Are we losing the strategic conflict Following the attacks of September 11th President Bush addressed the US Congress announced a war on terrorism. That war would engage the perpertrators and those who supported them wherever they may be. While the terrorists had struck at targets in the United States the President was defining the conflict in broader terms. In so doing he hoped to both broaden the scope of the conflict while establishing a focus on specific individuals and deeds. The intent was to attempt to identify and isolate the terrorists from the Muslim world. Since then Western leaders have repeatedly stated that we are not at war with Islam.
Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda countered by calling for jihad and worked diligently to unite all those of the Islamic faith and to bring them into the conflict. What they are doing, very effectively, is redefining the conflict for their strategic advantage. Their goal appears to be to make this a global holy war, one with devastating consequences for Western society.
However well intended, US efforts such as dropping food to Afghan refugees is having little, if any effect on the Muslim people around the world. Highly restricting targets to limit collateral casualties has not been believed. There have been many statements of support for the US position by heads of state from Arab and Muslim countries. These official condemnations of terrorism are directly contradicted by popular demonstrations either in support of Osama bin Laden or denouncing the actions of the United States.
A fundamental problem in many Muslim-dominated countries is that the current governments are viewed internally as corrupt and kowtowing to unacceptable Western values. In short, large segments of these populations believe their leaders have sold out Islam, often for petro-dollars.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. Countries from Algeria to the Philippines are experiencing varying degrees of domestic strife. Bin Laden is reportedly assuming cult status in Africa. Small anti-US demonstrations were held in Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, but one already experiencing enormous discord.
Pakistan is experiencing daily riots by bin Laden supporters. Although the president, General Musharraf, is cracking down, it should be remembered that he came to power in a coup and has only limited popular support. It is also noteworthy that Pakistans economy is weak and that they have nuclear weapons.
More important may be one of bin Ladens key objectives: Bringing down the House of Saud and with it, cutting off vast oil supplies so essential to Western nations. The Saudi Arabia government has had little popular support for many years. The governments internal strategy has been to provide people with sufficient material goods and services so that they will remain complacent. In fact, they have traditionally imported soldiers from Pakistan for their defense needs. The rulers feel that it is better to have foreign Muslim troops under arms than to trust training their own citizens who might then attempt a coup.
Americans tend to think that having our troops in Saudi Arabia adds stability to the region and provides defense against aggressors such as Iraq. Our service members serve at both financial cost to the US and personal sacrifice. However, many Muslims believe that the mere presence of those troops in the country of Mecca and Medina is an insult to Islam and a stated objective of Al Qaeda is to remove our troops from the area.
Throughout the Muslim world there are many disenfranchised young men who are willing to join this cause and sacrifice their lives if necessary. Many Muslims who do not support terrorism consider Western hegemony to be a greater threat. They are aware that for many years we historically have supported many of the leaders they believe to be corrupt and repressive. In their opinion we have blindly sided with Israel at their expense.
If bin Laden is successful in his bid to redefine this conflict as a jihad the enormity of the implications are almost unimaginable. There are no simple solutions. To regain the initiative Western leadership must form a strategy that defines the conflict in a manner that appeals not only to governments of Muslin dominated countries, but is embraced by the general population. Only then will we be able to separate Al Qaeda from the vast support base that is potentially theirs. That strategy must incorporate large social organizations based on belief systems and not rely on traditional nation-state relationships. Failure to do so will allow unacceptable expansion of the war.
Who defines this conflict wins.
John B. Alexander Author of Future War
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