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Stumbles at the top put the war on terror at risk

By Peter Hartcher
March 19, 2004

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John Howard should note how much al-Qaeda has profited from ham-fisted US strategy.

World Peace ( WorldPeace)

If we are in a war on terrorism, who is winning? The terrorists can claim some serious successes since September 11, 2001. Spain was the 10th country struck since the attack on the US, demonstrating the potency and reach of their hatred.

But the terrorists have been damaged, too. The authorities killed al-Qaeda's top man in Saudi Arabia this week, for instance. Measuring overall progress in the worldwide twilight struggle is difficult.

Three new, authoritative and important assessments of the state of the global counter-terrorism campaign have emerged from the US in the past few days.

First, an authority on the subject, Tony Cordesman, of the non-partisan Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, made the case that "from al-Qaeda's perspective, they can make a claim that they are in fact winning, not losing the war on terrorism". How so?

"The victory we have won in Afghanistan is tenuous at best - it is more Kabulstan than Afghanistan. The fighting goes on. The US is tied down there. The problems of Central Asia continue ... From al-Qaeda's viewpoint Iraq is, by any standard, not an American victory yet ...

"Al-Qaeda has so far done more to dominate the Arab media than the US. The US effort to win the information battle and hearts and minds has been sufficiently inept ...

And from al-Qaeda's viewpoint, does having the US tie down most of the forces that it can actively deploy in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that the US can win asymmetric wars? Well, not yet."

Overall, Cordesman does not think al-Qaeda and co are winning. His point is that the terrorists can tell a plausible story that they are at least holding their own. And a plausible story is central to the momentum of any movement.

Second is the testimony to Congress nine days ago by the CIA chief, George Tenet. His main finding was that the al-Qaeda leadership structure had been "seriously damaged" but that the group had adjusted and was operating through loosely affiliated cells which remained committed and capable: "Even catastrophic attacks on the scale of 11 September remain within al-Qaeda's reach.

"The steady spread of Osama bin Laden's anti-US sentiment through the wider Sunni extremist movement and through the broad dissemination of al-Qaeda's destructive expertise ensures that a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future - with or without al-Qaeda in the picture."

There is a whirlwind of speculation that US and Pakistani forces are closing in on bin Laden. The enemy is no longer just al-Qaeda but a hydra-headed global movement.

Third, the most credible and consistent measure of global public opinion is the work of the Washington-based Pew Research Centre. It co-ordinated a 44-nation survey last May that found that the invasion of Iraq had "widened the rift between Americans and Western Europeans, further inflamed the Muslim world, softened support for the war on terrorism, and significantly weakened global public support for the pillars of the post-World War II era - the UN and the North Atlantic alliance."

And while the US lost support, trust and credibility, who gained? Pew found: "Support for the US-led war on terrorism also has fallen in most Muslim publics. Equally significant, solid majorities in the Palestinian Authority, Indonesia and Jordan - and nearly half of those in Morocco and Pakistan - say they have at least some confidence in bin Laden to 'do the right thing'."

This week Pew produced an update, albeit surveying only nine countries: four Muslim-majority states, three Western European powers, Russia and the US. Its summary: "A year after the war in Iraq, discontent with America and its policies has intensified rather than diminished." In every country but the US, most people had less confidence in the trustworthiness of the US. And in every country but the US most said the Iraq invasion had set the war on terrorism back.

The invasion of Iraq was never a serious part of the US counter-terrorism campaign. We know from three published sources from within the Bush Administration that George Bush was committed to the invasion to remove Saddam Hussein long before September 11. The attacks on Washington and New York were not the reason for the attack on Iraq, only a political marketing opportunity.

Although it is still very early in the long twilight struggle against terrorism, it seems more likely that the invasion of Iraq was a major distraction and diversion from the serious work of counter-terrorism.

As Jim Steinberg, the former US deputy national security adviser and now head of security studies at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington, put it this week: "All the intelligence assets and operating capability dealing with Iraq could have been used against terrorism. On some level it must take away attention and resources from al-Qaeda. And to the extent that it has made the publics in other countries sceptical of the US, it has diminished their willingness to co-operate with us. That hasn't damaged co-operation on terrorism in the short term, but the question is whether it inflicts damage in the longer term."

The efforts to counter the newly energised global terrorism movement have just begun, and much remains to be done. Iraq was a diversion, at best. And it may have aggravated the problem.

In Australia, the Howard Government seems intent on demonstrating that it is so deeply invested in the Iraq distraction that it is having trouble concentrating on the real work of counter-terrorism. The primary evidence is the brutalisation of the Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, by John Howard, his staff and his ministers this week. His crime: making a commonsense but politically inconvenient observation that the risks of terrorism in Australia had been raised by the decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq.

The heads of the nation's security agencies need to be free to speak frankly to the public about terrorism and how to defeat it. Howard and his ministers are showing that they're not interested in that idea.

Tenet said that one of the reasons for al-Qaeda's resilience was that "this is a learning organisation". Could the same be said of the Howard ministry?

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