From Swatting Flies to Stirring a Hornet’s Nest

Indian Express , April 19 , 2004

During her testimony before the 9/11 commission, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice explained that President Bush was ‘‘tired of swatting flies’’, which is how he saw dealing with terrorism one attack at a time. He wanted a counter-terrorism strategy that was part of a ‘‘broader package of strategies’’. He wanted the evil of terrorism eliminated once and for all.

Judging by the developments of the last three years, one wonders if US counter-terrorism strategy has gone from swatting flies to stirring hornets’ nests. America’s enemies are conscious of America’s awesome military strength. They know that the US can deploy more effective and efficient weapons against enemies challenging the US in conventional warfare. For that reason, terrorist groups in general and Al-Qaida in particular seek to draw the US into several theaters of confrontation, hoping in the process to increase the human and material cost of such engagement.

Counter-terrorism researchers at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) have drawn attention to a 42-page Arabic document called ‘‘Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Dangers’’. Posted on an extremist Islamist website supportive of Al-Qaida around December 2003, this document appears to be a strategy paper intended for the Islamist resistance within Iraq. Its significance became apparent after the terrorist attacks in Madrid, just days before the Spanish election in March. The Jihadist strategy paper had recommended ‘‘painful strikes’’ against Spain specifically around the time of the Spanish elections, aimed at weakening Spain’s resolve to stay in the coalition in Iraq.

The Jihadist document was ostensibly prepared by the ‘‘Media Committee for the Victory of the Iraqi People (Mujahideen Services Center)’’. The reference to a ‘‘Services Centre’’ (markaz al-khidmaat) echoes the ‘‘Services Bureau’’ (maktab al-khidmaat) established in Peshawar, Pakistan during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida grew out of the Peshawar Mujahideen Services Bureau in the late 1980s and the resurfacing of a Service Centre for Jihadists in Iraq indicates that the war in Iraq has created a new focal point for militant Islamists instead of being a step towards their destruction. The new Mujahideen Services Centre was possibly conceived by Saudi Jihadist Yusuf Al-Ayiri, who was reportedly killed by Saudi security forces in May 2003.

Al-Qaida’s objective in attacking American targets on 9/11 was to convince its recruitment base in the Muslim world that the US was not invulnerable, thereby creating opportunities to expand its terrorist Jihad. A surgical military operation against Al-Qaida, as well as its financiers and supporters, would have denied the terrorists a wider international audience for radical Islamism. The war for regime change in Iraq, even if well intentioned, has had the opposite effect.

Al-Qaida and its extremist supporters know that America cannot be coerced to leave Iraq by military or political means alone. But according to the authors of ‘‘Jihadi Iraq: Hopes and Danger’’, the Islamist resistance can succeed by making the occupation of Iraq as costly as possible for the US. One of that document’s most important recommendations is to attack American allies present in Iraq ‘‘because America must not be allowed to share the cost of occupation with a wide coalition of countries’’. The goal of the Jihadists is ‘‘to make one or two of the US allies leave the coalition, because this will cause others to follow suit and the dominos will start falling’’.

The Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq, and the relative indifference towards forging a coalition with traditional allies, is apparently fulfilling the best case strategic scenario envisioned by the Jihadists. In addition to the Spanish, personnel from Ukraine, Germany and Japan have been targeted in Iraq. Terrorist attacks around the world have also become more frequent, as if fulfilling a strategic design for wider mayhem. Instead of dismantling the networks of terror cell by cell, the US is trying to dissuade terrorism by demonstrating its greater military might. The number of terrorist cells is, however, continuing to multiply.

Historically, terrorism flourished in the chaos of the wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Iraq is now evoking memories of Lebanon, with the added feature of American military presence. The American military presence is large enough to attract charges of occupation but not so big that it can keep the place fully under control. By waging war in Iraq to topple an evil regime that was not directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the US has run the risk of over-extending itself militarily. The Shiite uprising in most of Iraq, for example, is not a necessary element of the war against terrorism. It is, however, antagonising Shiite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere and creating potentially active enemies for the US where none existed before.

Al-Qaida and other extremists know the Muslim mind and seem also to have some understanding of the Bush administration’s approach. They attract massive American military retaliation through violent acts, such as the murder of American civilians in Fallujah, because the collateral damage of military operations adds to resentment of US occupation. The administration’s sledgehammer approach loses America critical goodwill of existing and potential allies.

Adnan Pachachi, a senior member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, described the retaliatory operations in Fallujah as ‘‘mass punishment for the people of Fallujah’’. ‘‘It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah’’, he said and added that he considered ‘‘these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal’’. Two Iraqi governing council members have already resigned in protest over the wider violence. Such chaos in governance and law enforcement in Iraq seems hardly reflective of the well thought out ‘‘broader package of strategies’’ Rice says have been evolved in response to terrorism.

Iraq is not the only area where the administration’s policy seems adrift. The US appears also to be ineffective in untangling the knots that made Afghanistan a safe haven for Al-Qaida. According to Rice, ‘‘Al-Qaida was both client of and patron to the Taliban, which in turn was supported by Pakistan. Those relationships provided Al-Qaida with a powerful umbrella of protection, and we had to sever them’’.

While the Taliban have been toppled from power, the administration’s policy towards Pakistan has been to embrace its military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. Rice describes this as a new ‘‘carrot and stick’’ policy towards Pakistan. A $600 million a year aid package for five years helps General Musharraf retain power, and his military and intelligence services periodically nab and hand over Al-Qaida figures to the US in return. But the flipping of General Musharraf can hardly be described a policy achievement. Pakistan obviously had strategic reasons of its own to back the Taliban, and for turning a blind eye to Al-Qaida. Those reasons are unlikely to change without a change in Pakistan’s leadership or system of government.

Rice has a similarly optimistic view of Saudi Arabia, another source of non-state support for Al-Qaida. But the Pakistani military retreated in a recent showdown with Al-Qaida supporters in its tribal region bordering Afghanistan and the Saudis can hardly be expected to suddenly clamp down on the extremist Jihadist ideology they have espoused for several decades. All this points towards an ad-hoc flexing of muscle throughout the Muslim world rather than a comprehensive strategy to root out extremist ideologies, promote democracy and eliminate terrorism.