23 November 2003

A War That Can Never Be Won

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.

Moral clarity and resolve do not win wars. Especially when they are excuses for refusing to think.

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