Beating Terrorism

This is the 41st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

US President George W Bush never ceases to amuse. In a recent interview with ABC Television, he explained that while he wanted democracy in Pakistan, he thought highly of General Pervez Musharraf. According to a report by Voice of America, Bush said: “[Musharraf] has…advanced democracy in Pakistan. He has said he will take off his uniform. He has said there will be elections. Today he released prisoners. And so far I have found him to be a man of his word.”

Right. Bush, of course, had praised Vladimir Putin three years ago as “a strong leader who cares deeply about the people of his country”, and in different circumstances, had Eye-Raq been an ally of the US when he took power, might even have praised Saddam Hussain’s commitment to civil rights. It is clear that the fuel that drives the Bush administration is self-delusion—and nowhere is this stronger than on the issue of terrorism.

The defining challenge of Bush’s administration, after 9/11, has been to battle terrorism. The logical approach towards doing that would be two-pronged: One, figure out what the immediate terrorist threats are and try to eliminate them. Two, understand what causes terrorism to begin with, and tackle those root causes. The US embraced the first part of that solution, correctly heading to Afghanistan to try and wipe out the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But it messed up the second part completely.

What causes terrorism? Earlier this month, I reviewed a book for Lounge, the Saturday magazine of Mint, which addressed exactly that issue. In What Makes a Terrorist, Princeton economist Alan B Krueger decided to put preconceived notions about terrorism to the test. Various experts speak about how poverty, lack of education and cultural differences—“they hate our freedoms and our way of life”—are the reasons why young people take to terrorism. The Bush administration has, at different times, advanced all of these reasons. Krueger examined them and found them wanting.

Krueger looked at biographical data of terrorists across the world, and found that they tended to be richer and better educated than the people around them. This seems counterintuitive—isn’t it true, after all, that poverty leads to crime? Krueger granted that, but pointed out that the average terrorist is different from the average criminal, and the difference is all about motivation. The average criminal may be driven by material reasons, but the average terrorist takes up arms as a means of political expression.

Krueger compared terrorism to the act of voting. Voters in much of the world tend to be wealthier and better educated than non-voters—this may not be true in India, for various unrelated reasons—and “care about influencing the outcome and consider themselves sufficiently well-informed to want to express their opinions”. Krueger concluded: “Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead, they are people who care so deeply and fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”

The natural conclusion from this is that terrorism is most likely to germinate when other forms of political expression are denied. Krueger’s data supports this, revealing that terrorists tend to come from countries that share “the suppression of civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble, and democratic rights”.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Taliban and Al Qaeda thrived in lawless Afghanistan. But it should also stand to reason for the US to be wary of allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Both are undemocratic countries where civil rights are suppressed—ideal conditions, as Krueger’s study indicates, for terrorism. Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan is full of extremist groups, many of which remain engaged in activities against India.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the US had no choice but to seek Musharraf’s help, and to support him in turn. But they should have recognized that in the long run, supporting a dictator would work against them, as the oppressive conditions that would result would lead to more terrorists being created. The US pays lip service to democracy in Pakistan, but its actions indicate that it doesn’t really care about it as long as Mush keeps helping out Bush.

The US has long had a history of getting in bed with dictators and madmen for short-term gains while ignoring the long-term cost. (Remember Saddam and Osama?) When it comes to its modern allies, it should realize that fighting the disease is as important as quelling the symptom. If the US tolerates and props up oppressive regimes such as General Musharraf’s, the War Against Terror will be hollow, incomplete and deeply ironic.

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.