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Terrorism: Connections

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This post is part of the Afghanistan debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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22 July 2009 09:48


This post is part of the Afghanistan debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Allan Behm, a former head of the International Policy and Strategy Divisions of the Department of Defence, is a risk analyst with Knowledge Pond.

Recent comments by Prime Minister Rudd and Foreign Minister Smith to the effect that the fighting in Afghanistan and the 17 July bombings in Jakarta are in some way connected because they are aspects of the 'international fight against terrorism' drew quick corrective therapy from the commentariat.

So often, as we saw with the phony 'Defence of Australia' debate a few years ago, what passes for conversation on important policy issues is more like barrackers shouting at each other, thinking different thoughts and speaking different languages. Perhaps talking past each other, rather than to each other, is an enduring Australian trait.

Professor Hugh White, as quoted by Michelle Grattan in The Age of 20 July, is quite right to claim that there is no causal connection between military operations in Afghanistan and the activities of Noordin Top. The suppression of Al Qaeda – the key objective of the Afghanistan campaign – will not of itself prevent terrorist acts in Indonesia.

As I pointed out in my paper 'What about the War on Terror?', regional terrorism, whether in southern Thailand, the southern Philippines or Indonesia, is driven by local issues (most often land tenure) with long historical antecedents. While regional terrorist groups may draw some comfort from the ideological propositions advanced by al Qaeda, their purposes are much more domestic. So, too, are their techniques.

To claim, however, that the Government is being 'intellectually dishonest' in drawing a link between events in Afghanistan and Indonesia misses the point. Its various local manifestations notwithstanding, terrorism is a global phenomenon. At the level of both strategy and policy, Australia’s approach to terrorism – like that of every other liberal democracy – must be comprehensive and generic, while the operational tools of counter-terrorism must be specific and focused. This, as I understand it, is all the government is saying. And it is right.

The anti-terrorism chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A lack of Western resolve in Afghanistan will not only encourage the adherents of al Qaeda. It will encourage the terrorist diaspora in North Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, South Asia and South East Asia.

In The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad charts the imperial temper and its total inability to comprehend the dynamics of an alien (ie. African) culture and sensibility. We need to be careful that we do not impose our taste for empiricism on those driven by altogether different cultural imperatives. For the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.

At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important. Al Qaeda’s translation from Afghanistan to Pakistan suggests that the NATO coalition in Afghanistan is winning on that front, albeit slowly and painfully. And what began as a fight against the Taliban harbouring al Qaeda has morphed into a fight against a reconstituted Taliban whose purpose is to drive out the occupying forces. So the fight in Afghanistan is now conducted on two fronts. No commentator worth his salt would confuse those two dimensions of the Afghanistan campaign.

And, of course, the Taliban use the asymmetric techniques of the terrorists (IEDs and remotely controlled bombs) against the collation forces.

To walk away from a militarily unwinnable fight against the Taliban (where there are some early hopes of a political resolution if Karzai’s overtures to the Taliban are successful) would be to concede the fight against al Qaeda.  Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that, even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda.

Photo by Flickr user pusspaw, used under a Creative Commons license.

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