The Elusive Frontline

The Elusive Frontline STEPHEN YOUNG ’73 IS A CAREER DIPLOMAT IN THE STATE DEPARTMENT¬†who was looking for a one-year bridge assignment until a posting he desired opened up in 2002. A colleague persuaded him to serve as director for three countries in the South Asia Affairs section: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.

He started this assignment in late August.

On September 11 his world became the center of a maelstrom. News of the attack on the World Trade Center arrived as he and his staff were holding their morning meeting. Knowing of al Qaeda’s resources and hatred toward the United States, Young suspected Osama bin Laden the instant the second plane struck. He attempted to continue the meeting with “a modicum of normalcy” when someone said, “Look across the river!”

“We realized the Pentagon had been hit, and all of us thought we’d better get the heck out of this building. It was unclear just how extensive the attack was and whether the State Department might also be a target. That day was one of great chaos, but we all knew that we were going to have a lot of work to do.

“The first thing we did the next day was talk about what we were going to need from Pakistan to support what later became Operation Enduring Freedom and how we were going to get it. It was weeks before I had a moment for reflection.”

Since September 11 the staff of his office has doubled in size and is working 12- to 14-hour days. Young is in daily contact with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, where staff members are busy managing daily events and hosting a steady flow of Congressional visitors. He exchanges regular e-mail with U.S. diplomats in Kabul trying to run a mission in “that distant and very backward place.” Senior officials from the 7th floor–Secretary Powell’s domain–turn regularly to his office on the 5th floor for consultation, and that, says Young, is definitely not routine. He and his colleagues have been busy nonstop preparing position papers and options for President Bush, Secretary Colin Powell, and other senior national security officials. Young’s in-box is jammed as he wrestles with recommendations on the post-Taliban government, security in Kabul, reconstruction of Afghanistan, humanitarian aid, engagement with Iran on Afghan issues, and, more recently, tensions between India and Pakistan. Sometimes position papers don’t last 24 hours before events visible to anyone watching TV roll right over them.

America is at war, but this war is unlike any we’ve ever seen. The enemy is elusive. They are here among us, so all roads to the State Department are blocked, police guard every corner, access through multiple security points is slow. We may never have a Victory Over Terrorism Day because there is no government to surrender and no capital city to take.

We speculate about the number of terrorists associated with al Qaeda, about their capabilities, their intentions. Do they have any weapons of mass destruction? Paul Walker, a Wesleyan parent who worked on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee, chilled a campus seminar audience when he described his experience as one of the first Americans to visit Shchuch’ye, a major storehouse of 5,400 tons of nerve agents in Russia, just north of Kazakhstan. Artillery shells loaded with deadly Sarin, VX, and phosgene–shells small enough to fit in a backpack–lie in warehouses secured by bicycle locks; gaping holes dot the roofs.

“The security of this site concerned us greatly,” said Walker, who now works for Global Green USA, the American affiliate of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Green Cross International, an organization that seeks to facilitate the safe and environmentally sound elimination of weapons of mass destruction.

We wonder: Why do they hate us so much?

“We are all guilty of terrible injustices that have merited this–at least this is the rationale of al Qaeda,” says Martha Crenshaw.

Crenshaw, the John E. Andrus professor of government and an internationally known terrorism expert, has studied the minds, motives, and actions of terrorists for more than 30 years. She has written and edited books on the subject, authored dozens of articles, and has consulted with a variety of government agencies, including the State Department. With her deep understanding of terrorists, she too detected the handiwork of Osama bin Laden immediately after the attacks.

At a midmorning class on September 11, all of her students had heard about the attack. “We were in such a state of shock that I can’t remember what we talked about except that I was certain that al Qaeda was responsible.

“On the most basic level, these people consider themselves at war,” she adds. “They believe that their personal suffering, or more often, the suffering of their people, justifies their terrorist acts. I’m sure if we could talk to the people who organized and carried out the attacks of September 11, they would tell us that they and their people have endured even worse hardships and terror than the people killed in these attacks. They would also say that they believe America and, in some instances, the American way of life, are primarily responsible for their suffering.”

