March 22, 2004

March 22, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

War Wobblies

In the rough and tumble world of international politics, you can count on your enemies - but you can't always count on your friends.

Take the reaction to the 3/11 Madrid massacre. Chalk one up for al Qaeda and global terrorism: Their latest blow has the international coalition against terror looking a bit wobbly. We need to balance ourselves quickly before the momentum goes over to the bad guys.

First, Spain knuckled under to al Qaeda: It announced, three days after 3/11, plans to pull its troops out of Iraq. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has said it meant to upset the Spanish vote and now is asking for a truce. We can only hope Spain isn't going to give them one.

Then the Poles, another previously staunch ally, went a little weak in the knees last Thursday: Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said he was considering an early withdrawal of his nation's 2,400 troops. (Happily, Kwasniewski reversed course a day later after a tete-a-tete with President Bush.)

Next came South Korea, a treaty ally, which started to teeter late last week. The South Koreans canceled plans to send troops to Iraq over concerns about becoming involved in hostilities. At the least, Seoul's 3,700-soldier deployment (which would be the third-largest in Iraq) will likely be delayed.

Message: Threats and terrorism pay dividends. Problem is, this might encourage al Qaeda to attack other democracies - why not see if the civilized world will topple like a row of dominos?

Fortunately, not everyone has gone soft. Other Asian allies - Australia, Japan and the Philippines - have held fast, bucking the tide and saying that the Coalition should not abandon Iraq in the face of possible terrorist attacks.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer got it right when he said, "Iraq is now on the cusp of a positive new chapter in its history . . . now is not the time for the international community to succumb to terrorist threats and to abandon the Iraqi people."

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, up for re-election this year in a country plagued by terrorism, rejected outright calls by some opponents to extract its 96 soldiers from Iraq and distance the Philippines from the U.S.-led War on Terror. "What the opposition [party] is suggesting is that we just silently cower in fear and hope the terrorists won't strike at us." Arroyo noted, adding, "This will not work. Terrorists are bullies and the more you cower, the more they will hit you."

These leaders, along with President Bush, are supplying much-needed profiles in courage. The international community must send terrorists a clear, consistent message: We won't cut and run.

But don't expect al Qaeda to give up. The recent attacks in Spain and Iraq, as well as the fierce resistance along the Pakistan-Afghan border, show the terror organization is still alive and lethal.

And it will have plenty of chances to insert itself into democratic elections this year. Topping the list: the presidential elections in Indonesia (July) and the Philippines (May).

It is believed there are over 3,000 al Qaeda, known locally as Jemaah Islamiya (JI), in Southeast Asia - probably more than in any other region on the planet.

Until last week, the October 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia, was the worst attack by al Qaeda since 9/11, killing over 200 mostly Australian tourists in the world's most populous Muslim country.

The Filipinos have been fighting a terrorism-based insurgency in the Muslim-dominated South for years. And it keeps getting tougher. The Indonesia-based JI has now begun training with the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group in southern Philippine camps provided by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, yet another separatist-terrorist group.

Elsewhere, Afghanistan, Australia and Japan will hold major elections this year, along with Ukraine, Georgia and several more European countries. And, of course, we have elections right here in November.

Not surprisingly, al Qaeda will try to create, and exploit, fissures in the anti-terrorism coalition. Unfortunately, they created some on 3/11. In the tough days ahead, the civilized world must buck up and face this challenge. Terrorism will be beaten - but side trips to appeasement are a sure way to delay our victory and increase the costs.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in New York Post