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Thursday, September 02, 2004 - Page updated at 01:09 A.M.

"War on terror" difficult to define

By Todd Richissin
The Baltimore Sun

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LONDON — When gunmen took Russian schoolchildren hostage yesterday, their actions came on the heels of Islamic fundamentalists killing 12 Nepalese nationals in Iraq, which came about the time Palestinian suicide bombers blew up two buses in Israel and about the time a bomb exploded outside a Moscow subway station.

In each case, the response was the same: The perpetrators were labeled terrorists, then governments vowed not to give in to them and forged ahead with tactics that have been used for years despite utter failure.

Analysts say the incidents show that not only are there no front lines in the "war on terror" but that there is no single war against it because there are few common causes, no common enemy and no common strategy for fighting one.

Instead, the events have shown that the so-called war is really a series of mostly unconnected clashes over political, social and religious matters that military might has failed to resolve.

What kind of war?

"My objection to calling it a 'war on terrorism' is that the term implies there's a military solution to each of these problems, and there isn't," said Tim Garden, senior fellow and former director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "People don't like to hear this, but here goes: The military may be needed to help, but most of all it's about education and economics."

Like others who study violence, he acknowledges that not every Islamic fundamentalist or every nationalist willing to blow up civilians to achieve political goals is going to be turned around by improved living conditions.

But what the West commonly refers to as terrorism is a tactic that whole segments of the world — those who feel oppressed, desperate or cheated and have no other practical way of fighting — see as legitimate.

Chechens who want an autonomous country, Arabs who view their slums as the result of corrupt governments propped up by the United States, Palestinians who blame Israel for woeful living conditions, they all might not take part in attacks against civilians, but many are willing to put up with and even protect those who do.

"You'll only have an effect on terrorism when you get the broader society to withdraw support for the terrorists," Garden said. "To do that, you need to make things more just. You've got to get the broad population to think terrorists are a bad thing. And in the case of the Chechens, for example, as long as people think the Russians are monsters, people aren't going to be too upset about what the [rebels] are doing."

Iraq as a model

Iraq, in this view, proves the point, demonstrating how violence for political means can take root.

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, the U.S. military was indeed greeted by many Iraqis as a liberating force. The insurgency, by most accounts, did not hit its stride until about last September, a full five months after U.S. forces entered Baghdad.

Iraqis had gone through a long, dangerous summer with scarce electricity and water and no sense of order, and then the insurgency began to swell. The looting and utility woes did not create the insurgency, but there is little doubt that the dismal conditions left many Iraqis angry at U.S. forces to the point that they were willing to stand by while insurgents carried out attacks, or, in some cases, residents gave them cover.

"Iraq was a very good example of how to create conditions that create a violent movement," said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser to the French Institute of International Relations. "The object is to fight the radicals without losing the moderates. Because of the planning in Iraq, or the lack of planning, the moderates were lost.

"It would have been unacceptable to most Iraqis to see soldiers attacked who made things better for them. It became perfectly acceptable for attacks against an invading army that failed to protect the country. This is an example, in my opinion, of conditions affecting outcomes."

For decades, Israel's policy has been to retaliate for Palestinian bombings. After attacks Tuesday that killed 16 people on two buses, the Israeli military leveled the house of one of the suicide bombers. In the past, Israel has responded to violence with widespread curfews, military actions in Palestinian cities and targeted attacks on suspected militants.

"Clearly, what that leads to is a continuation of the status quo — attacks," said Paul Wilkinson, professor of international relations and chairman of St. Andrew University's Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. "I don't think anybody would bet their house that the Palestinians will not bomb again or that their next attack will not be answered by the Israelis — and on and on."

This week, President Bush made headlines by telling an interviewer that, in his view, the war on terrorism could not be won, and implying that the best hope was to contain it. Bush aides said he meant that terrorism could not be defeated by conventional methods, but Wilkinson believes the president had it right the first time.

"Terrorism is a tactic, not a goal, and there will always be somebody who sees his cause as just enough to justify to himself that the tactic is called for," Wilkinson said. "But what can be done is to go after groups like al-Qaida, unraveling it with intelligence while helping out the tough spots — like Pakistan or Afghanistan — so that new al-Qaida members don't just keep popping up.

"What you do not want to do is anything to create whole new insurgencies and whole new classes of people who don't need much of a nudge before they're also taking part in the violence."

Northern Ireland solution

Political solutions have sometimes triumphed, perhaps most notably in Northern Ireland. The peace there is fragile and there are occasional reports of sectarian violence, but after negotiations led to increased autonomy for Northern Ireland, the bombings that were the hallmark of the Irish Republican Army's campaign are no more.

Disagreements persist and tensions still run high, but the climate has changed enough that Protestants and Catholics who excused the fighting and the bombings would no longer put up with it.

Israel and Chechnya, of course, are different stories.

Separatist rebels say Chechnya never voluntarily joined Russia, and tensions came to a head in bitter fighting from 1994 to 1996 and resumed in 1999 as Chechen leaders sought independence.

A week before the subway bombing, Russia blamed Chechens when two airliners were blown up outside Moscow. The bombers are believed to be sisters of two men killed by Russian troops.

"Governments have to say they don't negotiate with terrorists, but they still need to talk to them," said Arthur Rabjohn, a senior consultant with the Center for Defense and International Security Studies in London, a private company that works as a consultant to Britain's Ministry of Defense.

"It's understandable that no government is going to enter into discussions while the gun is pointed at its head. But they have to be willing to engage with those who are perpetuating these acts. Otherwise, they just keep escalating."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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