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The impossible coalition

The United States is facing a nightmare of competing interests and crisscrossing conflicts in its effort to build a coalition to strike at worldwide terrorist networks. Analysis by Michael Moran.

The unprecedented effort by the United States to win global support for an American-led war on terrorism has made dramatic headway since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including offers of assistance from nations normally critical of Washington’s interventions abroad. But the broad campaign being contemplated by U.S. war planners — one that reaches far beyond Afghanistan — treads all over the vital interests of many of the coalition’s members.

HOLDING THE coalition together may prove impossible. Indeed, many nations that initially pledged support for the campaign may find themselves fighting on the other side, literally or rhetorically, before the war is over.

The number of civil wars, regional rivalries and big-power standoffs that crisscross the American coalition building effort will doom it to failure if “success” is defined as the creation of a coalition like the Allies in World War II, or even the Gulf War alliance. U.S. officials insist they are trying to avoid this trap.

In the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, what “we’re engaged in is something that is very, very different from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Bosnia — the kinds of things people think of when they use the word ‘war,’ or ‘campaign,’ or ‘conflict. ’”

The problem is that the U.S. military is built to fight wars much more like the ones Rumsfeld listed than the one he is launching, a fact the defense secretary himself pointed out when he took office a mere eight months ago.


If the long-term fight against terrorism is to succeed, it will require the cooperation of a large number of nations — some along for the whole ride, some acting only when their own narrower interests coincide with the United States. Even by this definition, the challenge facing American diplomats is awesome.

For a select group of nations, the mobilization of America’s massive resources is being viewed as a turning point in history. Among them are Britain, India, Uzbekistan, Germany, Turkey and Israel. Each is painfully aware of how difficult it is to battle terrorists, and view a truly global fight as the only way to snuff terrorism out.

For instance, in India, a rethinking of its longstanding aversion to close ties with Washington was under way before the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon — in part because the United States and India share suspicions of China, and because India is loathe to see America resume its close ties with arch rival Pakistan.

The day after the Sept. 11 attack, India broke all precedent by saying American retaliation against the Taliban would not only be justified, but could be launched from Indian air bases if need be. India suspects bin Laden of helping train the pro-Pakistani guerrillas who infiltrate its portion of Kashmir and regularly murder entire villages.


For many other states, among them Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, France, China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a different calculus appears to be at work. All suffer from terrorism within their borders - in the case of Pakistan, Tajikistan and Egypt, the terrorism is severe and destabilizing. But their interest in the U.S.-led coalition is qualified. The Saudis, Tajiks and Egyptians fear for their own domestic security if there is an Islamic backlash. The Chinese, battling their own Muslim separatist movement in the far western province of Xinjiang, are reluctant to give America carte blanche for any military action after the U.S. missile strike that destroyed its embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

More subtly vacillating is France. While the French genuinely mourn for the loss of life in New York and Washington, Paris has spent the past five years warning the United States that its own behavior abroad would bring trouble: snubbing international agreements and organizations, playing down the importance of NATO and other partners, intervening in conflicts without the will to put its own troops on the ground. Ever resentful of its own loss of global clout, France sees its overriding national interest as insisting that America not take unilateral action.

“We French think that beyond the short term, the (U.N.) Security Council is the most legitimate forum to define the general global policy on the fight against terrorism,” Foreign Minister Herbert Vedrine said Friday.

The French mood suites the Russians just fine, and indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov spoke by phone with French President Jacques Chirac, on Friday. “No measures can be ruled out, including the use of force,” Ivanov told reporters afterward. “But the use of force must be based on a solid legal foundation.”

InsertArt(2009157)These states will be helpful as long as it suites them. Russia, for instance, is helping Tajikistan fight a violent Islamic insurgency in the Fergana Valley, which is now a base for 15,000 Russian troops. In the past few days, Russian media reports say armored units and special forces — Russia’s “spetznatz” commandos — have made their way to the region. Setting aside bitter memories of the Soviet Afghan misadventure, Moscow appears more interested in its war in Chechnya, where it is still battling separatists aided by Islamic militants with ties to bin Laden. The atrocious behavior of Russia’s own troops in Chechnya has prevented it from rallying world opinion against the Chechens. Russia now may see its chance.

Pakistan is in a class by itself. Alone among the states in question, Pakistan appears to have wanted badly to resist any involvement in the anti-terrorism coalition only to find itself threatened by the United States. In essence, Washington told the Pakistanis to grant access to their airfields or lose them to an American invasion.

Pakistan’s fear of backing the United States is complicated. In part, this reflects a desire to see the Taliban survive since Pakistan is the regime’s main backer. Pakistan’s military government also fears that a domestic Islamic militant backlash might bring down the government. In the end, the United States presented Pakistan with an offer it could not refuse. The best Pakistan’s military leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, could do is couch it in such a way that it might appear to advance Pakistan’s interests in the dispute with India over Kashmir. The United States threw him another bone on Friday, pledging to consider lifting U.S. sanctions imposed after the two South Asian nations tested nuclear weapons in 1998.


For a third group of nations - including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and Libya - these are trying times. All seven are on the official U.S. State Department list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” and given the broad outlines drawn by President Bush and his top aides about the American response, all should be worried. Several of them — Cuba, Syria, Iran and Libya — issued unusually unqualified statements of condolences denouncing the attacks as unjustified and barbaric. The United States replied that it will expect action and not words from these nations, implying Washington will expect domestic security forces to move against the many Islamic militant groups, anarchist cells and Palestinian splinter groups on their territories.

Syria’s next move is instructive: President Bashar al-Assad, facing his first crisis since the death of his dictator father last year, called U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to seek some diplomatic cover. A senior aide said Bashar stressed that “Syria rejects any link between terrorism and the legitimate right of peoples to resist foreign occupation in line with the United Nations charter.”

Yet Syria, like Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, may find the U.N. charter a fairly thin shield right now. Along with Afghanistan, these Arab states face the prospect of American or allied military action against them as long as they shelter groups.

President Bush’s words on the day of the attack: “We will not only deal with those who dare attack America, we will deal with those who harbor them and feed them and house them.”

Michael Moran is on assignment in London.