try to reduce the motivations (hatred, revenge, or an overwhelming sense of injustice) that make people turn themselves into bombs. That endeavour will also never produce complete success. In Blair's misguided words, it cannot be done "utterly" or "once and for all". But it is the more productive way to go.
address: Guardian UK
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