October 6th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY - War on terrorism: where it leaves Australia

TESTIMONIAL: Colin Teese: Why Do I Read News Weekly?

ECONOMY: Terror weakens a softening market

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Close election still likely

QUEENSLAND: Good news for Golden Circle

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: Marriage devalued in WA 'reforms'

MEDIA: Moral equivalence and the ABC

STRAWS: Back to the state of nature? / 57 varieties of racism / Galahs 0, Kiwis 3

Letter: Lessons from the horror

Letter: Drugs report

UNITED STATES: The global war on terrorism: the risk of going wrong

HISTORY: Evidence still lacking for massacre claims

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Railway Infrastructure: history shows it can be done

FEMINISM: Orwell comes to the hardware store

Books promotion page

The global war on terrorism: the risk of going wrong

by Bob Browning

News Weekly, October 6, 2001

America must respond to the terrorist attacks on its soil, says Bob Browning, but the potential for the situation to spin out of control must determine the response mounted.

No one should underestimate the gravity of the decisions the Bush Administration is making in the wake of the horrific September 11 attack on American citizens, visitors and national symbols. On the outcome depends the future of most people, and their children, around the world.

Impending US action could stem the spread of terrorism and reduce the catastrophic risk worldwide from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of fanatics. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, however, that unintended consequences or flawed policy could aggravate the threat and broaden the conflict.

America cannot but react to the bloodthirsty assault on its homeland. But the Middle East is a political cauldron. In an environment that has spawned international terrorism, it is all too easy to foment rather than calm the emotional extremes and ugly conflict that already exists.

If mistakes are made, the brutalising dynamics of the Middle East could extend to southern Russia and Asia. In the worst case scenario for Australia, it could extend to its neighbour Indonesia - which is both unsettled and has the world's largest Muslim population.

In recent years, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and China have all test-launched ballistic missiles. Reportedly, Syria, Iraq, and Libya have acquired the components to do so. Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are among the states most suspected of providing various forms of encouragement and support to terrorists. As America intends to lead a drawn-out assault over coming years on terrorist supporters, the risks of escalation, including the use of long range missiles, obviously increase. Many of America's allies around the world are aware of the risks of unintended escalation.

One of its more reliable allies in the Middle East, Egypt's President Mubarak, has publicly implored President Bush not to undertake any sort of military action that might kill innocent civilians, divide Christians against Muslims, and further inflame attitudes against American policy in the region.

A Russian commentator, parliamentarian Aleksei Arbatov, admits that a consensus exists across Western and most Muslim countries of "total moral support" for the United States and the struggle against terrorism. But, he says, there also exists a strong humanitarian concern.

The US should not "resort to massive strikes or non-selective actions which are unjustified from the moral point of view, to avenge the death of thousands of innocent people with the deaths of tens of thousands of other innocent people".

Not infrequently, the Western and especially the American media give the impression that the lives of Palestinian and other Arab civilians don't count in the way those of Americans and Israelis do. The facts are that the toll of Muslim deaths and suffering so far clearly exceeds that of American soldiers and civilians killed by terrorists.

Tactical propensities

US Middle Eastern foreign policy gives priority to guaranteeing its oil supplies. This involves propping up questionable and often unsavoury ruling élites. The Shah of Iran was an early example. Despite US efforts, he was finally overthrown by revolutionary Ayotallahs.

Aerial bombardment dominates US military tactics. Over-dependence on surveillance technology and the neglect of agent operations often result in inadequate, mistaken, or counter-productive intelligence.

The world owes the Americans a great deal - not least for successfully resisting last century's fascist and communist threats, including saving or liberating Pacific nations like Australia, from Japanese occupation. Nevertheless, recent history provides little comfort that US decisions will necessarily be as well-informed, judicious, far-sighted and free of special interest distortions and adverse effects as others around the world would like them to be.

After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan towards the end of the Cold War, the CIA helped train and fund what has become the international network of highly disciplined and effective Islamic militants. Now, under the organisational and ideological umbrella of Osama bin Laden's Al Qa'ida, they comprise a formidable new breed of terrorists, distributed operationally in cells in 60 or more countries around the world.

The United States and Saudi Arabia funnelled some $3.5 billion into Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Afghan war. According to Milt Bearden, CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1986 to 1989, Jihad, along with guns and drugs, became the most important business in the region.

America aimed what Bearden called "Jihad International, Inc." at the Soviets. But after Russian troops withdrew, the United States abandoned Afghanistan. Either unthinkingly or in callous application of Kissinger–style real politic, it left the door open in that devastated, brutalised and impoverished country to the Taliban. Under bin Laden's influence, Jihad International swung its sights onto America and the West.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia Correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Ahmed Rashid, comments:

"After the end of the Cold War, Washington never developed a new strategic framework for the area. The United States dealt with issues as they came up in a haphazard, piecemeal fashion, pursuing constantly changing single-issue agendas that were driven more by domestic American politics than the goal of ending the civil war. Afghanistan's neighbours took note of US reluctance to get involved and stepped up arms supplies to their Afghan proxies."

In 1998, well after the horse had bolted, the US tried to shut the stable door by firing 70–100 Tomahawk cruise missiles into bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan, and other targets in Khartoum, Sudan.

US intelligence reports had claimed that bin Laden was meeting with his chief operatives and the leadership of other terror organizations at the Al-Badri camp. The missiles were designed to cause maximum damage over a wide area. But the meeting broke up several hours before the missiles struck. Only six of bin Laden's men perished in the raid. He himself escaped.

President Bush seems to have learnt from the incident. "What's the sense of sending $2 million missiles to hit a $10 tent that's empty?" he asked.

Culture of violence

Missiles alone will not destroy the terrorist production line. Many argue that one of bin Laden's most effective contribution to fostering terrorism is his promotion of the growing number of what some call universities of violence and schools of hate.

Pakistani officials estimate that 10 to 15 per cent of their country's 40,000 to 50,000 madrasahs - Islamic religious schools - now preach a false and violent version of Islam. They misleadingly equate Jihad - which Islamic scholars interpret as the striving for justice and inner personal purification - with guerrilla warfare.

Most madrasahs offer only religious instruction, ignoring subjects like maths and science, which are indispensable in modern society. As graduates often cannot find work because of their lack of practical education, many of the schools encourage them to meet their spiritual obligations by fighting against Hindus in Kashmir, or against Muslims of other sects in Pakistan.

The World Bank estimates that only 40 per cent of Pakistanis are literate. Many rural areas lack public schools. But madrasahs are located all over the country and provide not only free education, but also free food, housing, and clothing. Extremist madrasahs feed terrorist and radical political organisations with manpower and ideas.

The burning question is: Is the American mindset so confined to massed military and technological solutions that it cannot cope with problems and threats with religious, political, social and cultural prime ingredients?

If so, it is important that other national leaders committed to the emerging American-led "crusade", "attack" or "war" on terrorism should help broaden US thinking and temper its propensity to unthinking self-righteousness, not reinforce it. John Howard and Tony Blair, however, have adopted an "All the Way with LBJ" approach.

Irish writer Conor Cruise O'Brien has long wrestled with the agonising complexities of economic, ethnic and religious-based terrorism in Ireland and elsewhere.

In his book Thinking About Terrorism, O'Brien argued that leaders in the United States and other nations fundamentally misunderstand why people turn to terrorism - and therefore how to counteract it. If so, the emerging war coalition needs to be made aware of this inadequacy, and helped to correct it.

Anything less may result in more and worse counter-productive outcomes, for which everybody will pay.

Bob Browning's previous articles are available at www.sprint.net.au/~rwb/

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