Dangerous Imaginings In
The War On Terrorism

By Terrell E. Arnold

Last Sunday night President Bush gave us two startling new reasons for being in Iraq: Iraq, he said, has become the "central front" in the War on Terrorism, and by fighting in Iraq, our troops are attracting terrorists from all over the world. If we kill them in Iraq, they will not attack us at home. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz appears to have originated this argument on his return from Baghdad a few weeks ago. US civil administrator L. Paul Bremer echoed the thought on his return to Baghdad from a recent visit to Washington. The concept is akin to hanging fly-paper from the ceiling and waiting for flies to gather. The suggestion that global terrorism can be fought successfully in this manner is absurd.
How has the analysis of the Iraq challenge gone astray? The first error is the decision to call any Iraqi who objects forcefully to the US/Coalition presence a terrorist. That makes it convenient, if analytically weird to call the effort to pacify the Iraqi people--who did not attack us and who did not even threaten to attack us-the central front in the War on Terrorism. The second error is to systematically heat up conflict in Iraq at a time when the pressing need is to calm the situation. The third is to use the War on Terrorism as an excuse to prolong the occupation, more directly to avoid handing power back to the Iraqis. After all, the argument might go, if terrorists are streaming into the country (an unproven contention) Iraq is not safe either for outsiders or Iraqis. Therefore, the occupation must be continued, perhaps even augmented to restore public safety.
Focusing the War on Terrorism in Iraq does not fit the facts. At the beginning of the Iraq war there were globally about 75 terrorist groups, 60 of them active enough to merit mention in the State Department annual report. None of these groups was operating in Iraq at that time. One reason for their absence is that most of the world's terrorists are not Muslims. Most terrorist organizations grew out of long-standing complaints against governments in their countries of origin, and they fight their battles at home. In Iraq, the groups with terrorist connections or histories, mainly Shia or Kurdish, had and still have axes to grind other than with Saddam Hussein or the United States. But the US presence provides an opportunity to pursue the causes that Saddam Hussein ruthlessly suppressed.
Assuming, however, that the current Bush team rationale does embody some reality, the potential impact on our forces in Iraq is deadly. We are staking them out in all the Iraqi trouble spots with no choice but to wait for the terrorists to find them and attack. We are letting the terrorists decide the strategy; in the "Bring em on" scenario they will determine when and where each battle will be fought. The high level US sources of these statements are telling the terrorists they have a killing field in Iraq for taking their best shots at the Americans or British troops. No doubt our troops have been put deliberately in harm's way before, because that is in the nature of warfare, but the blatant suggestion that our troops are bait for the enemy is a warped new wrinkle.
Terrorist numbers will not be diminished by the Iraqi campaign. Al Qaida's latest tape, played on Al-Jazeera TV in the past few days, says that far from being decimated, Bin Laden's creation is alive and well. Reported al Qaida recruitment and training are increasing. Meanwhile, Iraq has become the latest training ground for terrorists. For years Libya has catered to terrorist machismo by training them in a desert camp where no one is at risk, but it is a much more he-man experience to train in live combat situations. Both sides produce trained and hardened killers on the > battlefield. And it is worth recalling that Bin Laden and al Qaida are graduates of the Mujahidine experience in Afghanistan, many of them the products of US training.
Centering the War on Terrorism in Iraq is a mistake. No determined terrorist is likely to be deterred from striking elsewhere, including the United States. The most recent al Qaida tape makes this threat. Bush team spokesmen are doing the Iraqi people no favors by deliberately advertising a fly-paper for terrorists situation that so far has rained down more terror on the Iraqis than on anyone else. Our leadership does our troops a great disservice by deliberately placing them in harm's way under the threat of imported terrorists and distracting them from their prime mission of pacifying Iraq. Finally, suggesting to the American public that they will be safer as a result is a promise that cannot be fulfilled.
It is doubtful that military successes against insurgents and terrorists in Iraq will diminish the number or the determination of terrorists elsewhere in the world. It is virtually certain, however, that mauling any large number of Iraqis and foreigners in this enterprise will generate more terrorists. As the Israelis discover relentlessly in Palestine, killing another militant is more likely to generate the next terrorist bombing than it is to prevent it; repeated brutal IDF operations have proven ineffective against single suicide bombers.
Blame for the present mess no doubt can be shared with Iraqi and other Islamic militants or mistakes by our forces, but Bush team decisions and statements of recent weeks have helped turn Iraq into a terrorism generator that did not need to be. The sobering truth is that our forces are stuck with a war without a battlefield and with an enemy that is small, elusive, deadly, and becoming bolder. This situation is in no way a good thing, and other governments have good sense to shun it, because the facile notion that a war on terrorism can be fought successfully on this ground is simply not true. But the saddest feature of it is that our people are distracted by a war that in no way helps them carry out their primary mission: Get the Iraqi people back in charge of their affairs, and get out of there.
The keys to the situation are political, not military. We must work as closely as possible with all Islamic governments to prevent Islamic extremists from calling the tune. The conflict situation in Iraq must be calmed down, starting with shifting from an aggressive military search for Saddam and WMDs to a purely low-profile intelligence one. Right now the Iraqi people think they are our enemy, and that breeds resistance as well as support for those who resist. Whether the neo-conservative hawks like it or not, we must involve the UN up front and quickly, preferably in charge, because we have no credibility.
There is no glory in leading a losing strategy. The solution is to quickly modify the strategy, recompose the team to make it genuinely international, get the US go-it-alone crowd out of the way, and stop pretending that Iraq is a good place to fight the war on terrorism. Iraq is the worst possible place on the planet to fight the war at this time.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department > of State. He will welcome comment at




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