Fighting a Spreading Anti-U.S. Fire

As world Muslims react to the air strikes, the Bush Administration struggles to control the backlash

Such a small war, such massive repercussions. Just two days into the U.S.-British assault on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the number of bombing sorties had dwindled to a handful -- as the list of military targets shrank. The most intense action raged elsewhere. In a shock wave rippling out from Afghanistan to the far reaches of the Islamic world, the American-led intervention ignited fury and cries of jihad.

In the Pakistani city of Quetta, mobs burned a UNICEF office and a theater that showed American films. In nearby Kuchlak, police fired on a crowd of several hundred demonstrators, killing three. In Gaza City, Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat shuttered two religious universities amid rioting that resulted in the death of two protesters. And in Indonesia, militants vowed to "sweep" the nation clean of Americans and Britons, while police used water cannons to break up a crowd threatening the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. Even the moderate Indonesian Council of Ulemas, which oversees the National Mosque in Jakarta, urged the government to sever its ties with Washington.

Somewhere, Osama bin Laden must be smiling -- because the first phase of the U.S. attack on terrorism is igniting a new firestorm of anti-Western hatred. "It's a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims, and the West has lost," says Nadim Shehadi, director of Oxford University's Center for Lebanese Studies.


  That may be far too bleak an assessment for a campaign that could take years to bear fruit. But there is growing concern from Malaysia to Morocco that the intensifying battle against terrorism could sow instability through the already shaky Islamic world, creating thousands of angry new recruits for tomorrow's suicide missions.

The prospect of Islamic militants on the march has consequences that go far beyond a U.S.-orchestrated drive to stamp out bin Laden and his network. The longer the military action drags on -- with a likely increase in Afghan civilian casualties -- the greater the threat to moderate Islamic regimes that have reluctantly signed up with the West.

Case in point: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, on the surface one of the more entrenched leaders, nevertheless flew to Europe soon after September 11 to voice concern about a possible putsch in his country. There is "a race between a political solution in Afghanistan and everything else in the Middle East busting apart," frets Ghassan Tueni, publisher of the al Nahar newspaper in Beirut and a former Lebanese Cabinet minister.


  The challenges for U.S. policymakers are huge and intractable. (See BW Online, 10/12, "Terrorism and the Global Economy") Washington will need to formulate more effective policies for dealing both with the flare-up of violent extremists who cloak themselves in the Koran and with the root causes of their radicalism. The challenge is not only neutralizing bin Laden and his al Qaeda network but also dealing with countless Muslims like 17-year-old Pakistani student Yassir Mahmood. On Oct. 8, he took to the streets of Rawalpindi with a poster saying: "I love Jihad." Vows Mahmood: "For Islam, we will die. We will fight against America anywhere in the world."

The Bush game plan includes closer political and military ties with governments at risk. And the President has retreated from ideological resistance to checkbook diplomacy, backing multilateral aid for economic reform and development. The hope: The masses will pick jobs over jihad. "There is a heavy economic component to this strategy," says a senior Bush Administration official.

But the White House is also ditching political reform as it focuses on destroying terrorism. "At a time like this, under extremist pressure, we don't want to destabilize friendly governments," says the official. Some fear this approach could come back to haunt the West. These countries "need extensive political reform to root out corruption," says Terence Taylor of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.


  Yet as the White House War Cabinet confronts a new set of strategic imperatives, the first challenge is clear: to cut the lifeline of global terrorist networks by dispatching bin Laden or rendering his organization incapable of mounting large-scale operations.

The next phase will be far more controversial within the alliance because it could mean moving against other countries that harbor extremists. While bin Laden seeks to frame the American intervention as a clash between Islam and infidels, Bush must redouble efforts to show that his enemy is apostate terrorists and not Koranic true-believers.

One key element of gaining credibility with the moderate Arab world will also be among the toughest: In a firm and balanced fashion, the President must renew U.S. efforts in the stalled Mideast peace process in hopes of forging a deal between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That will entail resolving such emotional issues as the future of Jerusalem, claimed as the eternal capital by both sides. Without an accord, "the fight against terrorism won't succeed," says Steffen Angenendt, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.


  Bush's other challenges are equally daunting. To overcome a sense of powerlessness and abandonment among the Islamic masses, the West may seek to build viable economies in poverty-stricken nations such as Pakistan and Jordan. To do that, the American-led coalition will be pressed to pour billions into economic development and education. "If you diagnose the problem as ethnic and religious conflict, you are writing `incurable,'" says S. Frederick Starr, a Central Asia specialist at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. "If it is in fact an issue of underdevelopment [and] poverty, then it is something we can deal with."

Starr and other academics say a little money can go a long way. For example, irrigation ditches and higher-quality seed have improved the standard of living in northern Pakistan and Pakistani areas of Kashmir, which had been hotbeds of religious radicalism. "They have really turned this region around over a 20-year period," Starr says.

