Terrorise Like it's Going Out of Style


Last week Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith had a conversation with Jim Middleton on the Australia Network’s Newshour program. Part of that conversation, held on 12 September 2008, went like this:

JM: It’s a pessimistic outlook … isn’t it, if the Pakistanis won’t allow cross-border operations — that you can hold the Taliban but you can’t win.

SS: Well, it’s quite clear that what’s been occurring is that the extremists, the terrorists, the Taliban move across that border area [between Afghanistan and Pakistan]for respite and then return. And so clearly both Pakistan and Afghanistan and the international communities have to come to grips with that.

If you only heard this part of the interview, you’d think Smith regarded this migration as temporary and something peculiar to extremists, terrorists and/or Taliban personnel. You’d also think Smith was alleging such migration has only been happening since the Taliban were overthrown or even since the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan.

Of course our new Foreign Minister, like anyone with at least a rudimentary knowledge of that area and its people, knows that the artificial borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan drawn by the British during the 1940s hardly represent the social realities on the ground. There are families and tribes whose members live on either side of the border. Some are semi-nomadic peoples whose movement is quite regular.

Unfortunately, not everyone in our anti-terror coalition understands these on-the-ground realities. Indeed, some don’t even care about differentiating between combatants and civilians. Among them is Robert Bolton, former US Ambassador to the UN and an architect of the so-called "Bush doctrine".

Bolton was interviewed by Leigh Sales on ABC’s Lateline program on their 11 September episode. It was a curious choice of interviewee on the anniversary of the attacks of the Twin Towers and Washington. Bolton is a hawk whose views are regarded by many friendly critics of the United States as dangerous. By the same token, Bolton is also regarded as one of the architects of the so-called "War on Terror", the first phase of which was the invasion of Afghanistan.

Robert Bolton told Leigh Sales on that Lateline episode that winning the battle of hearts and minds in the places where we think terrorists live "when it’s useful for our interests to do it. Let me just say when you talk about civilians, your viewers should not have the idea of civilians like in the suburbs of Sydney. The frontier area is a wild, wild area … distinguishing between who is a civilian and who is not a civilian in that environment is often very, very difficult".

In other words, these people look, talk, dress and worship differently to us. They also happen to look just like terrorists. Or rather, terrorists deliberately look and dress just like civilians. Dead civilians only really count when it’s bad PR back home. We don’t actually need to get to know them as people and communities. We just want to kill as many as possible so our people back home will feel safer, even if they don’t actually become safer.

Indeed, the US has had a disastrous record in Afghanistan, Pakistan (just ask Mamdouh Habib) and Iraq in distinguishing civilians from terrorists and other combatants. Mahvish Khan worked as a translator with lawyers acting for Guantanamo Bay detainees. Her book My Guantanamo Diary tells the stories of ordinary Afghan civilians picked up and shipped to Guantanamo Bay to be tortured. The Age reports that among Khan’s clients was Dr Ali Shah Mousovi, an Afghan paediatrician who belonged to the Shia minority persecuted by the Taliban. Another was an 80 year old paraplegic arrested in 2003 when he went to US authorities to enquire about the arrest of his son.

Still, our troops continue to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. Kevin Rudd has even spoken about the need to send more troops over there. Is he hoping a larger Australian force will follow the United States into a possible showdown with Pakistan? Bush Jnr has already given his troops the go-ahead to enter Pakistani territory.

Is our PM prepared to risk Australian lives supporting such a risky US adventure? And what does he make of claims by the UN’s senior expert on al Qaeda that:

"The presence of foreign forces provides a glue and they have been quite clever to exploit fears of an outside force … You could say that the threat of foreign occupation is giving them oxygen in the region with tribal leaders leaving aside local differences to unite against foreign forces."

Terrorists hate us for our values. Terrorists kill people without caring to distinguish combatant from innocent civilian. Meanwhile, the innocent civilians who happen to live in the general vicinity of where we think terrorists might be hiding are also terrorised — by us and our allies. As one Pakistani commentator recently noted:

"Where al Qaeda and the Taliban is concerned, the task of exerting moral pressure is nearly impossible: despite the fact that they are causing more deaths, the increased hatred reserved for the US occupation ensures that the Taliban can kill at will without ever being shamed or humiliated for their cruelty."

Seven years after the September 11 attacks, it seems our War on Terror has become just terror all round.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.