When asked to identify exactly what in American policies or the American lifestyle could possibly be used to justify such attacks on so many innocent people, Crenshaw shakes her head.

“You have to understand that terrorists live in a very subjective reality. Certain psychological mechanisms are used to minimize any feelings of remorse. We can recognize their value system without sympathizing with it. The point is that there is a logic, however distorted. Guilt for these actions is almost always nonexistent. They not only feel justified in inflicting death and destruction, they derive satisfaction from it. Terrorism is becoming more lethal and marked by a certain one-upmanship. Spectacular acts that make a point are deadly as well as symbolic.”

Crenshaw points out that most terrorists are intelligent, well organized, and highly motivated. Their commitment to their cause and their group manifests itself in an almost cult-like fashion.

“Individuality is submerged within the group,” she says. “Dissent is discouraged, loyalty is prized and is often defined through extreme actions. The levels of commitment from individuals vary. There are people who simply provide financing. There are people who plan and in some cases carry out terrorist acts. And, in the case of some of these Islamic groups, you have people who are using religion as a further justification of their actions, so their own deaths, martyrdom, become part of their total equation. I don’t believe you could categorize them as insane, either.

“Well, at least, most of them. But terrorism cannot be dismissed as psychopathology.”

Which brings us back to the original question: What did the United States do to justify such hatred?

“It depends whom you ask,” says Bruce Masters. “Distrust, dislike, and outright hatred of the United States is prevalent in the Muslim world, but for different people the reasons for these feelings and the levels of antipathy vary.”

Masters, a professor of history who specializes in the Middle East, has lived in Egypt, Syria, Israel, and Turkey. Fluent in Arabic and Turkish, he says that one of the major mistakes made by the news media and some in the U.S. government has been to assess Muslim animosity toward the United States as a singular phenomenon.

It’s crucial, he argues, to understand the differences between, say, Pakistanis unhappy over the U.S. lack of engagement in the Kashmir dispute, versus Egyptians, Syrians and others angered over the plight of the Palestinians. Bin Laden claims to be motivated by the abomination of infidel troops on Saudi Arabian holy ground, but most Muslims in the Middle East don’t care much about this issue.

“Muslims themselves really don’t have a lot of awareness of what is going on throughout the Muslim world,” Masters says. “The news they get is very filtered. The Arab Muslims are not even aware that there are Muslims in the Balkans whom the United States went to great lengths to protect from genocide. They probably have no idea that U.S. and U.N. forces are still in place ensuring their safety.”

And then there is Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the September 11 terrorists, financier of thousands of Islamic schools that preach anti-Americanism, and gas station to the world.

“The Saudis are a strange people, even within the region,” Masters says. “The royal family has survived and maintained power because of oil. They have a good economic relationship with the West, especially the United States, and a relatively good political relationship with most Western nations. It was King Fahd, after all, who asked the United States to station troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War.”

King Fahd and the Saudi royal family, however, also support Wahhabi Islam, one of the most extreme fundamentalist forms of Islam. Its practitioners adhere to rigid religious and traditional values. In Saudi Arabia, separation of genders is part of the national law. Women must wear veils and are forbidden to drive; they are forced to use separate lines and facilities in restaurants, schools, banks, and other similar establishments. Policemen known as muttawa patrol public places, looking for women who reveal more of themselves than is allowed by law.

“The Saudis really have a conflicting worldview,” Masters says. “On the one hand they embrace modern technology and many Western products. On the other hand, they believe the West is polluting the purity of their spiritual world. So they play factions off each other. That’s how they survive.”

Osama bin Laden tapped into this antipathy.

“Even many moderate Muslims have a certain degree of grudging admiration for bin Laden,” Masters says. “There’s almost a Robin Hood aura surrounding him. He’s been using this quite skillfully.”