Even if Western governments increase development aid -- not a sure bet, given the downward glide of industrialized economies -- many problems will be difficult to tackle. Consider, for example, the case of poor or nonexistent educational systems in many places in the impoverished Islamic world. The failure of the secular school systems in these nations has prompted many poor families to turn to religious institutions known as madrassahs, some of which are run by radical sects that are virulently anti-Western and anti-Semitic.

One source of the puritanical academies' financial backing is the Saudi Arabian government, which spends about $10 billion a year promoting Wahhabism, a fundamentalist sect of Islam. "In countries like Pakistan, the secular state education system has been failing for 20 years," says James Clad, professor of Southeast Asian studies at Georgetown University. "We could help turn that around by providing economic aid, working with the World Bank and even institutions of moderate Islam."


  No policymaker thinks there are any quick fixes that will end the threat of violence overnight or douse the flames of rage in the streets of Islamic countries. Even the first phase -- shutting down terrorist cells -- will be a slow, broad-based effort that resembles the decades-long cold war, says Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

There's another, more troublesome cold war parallel: To combat this new adversary, Uncle Sam is willing to make alliances with some unsavory regimes. In the past, that meant cozying up to despots in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and even Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. is siding with oppressive governments in Islamic countries, including the military dictatorship in Pakistan and the authoritarian government in Uzbekistan.

Trouble is, this short-term expediency could create a backlash down the road, leading to fundamentalist coups against pro-Western autocrats similar to the 1979 Iranian revolution. "The more we wink at [these regimes] and hold their hands and give them aid, the more angry the population becomes," warns Geoffrey Kemp, a former Reagan Administration official.


  The risks to these U.S. allies depend heavily on how swiftly and successfully the anti-terrorism campaign is conducted. The best-case scenario would involve the quick ouster of the Taliban, rapid elimination of bin Laden's al Qaeda network, and minimal civilian casualties -- a key goal of the Pentagon's initial bombing campaign.

The success of such a blitzkrieg against bin Laden would pay other dividends, as well. Moderate regimes throughout the Muslim world would probably be strengthened, and the U.S. could count on improved relationships with Russia and even Iran in an ensuing Big Thaw.

Such a victory wouldn't be cheap, however. The price: huge increases in U.S. economic and military aid to new allies and old Arab friends alike and a far greater reliance on multilateral decision-making than the independent-minded Bush team would like.


  If victory takes longer and if terrorists are able to find sanctuary elsewhere, pressure on Bush would grow to expand the campaign to other countries that continue to sponsor terrorism. The most likely new target would be Iraq.

To prepare for that possibility, Washington notified the U.N. Security Council on Oct. 8 that it reserves the right to pursue terrorists beyond Afghanistan. Such an escalation could split Bush's coalition and further inflame Islamic passions. Harsh new terrorist attacks in the West and possibly efforts to disrupt the flow of Middle East oil supplies would also become more likely.

The worst-case scenario is grim: It has bin Laden continuing to elude his American pursuers and the U.S. drawn into a Vietnam-style quagmire in Afghanistan. As casualties -- both military and civilian -- mount, Islamic extremists from Pakistan to Indonesia would probably foment uprisings. Some alliance governments would fall, and the threat of a general anti-Western insurrection throughout the Islamic world would grow.

Particularly at risk is Saudi Arabia, whose ruling dynasty's close, decades-long ties to the West have riled the nation's large cadre of fundamentalists. "If we look like a winner, this gives courage to governments and has a dampening effect on opponents," says the senior Administration official. "If we look like we are losing, then every moderate government on the planet is in trouble."


  The costs of this spreading conflagration could be huge, complete with a new arms buildup. The world economy would take a hit from instability among oil producers. And if Israel feels threatened, the hawkish Sharon might launch a preemptive strike against his Arab neighbors.

Only a few doomsayers believe this is the ways things will evolve. But in the short run, bin Laden's audacious attack -- and Bush's tough retaliation -- could create a new wave of instability. "The fact that a few people with knives humiliated the sole superpower and changed the whole international order is inspiring to some hopeless people who want change at any cost," says Shibley Telhami, a government professor at the University of Maryland.

When Bush first began huddling with his campaign foreign-policy advisers in Austin, Tex., in what seems like a lifetime ago, he had no inkling that leading a global campaign against terrorism would become his Administration's dominant concern. Now, the events of September 11 have transformed both Bush and his policy, and the Administration is starting to realize that beyond the fight with al Qaeda lies a long, bloody, and costly struggle against a passionate and often fanatical movement. It is a struggle that America must win, as Bush keeps repeating, if only because the stakes are so enormous.

By Stan Crock, Richard S. Dunham, Alexandra Starr, and Lee Walczak in Washington, with Frederik Balfour in Islamabad, Michael Shari in Jakarta, Stanley Reed in Cairo, John Rossant in Paris, and bureau reports

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