Global Policy Forum

Making the World More Dangerous


By Marrack Goulding*

July 28, 2002

President George Bush called for a 'war' against terror after September 11. But is war the right way to deal with the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda? Here a self-confessed 'bleeding heart' answers no to that. It's an assessment based on years in charge of the UN's peacekeeping operations.

The attacks on September 11 were unparalleled in their ingenuity, in their planning and in the political, material and psychological impact they had on the terrorist's enemy. They revealed that a clandestine group could set up a worldwide network and that that network, using modern communications and other technology, could, out of the blue, launch simultaneous and devastating attacks on two cities in the most powerful country in the world. The resources used by the terrorist network - estimated at less than $100,000 - amounted to only a tiny proportion of the costs of more than $400 billion faced by the victim.

The attacks also revealed the disquieting fact that significant numbers of clever and determined people were so hostile to the United States that they were prepared to devote their lives, both metaphorically and literally, to terrorist attacks against it. Osama Bin Laden seemed to be the mastermind but what was his motive? Did he want to drive the US and its allies from the sacred lands of Islam? Did he want to restore Islam to the reputed purity of its distant past? Did he want to become the next Caliph? Or were his motives more secular? Did he want to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and become the ruler of Saudi Arabia? Did he want to liberate Palestine and release Iraq from the burden of sanctions and the daily attention of US and British warplanes? Did he want to be the champion of oppressed Muslims not only in the Middle East but in other regions - Bosnia, Kashmir, Russia, China, the Philippines?

There is as yet no clear answer to these questions. At a conference in Oxford in June, Professor Bernard Lewis said that his analysis of Bin Laden's writings and speeches led him to conclude that his primary objective was to remove infidels from the holy lands of Islam and reverse the humiliation to which Islam had been subjected by the west since the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924. This is a plausible view but it is not yet certain what Bin Laden's real objectives are. What is certain, however, is that he is exploiting Arab and Muslim anger at US policies towards Palestine and Iraq in order to recruit men to his cause on a worldwide scale.

First moves

In the aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration launched a huge effort to discover how this disaster had come about and take action to ensure that those responsible for it were punished and that it would not be repeated.

Initially there seemed to be grounds for hoping that Washington would draw on lessons about how to deal with conflict which the international community had learnt since the end of the Cold War. Much, for instance, was said about the need to clarify what had motivated nineteen educated young men to sacrifice their lives in this way. This implied recognition that conflicts cannot be resolved unless their root causes are addressed. Washington already knew that there was great resentment at American policy in the Arab and Muslim worlds. After September 11, there were signs that the US and its allies recognised that, if future attacks were to be prevented, a more serious effort was needed to resolve existing conflicts such as those between Israel and the Arabs, between the US and Iraq and - though this was not much mentioned at the time - the very dangerous conflict in Kashmir.

It was also said that an international coalition should be created to try to ensure that such attacks were never repeated. This seemed to indicate recognition of the fact that a campaign against an aggressor gains legitimacy and effectiveness if it is carried out by a large and representative group of countries, as was demonstrated by the coalition so successfully assembled by Washington to liberate Kuwait in 1991.

The hope that a similar coalition would be formed this time was strengthened by the UN Security Council's adoption, on September 28, of a US-sponsored resolution requiring all member states to report in detail on the measures they had taken to block the formation of terrorist networks on their territories and the further measures they had in mind.

Military action was, of course, being prepared to punish those responsible for September 11 and to destroy their capacity to launch further attacks, but there was in those early days as much talk of political as of military action.

The wrong road

If these priorities had prevailed, it would have been possible to say that September 11 had to some extent helped international peacemaking by enhancing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the techniques developed since the end of the Cold War to deal with regional conflicts in Africa, Central America and Southeast Asia.

But that, alas, did not happen. The wisdom of the initial reaction to the New York and Washington attacks was overtaken by President George Bush's declaration of a 'war' on terror. This borrowing from the political vocabulary of Israel had a number of unfortunate consequences. It implied that military action was to be the primary response to the terrorist attacks, and that little interest remained in finding political ways of removing factors that had made the terrorist attacks possible. It also implied that, as often happens in war, civil liberties might be curtailed or ignored if this was deemed necessary in order to win the war. That has happened in the US and other countries. In addition, Bush invited states to declare that they were with the United States in its assault on terror. To fail to do so or to question its wisdom or legitimacy was tantamount to supporting terrorism.

This declaration rolled out a bandwagon on to which a number of other leaders jumped. Those who were facing insurrections in their own countries or in territories occupied by them were delighted to be able to say that forceful military action against their opponents was all part of the war on terror.

