WAR ON TERROR: A NEW PHASE: This New War Is Not Rambo, It's the Godfather; JONATHAN FREEDLAND on Why the Conflict Won't Be Won by Bombs but by Stealth and Covert Operations

The Mirror (London, England), October 20, 2001 | Go to article overview

WAR ON TERROR: A NEW PHASE: This New War Is Not Rambo, It's the Godfather; JONATHAN FREEDLAND on Why the Conflict Won't Be Won by Bombs but by Stealth and Covert Operations


Byline: JONATHAN FREEDLAND

A RE aerial attacks on Afghanistan really going to defeat global terrorism? Or, as one general puts it, are we just turning "big bits of rubble into small bits"?

The same conversation can probably be heard around a million kitchen tables, from London to New York, Paris to Delhi. In the pubs of Manchester or the cafes of Moscow, regular folk are grappling with the same question: what can we do to make the world a safer place?

And, just for once, the leaders are no different from the led. The world's politicians, military chiefs, diplomats and analysts admit to being in the same hole - as unsure of the answer as the rest of us.

Speak to some of Britain's most respected men of war and they'll confess they are foxed by this strange, unprecedented conflict. They, too, don't know whether the current plan will work - or what should take its place.

But press harder and some smart thinking soon emerges; the first outlines of a game-plan that might not eradicate global terror but could, at least, protect us from it a little better. Few of their ideas could be implemented tomorrow, but they do offer a potential route map out of the current state of fear.

Each conversation starts with the situation we are in now - with not a single voice giving the current strategy an unqualified endorsement. "We can't do it through bombing", says Paddy Ashdown, ex-special forces soldier and Liberal Democrat leader, "any more than we could do Kosovo through bombing".

One former and highly-decorated general, reluctant to be named, confesses he finds the bombardment of an already-benighted land like Afghanistan a little strange. He fears we are "turning big bits of rubble into small bits of rubble".

Still, these men are not about to join John Pilger and Bruce Kent in the Stop The War campaign. For them, the bombing is an unhappy necessity, a painful step on the way to stopping Osama bin Laden and any more September 11s. Here's how they think the bombing can help.

First, it serves as revenge for the crimes in New York and Washington. That's needed not only to make Americans feel better but to prevent another outrage - and another after that.

Leaving those 6,000 deaths unavenged would be an invitation, says former diplomat and Conservative minister George Walden, for the al-Qaeda network to strike again. "We can't say we're too scared to implement justice. If we do, a lot more people will die."

The air strikes serve a basic military function, too. Like it or not, al-Qaeda's headquarters are in Afghanistan and though the network has spread, the "source of the cancer", says Ashdown, is there.

"The place where you attack guerrillas is in their bases, that's where they're visible."

One former SAS man adds that the bombing will, at the very least, be forcing bin Laden and his men on the move - making them vulnerable. Walden believes the air war is serving another, less direct purpose.

The fact that it is highly visible serves as a warning to other states that might be harbouring terrorists.

The ex-minister imagines the likes of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli summoning their intelligence chiefs, demanding to know if they have been giving aid or shelter to their own bin Ladens and, if they have, to rub them out.

THEY will be acting not from an altruistic desire to fight terrorism, but to save their own skin: they do not want the US air force pounding their military bases.

A similar dynamic may even be at work in Afghanistan itself, as a Taliban regime, desperate to stop the bombing, arranges for bin Laden to be quietly murdered, Mafia-style, in his bed. In other words, the air war may prompt the Muslim world to do the kind of "housecleaning" the West needs, but cannot do.

What else can be done? There is little enthusiasm for sending in special forces on the ground. …

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