Cover Story: Afghanistan - Why the war on terrorism will be long and risky
by Bob Browning
News Weekly, November 3, 2001
One of the worst-case scenarios for the post-September 11 world is that Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, and others like him, will continue to convince enough Muslims around the world that the Anglo-American-led war against terrorism is a crusade against Islam, and must be opposed to the death as a religious duty.
Military action to stop the Taliban harbouring al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan is an important step in interrupting terrorist operational capacity, but it is only an opening gambit in a war whose longer-term consequences are yet to unfold.
In the end, there is no escaping that the war will be won or lost politically. It has to be fought in an environment where deeply-held religious and cultural values exist alongside powerful special interests, intense emotions, and not a few psychopathic personalities.
Many still hold that America was winning the war in Vietnam militarily when politics cut the ground beneath it. Clausewitz and other classical military strategists remind us that war is politics by other means. The two are inseparable.
Some in the West, especially in America, see the solution to the international terrorist phenomenon almost exclusively in military and police terms. Stuart Taylor, a Newsweek contributing editor, put that view plainly in a recent article entitled "The Rage of Genocidal Masses Must Not Restrain Us" (National Journal, October 16, 2001).
He called for "big, bold, ruthless military attacks on all who would kill us". Although this may incur grave risks, he said, a soft approach would encourage rather than deter terrorism:
"Nightmarish attacks can be stopped only at the source. We know that some of our enemies hope to use biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons to kill us by the millions, vaporise Washington and New York, and reduce us to chaos. It will be only a matter of time until they succeed, unless we keep them from obtaining such weapons.
"Careful diplomacy has a critical role to play. So does avoiding unnecessarily offending the Islamic world. But the risk of catastrophe looms large unless we credibly threaten to use - and are prepared to use - devastating military force to pre-empt any attack.
"The mobs screaming 'Death to Israel' and 'Death to America' mean it ... many of these people hate everything about us - our emancipation of women, our freedom, our wealth, our power, our culture. And they want to kill us".
Those of this view see no great problem or overriding importance in convincing Muslims that the coalition's intention is limited and appropriate. Clearly, they say, it is to curb terrorism, not to repress Islam or to force Muslim countries and minority populations to conform to Western political preferences.
Some see no problem, either, in convincing their own Western populations that today's terrorism has only an accidental relationship to Islam. This attitude continues despite ongoing events reinforcing public awareness that the new terrorism springs from Muslim countries and comprises Muslim operatives claiming to be Islamic religious warriors conducting a Jihad.
In Western eyes, the facts and logic of the coalition's repeatedly declared limited intentions seem too clear for any rational person to resist. Isn't the coalition's military action tightly targeted? Isn't it conducting humanitarian food drops to refugees? Doesn't it repeatedly express respect for Islam? Doesn't it have the support of most Muslim governments, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Iran?
But will all Muslims - not to mention all rank-and-file Westerners - act in the way coalition leaders consider rational?
The evidence to date is not all that encouraging. In the West, some mosques have been attacked. Muslims, and others thought to be Muslims, have been subjected to hate speech. And in the Muslim world, protests continue to erupt, some of them violent.
Even when the 56 Muslim nations of the Islamic Conference met on October 11 and disowned bin Laden, some important members expressed forebodings. The official communique declared that bin Laden's jihad "opposed the tolerant and divine message of Islam". But the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, drew attention to widespread popular denunciations of American bombing tactics. He claimed the conviction was mounting throughout the Muslim world that US-led bombing was killing innocents and forcing millions more into refugee camps and asylum seeking. He posed a question that was both a warning and a challenge:
"Which Muslim can forget all those defenceless and victimised women and men and children? After all this, how can a wave not be created in the Islamic world against these moves?"
Irrational and unfair as the West may believe such a reaction to be, it remains possible - some would say more than possible.
