Fanning the Flames of Terrorism

News & Politics

There's no question that the United States, and the rest of the world, need to take forceful steps -- not just to bring Sept. 11's perpetrators to justice, but to minimize the chances that such a thing, or worse, can ever occur again. But the approach our country is apparently taking is just about guaranteed to be futile at best, and a prescription for World War III at worst.

For starters, "war" -- even "a new kind of war" -- is the wrong analogy for what's needed. It's like declaring war on the Crips writ large: "war" on a collection of self-affiliated, criminally inclined individuals, living anywhere and everywhere, bound by shared ideology and worldview. There seems to be this assumption that the problem is Osama bin Laden and his supporters, all of whom are holed up in a ranch somewhere in Afghanistan, waiting for the bombers to appear.

This, of course, is nonsense. Whoever launched Sept. 11's attacks was smart enough to scatter to the four winds before it was launched. And Osama bin Laden, it cannot be stated often enough, is only a tiny part of the problem, magnified by the seeming American need to put a single name on the enemy (Saddam, Noriega, Qaddafi, Fidel) and by the cachet bin Laden will get from being targetted, and possibly martyred, by the Americans. But he's not a major strategist within his movement; his role has been relatively minor, even as financier. (His much-vaunted riches have been frozen for years.) He simply acts, as do a number of other individuals, as a facilitator among a broad network of violent fringe Sunni groups. Removing him doesn't begin to solve the problem.

Osama bin Laden is CIA gone bad, but he's hardly the only one. There are perhaps 100,000 fringe radical Sunnis in the world (out of 1.2 billion Moslems). Many of them were brought together, trained, and armed by the CIA and Saudi and Pakistani intelligence in 1980s Afghanistan, with the twin goals of fighting the Soviets and causing headaches for the rival Shiite regime in neighboring Iran. This is the granddaddy of all "blowback" -- the term for a covert operation that has unforeseen, disastrous consequences -- and amidst the clamor to lift restrictions on the CIA's ability to hire thugs, nobody seems to have learned the lesson.

The CIA would not have supported these folks if it felt they were inclined to knee-jerk, inherently anti-Western and anti-Christian violence. They weren't, and they still aren't. In their view, they are not launching an all-out war of Islam against the West -- they are responding to a war they perceive the West, vaguely led by the U.S., as waging against Islam. Peaceniks tend to ascribe this to America's various foreign policy sins, but the list of grievances is much broader. It includes wars where Muslims have borne the worst violence in Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Indonesia, Kashmir, Azerbaijan, Iran, and, of course, Iraq and Palestine; U.S. and Western support for brutal dictatorships in Iran (the Shah), Chad, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria; and perceived desecreation of Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia by our military during and since the Gulf War. And, of course, widespread, crushing poverty.

Any of the conflict sites make fertile recruiting ground among the young, poor, devout, and despairing; if the U.S. kills more innocent civilians, recruiting will become that much easier, as it has become for our armed forces. The U.S. has, in one respect, already announced that intent, by demanding that Pakistan cut off supply lines for food and other necessities that are keeping alive Afghan civilians and refugees already victimized by the Taliban. If Pakistan complies, the death toll that could directly result is incalculable, and both the U.S. and Pakistan will pay.

This is the essence of war: wanting vengeance, and claiming that the other guys started it. Even if the Sept. 11 attacks were supported by nation-states, it should be evident to anybody that they did not need the support of nation-states. What, then, will the War on Terrorism become? A worldwide, house-to-house search for those who would kill us, with the resulting loss of the very freedoms we're claiming to defend? Permanently? There's no land to seize, no government to topple, no surrender that will bring closure. Ask Israel. This war cannot be won -- only lost, because we haven't even begun to consider biological, chemical, or nuclear terrorism, and it only takes one to succeed.

Terrorism's strongest asset is the strength of motivation of its practitioners. It's best battled by taking away motivations: the poverty, the dictatorships, the violence. It's best fanned by creating thousands, or millions, more martyrs.

The United States can't be that stupid. Can it?

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