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Special operations - just another definition for terror

16 February 2003

Consider the achievements of the Afghanistan war in terms of "fighting terrorism".

Despite all the intelligence operations and fire power, Osama bin Laden, most al Qaeda members and most of the Taliban leadership including Mullah Omar all managed to evade the US forces.

The Washington Post reported an estimate by FBI counter-terrorism unit acting assistant director JT Caruso that al Qaeda's capacity to commit "horrific acts" had been reduced by only 30%.

Overall, future terrorist attacks on the US and its allies appear to be more, not less, likely as a result of this war. It is not hard to see why.

If we are going to deal effectively with the threat of terrorism, we need to understand how it arises. This includes viewing the "war on terror" through the eyes of the Muslim fighters on the ground in Afghanistan, who had to flee, or died in their thousands, as the US military juggernaut advanced.

Add to that their feelings about the thousands of ordinary Afghan people and their children who died as a result of the US-led war - more than the number who died on September 11 - and the hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes as their towns and fields became battlefields.

It will be obvious to them that the military might of the world's single superpower cannot be fought in any conventional way. This leaves only one realistic method to fight the foreign invaders - something that the invaders are deeply afraid of - and that is what we call terrorism.

People such as bin Laden may even have calculated that a violent reaction by the US to the September 11 attacks was likely to swell the ranks of volunteers throughout the Muslim world.

Writer Robert Fisk reports that al Qaeda already has a radio station operating back inside Afghanistan calling for a holy war against America.

This is the gruesome flip side to the awesome and unbeatable power of the US military. The more powerful and interventionist the US and its allies, the more likely is terrorism.

Morally, the indiscriminate violence of acts of terrorism is in a way the mirror image of the indiscriminate death-from-a-distance military power employed in Afghanistan and also soon to be used in Iraq.

A confidential New Zealand defence force report defines SAS special operations as those "conducted by specially organised, trained, and equipped military and paramilitary forces to achieve military, political, economic, or psychological objectives by unconventional military means in hostile, denied or politically sensitive areas".

This definition is borrowed from a US special forces military doctrine manual. Notice how it could just as well be a definition of terrorism. It all depends what side of the bombs you are looking from. For those who saw or heard about the bombs tearing apart their country people or fellow Muslims, New Zealand is now one of the countries they might blame.

As for Afghanistan itself, the country is dangerously unstable. The remaining US military forces are now firmly bogged down in inter-warlord factional fighting.

Nicky Hager is a journalist and researcher.

Published in the Sunday Star Times © Independent Newspapers Limited 2003.

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