Monday, October 11, 2004

FROM PROF. JUAN COLE: Bombs in Taba, Multan, Baghdad Signal Failure of War on Terror

The article below appeared on Prof. Juan Cole's website ( Friday, October 8, 2004. It is reproduced here with Prof. Cole's permission.

Three major bombs went off between the Nile and the Indus rivers on Thursday. Do they have anything in common, and what do they tell us about the world that Bush has made?

In Baghdad, guerrillas fired Katyusha rockets into the Sheraton Hotel, frequented by foreign contractors. They don't appear to have killed anyone, but we may be assured that they succeeded in their aim of scaring at least some of the contractors away from investing in the new Iraq.

In Multan, a Pakistani city in southern Punjab with a rich Shiite heritage, an unknown group attacked a gathering of radical Sunni Muslims early on Thursday with a car bomb, killing 40 and wounding dozens. The group, Millat-i Islamiyyah, had been known as the Sipah-i Sahabah or The Army of the Prophet's Companions of the Prophet. It was commemorating the death of its leader, Maulana Azam Tariq. The Army of the Prophet's Companions originated as an anti-Shiite organization in Jhang Siyal, an area of northern Punjab long dominated by wealthy Shiite landowners, often from Sufi lineages, but which Azam took over. It developed a death squad arm and assassinated Shiites. It allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and received training in al-Qaeda terror camps. Yet Maulana Tariq Azam, although briefly arrested, had been allowed by military dictator Pervez Musharraf to sit in the Pakistani parliament until Azam's assassination last year.

The bombing in Multan almost certainly comes in revenge for the explosion at a Shiite mosque in Sialkot only a few days earlier, and signals that the long-running conflict between radical Sunni Muslim groups with al-Qaeda ties and radical Shiite groups aligned with Tehran is heating up.

At the Egyptian resort town of Taba, car bombs collapsed ten floors of the Hilton Hotel, as well as hitting less upscale backpacker resorts. They killed at least 35 and wounded at least 160. (Unfortunately, the toll is likely to rise as bodies are pulled from rubble). A spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization said that the bombings were not the work of Palestinian organizations, which where committed to waging their struggle in Palestine rather than abroad. Israeli officials speculated that the attacks were the work of al-Qaeda. The organization's number two man had called recently in a videotape for those countries to be punished, that supported Israel, and Egypt has long been blamed in this regard.

The bombings at Taba almost certainly came in response to Israeli military actions in Gaza, which targeted militants who had fired many rockets into Israel but killed many civilians. The UN Security Council was unanimous in condemning the indiscriminate Israeli attacks, except for the US, which vetoed a resolution supported by virtually all the other countries in the world.

If we analyze these violent, destabilizing attacks, one thing becomes abundantly clear: The Bush administration is losing the war on terror. If, 3 years after September 11, Ayman al-Zawahiri can arrange for al-Qaeda to blow up yet another building, this time in Egypt, killing scores, that is a sign of failure. If an al-Qaeda-aligned group like the Army of the Prophet's Companions is permitted by the Pakistani state to gather freely in Multan, to blow up Shiite mosques, and to incur a violent Shiite counter-strike, that is a sign of failure. If radical Sunni groups, or ex-Baathists aligned with them, are able at will to fire Katyusha rockets into the Baghdad Sheraton at a time when the US has militarily occupied Iraq, that is a sign of failure.

By taking his eye off the ball and failing to finish the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bush perpetuated dangerous instability in South Asia. By giving in to the Likud Party's aggressive settlement of the West Bank and encroachment on Palestinians there, which end any chance of a Palestinian state ever being established--and by failing to pursue a just peace that would bestow security on both Israelis and Palestinians-- Bush perpetuated dangerous instability and virulent anti-Americanism in the Mideast. By creating a failed state in Iraq, and mismanaging the aftermath of the war so as to allow the rise of an audacious guerrilla war there, Bush perpetuated dangerous instability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. All three bombings on Thursday spoke eloquently of the Bush administration's failure to create a safer world with less terrorism.

The Bush administration announced a "war on terror" in fall of 2001, but it has never been clear what exactly a war on terror was. Terror is not itself a concrete enemy. It is a tactic. As horrible as the tactic of inflicting deliberate harm on noncombatants is, it has been widely used in world history in all sorts of struggles. Warring on a tactic is a meaningless phrase.

The actual wars fought by the Bush administration have only been two. The first was against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, with mixed results. The Taliban regime was overthrown, but Afghanistan was not substantially rebuilt and remains unstable. The top leadership of al-Qaeda escaped capture and has continued to encourage terrorist actions. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two man in the organization, is said to have suggested the bombings in Istanbul last winter, and is probably behind Taba.

The second was against the Baath regime in Iraq. It was not a purveyor of anti-American international terrorism and was so weak and ramshackle as to pose no conceivable threat to the United States. That war was won handily, but the subsequent guerrilla war and political struggle continues and appears to be growing in scope and influence. Bush opened the floodgates to terrorism in Iraq.

This is a poor record for Bush to run on. Half of Afghanistan's gross national product derives from opium sales, creating the threat of major narco-terrorism. The Taliban are resurgent in some Pushtun areas of the south. The Afghan vice president was nearly assassinated earlier this week. National parliamentary elections were postponed nearly a year and only a presidential election is being held on Saturday.

Usamah Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are at large, along with several other important leaders. Worse, al-Qaeda has morphed into a headless set of asymmetrical terrorist organizations, such as the Fizazi group based at al-Quds mosque in Tangiers, which hit both Casablanca and Madrid.

The Bush administration thinks the problem is rogue states. But the real problem is radical terrorist groups. Bush has done all too little about the latter. Most of the al-Qaeda officials captured have been taken by the Pakistani military, so that this vital task has actually been outsourced. But where the Pakistani military wants to coddle an al-Qaeda-linked group, like the Army of the Prophet's Companions, it does, and Bush seems too weak to stop it. Bush and Cheney want now to overthrow Syria and Iran, pushing them into the sort of instability we have seen in Iraq.

If you were a company that brought in terror consultants to work on this problem, and after 3 years you saw the sort of results we saw on Thursday, would you really rehire them?