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9/19/2017 7:27:10 PM
Posted: 12/27/2005 6:28:46 PM EDT

Many lessons here apply to us in the USA, too....


No one seems to have noticed this is our fifth Christmas at war
By Matthew d'Ancona
(Filed: 28/12/2005)

In case you'd forgotten, we're still at war. In the weeks leading up to this year's Labour conference, Tony Blair and his team debated how much he should say about the war on terror. After considerable thought, the Prime Minister decided that the issue required a separate speech of its own, to be delivered on another day. "My worry," he told allies, "is that the terrorists are now thinking more strategically than we are."

Mr Blair's anxiety was, and is, justified. This is the fifth Christmas since the war on terror began, and yet I doubt this landmark has much resonance in the West.

The war and its consequences are everywhere: in the discovery in Karbala of one of Saddam Hussein's mass graves; in the wounding of a British soldier yesterday in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan; in the 26 deaths in Iraq on Boxing Day (Dec.26 holiday), for which al-Qa'eda's Iraqi wing claimed responsibility; in the US Ambassador's "clarification" of his categorical denial that America had sent any terrorism suspects to Syria. All are connected at the most fundamental level.

Yet there is a reluctance to join up the dots and to perceive the war as a whole, as a continuous geopolitical narrative.

On Boxing Day, Ken Livingstone (left-wing, antiwar mayor of London) told the BBC that there had been 10 attempted attacks on London since 9/11, two of them since the July 7 bombings. But the mayor insisted that these foiled atrocities were not the work of a "great organised international conspiracy with orders flowing down the chain", but of "fairly disorganised and small groups of disaffected people".

This is a serious misrepresentation of modern Islamist terror. What binds and inspires the cells that have plotted and continue to plot attacks on cities such as London is precisely the interconnectedness of the war: the thread that links the jihadi in the West Bank, or in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, with his brother in Leeds, or Lahore, or Los Angeles.

Al-Qa'eda is not a single organisation in the crude sense that Mr Livingstone meant, but something much more deadly: a loose-knit global hierarchy, a franchise with national affiliates, and a murderous way of thinking or "software" that can, quite literally, be downloaded.

The "small groups" of which the mayor spoke are far more nimble and threatening than an old-fashioned military hierarchy. They are connected by zealotry and technology, by a grotesque version of Islam that fizzes daily through modems around the world.

In 2005, the Islamists made brutally clear, yet again, that they are determined to destroy life, economic success and optimism wherever they encounter it. Two weeks after the July 7 atrocities, 63 people were killed in suicide attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh (to which the Blair family has returned for its traditional winter break). In October, Bali was bombed once more. In November, 67 died in Amman, Jordan.

For the terrorists, however, the greatest successes were psychological.

In this country, the resolve that followed the London bombings quickly yielded to political point-scoring and bickering. Judges lectured the Government on civil liberties. The Commons gleefully threw out Mr Blair's 90-day detention plan, putting the humiliation of the Prime Minister before public safety.

"Iraq" continued to be used lazily as political shorthand for all that is objectionable about Mr Blair and his Government. It was alarming in 2005 to watch the horizons of British politics narrow as the threat grew ever broader.

In the new geopolitical context, more praise was due to the British presidency of the European Union for keeping alive Turkey's hopes of eventual membership: hopes that Germany, France and Austria had done so much to obstruct.

In his six months at the helm, Mr Blair did not secure any meaningful commitment to CAP reform in return for the renegotiation of Britain's rebate. The new EU budget deal was a political whimper.

But the Prime Minister did manage to prevent Europe from turning its back on Turkey, its best Muslim friend: a quiet achievement that will prove a much more significant legacy than any of Mr Blair's doomed plans for EU reform.

In the year ahead, much will hang on the politics of the Middle East, not least the performance of Hamas in next month's Palestinian elections and the impact of Ariel Sharon's health scare on the vote for his new Kadima grouping when Israel goes to the polls in March. But - as ever - Iraq will remain the test case of the war on terror, and the laboratory where the world monitors its progress.

Of all the errors that have been made by the West since 9/11 - and there have been plenty - none compares with the failure to make sufficiently robust plans for the reconstruction of Iraq. On the eve of war, Colin Powell warned George W Bush that he was about to assume responsibility for an entire nation.

"You are going to be owning this place," he said. "You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people." How little thought had been given to that awesome reality became clear in the fires of Fallujah and the shame of Abu Ghraib.

Yet the participation of 11 million Iraqis in parliamentary elections two weeks ago showed how vital it is that we stay the course. In his book on the Iraqi conflict, Why Are We At War?, Norman Mailer writes that "democracy is never there in us to create in another country by the force of our will. Real democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades."

That may be so: but what this month's poll in Iraq illustrates is that, while democracy cannot be imposed, it can be nurtured. Many more Sunnis voted two weeks ago than did so in January's elections for a transitional government. Amid the flames comes progress.

In 2006, the pressure on the President and the Prime Minister to withdraw coalition troops will be overwhelming. And it cannot be said too often: the sooner our soldiers can leave liberated Iraq, the better.

But to leave in haste, before the liberated country is truly ready, would be strategically mad, as well as a stain on the conscience of the West.

When he visited Basra last week, the Prime Minister promised once again that Britain would not withdraw until the time was right. But he also made it very clear that he hopes to begin that process in the new year.

This process, it should not be forgotten, has immense personal as well as military significance. Mr Blair has long indicated in private that he will not depart Number 10 until the "job" in Iraq is done. It is easy to see how the staged withdrawal of British troops might smooth Mr Blair's own staged withdrawal from Downing Street.

But that is tactical thinking. Next year, as in every year since 9/11, Mr Blair should keep his mind firmly fixed on the long game. Nothing would please the jihadis more than for the coalition to pull its troops out of Iraq too quickly, plunge the country into civil war and ensure that history damns the liberation campaign as a failure.

The terrorists, as the Prime Minister himself warned, think strategically. Now, more than ever, he dare not forget his own maxim.

Matthew d'Ancona is Deputy Editor of The Sunday Telegraph


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