Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Terrorists and the nations that harbor them

Jihadi terrorists are not strictly bound to the confines of a state, and their calling cards are sometimes hard to read. That's one of their strengths; it makes it very difficult to strike back at them with weapons of conventional warfare.

But that doesn't mean they operate on their own without any state support (Austin Bay has written this must-read piece on how the terrorists exploit the system of states and failed states to their advantage).

Afghanistan was a relatively easy case, at least conceptually, because the state sponsoring of Al Qaeda in that country was clear and overt. The other heavy lifters in the promotion of terrorism around the globe are Iran and Syria, while Saudi Arabia has a leading role as well through Wahabism, which acts as a sort of carrier of terrorism.

Remember Bush's post-9/11 address to Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001? In that speech, he formulated some of the basic principles of dealing with state sponsors of terrorism, an early version of the Bush Doctrine:

The Taliban must act immediately. They will hand over terrorists, or they will share in their fate....Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them...From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.

Although the present war in Lebanon is not being waged by the US, it's certainly an example of the application of this doctrine. The government of Lebanon has winked at terrorism, failed to root it out, given it safe haven--and even made a home for it in its Parliament, one-fifth of whom are Hezbollah members.

Why is this? Lebanon is a country that used to be one of the most stable in the region. But that all ended, starting with the arrival of the PLO in the late sixties and early seventies, after that group's violent expulsion from Jordan, where it was trying to topple the government. Lebanon was thereafter ravaged by civil war for several decades. During that time, Israel invaded at intervals to try to root out the terrorists that had taken hold, and Syria took control and rendered Lebanon its puppet state (the latter situation has only recently improved with the expulsion of the Syrians--although not the Syrian influence--in 2005).

It's interesting to contrast the response of Jordan's King Hussein to the terrorists who were in his midst and threatening his regime. "Black September", the name given to the day Hussein cracked down and expelled the PLO from Jordan, was an example of bitter Arab-on-Arab violence. It's estimated that, in the ten days of that action, between three and five thousand Palestinians in Jordan were killed, both PLO militants and civilians alike. This indiscriminate crackdown never elicited the sort of condemnation that would have occurred had it been performed by Western powers. What's more, it was effective; the PLO were routed from Jordan and relative stability returned.

After Black September, Jordan's loss was Lebanon's gain--or rather, we might say that Jordan's gain was Lebanon's loss. The PLO--and Yasser Arafat--relocated to Lebanon, and the country was never the same again.

The lesson is a harsh one. Harboring terrorists does not pay, and not just because of the Bush doctrine or the reaction of the Israelis. Terrorists take advantage of the conditions inherent in failed states, it's true. But the arrival of terrorists en masse can help to cause a state to fail. That didn't happen in Jordan because Jordan adopted harsh and somewhat ruthless measures against those terrorists. It happened in Lebanon because Lebanon either wouldn't or couldn't do the same effectively.

Now, over three decades later, Lebanon is still reaping the bitter harvest of harboring terrorists, this time Hezbollah. Whether it lacks the will or the ability to root them out, or whether it's a combination of the two, I don't know. But the truth is that terrorism is a blight on both the terrorist's targets and on those who give the terrorists refuge.

The Israelis are attempting in Lebanon to effect a somewhat kinder, gentler Black September (in this case, a Black July), and expel Hezbollah from Lebanon. Will they succeed? They haven't before; despite previous Israeli incursions into Lebanon for that purpose, Hezbollah has remained there. And, of course, driving Hezbollah from Lebanon would not mean the end of Hezbollah in the world.

But perhaps now the world climate has changed (including that of the Arab world), and it's understood how necessary this action is. Criticism of Israel in this conflict has been curiously muted, considering that it's Israel. Maybe the world has finally learned the lesson that terrorism is a blight on us all.

It shouldn't have had to take this long to understand that.

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