The contest for the hearts and minds of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims is not going to be easy, nor is its outcome guaranteed. Polls claim, for example, that a large majority of Pakistan's 130 million population oppose involvement in the war against bin Laden and the Taliban.
Following the first American and British air strikes, low-level and sporadic disturbances broke out in Egypt, Jordan, and Oman. In Kenya they were violent. Deaths resulted in Pakistan, the Gaza Strip, and Nigeria, where the death toll exceeded 200 as Muslims once again attacked Christians.
In Jakarta, the US closed its Embassy temporarily as small but sometimes violent anti-US demonstrations erupted throughout Indonesia. Australia's close neighbour has a population of 210 million, of whom 90 per cent are Muslim.
Elsewhere in Australia's region, the US announced it was sending a sizeable contingent of military advisers to the Philippines to assist the Government to crack down on Muslim separatists. Some Philippine separatists have links to bin Laden groups in Malaysia. One group, Kumpulan Militan Malaysia, is blamed for kidnappings and violence in Malaysia and bombings in Indonesia.
US Middle Eastern policy in support of Israel is often put forward as the leading cause of Muslim anti-Americanism. But it is more a serious aggravation than a prime factor. Radical Arab Muslims like bin Laden denounce the presence of US military units in Saudi Arabia, the "holy centre of Islam", as far more offensive religiously than the creation and maintenance of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
Analysts' views vary widely on the relationship between jihad-proclaiming Muslim terrorists and Islam. Many argue there is no relationship - that bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network reflects Islamic religion about as accurately as the Klu Klux Klan does Christianity. Others claim a propensity to violence is inherent in the Islamic tradition, especially in the concept of jihad - holy war.
The latter view holds that modern Islamic ideologues have adapted, rather than invented, the military concept of jihad. They use it to build and justify attempts to overthrow Muslim states, especially those run by what they see as apostasised rulers bolstered by America.
Radical fundamentalists see West-supporting and supported régimes as keeping their peoples in ignorance of true Islam, while leading them down the path of Western decadence. They proclaim this an offence to Allah, a blasphemy of the highest order crying out for rectification and punishment.
In "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (The Atlantic, September 1990) the controversial historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, argued that Islamic fundamentalists were not mistaken in seeing the West's spreading modernism and secularism as:
"the greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to retain or restore for their people. Islamic fundamentalism has given an aim and a form to the otherwise aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses at the forces that have devalued their traditional values and, in the final analysis, robbed them of their beliefs, their aspirations, their dignity, and to an increasing extent even their livelihood."
Many of the new Islamic schools financed, throughout the Muslim world, by Saudi Arabia's ruling Wahhabi élite remind the young that they are the heirs to an old, proud, and long dominant civilisation. But, they are told, their rich cultural legacy has been taken from them. Their birthright has been overwhelmed by Western power, secular governance and materialist values.
Being the acknowledged leader of the West, the United States is the focus for the resulting pent-up hate and anger.
Mainstream Islamic tradition rejects the separation of religion and the state - the very political principle that characterises Western nation states. This is especially so of the United States where the secular state in a religiously free and pluralist society is a founding pillar of the constitution. Bernard Lewis argues that in the Islamic tradition:
"For true believers to rule misbelievers is proper and natural, since this provides for the maintenance of the holy law. But for misbelievers to rule over true believers is blasphemous and unnatural, since it leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society, and to the flouting or even the abrogation of God's law".
Fanatical fundamentalists like the Taliban and Osama bin Laden take the Islamic tradition of religious governance in the political sphere to the extreme. When they gained control of Afghanistan they used religion and the state to create a totalitarian society that tolerates no deviation.
Obviously, nothing could be further from, or more dangerous, to the aspirations of the fundamentalist terrorists that the global spread of the political and cultural influence of the world's superpower.
Consequently their aim is not merely to punish America with terrorist outrages but to stir up a rising tide of rebellion against Western paramountcy, to reassert what they claim are Muslim values and restore Muslim greatness.