Fri, 06 Jun 2003

`Coalition of the willing' not enough

George Fernandes, Minister of Defense, India

Two features of the evolving strategic environment stand out. The first is the contemporary phenomenon of jihadi terrorism. The second is the danger of the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery by deviant states and/or radical non-state formations. A third, which impacts on our political environment very differently, but nevertheless forms part of the strategic calculus, is an increasing unilaterism in the use of force.

The scourge of terrorism was acknowledged as the challenge before the global community. An appropriate collective response was the need of the hour. The emotional reaction was spontaneous but the practical experience of fighting terrorism has been more sobering.

There was a very astute observation in last year's Strategic Survey by the International Institute for Strategic Studies that: "Containing and ultimately defeating terrorism (offers) much scope for disagreement as for cooperation. Yesterday's sense of emotional solidarity is today's shared political burden. It needs to be handled with economic finesse, political savvy, military firmness and moral resolve in careful balance".

A year down the road, this holds true. The execution of the war against terrorism, while impressive, has been far from consistent, the campaign sometimes confusing, the links with the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and regime change leading to democracy unclear, and the final outcome still uncertain.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon, but Sept. 11 marked the watershed between its perception as a geographically localized malady, and as a global threat. The Bombay blasts of 1993 which killed over 200 people in serial and synchronized explosions was arguably the first major act of mass terrorism. But it went relatively unregistered in the catalog of terrorist acts. New York, Washington, the attack on the Indian Parliament in Delhi in December 2001, Bali, Riyadh and Casablanca, among others, have driven home the global nature and reach of terrorism.

Today's terrorism is different in scale, in its selection of targets, in the causes it espouses and in the identification of the enemy. Its roots lie in a distorted use of religion; its target is modern civilization and democratic values. Its targets are not only the non-Muslim world but Islamic societies as well.

This is a matter of particular concern to Southeast Asia that, like India, has had traditions of Islam that have been moderate and syncretic, and where communities have lived peacefully for centuries. The intrusion of alien, extremist and distorted, ostensibly religious, values, with militant pan-Islamic sentiments threatens the harmony of their pluralist societies and the security of states.

Until recently, there was a sense that the end of the Cold War had left the world groping for the contours of a new threat. That threat now has a clearer face than ever. It is the threat of terrorism misguidedly inspired by, and using religion as its raison d'etre.

It is typically perpetrated by non-state actors but it flourishes because of the support it receives from certain states and their institutions and sections of society. The global terrorist finds refuge in places and regions where sovereignty is weak and lacking, in failed states and states that are adrift and where governments are neither legitimate nor effective, repressive, or authoritarian.

Some governments even use terrorism as a convenient instrument of state policy. But though terrorism thrives in these nether regions, the networks of terrorism exist all over. Finances are raised globally, as are its recruits. The very spread of technology that underpins the current surge of globalization and modernity has also empowered the terrorist with a new lethality.

Militant religious outfits and deviant regimes have become new determinants affecting the strategic environment. The use of modern technology and the tenacious pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is coupled with suicide terrorism to raise the specter of mass terrorism.

This then, is the challenge posed by terrorism: Not just the terrorism of some misguided youth in pursuit of some lofty ideal, but the nihilism of the fanatic whose goal is not just to die for his cause but, as far as possible, to take civilization along with him. It poses a fundamental challenge to open societies.

To what extent can an open society protect itself from the malicious use of the freedoms and opportunities that it provides? To what extent can the challenge of fundamentalists, jihadi terrorism be met with military force and new military doctrines?

The answers are not easy. The dictates of security often offer no alternative but military force, Afghanistan is a classic case where the infrastructure for terrorism was removed by the plain use of superior military force even though the dangers of destabilization remain. However, force may not suffice in all cases, and every case may not be alike.

Terrorism has changed the strategic environment and the security discourse fundamentally. Its implications are likely to be every bit as serious and far-reaching as the end of the Cold War necessitating a review of force structures and doctrines.

The second major challenge to security is the very real fear of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and their means of delivery. It is bad enough if such proliferation takes place at the level of states. But it is altogether a different proposition if such capabilities fall into the hands of deviant states or terrorists, or if political parties that share a fundamentalist ideology force their way through weak or defective political structures to find a place in nuclear decision-making.

This is another challenge to international security linked to, but distinct from the challenge posed by terrorism, and I do not feel that we have evolved an adequate policy to deal with it.

The last issue is the demonstration of U.S. power in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. On the one hand, the world has witnessed the consensus with which the global community responded to the threat of terrorism in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as reflected in the UN Security Council Resolution 1373 and the military campaign against the Taliban al-Qaeda.

On the other hand, where a consensus has not been forthcoming, we have seen the U.S. prepared to exercise its military power unilaterally or in "coalitions of the willing" ignoring the experience and advice of others.

And yet, the problem of the longer haul after the military successes remains. While decisive action may be necessary, such actions need a cooperative broad-based order to be sustainable. Absolute power has its own limits. If we have common objectives in confronting the threat of terrorism and proliferation, our efforts must be based on common experience.

What then is the impact of this new strategic context to security doctrine and policy? There must be a recognition prima facie that the nature of new challenges has implications beyond domestic and regional police and para-military capability and co- ordination.

We have to evolve security policies that will now factor the transnational and domestic terrorist dimension as the major challenge to the well-being of society and as a potential threat to the security of states and sometimes to their territorial integrity.

Military capability and civilian intelligence will have to be synergized towards greater cooperation along the low intensity conflict-internal security grid. There is little of that at this point in time both at the region and global level.

The above is condensed from the writer's presentation at the Asian Security Conference in Singapore, held from May 30 to June 1. The event was organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.