Asia-Pacific

The U.S. Global Footprint

Singapore: Anti-Terror Strategy Needs a Rethink

Osama bin Laden and Brittney Spears for sale in Jakarta
Jakarta: A painter sells images of Osama bin Laden and Britney Spears, Sept. 17, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell signed an anti-terror pact with the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members. The pact essentially requires signatories to enhance intelligence sharing, block terrorist funds, and tighten border and immigration controls. While Powell took pains throughout his Southeast Asian visit to portray a picture of an American administration that is keen to forge a genuinely multilateral coalition against terror, many Southeast Asian analysts were not impressed.

The general perception remains that Washington’s allies are “not being asked to do anything much beyond lining up behind American military action.” It is felt that America’s post-Sept. 11 “coalition building” is designed to foster a political, legal, and operational climate affording it freedom of action to expedite the unilateral exercise of military power against Al-Qaeda more effectively. America is, in fact, pursuing a direct strategy emphasizing military power as the primary instrument of policy, with the various resources of coalition partners orchestrated in support of the main thrust.

Virtually every major policy initiative enacted by the Bush administration since Sept. 11 has provided evidence of the current administration’s strategy: to secure a virtual carte blanche for the U.S. military in the war on terror. These have ranged from Washington’s new pre-emptive war doctrine to its refusal to subject U.S. troops to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Include also the Pentagon’s toying with the possibility of inserting Special Forces teams in countries with a suspected Al-Qaeda presence without informing the host government and the apparent willingness of some of President George W. Bush’s closest aides to attack Iraq in the face of almost universal opposition.

It is equally apparent that America is looking at Southeast Asia through the prism of direct strategy. This is evidenced by the deployment of 1,300 Special Forces troops to the Philippines between January and July this year and the projected future deployment of additional advisers to train Filipino troops for continuing counterinsurgency operations against the Abu Sayyaf group. It is manifested in the ongoing negotiations with Manila to push through a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement to enhance both the Filipino army’s counterterrorist preparedness and Washington’s ability to project power in the region.

It is underlined by Secretary Powell’s announcement that Washington would provide US$50 million in aid to the Indonesian police and military to enhance their counterterrorism expertise. The latest anti-terror pact with ASEAN also fits snugly into Washington’s wider direct-strategic framework: The greater intelligence flow culled from ASEAN sources will be centralized within the U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Honolulu, where more precise strikes against terrorist cells will be planned. In addition, imposing tighter immigration controls directly addresses the key Southeast Asian operational vulnerability of porous borders and, added to new measures to cut terrorist funds, will have the net effect of disrupting regional terrorist lines of communication.

But this military-operational approach is simply not sufficient to neutralize the terror threat. It would be strategic inefficiency, pure and simple, to physically eliminate scattered terrorist groups without addressing the roots of the anti-Americanism that animates them. If the United States wants to ensure that Southeast Asia never develops into a safe haven for Al-Qaeda, it will need to seek ASEAN’s help in nuancing its anti-terror strategy for the region. Hence, the short-term “direct” military-operational elements of current U.S. strategy need to be judiciously meshed with greatly enhanced longer-term “indirect” measures promoting good governance, Islamic educational reform, and public diplomacy based on sound policy to the wider Muslim world. Winning the war on terror will require much more creativity and vision than is being displayed at the moment.

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