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The Revised War On Terrorism by Philip Stephens from Financial Times

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Philip Stephens: The revised war on terrorism
By Philip Stephens
Published: August 29 2002 20:12 | Last Updated: August 29 2002 20:12

Whatever happened to Osama bin Laden? The thought occurs as the hawks in President George W. Bush's administration beat the drums ever louder for war with Iraq. Mr bin Laden, after all, was the evil author of September 11. The US has put a $25m price on his head. As long as the al-Qaeda leader is at liberty, surely none of us can sleep soundly? Yet he hardly rates a mention these days.

To be fair, Dick Cheney, who all but declared war on Baghdad in a speech this week to American veterans, did allow himself a glancing reference to Mr bin Laden. "If he's alive, we'll get him," the vice-president said. "If he's not alive, we already got him." Mr Cheney said he had borrowed this line from Mr Bush. It was no less vacuous for that. An unkind observer would say that as far as public enemy No 1 is concerned, the administration is clueless.

That's not entirely true. People with access to the intelligence reports say that Mr bin Laden is almost certainly alive. So are most of his senior lieutenants. The al-Qaeda leader is probably hiding out, albeit uncomfortably, in the desolate mountains on the north-west frontier of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The same sources say that other senior al-Qaeda figures are in western Afghanistan, moving regularly across that country's border with Iran.

Here we encounter again the paradox of American power. For all its military might, its massive fleet and air force, its sophisticated surveillance and superbly equipped troops, the US has failed thus far to track down its most dangerous enemy. Early on, the administration was risk-averse. It refused to commit large numbers of its own troops to the search, preferring to rely instead on unreliable Afghan warlords. Now it finds that high-technology weaponry is not enough to chase down a terrorist on horseback. Politics matters more. And in this case politics stands in the way because Pakistan is strictly limiting (for its own domestic political reasons) the extent to which American forces can pursue their prey on it s territory.

So even as Mr Cheney makes the case for war on Iraq, US military commanders are chasing Mr bin Laden's shadow. Our old friend the cynic would spot a causal link here: the failure to capture the al-Qaeda leadership explains just why the hawks in Washington are spoiling for a fight with Mr Hussein.

Things could change, of course. American forces may get lucky. The Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf, notionally an ally, might agree to ease the tight restraints applied to US forces in the tribal areas. Washington certainly needs another victory and Mr Bush would dearly love to proclaim it before the anniversary of September 11.

The elusive Mr bin Laden, though, is only part of the story. A year on from those grotesque attacks on New York and Washington, much bigger questions hang over what Mr Bush chose to designate as a war against terrorism. As time has passed, the initial certainties and uncompromising language of the US campaign have collided with all the awkward realities.

It seemed obvious at the time to frame the response to these acts of terror as a "war" on the perpetrators - a simple struggle between right and wrong. The shock of the event demanded moral certainty. Absolutism was the order of the day. All terrorism was evil. America, with the support of its allies, would defeat it.

But this particular war can never be won. Terrorist networks can be wound up, individuals can be caught, erstwhile bombers may embrace politics. Good intelligence and vigilance can fo restall fresh atrocities. But history has taught us that what we now call terrorism will always be a chosen weapon of the weak against the strong. Remember the Sicari in Roman-occupied Palestine two thousand years ago, the Assassins of medieval Islam, the 19th-century anarchi sts who killed tsars and presidents. Think, more recently, of the IRA in Northern Ireland, Eta in Spain and, of course, Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Terrorism, like organised crime or the international drugs trade, can never be defeated - only contained.

The other uncomfortable truth is that not all terrorists are the same. The US has taken an easy definition, the one that says anyone who deploys indiscriminate violence against non-co mbatants is a terrorist. Circumstance and objective are irrelevant. Violence is never a legitimate means, even in pursuit of a noble end.

From a moral perspective, such statements are hard to quarrel with. But real life is never quite so simple. Nobel peace prizes now sit on the mantelpieces of people we used to know as terrorists. Violence deployed for political ends is always terrible but it cannot be divorced from circumstance. Are the perpetrators being oppressed? Do they have any alternative? We all deplore Palestinian suicide bombings. Yet the just cause of a Palestinian state should no t be deemed discredited by the violence of some of its advocates - just as the Jewish demand for a homeland rightly survived the atrocities of the Irgun and the Stern gang.

Any "war" on terrorism must start from an understanding of the context. None of this can or should give succour to Mr bin Laden. Al-Qaeda's ambitions are as abhorrent as its methods. But it does demand a close look at the soil in which Islamic extremism has been fertilised - and an understanding that military might of itself does not provide the answer.

The US, of course, knows about these ambiguities and contradictions. Washington, after all, long supported anti-communist terror gangs in Latin America. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Central Intelligence Agency was happy to serve as one of Mr bin Laden's sponsors. Even now, the US finds it necessary to forge alliances with states that routinely inflict terror on their own people or deploy it against others. Does Mr Bush view the bomb-p lanting separatists sponsored by Pakistan in Kashmir as terrorists? Consider the new US-Soviet entente in the light of Chechnya, where Russian troops practise indiscriminate violence.

These are inconvenient truths for the Washington hawks who sometimes seem to think that US might is the only definition of right. The awkwardnesses will not go away even if Mr bin Lad en is caught - and we must all hope that he is. So why not focus on a bigger danger and redesignate the enemy as Iraq? The terror state replaces the terrorist on the FBI's most wanted list. You can see Mr Cheney's point. But most people will need a better reason to start another war.

philip.stephens@ft.com


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