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USA is playing into bin Laden's hands

'Operation Infinite Justice'

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Analysis There are a number of new tragedies the USA may invite in its response to last week's suicide hijackings in New York and Washington, the most ironic of which would be to give Osama bin Laden exactly what he wants.

The response now has a name. It's being called 'Operation Infinite Justice'. It promises to be a broad-based, long-term crusade against terrorism worldwide. The codename suggests both religious fervor and an eternal struggle, as if bin Laden himself had picked it.

As I pointed out in a recent rant, among the likely negative consequences are getting inextricably stuck in an endless, ineffective crusade against world terrorism ('mission creep' as it was called in the Vietnam-era), and igniting conflicts throughout the Islamic world.

A number of readers took issue with my analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam, but I maintain it's a fair one. It won't be superpower vs superpower by proxy as it was back then, but the Taliban, if attacked, will receive a great deal of cash and weapons through back channels. Remember, Afghanistan has a well-developed smuggling infrastructure due to heavy trafficking in opium.

Assistance to the Taliban may come from sympathetic factions in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and others. The jihad support-network exists, possesses significant economic and military resources, and is eager to help.

Jihad

Let's examine what effect the proposed US crusade might have on existing internal conflicts within the Islamic world. Bin Laden, it's clear to me, desperately desires a holy war. He despises the West and all Islamic states with ties to the West. He denounces his homeland of Saudi Arabia as a puppet regime and a disgrace to Islam.

Nothing would give him greater satisfaction than to see the entire region consumed in the flames of religious righteousness against the West and against West-leaning Muslim factions and governments. Bin Laden, compelled by what can only be described as a messiah complex, is straining to bring this all to a head. He would proudly lead Muslim extremists on a catastrophic jihad against these 'corrupt' states, these collaborators with the West.

If he is the one responsible for last week's suicide attacks, then we can be sure his ultimate goal was to bring the US and her allies to his doorstep in order to exploit the conflicts this will create between Islamic states, and within them as well. Look for a refugee crisis of Biblical proportions if the Bush administration really means what it says, and look for Islamic extremists to infiltrate the refugee camps soon to be blossoming all over the region.

Look for rival nations to exploit accusations of supporting terrorism as a pretext to do battle. Look for increasing intra-national conflicts, too -- for growing factionalism, and for civil wars.

Nukes?
Let's consider just one of many potential flash points: Pakistan. Its military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, has already taken to the airwaves and come out in favor of assisting the US, partly to avoid interference from India, and partly to avoid attack by the West. He urged his people to consider that, given these circumstances, supporting the Taliban would only be self-destructive.

He's probably right; but a large number of Pakistanis will still be vehemently opposed to collaborating with infidels. There is considerable grassroots support for the Taliban throughout Pakistan -- and if some of those supporters are caught smuggling arms or cash to Afghanistan, how will Musharraf respond?

The collision of internal and external pressures on his government may be too much to bear. A Pakistani civil war is a real possibility.

And how might India exploit that? Remember that Pakistan is a nuclear power, and that India would very much like to change that. Could a civil war in Pakistan give the Indians a pretext to get involved? You bet it could; they'll cry national interest -- 'nukes may fall into the hands of Islamic extremists' -- and they'll make a preemptive strike. Possibly even a nuclear one if things really get out of hand.

And who, unique among the world's occupants, would find that a satisfying development? Osama bin Laden, that's who.

And if India uses, or seriously threatens to use, nukes, what will China do? You see where this could lead, and thus far we've followed only a single thread of 'what's the worst that could happen'.

"Intelligence"
The US has long been relying on intelligence from allies in the Middle East. These include such overtly self-interested states as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The Saudis are especially eager to paint bin Laden as the world's chief Satanic force. He's been a painful thorn in their sides for decades.

After the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996, the Saudi government extracted confessions from the perpetrators, forced them to announce on national television that Osama bin Laden was their mastermind and patron, and then executed each one before US investigators could question them. Trust us, the Saudis said. We know who your monster is.