Not to be forgotten are Afghanistan’s neighbors to the north, which exert their own not-always-helpful influence, as Anthony Richter ’84 is well aware. His passport is thick with visas to these countries. As director of the Central Eurasia Project for the Open Society Institute, part of the Soros Foundation Network, his job is to promote development of human rights and democratic institutions in countries that are far from democratic. He also attempts to raise awareness of Central Asia in the West, and lately his phone has been ringing with a lot of calls from journalists and others seeking experts.

“We are trying to advance public debate about a region that in the West, until recently, has been characterized by its own obscurity,” he says. “We’re looking for strategic opportunities where societies are searching for change.”

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many people thought that moment had arrived in Central Asia. Instead, new leaders consolidated power in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. Neighboring Tajikistan was rocked by a vicious civil war. In Uzbekistan hopes for liberalization died in the mid-1990s when the Taliban captured Kabul and the cotton crop failed. In the next few years the country witnessed attacks on its own soil by a terrorist organization linked to al Qaeda. Taken by surprise, the government cracked down hard and now has an estimated 7,000 political prisoners in jail. The countries of this region do not stand in isolation, Richter stresses. Instability has spread.

“There are a series of interlinked conflicts from Chechnya to Pakistan,” he says, adding:

“In and around Central Asia we’ve witnessed the establishment of a greater cultural and economic area that existed historically but had been divided and isolated by the Soviet Union.” But there has been a downside: During the last decade the region has been destabilized by a war economy of smuggling and trafficking in drugs and arms. Drug use is exploding throughout the region, along with HIV/AIDS.

Richter returned in December from two visits to Central Asia, where he interviewed Mullah Said Abdullah Nouri, head of the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan (the only legal political Islamic party in Central Asia). Nouri expressed guarded support for counterterrorism operations, but under the aegis of the United Nations or other international organizations. His view reflects opinions about the U.S. engagement that Richter found to be prevalent throughout the area: they ranged from unenthusiastic to measured support.

Yet private citizens told him that they too have felt the sting of terrorism and live in fear of attacks. It dawned on Richter that we in the United States have more in common with people in this largely overlooked region than we may think, in trying to balance security needs with the exercise of civil rights.

The ability of the United States and its allies to help countries in this region make progress toward becoming at least stable, if not democratic states, is closely linked to the insistent question: Can and will al Qaeda strike again? To the extent that problems fester, conditions are ripe for al Qaeda to continue its recruitment.

Robert Hunter ’62 believes the United States has helped itself by delivering a well-calibrated response to the attacks of September 11. A consultant for Rand and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, he says: “Al Qaeda would have loved for us to kill as many Muslim civilians as possible. Fortunately, we didn’t respond as negatively as they wanted. Furthermore, they totally misjudged the character of the American people. Their attack unified us rather than divided us.”

Hunter believes that the United States has reached an important historical juncture, with one path defined by failure to follow through with responsibilities in the Middle East and the other by an internationalist approach and a major strategic effort over time to help solve problems that have beleaguered this region.

“Our key task now is to translate great power into lasting influence. If we live up to our ideals and create international institutions, practices, attitudes, and processes that work for others as well as for us, we stand to gain both their respect and their support. Otherwise, they will say they’re sorry that terrible things have happened to you, but their tears will be crocodile tears.”

Our NATO allies, he says, have a considerable interest in promoting U.S. engagement in the Middle East. Their most visible expression of support was the invocation of Article 5 of the NATO treaty declaring the September 11 attack to be an assault on NATO. Member nations, who never used this provision during 40 years of the Cold War, had many reasons for backing the United States so visibly, including their desire to gain influence in Washington for the second act of the war on terrorism: what happens after Afghanistan? Many Europeans believe that resolution of the Palestinian issue should be front and center, Hunter says, adding:

“Tony Blair met recently with the European leaders at Downing Street and the one point they came out with was the need to get on with Arab-Israeli peace making.”

Hunter underscores our need for assistance from our allies in NATO and the European Union. Writing this fall in European Affairs, he pointed out that it is in the area of intelligence, police work, border controls and actions against the terrorists’ financial base that the United States cannot act unilaterally–particularly for the long-term battle against terrorism once bin Laden is gone.

