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No Military Solution to Terrorism
10 January 2002
Tony Blair, trying not to look triumphant as he was flanked by the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and surrounded by British troops at Bagram airbase on Monday, roundly dismissed those who were skeptical about what military action could achieve.
As American bombers continue to bomb targets identified as remnants of Taliban and al-Qaida forces, and their ammunition dumps, risking more civilian casualties, he added that the war would not be over until Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were caught.
This, after all, was the prime objective emphasized repeatedly by both Bush and Blair. Yet with the mullah reported to have escaped on a motorbike and Bin Laden, at the time of writing, nowhere to be seen, the Pentagon now says it is winding down its search for them.
On Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman said American forces were going to stop "chasing the shadows" of Bin Laden and Omar. Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem declared that American-led forces were focusing more on finding and attacking remaining Taliban and al-Qaida members.
The bombing continues long after "enemy forces", by Blair and Bush's own admission, have been routed. Bombing will not bring anyone to account, or to justice - the words used by Bush and Blair - nor will it provide them with more intelligence about any threat still posed by al-Qaida.
As Donald Anderson, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee has said, now that the main battle is over, continuing air strikes seem very much like revenge tactics. "If we value Afghan life as much as American," he says pointedly, "we will have to be extremely careful."
Now the bombing has become so routine that it is relegated to the inside pages of newspapers or not recorded at all, in much the same way as the continued bombing of Iraq by American and British pilots over the southern and northern "no-fly" zones. But is the world a safer place? Is the outcome of the military campaign in Afghanistan a victory for civilization, as Bush-Blair rhetoric maintains?
The American military have been given a huge boost, and the promise of a large budgetary increase to procure new and more powerful bombs, including bunker-busters whose performance in Afghanistan has disappointed the Pentagon. Their tails up, they are threatening to strike at other easy targets.
But this new-found enthusiasm for military strikes ignores a broader point about western policy, made succinctly by Field Marshal Lord Inge, a former chief of defense staff, just before the Christmas recess. The "ongoing crisis between Israel and the Palestinians," he told the Lords, "deserves as much direct attention from America and Europe as does the war against international terrorism. While there is no sign of establishing a viable Palestinian state, the terrorists of the al-Qaida organization will continue to believe that they have a cause."
Even complete military success in Afghanistan will not destroy the terrorist threat. Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, senior staff at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, question whether advances in communications and encryption - coupled with increasingly good tradecraft - obviates the need for al-Qaida to have any territorial base. In the latest issue of the IISS journal, Survival, they ask: "Can al-Qaida, or its successor, make the transition from from quasi-virtual to completely virtual state?"
Meanwhile, actual Middle East states are growing economically at two-thirds the rate of other developing countries, even more slowly than sub-Saharan Africa. In 1980, Muslims accounted for 18% of the world's population. If present trends continue, they will constitute 30% by 2025, say the authors. A "new youth bulge" will hit countries throughout the Arab world and beyond.
"There is little reason to believe that ruling elites will offer a route to political self-expression that does not go through the mosque and madrassa," they say. "An integral part of this religious orientation will be resentment, even hatred of western societies. The globalization juggernaut of cultural intrusion into these traditional societies will certainly fuel this hatred and make religious terrorism even more likely."
There is nothing inevitable about this. Much will depend on the increasingly uncertain relationship between the west and autocratic Arab regimes, notably Saudi Arabia. It will depend on their economic and social policies. One thing is certain - as Britain's top military figures appreciate even if their counterparts in the Pentagon do not - there is no military solution to the fight against terrorism, and no military deterrent to prevent it. This is the context in which the military action in Afghanistan praised by Blair must be seen.
Richard Norton-Taylor Published in the Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002