Focus on Iraq

The terrorists who attacked New York and Washington on September 11th were not trying to make a point. They were trying to provoke a foolish reaction. They hoped to lure the United States into the kind of poorly targeted retaliation that would destabilize our allies in the Islamic world and recruit more foot soldiers into the campaign to "free" the holy lands. Our response will be successful only if we avoid the trap they have cruelly laid.

Does our apparent strategy of punishing "states that harbor terrorists" live up to this demanding standard? It sounds plausible at first. Since we cannot get directly at the diffuse and amorphous terrorist networks themselves, we should exert pressure where we can, namely against those governments who tolerate terrorists on their territory as well as those who directly sponsor it. But there are some problems with addressing our efforts against "states that harbor terrorism."

For one thing, interpreted literally, culprits include Germany and Canada as well as the United States. The record suggests that a typical "breeding ground" for Islamic militancy is the Technical University of Hamburg -- the point being that terrorists lurk undetected in the anonymous interstices of free societies, harbored not by governments but by ethnic diversity and freedom itself.

And that is not all. We can bring another dimension of the problem into focus by observing that failed states incubate terrorism. A refugee camp is not just a humanitarian disaster, it is a generator of militant rage and thus a security threat to the West. Desolate and ravaged Afghanistan is a prime example. The Taliban presumably host foreign armed militias because they are too weak to secure a monopoly by force on their own territory. Telling our presumptive allies in the Islamic world to choose sides sounds decisive on our part. But pressuring rickety states may cause their collapse, leaving militant Islam to pick up the pieces. Pakistan is usually mentioned first in this context because everyone fears a breakdown of the Pakistani army and subsequent emergence of a fundamentalist regime, allied with the Taliban, with nuclear weapons at its disposal.

But the problem is more general and extends to America's Arab allies as well. Alongside the idea that we must punish states that harbor terrorism is a vague claim that we can simply issue instructions to allied Arab governments and compel them to squelch anti-American voices in their societies. The premise behind this thought is that a functioning state, able to control its own territory, can safely consider the United States to be a more important constituency than its domestic public. In other words, the sway of an American diktat around the world assumes the stability of non-participatory states. Whatever its pedigree (and a colonialist mind-set is a plausible candidate), the idea that governments in the region can indefinitely keep their populations docile is dangerous and misleading. "Shell regimes," with little moral prestige in their societies, may collapse under the onslaught of aroused populations if they show themselves to be the toys of an arrogant U.S. regime. The consequence would not be an improvement of American security.

So what is to be done, assuming we want to avoid falling into our attackers' trap? The focus today is on Afghanistan and Iraq, countries that present very different challenges to a U.S. campaign against terrorists with a global reach. In Afghanistan, where we seem to be concentrating, terrorists are "harbored" not by a state but by the impossibly rocky and mountainous terrain. The Taliban manifestly does not have a monopoly on the means of violent coercion on its own territory. Nor did Afghanistan provide the soil that bred Arab terrorist organizations. Rather these groups transferred their training camps there because it is one of the few places on earth where no government's authority extends.

The Taliban has relations of exchange and partnership and ideological sympathy with the terrorist groups but it does not control them. Therefore, to destroy the sanctuary of the terrorists it would not suffice to liquidate the Taliban. Instead we would have to take away the natural advantage of the landscape that provides them with their real haven. To do that will be difficult and will require more than aiding the Northern League and establishing a secure area for special operations. It will probably require invasion and occupation. Since those making the decisions in the U.S. administration presumably have no personal interests in Central Asian oil, are certainly keenly aware of the folly of being lured into "the Soviet Vietnam," and no doubt hesitate to pour kerosene on Islamist passions in Pakistan, they are probably not planning, in the case of Afghanistan, to burn down the haystack in order to find and destroy the needles.

Iraq is another matter. Universally unpopular among contiguous states, Saddam Hussein's regime not only tolerates, but actively sponsors, terrorism. And it is working furiously to produce weapons of mass destruction that can be used against us. That bin Laden's Islamic terrorists can be sponsored by secular governments even while cleaving devotedly to their own cause is obvious from the way the United States used their jihad against the Soviet forces in the 80s. If the U.S. had persuasive evidence now that Iraqi intelligence (perhaps trained by rogue KGB agents in basic techniques of counter-intelligence and obliterating their own traces inside the United States) had a hand in the attack, it could not reveal this evidence publicly without alerting the Iraqis to a pending invasion. In any case, a move to topple Saddam's regime, to be effective, would require support from allies in both Europe and the Middle East. It would also have to be integrated into a multi-dimensional regional strategy. For one thing, an invasion of Iraq, unlike an invasion of Afghanistan, would provide an opportunity to remove a bitter irritant to Islamic public opinion: We could relocate our troops away from the vicinity of Mecca and Medina, not in retreat or bowing to pressure but rather in order to occupy Iraq, and thereby to continue stabilizing the region militarily. We could call an immediate election that would result in a Shia government, which would have the collateral benefit (if combined with a go-ahead for a trans-Iranian oil pipeline) of conciliating Iran to our cause. Discontent stimulated by a post WWII-style American occupation of Iraq, devoted to political and economic reconstruction, would be tempered by the end of grueling sanctions (and bombings to the extent that these have occurred) from which Iraqi civilians have long suffered. The Syrians and Saudis could also be brought to support this effort if, along with some other incentives, we combined the toppling of the despised and feared Saddam with a all-out effort to create a viable Palestinian state, compatible with Israel's basic security, along the lines of the Mitchell plan, with perhaps some sort of international protectorate in East Jerusalem -- not sometime later, but now.

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