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Why the War on Terror was lost

Once jehad starts, you cannot control where it will spread. And now, it has rebounded in the West, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2006 17:08 IST

When historians look back at the long hot months of July and August 2006, my guess is that they will remember them as the Summer of Terror. At no time, since the 9/11 attacks in New York, has the world seemed like such a dangerous place; at no time have we lived in such fear of suicide bombers; and certainly, at no time has there been such gloom about prospects for the future.

It will be five years since 9/11 next month and it is instructive to compare the way we looked at the world in those days with the way we look at it now.

In September 2001, we recognised that a shadowy terrorist organisation called Al-Qaeda, run by Osama bin Laden, was headquartered in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, we were told, had targeted the US with the aid of its Taliban hosts.

Even though we, in India, had been cautioning the world about the Taliban — the murderous fanatics who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, who made Hindus wear clothing that identified them as infidels and who assisted the hijackers of IC-814 at the behest of their ISI mentors — nobody paid the slightest attention to our warnings. Till the World Trade Center towers went down, that is.

Then, the US declared a War on Terror. The Taliban were driven out of power in Afghanistan; bin Laden was never found but it was assumed that Al-Qaeda had been crippled; the ISI withdrew support to its former Taliban protégés; and George W Bush told us how he had the enemy on the run.

Everything should have been right with the world again.

Except that the reverse has happened. Two hundred people died in the July bombings of Bombay’s trains. In August, British police shut down Heathrow airport saying that they had uncovered a plot to commit mass murder on an unimaginable scale: if it had gone ahead, then ten US-bound planes would have been blown up in mid-air and thousands of passengers would have been vaporised.

Even now, the British authorities insist that they cannot rule out further attacks. All international passengers are subject to security regulations that are so stringent that they almost defeat the purpose of travelling.

The US says that terrorist organisations linked to Al-Qaeda are active in India and warns its citizens to guard against attacks in the subcontinent. And surely, it is only a matter of time before Europe suffers another major terrorist strike like the 7/7 London tube bombings or the Madrid train massacres.

So whatever happened to the War On Terror?

Did the good guys lose?

Well, actually, I’m beginning to think that the good guys did win the battle — but that’s it. Not only did they lose the war, but the defeat was self-induced. The terrorists didn’t so much win as have victory thrust on them.

Till 9/11, global terrorism was largely region-specific and issue-specific. Kashmiri terrorists may have been armed and financed by Pakistan but they had a definite agenda: to fight for the so-called ‘liberation’ of Kashmir. The thugs who planted the bombs in Bombay in 1993 may have been members of Dawood Ibrahim’s gang, but their intention was to take revenge for the massacres of Muslims during the Bombay riots.

So it was with Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden represented the debris of the CIA-sponsored jehad against the Russians in Afghanistan. Abandoned by the US, he turned against his former mentors and focused on American targets: US embassies in Africa and, later, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

All of this was terrifying enough but at least there was some way out. We could fence the border between India and Pakistan to prevent infiltration. We could break the back of Dawood’s gang. The US could invade Afghanistan and pursue bin Laden till he lost the ability to motivate his cadres.

You can argue — as many still do — that these ends were never satisfactorily achieved. Some people will claim that both Osama and Dawood are sitting by their swimming pools in ISI safehouses in Pakistan. But it is still hard to deny that, for the most part, the battle was won: Al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self; the D-company no longer runs Bombay; infiltration across the Indo-Pak border has reduced etc.

But the war has been lost.

The most terrifying aspect of the 7/7 tube bombings in London and the aborted second tube attacks is that the terrorists had no clear links to bin Laden and no region-specific agendas. The 23 suspects arrested by the British police for the failed Heathrow plot were also, for the most part, born and raised in England. They had no specific issue in mind: nobody wanted to liberate High Wycombe or turn Buckinghamshire into an Islamic Republic.

The suspects in the July Bombay train bombings also appear to be Indian Muslims with no clear links to Kashmiri separatists or even a desire to avenge some specific atrocity like, say, the Gujarat riots.

The new breed of terrorist is not an ISI agent, a Kashmiri militant, a disenchanted Afghan mujahideen, a displaced Palestinian or a Saudi on bin Laden’s payroll.

He is an ordinary guy, like you and me.

The most common response from the neighbours of those arrested in England has been “But they were such nice boys”. So it has been with those accused of involvement in the Bombay train bombings: “But they seemed like such normal people”.

And yet, ‘normalcy’ has many definitions. In a survey conducted by Britain’s Channel 4 this year, 22 per cent of British Muslims said that they believed that the 7/7 tube bombings were justified. All polls in Pakistan routinely show that a majority of respondents prefer Osama bin Laden to George Bush. And I’m willing to bet that were any of us politically incorrect enough to commission that sort of a poll in India, most Muslims would say that their religion was under attack from the West.

How could it have come to this?

Broadly, I think the West made two huge mistakes — and these were the self-goals that handed victory to the terrorists.

The first was the invasion of Iraq, for reasons that I still find inexplicable. We know now that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, no links to Al-Qaeda and posed no real threat to world peace. (Though even if all these conditions had been met, I’m not sure the invasion could have been justified. If Washington wants to depose a military dictator with access to nuclear weapons, no respect for democracy and whose regime has terrorists links, then it should just take out General Musharraf.)

By invading Iraq, George Bush and Tony Blair convinced the world’s Muslims that the West had targeted their religion. By failing to rein in the Israelis when they wreaked havoc in West Asia, they bred the fear that Islam now had to fight for its very survival.

In the process, Bush and Blair achieved what bin Laden could never have. They made Muslims feel like global victims and they radicalised Muslim youth from Bali to Bombay to Buckinghamshire. They gave terrorism a new raison d’etre.

The second big mistake was to depend too much on Pakistan. Because the US needed Pakistan as a staging ground for the Afghan invasion, Gen Musharraf went from being a global pariah to becoming a pillar of US foreign policy. Since 9/11, the US has written off $ 1.5 billon in debt and provided over $ 3 billion in military aid.

And yet, every time there’s a terrorist attack, the trail always leads back to Pakistan. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the mastermind of 9/11 was picked up in the cantonment of Rawalpindi. Omar Sheikh, released from an Indian prison in exchange for the passengers of IC-814, is a known ISI asset who went on to murder Daniel Pearl and who Pakistan refuses to extradite to the West. Two of the 7/7 London tube bombers were Pakistanis who had recently visited their homeland. Nearly all of the suspects in the Heathrow plot are of Pakistani origin and one has family links to Masood Azhar, another of the prisoners swapped in Kandahar.

Despite the views of Indian intelligence experts, I am not convinced that Musharraf is playing a double game: courting Bush while simultaneously sheltering bin Laden. But I do believe that the West was short-sighted when it let Pakistan allow militants to launch attacks on India as long as they steered clear of Europe and America. In the end, there’s no such thing as a guided jehad; once it starts, you cannot control where it will spread. And now, it has rebounded in the West.

All this makes the Summer of Terror doubly worrying. With the radicalisation of the global Muslim population, and with Pakistan as a sort of verdant oasis for any terrorist who wishes to stop by, none of us can feel safe.

Five years after 9/11, the War on Terror has been lost and the world we bequeath to our children will be a tense, hate-filled, and dangerous place.