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A War On Terrorism?

10.05.2001 | POLITICS

The global "war against terrorism" that has been declared by America, and endorsed with varying degrees of enthusiasm by Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Vladimir Putin and other world leaders, has no chance of taking place. Even since the World Trade Centre attack, there have been terrorism-related developments around the world that demonstrate the futility of even thinking about it. In Israel, despite a cease-fire announced after heavy American diplomatic pressure, the violence of the Intifada and Israel's reaction to it continues almost without break. In Pakistan, in the latest of a string of bombings which go largely unreported in the outside world, unknown militants explode a bicycle bomb in a crowd of unemployed men, killing six and injuring 40. In Macedonia, the NLA announces that it is speeding up its co-operation with NATO, and the government seeks to put procedural problems in the way of acceding to what they call a victory for terrorism. While violence flares in Northern Ireland, members of the Provisional IRA are caught in Colombia, where they are apparently engaged on some kind of training mission for local guerrillas. In all these cases, the logic of a real war against terrorism would dictate a black and white international response. Arrest them, imprison them, shoot them, bomb them. But in all these cases, and in fact in almost every case where terrorism raises its head, there are other considerations that counsel caution. Otherwise, the "terrorists" (which is a politically-charged and dangerous term, as we all know if we think about it) would not do it in the first place.

The United States is already finding this out in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the time of writing, it still seems that the Americans still can't prove who was behind the attacks of September 11, and in Pakistan, anyway, many Muslims seem to accept bin Laden's denials. But the simple, straightforward decision to cut to the chase and apprehend bin Laden, whom they want anyway, is turning out not to be so simple after all. A lightning alliance is formed with Pakistan to put pressure on Afghanistan, and under pressure, Gen. Musharraf agreed. But the Taliban and bin Laden's organisations alike, though physically located in Afghanistan, are largely foreign-run: and the biggest sponsor of fundamentalism in the region is.Pakistan. This is demonstrated, once prayers came round on Friday, by mass demonstrations there. And where does this leave the brilliant diplomatic coup of getting Pakistan on board?

There are cases where small terrorist groups have operated through some maverick logic of their own: the 1995 nerve gas attacks in the Japanese subway, for instance. The Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof: these small, isolated groups could perhaps have been targeted and eradicated by the sort of war on terrorism that is proposed (even without aircraft carriers and stealth bombers). But where the aim of the terrorists is to radicalise a low-level conflict, by forcing people into choices they would otherwise not make, it is a different question. The KLA in Kosovo and Macedonia have sought to polarise the conflict there by forcing ethnic Albanians to identify with their cause. The way they have done this is by deliberately shocking acts of violence, which encourage everyone else to blame "the Albanians". It worked for the Serbs and the Croats. ETA and the IRA (and the Protestant paramilitaries) operate in this manner too. Attacking them, they know from experience, in the end creates more sympathy for their cause. Bin Laden (or whoever it was) is clearly attempting something similar in the Muslim world.

So the United States has made an important choice by declaring, through the mouth of George W. Bush, that anyone who is not with them is against them. The same simplifying logic is at work, and there is no mystery about why they are doing it. But it looks like incompetence: the same incompetence that announces a "crusade". In Pakistan, in fact, many people support both bin Laden and the Americans, strange as it may seem. Bin Laden, as a good Muslim, gets automatic support from many, and yet they still feel sympathy for the Americans, and support them in their effort to stamp out terrorism -- which bin Laden, as a good Muslim, cannot be involved in.

Gen. Musharraf's whole position in Pakistan is one of tightrope walking, and the last thing he needs is a hefty push sideways. Every Islamic country, to a greater or lesser degree, has to come to some kind of accommodation with the radicalism that resonates so strongly with the dispossessed masses. If the American position is to be taken literally, they will all have to declare a kind of civil war, or face the wrath of the Pentagon. Will they do it? For the next few weeks, it might look like an option. In the long term, it is clearly not on.

Apart from the maverick Oklahoma City bombing, America has had little experience with terrorism, and with the high levels of public emotion which the attacks have naturally provoked, the government is forced to offer a policy. Polls show that most Americans, inspired by the war talk from Washington, favour a military response, and the signs are that they will get their wish. But the global consensus, this New World war with Terrorism as its target, is already sliding out of sight. Who really wants to support the Russians in Chechnya? The Chinese in Xinjiang? Who wants to get involved in Kashmir and Sri Lanka? The Basque Country? Crucially, the American public -- not really aware that these places even exist, and certainly not interested in what happens there -- cannot be relied on to take sides in such conflicts. They have no international agenda. They are only concerned with domestic security.

The war on terrorism, then, is not going to be the international moral crusade that has been described. That would upset too many apple carts. It is to be an American war against one particular strand of Muslim radicalism, in which even other brands of Muslim terrorism (the PLO and Hamas) are being left aside, as long as they don't get involved in any directly anti-American activities. Not even the Bush Administration can contemplate provoking the international political devastation that would result from a policy that matched the letter of their pronouncements.

About the Author
Christopher Lord's new book, Parallel Cultures, has just been published by Ashgate.
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