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The apparent claim by the failed bomber Hussein Osman, the suspected London bomber arrested in Italy last week, that he was inspired to act by images of Iraq will be taken as clinching evidence by those convinced further convince those who believe that the war is to blame for turning Britain into a terrorist target. , a point on which the government has been extremely defensive. The role of Iraq is difficult to refute, despite the government’s efforts, even while acknowledging that the roots of Jihadist extremism go far deeper and were evident long before the war. Muslim leaders claim Iraq as a factor in making the younger members of their community angry, while demands for British withdrawal are regularly made by al-Qaeda supporters.
Acknowledging the importance of Iraq does not mean, however, that if only the west could reverse course tempers would cool and the streets would become safe. Such a hope ignores the deep ideological well-springs of the current campaign and the range of the terrorists’ demands. and what it would take to satisfy them. If we wanted to be sure that the terrorists left us alone then the necessary appeasement would go well beyond Iraq and require a series of immediate and probably catastrophic policy reversals. followed by a life-time of grovelling.
Jihadist speeches and websites complain not only about Iraq but also about the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan, and crimes against Palestinians, Kashmiris and Chechens, and by Shia Muslims against Sunnis. Reference is made to many disputes bubbling away across the Middle East and central Asia. The rhetoric conveys general anguish about past encounters between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds and a presumption that the malign hand of “the Crusaders and Zionists” is everywhere.
It may be that we are suffering now for old imperialism and the readiness to prop up a series of corrupt and repressive regimes. There is unfortunately not a lot that can be done about this other than to engage in an honest examination of the historical record and to try to support more decent governments in the future. But these governments will not be embraced by the radicals, who seek theocracies rather than democracies. Nor, as is often fondly believed, would terrorism stop if only a two-state solution could be found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The radicals aim for no Jewish state at all.
Demands for withdrawal from Iraq reach a wide audience, but they are not the only demands. The focus on Iraq therefore represents a very selective engagement with the Jihadist demands. Withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, is normally coupled with Iraq in Jihadist rhetoric. Yet it was widely agreed in the west after the attacks of September 11 2001 that this sanctuary should be denied to al-Qaeda and that inaction would add to the risk of further outrages.Inaction would produce a greater danger of catastrophic terrorism than would action. Neither Mr Cook nor Ms Short resigned from the cabinet as a result of this campaign, although it undoubtedly enraged many in the Moslem world. So Iraq gets blamed is selected for blame for London’s bombs not because it is the sole cause but because the war is now judged a bad idea for other reasons. If deadly arsenals had been found, if the US had not handled the occupation so ineptly and if the Iraqi government had established itself more effectively then the radicals might be even more furious. and more inclined to desperate measures. The risk of a terrorist response might then have appeared as regrettable but acceptable if more evident benefits had been produced in return.
Might a change in policy on Iraq reduce the risk? Arguing that the bombings show why we must reverse course in Iraq suggests that the current violence in that country is about resistance to foreign occupation. At one point it might have been but the current, and extraordinarily vicious, terror reflects the determination of some Sunnis, but in particular their foreign , Jihadist supporters, militants, to prevent the establishment of a Shia majority government. This is different in kind but not in concept to the suppression of the Shi’ite Shia insurrection of March 1991, only because the Shi’ites Shia are now closer to control of what approximates to the Iraqi state. As western forces now support this state Al-Qaeda’s supporters may well hope that some well-placed bombs will compel the British government to remove its forces from Iraq, just as they believe the Madrid bombs led to a Spanish withdrawal. That would neither stop the violence in Iraq, which would if anything intensify, nor necessarily protect western cities from further attacks. as the emboldened Jihadists worked through the rest of their agenda.
Terrorism is not a reasonable response to anger about aspects of foreign policy and an about-turn in foreign policy is not a reasonable response to terrorism. Better to and our response to terrorism should be to discourage the idea that it ever could be. societies can be coerced by this means, and to envelop terrorist campaigns Its defeat requires that it develops in an aura of failure and futility. This is why great care needs to be taken with the “Iraq made us a target” argument. The Iraq war is rightly criticised for its flimsy rationale and the incompetence of the occupation. But the policy challenge now is to help make things better for the Iraqi people rather than to get the bombers off our backs, just as stability in Afghanistan or a solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute are worthy objectives for the people caught up in the current conflicts rather than just a means of our own self-protection.
Sir Lawrence Freedman is professor of war studies at Kings College, London