Finally, Bush seemed to sympathise with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's position that Palestinian opposition to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is to be characterised as terror. This led him to espouse the view that there can be no negotiation until all violence has ceased. This was, and is, a mistake. It is not the norm to delay peace negotiations until violence has ended. The norm in conflicts which the UN helped to resolve after the end of the Cold War was that talks began while the fighting continued. Fighting often reached its most intense level on the eve of the final agreement. If we had insisted that there could be no negotiation before fighting stopped, there would have been no peace settlement in Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique, El Salvador, Guatemala or Bosnia. Moreover, if you say that there can be no talks unless violence ends, you are putting the peace process into the hands of the extremists on both sides. It takes only one terrorist to bring it to a halt.

The new context

In all these respects, the US response to September 11 has reflected little of the techniques for the control and resolution of conflict developed in the decade after the end of the Cold War, when the major powers had at last found themselves able to work together in the UN Security Council to resolve a number of regional conflicts.

It can however be argued that the September attacks were unprecedented and quite different in kind from the interstate and civil wars in which the international community developed its current techniques for peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding and that those techniques would not therefore have worked successfully.

There is some force in that argument. September 11 did introduce us to a new and frightening threat and new techniques must be developed to deal with it. But those techniques should not be exclusively military nor should they be applied in a way that strengthens the grievances which facilitated the organisation and execution of the terrorist attacks. It is far from evident that military action is an effective way of destroying terrorist networks. The first defence of democratic countries against such networks should be their domestic and external intelligence services and their systems of criminal justice. It has become evident since September that there is an urgent need in a number of countries to strengthen this capacity.

If proven terrorists cannot be brought to justice because they are not within our jurisdiction, there may be a case for using force of arms to eliminate them. But such actions can easily backfire, as Britain found when its forces killed IRA terrorists in Gibraltar.

It doesn't work

Major punitive operations of the kind which the US and some of its allies have been engaged in in Afghanistan and which Israel is currently undertaking in the occupied Palestinian territories seem even more likely to be counterproductive.

First, as US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shows us daily, it is difficult to avoid giving the impression that revenge is the primary purpose of the operations.

Secondly, they inevitably cause unintended collateral damage. The technology may be brilliant but it cannot ensure that only proven terrorists are eliminated. The blowing away of a wedding party because someone is foolish enough to fire a rifle in the air just fuels the hatred that led to the earlier terrorism. The arrogance of invading forces and their sometimes brutal treatment of civilians has the same effect.

Thirdly, there is the question of what happens next, after the invading forces have destroyed the institutions of the country or territory that has been harbouring terrorists. If there are no longer any functioning political and administrative institutions, how will it be possible to negotiate agreements to prevent the re-establishment of terrorist facilities? And who will have the authority to implement agreements if these can be negotiated? I am no fan of the Palestinian Authority, but Sharon's systematic destruction of it and its resources has made it even more difficult to envisage the negotiations which Sharon says he wants.

In this context, it is especially worrying that the Bush administration shares its predecessor's distaste for nation building. If Afghanistan is not again to become a haven for international terrorists, it is essential that the country have an effective government which is able to exercise its authority throughout the national territory. What we have at the moment, to judge from the media, is an unstable and probably transient pact between a group of warlords whose ability to use their fighters to promote their political ambitions is under no foreign constraint, except in Kabul. This arrangement is certain to fail. Afghanistan will soon sink back into the political and military chaos that turned it into a haven for terrorists. What the international community, led by the west, needs to do is what it has done in Bosnia and Kosovo: blanket the country with a substantial political and military presence for at least five years - preferably more - until an effective government is in place to provide security and justice for its citizens.

The horrible events of September 11 and the reaction to them of the United States and some of its allies, especially Britain, have disrupted the laborious progress towards developing peaceful means of preventing and resolving conflict between states, or between states and non-state actors, of whom Osama Bin Laden is one. The horrors were different, at least in size and impact, from what happened in earlier conflicts, and if international peacemaking has been hindered by them, the responsibility and the blame clearly lie with the originators of the attacks on New York and Washington.

Nevertheless, the reliance on military action in the aftermath of September 11 has been a major setback for two reasons. It will not stop future terrorist attacks. On the contrary, it is likely to stimulate them by fuelling hatred and the desire for revenge. It has also returned us to the age of Ronald Reagan, when military action was the favoured response to trouble in the third world and political action, if considered at all, was a secondary option.

* Sir Marrack Goulding is Warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, and was formerly UN Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping. He is the author of 'Peacemonger' (John Murray, 2002). This piece is an edited version of a recent address to members at Chatham House.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.