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Defeating Al Qaeda: a strategy

The cunning and ruthlessness of the Sept. 11 attack raises the specter that its likely author, Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group, might even strike the American homeland with weapons of mass destruction.

To avert this grave danger we must destroy Al Qaeda. This task requires fundamental change in our foreign policy. Specifically, we need new policies toward Russia and the Middle East for the purpose of gaining the many allies we need for the long fight ahead. We also must focus tightly on defeating Al Qaeda and not engage in a wide crusade against all forms of terrorism.

We will need Russia's help on two matters of vital importance: rooting Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and securing once and for all the Russian nuclear establishment, so Al Qaeda and similar groups cannot buy nuclear weapons, materials or skills.

Toward these goals, we must remove the main irritants to current US-Russian relations: NATO expansion and national missile defense. We could afford these projects in normal times, but not in a grave national emergency. They should be quietly dropped.

We will also need wide support from the Arab and Muslim worlds in the task of hunting down Al Qaeda's operatives. To achieve this, we must put ourselves in a rightful stance toward Arab and Muslim peoples. Most important, we should adopt new policies toward the Arab-Israeli conflict that we can defend to all in the Mideast as reasonable and just.


The United States should reiterate its strong support for Israel's right to exist within secure borders. But it should now ask Israel to:

  • Stop building settlements in its occupied territories.
  • Restart negotiations from where they stood last winter.
  • Offer generous terms on all outstanding issues.
  • Most important, Israel should leave almost all the territories it occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
  • Such a policy stands a fair chance of achieving peace. It would not be conceding to terror; it would be coalition-building toward defeating terror.

Furthermore, such a policy would be more helpful than hurtful to Israel. Continued Israeli occupation poses a threat to Israeli security by driving the Arab world into greater unity against Israel, and by impeding a peace settlement. And without peace, Israel faces the long-term risk of a new Mideast war or a nuclear terrorist attack on Israel. Moreover, Israel has a large interest in seeing the US effort against Al Qaeda succeed. This gives Israel a large interest in ending an occupation that impedes the United States against Al Qaeda by alienating Arabs and Muslims from both Israel and the United States.


America should also consider ways to remove other irritants to its relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. For example, our confrontation with Iraq has played very badly for us in the Arab media, which endlessly repeats Saddam Hussein's deceitful propaganda claiming that the American-led sanctions are responsible for killing Iraqi children. The United States should consider how this sanctions effort can be better explained to the Arab and Muslim publics, or whether new terms for ending it should be offered. And we should consider whether basing our forces in Saudi Arabia remains worth the cost of the culture clash that the US presence engenders. Further, we should consider ways to help Arab and Muslim societies to exclude "decadent" aspects of American culture--"Baywatch," MTV and so forth--that these cultures understandably find offensive.

Specifically regarding Pakistan, the United States should move strongly to legitimate the Musharraf government's decision to support our effort against Al Qaeda. The Bush administration wisely lifted economic sanctions against Pakistan last week. Now it should also lift US restrictions on textile imports from Pakistan. This would boost the incomes of many of Pakistan's poorest people. And the United States now should actively pursue a settlement of the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir on terms that are fair to Pakistan as well as India.


To support its policies, the United States should mount a sustained campaign in the Arab and Muslim media to inform Arabs and Muslims about Al Qaeda's cruelties. Few in the Arab-Muslim world remember that Al Qaeda murdered hundreds of innocent Africans in its 1998 bombings of two US embassies. Few Muslims know that scores of Muslims died in the Sept. 11 attacks; they should be informed.

History shows that successful action against terror requires that states fighting terror must first legitimate their policies in the eyes of the societies where the terror breeds. All aspects of US policy should reflect this reality.

On another front, the United States should demand universal cooperation with a new world banking regime that ends all offshore banking havens where terrorists can store money without fearing US seizure. Al Qaeda paid for its evil deeds with monies held in these banking havens. In the future any state that acts as a banking haven must be held accountable for terror committed with monies it holds in custody.

Above all, the United States must not define its enemies broadly in the Middle East. Such a course would spiral us into ever-deeper conflict with uncounted Arab and Muslim peoples whose interests and feelings we barely understand. Indeed, Al Qaeda may hope to bait us into this mistake. Instead we must limit ourselves to destroying those terrorists who can and will bring terror to the US homeland. Only Al Qaeda and its affiliates fit that description today, and they should be our only target for now. We should target other groups only when they pose a parallel danger, and should target states only if they persist in fostering such danger.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 17, 2001.

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