Quentin Peel: The fallacy of a war on terror

Financial Times

September 9, 2004

Russia is a proud country that has seen terrible crimes committed against its peoples in its centuries of history.

For sheer scale and sustained brutality, the deliberate starvation and extermination of millions by Joseph Stalin's crazed Communist regime in the last century were almost certainly the worst examples.

One of his cruellest acts was the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Chechen civilians in cattle trucks in the winter of 1944 - an entire nation banished from its homeland in the northern Caucasus for alleged collaboration with the German army. According to popular Chechen memory, at least 500,000 perished. Even Soviet police records admit to 200,000.

Yet although Russians might have been thought inured to the callous loss of life, last week's massacre of more than 300 schoolchildren, parents and teachers in Beslan, an otherwise unremarkable town in North Ossetia, has caused national soul-searching. Round the world there has been a wave of sympathy.

Confusion surrounds the precise identity of the terrorists. The hostages assumed they were Chechen separatists, although some evidence points to Islamist allies from neighbouring Ingushetia. The Russian authorities claim they were international terrorists. An adviser to President Vladimir Putin who negotiated with them said they could not speak the Chechen language, but he admitted they spoke Russian with a Caucasian accent. Whatever their nationality, and whatever their demands - also the subject of wildly conflicting claims - they were willing to die for their cause, and murder hundreds of innocent victims as they did so. That was the most horrifying aspect of this tragedy. The victims in the school gymnasium were chosen to achieve the maximum national and international revulsion, not sympathy.

Yet the tragedy was undoubtedly compounded by the chaos and incompetence of the Russian security services. They failed to have any coherent rescue plan. They failed to isolate the school from crowds of desperate relations and armed vigilantes. They even failed to organise adequate ambulances to ferry the hundreds of wounded and dying victims to hospital when the mass hostage-taking ended in a chaotic 10-hour shoot-out. Perhaps they believed their own lies that the number of hostages was little more than 300, not 1,200-plus.

The danger now is that the lessons will not be learnt. When he addressed the nation at the weekend, Mr Putin admitted that defence and security had been lax, and corruption had flourished in the judiciary and the law enforcement agencies. But he then proceeded to lay the blame on nameless international enemies, rather than the mistaken policies of his own administration. Some would like to tear off a juicy piece' from us, he said. Others help them. They help because they believe that Russia, as one of the major nuclear powers, is still a threat to them - a threat that should thus be removed. And terrorism is, of course, a mere instrument to achieve such aims.

It was a classic knee-jerk relapse into old cold war rhetoric. Not once in his address did Mr Putin mention the problem of Chechnya, which his government claims to have solved. Instead he blamed some great amorphous international terror for plotting the demise of Mother Russia, and declared the entire nation at war.

It is the same tragic rhetorical miscalculation made by President George W. Bush and his allies when they insist that they are involved in a war on terror. It creates an utterly unrealistic public perception of what needs to be done to defeat terrorists in all their many forms: both dignifying the enemy, and implying that ultimate victory can be won. Last week Mr Bush had a brief moment of honest insight. When asked on NBC television if the war on terror could be won, he admitted: I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world. He might almost have said: It is not a war, it is a battle for hearts and minds.

His moment of truth was not to last. Within hours, the presidential spokesman was insisting that he merely meant that there would never be a formal surrender or a treaty signed with terrorists. But it was not soon enough for John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, who accused Mr Bush of declaring defeat, and insisted that the war was winnable.

The whole concept of the war on terror, whether Mr Putin's version or that of Mr Bush and even Mr Edwards (who should know better), plays into the hands of the terrorists. It creates a psychosis of fear, a desire to build ever higher borders and barriers to defend the homeland, and undermines the very freedom that it purports to defend.

It is impossible to defend every soft target, such as the school in Beslan. We need better intelligence, not more border guards. And talk of war distracts attention from winning the hearts and minds of those whose sense of injustice or misery can provide the fertile ground for fanatics.

That is certainly true in Chechnya, where Mr Putin's policy of massive military repression and carpet-bombing of towns and villages has laid the entire country waste. Although the people are exhausted by war, they have been utterly alienated by the Russian tactics. It has created fertile ground for Islamist preachers to join forces with nationalists, warlords and mere bandits. The danger for Mr Bush is that something similar may be happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.