Israel, which greatly prefers an Arab Satan, has fingered Saddam Hussein. Israeli intelligence has leaked two names, Imad Mughniyeh and Ayman Al Zawahiri, both with ties to Iraq. Trust us, they're saying. We know who your monster is.

Over the next several months, US agencies will be drowning in military intelligence cheerfully proffered by governments and organizations wishing to exploit American naïveté in order to advance their own political and religious agendas.

Sorting through this vast slush pile of self-serving propaganda for the nuggets of truth buried within will be the greatest initial challenge the US faces.

Friendly advice

Hollywood has done a stunning job of re-writing American military history along impossibly heroic -- even messianic -- lines. The historic record tells a vastly different story.

From blundering into a mere civil war in Korea and getting 35,000 Americans killed in exchange for absolutely nothing (and courting a full-scale war with China); to getting sucked into a mere civil war in Vietnam and losing more than 50,000 for absolutely nothing (and courting a full-scale war with Russia); to Desert Storm which outraged Muslim conservatives and yet left the enemy government in power (if you're going to break the eggs, then make the damned omelet); to the intervention in Kosovo which might end up destabilizing the Balkans' shaky governments (or not -- we may yet get away with that one).

There were some minor interventions worth recalling: the Bay of Pigs; Carter's rescue mission in Iran; Reagan's bombing in Libya; the Contra debacle; Grenada (what the hell was that?); Somalia, where we went from a welcome police force guarding food distribution to a despised, high-handed interventionist overnight; capturing Noriega, which seems so far to have been a success; Haiti, which also seems to have gone fairly well; and the bombing in the Sudan, which appears to have been a terrible blunder based, Clinton-administration security advisor Sandy Berger assured us, on incontrovertible intelligence (undoubtedly proffered from outside).

Much of what went wrong in all these cases is the result, in part, of the US accepting intelligence from so-called allies with conflicting interests. The US was of course also powerfully influenced by political and international pressures in each instance.

Those powerful influences are now in effect, and can't be called back. But the enduring, and I have to confess, endearing, American tendency to trust allies and credit them with being more than mere opportunists has got to be overcome.

Europe by and large, Russia, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India -- all have indicated support for a comprehensive assault on terrorist organizations and their state sponsors, in which the USA will do most of the heavy lifting and take most of the blame if it all goes horribly wrong. But all have their own particular interests in this game, which may or may not correspond to American interests, and, more importantly, to world interests, chief among which has got to be a reduction, not an escalation, of international and intra-national violence. If history is any guide, we can rate the possibility of the US being led into a military and political quagmire as quite high.

KISS

For that reason I believe the US response should be greatly narrowed, and kept as close to a law-enforcement operation as possible. The Bush administration should stop deluding itself, and us, by claiming to be able to eradicate terrorism.

Instead, keep it simple. Get proof of who's guilty firsthand; set clear, realistic objectives and a clear exit strategy. This 'war on terrorism' concept now coming out of Washington smacks of endless meddling abroad and a permanent crippling of civil liberties. This is in no one's interest.

Riding on the powerful rhetoric of the slaughter of innocents, the Bush administration now talks comfortably about prosecuting war upon a faceless, hidden enemy dispersed throughout the world. Besides the obvious consequence of further alienating the USA from the international mainstream, I see in America's future a pork-lined securocratic rat hole from which we might never emerge.

Instead, let's do a thorough investigation, use diplomatic pressure wherever possible and military intervention only insofar as it's necessary, and bring those responsible to justice Nuremberg-style.

Otherwise, we play right into Osama bin Laden's hands. If we allow the Bush administration to persuade us that it actually can, as it says, 'rid the world of terrorism', we may ignite a catastrophic religious war which could leave vast swaths of the Middle East or southern Asia in conditions similar to those characterizing Afghanistan today.

To bin Laden, such an outcome would be a sweet victory. I for one would sooner disappoint him. ®

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