The Europeans also want the United States to tread cautiously with Iraq. Hunter doubts they will support military action against Saddam Hussein without a clear provocation. They also want the United States to display a more robust spirit of internationalism on topics such as the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (from which the Bush administration is now withdrawing), and the Land Mine Treaty, even if some of these could be improved. Among senior members of the Bush administration, Hunter believes that only Secretary of State Colin Powell is committed to internationalism.

Bruce Masters also stresses the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“The primary concern of Arab Muslims is Palestine,” he says. “They see us talking about terrorism and injustice, but they equate what is happening to Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis as terrorism and injustice. They see it on TV every night in that part of the world and it just inflames their perceptions. If the United States throws its weight and power behind that goal and helps turn it into a reality, then we would be seen more fairly. The Bush administration now says it wants a Palestinian state. That means nothing to the ‘Arab Street’ unless it is accompanied by identifiable action to help create this state.”

Martha Crenshaw adds:

“We need to be more equitable in our foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. This includes the question of a Palestinian state. We need to keep our eyes on Indonesia and the Philippines and some of these other flashpoints around the globe. We also need to consider our relationships with some of the governments we call our allies. Much of this comes back to whom we support and what type of rulers they are. Countries where people are oppressed and poor, generation after generation, are fertile recruitment areas for terrorist organizations. If we are seen as helping the oppressors, then we fall well within the terrorist sights.”

Anthony Richter echoes that sentiment. “There is a temptation in time of war to defer raising awkward questions of democracy and human rights until an indefinite point in the future while urgent security needs are being worked out.” Now that we’ve established new partnerships with these countries, it would be a “tragedy,” he contends, for the United States to return to a business-as-usual approach of supporting unjust policies of governments which are partners in the war on terrorism.

A lasting peace in Afghanistan will deprive terrorists of an attractive base for operations, but Professor of Anthropology Lincoln Keiser, who has lived among tribes in Afghanistan, believes that achieving real peace will be difficult. In addition to establishing a government that represents all the major players (where some progress has been made), Pakistan’s perceived security needs must be addressed.

“Pakistan wants an Afghanistan that is sympathetic to its needs,” he says. “The old government, which was administered by many of the people who now compose the Northern Alliance, was not pro-Pakistan. What Pakistan does not want is what it sees as enemies, India and Afghanistan, on two borders. If they can’t get a government in Afghanistan that they can live with, it will not bode well for stability in that area.”

Still, Steve Young–recently returned from a trip to Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh–argues that there is reason for optimism. An emerging new political authority in Kabul may allow the country to focus on its own development instead of perpetuating strife and misery. Since the attack on the World Trade Center, the Taliban government has been removed, the interim government is at least making an effort to address the major ethnic and geographic groups in Afghanistan, and al Qaeda is on the run. “I’d say that’s a lot of progress in three months,” he says.

As for the war on terrorism, Crenshaw cautions against any premature claims to victory:

“I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but this is a very difficult and complex problem. In a free and open society such as ours, there are many points of vulnerability, and these people have demonstrated a will to cause many casualties. We still have so many countries in the world not willing to cooperate with the Bush administration’s measures to combat further terrorism. We see that Saudi Arabia has been slow to come around, as have many other Arab nations. Our relationship with our European allies is complicated by their disapproval of the death penalty and unwillingness to extradite individuals to the United States.

“For the people who are involved now, who are in these groups such as al Qaeda, there is no turning back. Even if miraculously the United States did everything bin Laden has demanded, which is not an option I endorse, they would not stop. In fact, it would most likely empower them to act even more boldly. The best the United States government can do is to continue its efforts to try to contain and, if possible, capture bin Laden and his lieutenants, and to intensify its intelligence efforts at home and with other countries to thwart these people at every opportunity. But it’s an extremely difficult task, even with our heightened state of security and vigilance. I’m afraid that complete prevention of future large-scale acts of terror is virtually impossible.”