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A message from Bali

The war on terror isn't working

Jonathan Freedland

The world has every right to feel angry. Not just with the perpetrators of the Saturday night massacre in Bali, but with the governments who vowed to wage a "war on terror" which would make attacks like it less likely.

Of course, no one is accusing our leaders of having a chance to prevent this act of mass murder and deliberately failing to take it. (No one, that is, except the conspiracy obsessives of radical Islamism, already spreading the word that Saturday's bombers were US agents, seeking to justify an intervention.)

But there is much western governments promised to do after 9/11 which would at least have obstructed the path of the men who plotted evil last weekend. Washington called it a "war on terror" and, with remarkably little resistance, most of the world's people either signed up for it or acquiesced in it. Prevention of horrors like Saturday's was the new strategy's primary purpose. Yet all too little of that "war" effort has actually materialised.

This new global gameplan was meant to have two core elements at least according to its British advocates. First would be a ruthless, unblinking pursuit of al-Qaida. In the pained weeks that followed the attacks on New York and Washington, citizens in the US and beyond imagined the full force of the state - its army, police and the complete battery of its secret services - deployed against the new enemy. Nothing would be allowed to distract from this goal. If that meant unholy alliances, so be it. If that meant temporarily shelving other foreign policy interests, OK: hunting down Osama bin Laden and his henchmen was to be the sole priority.

On this view, Afghanistan was merely the beginning. Uprooting the al-Qaida bases that had mushroomed there was necessary, but hardly sufficient. The whole terrifying point about al-Qaida was that it was not located in one targetable territory, neatly confined to one set of borders. Instead it had spread like a vapour to as many as 50 countries, with up to 100,000 militants ready for action. Bombing a few camps would hardly reach this enemy at all.

The only way to fight this new fire was with new fire. Since al-Qaida's methods were not those of a conventional army, the response would have to be equally unconventional. The military analyst Martin van Creveld had warned a decade earlier of "asymmetric war" and now the world understood what he meant. He urged armies to put aside their ships and rockets, and take on the enemy on its own terrain. The soldiers of al-Qaida did not march in columns on battlefields but wore jeans, rented apartments and posed as students in Hamburg, Brixton and Florida. To win, our soldiers would have to learn a new language of combat.

Last weekend's atrocity has only underlined the tricky, slippery nature of the new enemy. No one is even sure if Bali was an al-Qaida operation or, for that matter, whether such thing as an "al-Qaida operation" even exists. The Indonesian government says it was, noting the expertise required to trigger a series of simultaneous explosions - a knowhow only al-Qaida could possess. Others are doubtful, insisting that Bin Laden's men tend to prefer military, political or culturally iconic targets. It is the homegrown Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah which hits nightclubs and similar symbols of "western decadence".

Even if it was the Jemaah group, there might still be an al-Qaida link. It could be subtle, with al-Qaida acting as an inspiration rather than as direct command. This is one more reason why al-Qaida represents such a formidable foe: it is not an organisation in the western sense at all. It may just be an animating idea, spreading fast throughout the Islamic world.

Which brings us to the second prong of the war on terror many of us thought we signed up to a year ago. This held that if al-Qaida was truly to be defeated, killing or arresting its activists would not do the trick: lopping off a head today would only make another grow tomorrow. Every counter-terrorist struggle in the world, from Algiers to Belfast, had taught the same lesson: in the end, there can be no military victory over an enemy which enjoys even a limited degree of popular support. Instead, there has to be political action. Not an attempt to compromise with the killers - Bin-Laden is hardly demanding roundtable talks - but to win over the constituency that offers them tacit backing: to drain the sea in which they swim.

Taken together, these two elements amounted to a strategy that was tough on terror, tough on the causes of terror. The west would pursue Al-Qaida operatives, even as it moved to address the grievances which made too many in the Muslim world rally to Bin-Laden's flag.

That meant, among other things, a new alternative energy strategy, aimed eventually at weaning the west off oil. No longer would the US and others need to manipulate the Middle East just to safeguard their petrol supply. They could let the peoples of the Arab world choose their own governments for once. The US would move its troops out of Saudi Arabia, healing one of the sores Bin-Laden most likes to inflame: the presence of "infidels" on holy Muslim soil. And Washington would pick up where Clinton left off, devoting serious political muscle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Genuine movement in that area would instantly rob the Islamists of one of their greatest recruiting pitches.

Who knows what impact all that might have had? We certainly don't, because it has hardly been tried. Nor has the military component of the war on terror fared much better. Bin-Laden was allowed to vanish, along with the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who escaped the wrath of the mightiest army in the world on board a clapped-out motorbike. The jump-suited captives at Camp X-Ray appear too low-level to have much useful to say. Nor do the US intelligence agencies inspire much confidence: they remain at war with each other while their political masters tend to hear only what they want to hear.

None of this is a surprise. For the prosecutors of the war on terror - who promised to focus like a laser beam - have let their eye wander. Like the rulers of Orwell's 1984, our leaders have urged us to switch our hatred overnight not from Eastasia to Eurasia but from al-Qaida to Baghdad. Now we are to believe Saddam is the urgent, number one priority.

Bali has proved why that is a woeful error. A war on Iraq will win yet more backing for jihadism in the Muslim world, apparently confirming all Bin Laden's most lurid predictions of a clash of west against Islam. A prolonged US occupation of Iraq will be the greatest provocation yet. But it will also be a distraction from the struggle we were all urged to join a year ago. Bali has proved what Clinton argued a fortnight ago: that radical Islamism remains the "most pressing" threat in the world today. Clinton gets that. The only question is, does Tony Blair? And if he does, is he telling George W Bush?


Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian, from where this article is reproduced with kind permission. The Evatt Foundation extends its deepest sympathy to the grieving families.


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