Monday, August 4, 2008

Time for a rethink on the 'War on Terror' in Thailand?

Bush's visit an ideal time for Thailand to consider where it fits in the battle against global terrorism

With US President George W Bush's visit to Thailand this week, Thailand should ask itself whether the "War on Terror" is succeeding. Just as important is where Thailand fits into that war. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the government of Thaksin Shinawatra dragged its feet and took a selfish attitude by dismissing any suggestion that members of Jemaah Islamiyah or al-Qaeda might have established a presence in the country. Bangkok was afraid that it would lose tourist dollars if it did so.

But all that came to an abrupt end when a well-known terrorist, Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, was arrested just north of Bangkok in August 2003.

The change of heart paved the way for Thailand's participation in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan though later Bangkok used the excuse of some outdated UN mandate for not going into Iraq because it did not want to upset the Muslim world.

On the surface, the American invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks struck a huge blow to the Taleban, all but eliminating their rule in that country. Today, however, the Taleban and the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda are still going strong.

Rather than disappear, they have relocated to the Pakistani side of the border. Osama Bin Laden, the face of al-Qaeda and the world's most wanted man, is still at large.

Attacks throughout the world, from Southeast Asia to Europe and the Middle East to the Americas, serve as constant reminders that terrorism remains a real and growing threat. Thailand is not out of the loop.

To complicate matters further, according to The New York Times, American intelligence agencies have concluded that elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, one the CIA's key allies in the "War on Terror", played a role in the July 7 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

The attack - the deadliest in Kabul since the 2001 US invasion - killed at least 41 people. Though the Pakistani government vehemently denies these accusations, the situation highlights the more troubling reality of the Taleban's rise in Pakistan.

Pakistan has been an important ally for the United States in the "War on Terror". Since 2001, the ISI has played a crucial role in the capture of top al-Qaeda suspects like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the "mastermind" behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

Nonetheless, if al-Qaeda suffered a blow with the dismantling of its leadership, it has been boosted by the Internet, which has opened the door for home-grown terrorists to make attacks on their own. The bombings in London three years ago were carried out by radical Muslims born and raised in the UK.

The War on Terror has been far from a clear-cut success. Though the initial invasion of Afghanistan struck a huge blow to the Taleban, the war in Iraq was a diversion that did little or nothing to curb terrorism.

Today, while violence has diminished drastically in Iraq, though the fragile situation there could easily turn volatile once again, death tolls have risen in Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, where much of al-Qaeda is concentrated, the government has had to walk a fine line between fighting terrorists within their borders and keeping its distance from the much-despised United States.

The Taleban has regrouped along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, and the Pakistani government has been reluctant to eliminate these forces. In 2006, President Pervez Musharraf agreed to a "truce" with tribal leaders in the troubled border region of Northern Waziristan. Far from bringing down the Taleban, this agreement seems to have allowed terrorist forces to regroup, while gaining power and popularity in that region.

Instead of just going for the ride with our friends from Washington, perhaps Bush's visit should be a time for Thailand to do some serious soul-searching with regard to its policy on global terrorism.

This is not to say that we should back away from this global war. All nation-states and civil societies have to play their part and act responsibly. Interestingly, we call ourselves members of the coalition of the willing, but we have never asked ourselves exactly what we are willing to do.

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