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Perverse Incentives of Terrorism War

10 June 2002

None of the 19 terrorists named in the Sept. 11 attacks was from Afghanistan.

But the US attacked that Central Asian country and helped topple its government.

The Bush administration justified the action by declaring a war on terrorism and giving itself permission to act against any nation that "harbored terrorists."

This overwrought response served to elevate the status of the Islamist cult that hit us; Al Qaeda bases its legitimacy on the argument the West is an enemy of Islam. With military overkill, belligerent rhetoric and domestic laws that now permit Muslim profiling, we seem to be making the cult's point.

But aside from the "crusader" tone of this war campaign, the U.S. military assault on Afghanistan has set a precedent that perversely empowers terrorism.

To the world's distress, we already see applications of that precedent.

In South Asia, India and Pakistan are at each other's throats in a brawl over the disputed region of Kashmir.

The key issue at this point is whether Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf should be held accountable for the cross-border terrorist attacks into India-controlled Kashmir and Jammu.

The Indian government blames Musharraf and vows massive retaliation if the attacks persist. Indian leaders say their policy is inspired by the Bush administration's doctrine. If India attacks, Pakistan promises to respond in kind.

Both nations have nuclear weapons.

Many observers insist that Musharraf cannot control the terrorists. In fact, they note, some Islamist groups within Pakistan seek to destabilize the Musharraf government and even provoke a war between India and Pakistan. A wider regional conflict reportedly is in their interest.

Thus, in effect, terrorists control the diplomatic process.

The Ariel Sharon regime in Israel also has used the Bush doctrine to justify its decision to hold Yasser Arafat accountable for the suicide bombings that continue to kill too many innocent Israelis. Outside of Israel, however, there is a widespread consensus that Arafat's Palestinian Authority lacks the resources and credibility to challenge the power of terrorist groups within the Palestinian territories.

Like Musharraf, Arafat also is the target of Islamist groups that seek to oust him and derail any negotiation with Israel. With suicide bombs, these groups can kill two birds with one stone.

Again, terrorists wind up in the driver's seat.

This perverse incentive makes no sense. But the U.S. cannot credibly urge restraint to Israel and India after dropping daisy cutters on Afghanistan.

The Bush administration is hamstrung by its own blunt example.

It didn't have to be this way.

We now know that U.S. intelligence services, and parallel agencies in other countries, had been monitoring Al Qaeda members for many years. A comprehensive, UN-coordinated effort by global police agencies, discrete military units and the newly empowered International Criminal Court might have more effectively neutered this cult (the FBI and CIA have warned that Al Qaeda still is active and poised to strike) and captured its still-missing ringleaders.

Further, the Bush administration could easily begin drying up grass-roots support for Islamist cults with tangible expressions of assurance it seeks to assist rather than destroy the Muslim world. Political gestures could be modeled on the European Union's efforts at last year's UN conference on racism: the EU vowed to forge new relationships between the colonized and the colonizers of history.

Rejecting such subtle calibrations, the U.S. responded with brute military power and bellicose rhetoric. The target of that power was not just Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts, but also the people and land of Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, future terrorism is likely to be the product of those bombs and bellicosity.

On several levels, U.S. policy ends up encouraging rather than discouraging terrorism.

A clear alternative policy would be to utilize the auspices of the UN, an institution created precisely for this purpose. We ignore this important tool at our increasing peril.

As the world's lone superpower, the U.S. has a special obligation to model civilized restraint in a newly "globalized" world. Instead, we have shown the world that power makes its own rules, heedless of precedent or advice.

Let's all hope that India fails to heed our example.

Salim Muwakkil
Published in the Chicago Tribune © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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