Published on Wednesday, October 31, 2001 in the Guardian of London
Wrong Tool for the Job
Bombing Afghanistan is Not the Way to Defeat al-Qaida - Instead, We Must Use All the Creativity We Can Muster
by Jonathan Freedland
I remember September 11. The short attention span of the modern, round-the-clock media has not made me forget. I remember the slow-motion pictures of the second plane. I remember the plaintive voices on the answering machines. I remember that vast dust cloud chasing people through the Manhattan streets. Of course I remember September 11. We all do.
It is not forgetfulness which explains the current wobble in public support for the war on Afghanistan, despite Tony Blair's plea yesterday for us to recall the anger we felt that day. The problem is not amnesia.
Nor is it complacency. Fear of al-Qaida remains paranoically high, especially in the United States, where anthrax-in-the-mail has brought the country to the verge of a nervous breakdown. Here, too, people are jittery, weighed down by the fear that we could be next. Lack of resolve is not the problem: people are desperate to stop the terrorists from striking again.
Nor can the slide in public backing for the bombing - confirmed in our poll yesterday -be put down easily to a collective yellow belly, a national loss of nerve at the first sight of blood. Ministers may hint at that, but Britons know wars exact a heavy cost and bring few immediate results; they are not put off that easily.
Instead the explanation might be one which reflects rather better on our country. Perhaps Britons have simply decided that bombing is not an effective way to defeat al-Qaida. Maybe some of them accept that aerial assault can only boost Osama bin Laden's standing in the Muslim world, spectacularly confirming his claim that this is a clash of the west against Islam - pitting the richest country in the world against the poorest. Perhaps they now accept that killing Bin Laden would merely make a martyr of him, and that his chosen hideaway was the worst possible place to pick a fight. Maybe they have heard the Afghan national epigram: "When God wants to punish a nation, he makes them invade Afghanistan."
Or they might be beginning to worry, like me, that our leaders do not understand the threat facing us. Both Blair and George Bush keep pretending this is a traditional, familiar conflict - one between states, against an enemy you can name, see and hit - when, in fact, it is a clash pitting us against an invisible network, dispersed across the globe. Our leaders want us to believe Kabul is the power behind al-Qaida, making Afghanistan a sensible target. Unfortunately the truth seems to be the other way around, with the Taliban taking its orders from Bin Laden. With his enormous fortune and international following, he is stronger than they are. This is a wholly new kind of enemy: not so much state-sponsored terrorism as a terrorism-sponsored state.
Given all that, bombing is just not going to do the trick. Bin Laden's reach goes far beyond a mere country; even obliterating it (and killing many of its civilians) would not remove the threat he poses. Remember, the men behind September 11 did their crucial training not in Kandahar, but in Florida.
So far, the best response the governments can fire back at those opposed to the bombing is, "All right - but what would you do?" Until we have a powerful answer to that, they and their policy will probably remain on just the right side of that crucial 50% approval mark.
So we need to have our own, alternative strategy for countering al-Qaida. Most in the peace camp have confined their thinking so far to the long term, demanding the western powers tackle the underlying causes of terrorism. It's suddenly become fashionable to quote Chairman Mao's axiom that, if you can't catch the fish, you can at least drain the sea in which they swim. In Bin Laden's case, that means the sea of grievances he's so adroitly exploited - chief among them, western support for the raft of vile regimes across the Arab and Muslim world which deny their peoples opportunity, free expression and basic human rights.
That makes good sense and, in Britain at least, has become government policy. Blair's "Let's reorder this world" speech at Brighton showed he had understood that ultimately the best way to defeat terrorism is to soothe the rage which fuels it.
That process will take years and cost billions. It will be worth it, because every time an injustice is remedied another recruiting sergeant for Osama bin Laden is slain. But it will not deal with the immediate threat - the young men already recruited to Bin Laden's cause. One estimate has al-Qaida counting on 50,000 sympathizers around the world, another 10,000 activists, including 2,000 who would be ready to kill and be killed and 800 who qualify as leaders. That is a huge network consisting of people already won over to Bin Laden's Islamist nihilism. They might never go anywhere near Afghanistan - and yet they pose a clear danger to us all.
It is in combating this threat, rather than the familiar enemy of a nation-state, that London and Washington are left scratching their heads. The Pentagon has even launched a public competition seeking ideas for fighting terror - with a lucrative defense contract offered to the best one. That's how desperate things have got.
Luckily, others are doing some fast thinking. At yesterday's day-long conference on the crisis, hosted jointly by the Guardian and the Royal United Services Institute, Air Marshal Sir Tim Garden said Britain should at least realize that if this war is going to be fought on our home soil we ought to start protecting that turf properly. He wants a British equivalent of America's new chief of homeland security, as well as a new role for the Territorial Army and extensive retraining of the police - so they can protect us against an enemy that strikes not on a foreign battlefield, but on our planes, in our cities and even via our morning post.
Others say that since the terrorists are waging "asymmetrical warfare" - a superpower laid low by a few Stanley knives - we have to learn to fight asymmetrically, too. More than one analyst has suggested this conflict is more Don Corleone than D-Day, forcing us to learn the techniques of the Mafia - finding individuals bent on mayhem and getting them before they get us.
That notion will send chills down liberal spines, especially for anyone with memories of the shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland or the CIA's bungled assassination sprees. There are practical problems, too. Finding the enemy requires first-class human intelligence, but one former mandarin says reliable agents can take a decade or more to cultivate. A veteran of US counter-terrorism admits al-Qaida cells are particularly impervious to infiltration.
Maybe there is no quick fix that passes both the ethics and efficiency tests. But we have to start looking. We need to get going, recruiting the very best brains to get inside the minds of this new enemy, unlocking their modus operandi and finding their weak spots - a Bletchley Park for the 21st century. It will require all the smart creativity we can muster. For this enemy will not be beaten by flattening Afghanistan. He lives right here among us, and it will take more than moral fiber to defeat him.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001