Terrorism Update
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Big Powers Face Hard Choices

On September 11, 2001, the world saw the new face of terror unmask itself in the horrifying carnage in America, as suicidal terrorists targeted two among the country’s best known buildings – the World Trade Centre at New York, and the Defense Headquarters at the Pentagon in Washington D.C. – with hijacked commercial passenger planes that were used as missiles to wreak unimagined and unprecedented destruction. Devastating and shocking as these attacks were, however, this may only be a beginning of much worse to come. Viewed from the other side of the ideological battlelines, this is a ‘great victory’, one that will bring the forces of extremist Islam rallying under the banner of the perpetrators and architects of this dramatic attack, and inspiring many others to imitate or emulate this suicidal fury.

The enormity of this single incident goes well beyond the statistics of the thousands killed and their shattered families, well beyond the fact that this is the greatest act of catastrophic terrorism in recorded history. The impact of these actions will reverberate across the world for years, indeed, for decades, to come, and will fundamentally alter the structure and distribution of political power in the world as we know it.

The character and extent of these transformations will be defined, in substantial measure, by the scale, intensity and effectiveness of the US response to this terrorist action. There is, in this, a grave, urgent and gigantic challenge of response, and one that goes far beyond mere retributive justice. As US Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, has rightly pointed out that "It’s not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism."

But the matter is not entirely as simple as this formulation seems to suggest. A statement from the Taliban underlined the dilemma of response, and delivered, even under the present circumstances of international outrage and consensus against those who engineered these terrorist attacks and their harbourers, an implied threat to the US. If the US response targets a single man – Osama bin Laden by implication – the Taliban pointed out, they will never find him; if, on the other hand, they target an entire country – Afghanistan – they will provoke even greater hatred against themselves, and multiply the potential of future terrorist attacks.

Clearly the imperatives of response are complex, and will demand an unprecedented scale of effectiveness and surgical efficiency in narrowly targeting the ‘sanctuaries, support systems and the states that sponsor terrorism.’ In the last category, a critical distinction will have to be retained between the sponsoring structures of the states, and the nation or people at large. Some US Senators have expressed the opinion that the fear of ‘collateral damage’ that is inflicted in retaliatory strikes must not be allowed to undermine the character and enormity of the punitive actions undertaken – but this is an error, and would undermine the legitimacy of US responses, and eventually of that nation itself.

This is crucial. The challenges created by the events of September 11, 2001, have brought the world’s last surviving ‘superpower’ to a crossroads that it could not have imagined, and the full implications of which will not be understood for a long time to come. What the US does in response to the Black Tuesday this September may determine its survival as a superpower. If it patterns its reactions on the crude, low risk strategies it pursued against Iraq and Yugoslavia, it may satisfy some of the natural bloodlust that arises out of the outrage of the enormous casualties that have been inflicted in New York, Washington and the fourth plane that crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, but it will fail to address the basic issue of terrorism itself.

If, on the other hand, the American terror of body bags leads to a failure to respond adequately, if it falls into the trap of weakness and vacillation, it will sink, at a stroke, and despite its armies, its missiles, its weapon systems, and its economic hegemony, to the position of a second rate power, lacking the commitment, the capabilities and the courage to defend itself against the new patterns of terrorist warfare. And this will, equally, be the outcome if it continues to construct its responses on surviving Cold War equations; on unprincipled relationships – such as those with the criminal enterprise that is Pakistan – that have long outlived their utility; or on ‘Great Game’ calculations of the economic and political domination of the unstable and uncommitted regions of the world.

The Taliban’s response to America’s threats of retribution are an important indicator of Islamist fundamentalist calculations, both of potential American over- and under-reaction. The Islamist extremists do not believe the US to be capable of sustained engagement in a high-risk, high casualty confrontation, and it is this conviction that lends them strength. Indeed, Osama bin Laden’s campaign is based on precisely such a belief, that US morale will collapse in the face of sustained terrorist strikes. In the wake of the humiliating and chaotic US withdrawal from Somalia after 30 American soldiers were killed and another 175 wounded, bin Laden had stated, "The youth (Muslim mujahiddeen who had participated in the conflict in Somalia) were surprised at the low morale of the American soldier and realized more than before that the American soldiers are paper tigers. After a few blows, they ran in defeat…" Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of American fighting capabilities, it is one that is widely held in the world of the anti-US coalition of Islamist fundamentalists, and it constitutes the gravest danger to US authority and legitimacy in the new global order.

Islamist extremist terrorism has now emerged as the single most significant threat to world peace and security, and it is essential that we understand the dynamics of its growth. This threat has grown steadily over the past more than three decades as a result of the world’s ambivalence, and a great deal of tolerance and justification that has characterized the responses of many countries, and of dominant lobbies within such countries. Many false sociologies have been invented to justify terrorism in terms of its social, political and economic ‘causes’. This is particularly – though not exclusively – the case with the Western response to the manifestations of this brand of terrorism in areas which are geographically and politically distanced from Europe and the Americas – such as Kashmir, where the Western world has failed for over a decade to come out with a clear statement of condemnation of a Pakistan sponsored low intensity war that has already cost over 26,000 lives.

The roots of Islamist terror go back to the late 1960s, when Palestinian terrorism gradually began to take on communal overtones, and when the international community, prominently including India, took up the cause of a terrorist leader – Yasser Arafat – and transformed him into a world statesman. The message that went out then was that terrorism pays, and its subsequent growth has been the cumulative result of the demonstration effect of its many past successes. This is the critical symbolic value of what has now happened in USA, though these events will also horrify and outrage a majority of Muslims who do not identify with the brand of extremist Islam that the terrorists propagate.

Two conflicting pulls in the reorganization of world powers will, consequently, come into evidence over time. The first will be the result of the demonstration effect of the terrorist ‘successes’ against the US, and this will attract extremist elements within Islamic communities everywhere. But this does not imply a consolidation of the ‘Islamic bloc’. Large parts of the Islamic world, including most of the conservative regimes of West Asia, are even more threatened by Islamic extremism than America and the western world. They will certainly seek to distance themselves from the extremist-fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, and from the acts of terror this inspires. The second trend will be that of the consolidation of the liberal-democratic world – across the so-called North-South or rich-poor divide – in a counter-terrorism axis that may now increasingly collaborate to fight terrorism everywhere. Such collaboration could now be shaped on premises that are relatively unhindered by the surviving Cold War calculations and conflicting ‘interests of state’ that have impeded effective cooperation in the past. For this to happen, however, the West will have to abandon its hypocritical stand, which has tolerated and encouraged terrorism in some parts of the world, even while its leaders committed themselves to high-sounding principles of a ‘coordinated war on terrorism’ at international fora.

The lesson for India – and, indeed, for the entire world – is that there can be no compromises on terrorism. The search for a negotiated peace with mass murderers, and with their state sponsors, is deceptive and suicidal. Any group that resorts to terrorism, and any state that supports – in any way conceivable – the activities of such a group, must be confronted and will have to be defeated. As President George Bush rightly noted, no distinction can be made between terrorists and those who harbor, support and sponsor them. The terrorist mind-set will not yield to concessions, to conciliation or to appeasement – indeed, the terrorist resolve and organizational structure is strengthened by each concession, and our own recent history provides ample evidence of this fact. The Indian state must now abandon its vacillating attitude towards terrorism, and commit itself firmly to a coherent and principled counter-terrorism policy, which must be implemented without dilution or political manipulation over an extended period of time, till it has secured the only result that can create the necessary space for peace and national progress – and that is the comprehensive defeat of terrorism and of the ideologies that support it.

(Edited version published in, September 16, 2001.)





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