Other nations find 'terrorist' label useful

Jumping off the US model, Israel and India, especially, redefine regional conflicts.

America's zero-tolerance policy against terrorism is being adopted by other countries confronting protracted internal or regional conflicts - sometimes with negative consequences.

So far in Afghanistan, the US has demonstrated that blunt force can produce results. Now, other countries are tracing the American template: They're defining their own conflicts with a much heavier emphasis on "terrorism," and - as the US did with Afghanistan's Taliban regime - they're issuing ultimatums to adversaries to either topple "their" terrorists, or face war.

Israel, for example, lost little time after President Bush made the war on terrorism his central priority before it began labeling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a "terrorist." Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear that he expects greater international understanding now of his country's equation of Chechen separatists with terrorists.

And now, India is seeking an international label for rival neighbor Pakistan - a key US ally in the war on terrorism - as a "terrorist state."

India's campaign in particular is forcing the US into a tricky diplomatic dance - and raising questions about how broadly the war on terrorism should be defined.

Just how the "terrorism" label is used could have far-reaching consequences. In some cases, it could provide a cover for internal crackdowns on dissident or minority groups. The label could also become the first step in ratcheting up already-dangerous cross-border conflicts.

As India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, sit on the brink of war, India is taking every opportunity to draw parallels between its conflict with Pakistan and the war on terrorism. It is taking that message to Washington, where its Home (Interior) Minister L.K. Advani was to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday.

"India's strategy to deal with the situation, as expressed by the prime minister, is that it will be a decisive fight against terrorism," Mr. Advani said before leaving India Monday.

Subject to interpretation

India's strategy highlights one of the pitfalls of a war against something that - as evil as it may be - remains subject to interpretation. "There's an open-ended element to the definition of terrorism, and that leaves it open to political manipulation," says David Phillips, deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "It gives license to any country to label its opponents and enemies as terrorists."

With Washington's "singular focus" on the war on terrorism, he adds, it's unlikely any country claiming to follow the American lead "is going to have its feet held to the fire for excesses."

In the case of both Israel and India, governments can point to subsequent action taken by the other side and say that the new tack has produced results. Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority has moved more convincingly against members of Hamas and other militant Islamic groups. At the same time, Israel is attempting to hold on to the higher ground it has won in the new global anti-terrorist atmosphere: It is characterizing last week's seizure of a weapons shipment that it says was destined for the Palestinian Authority as proof that Arafat's organization remains wedded to violence.

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has arrested members of Islamic organizations opposed to Indian control over Kashmir - groups suspected of involvement in two recent terrorist attacks, one in India-controlled Kashmir and the other in New Delhi.

Following the Dec. 13 attack on India's Parliament, the US added the names of two Pakistani Islamic groups that India accuses of terrorism - Laskar-i-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad - to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. That move not only helped India dovetail its tougher stance on terrorism with Washington's war, but it also placed additional pressure on Gen. Musharraf to confront elements for which he had previously expressed sympathy as "freedom fighters."

This week, Musharraf told visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Pakistan opposes terrorism "in all its forms" and said he would soon address his nation on the topic. The trick for him will be condemning terrorism while not looking to Pakistanis as if he is softening on Kashmir.

Examples elsewhere

Beyond these two high-profile conflicts, a broad application of the US antiterrorism doctrine could mean trouble for a list of dissident and minority groups around the world. Analysts point to the renewed fervor with which Russia refers to Chechen separatists as terrorists, while others see China adopting a similar stance towards troublesome minorities.

"Others are going to follow our lead, but we should be prepared for cases where people will seek to apply the standards of terrorism in circumstances where it doesn't really apply," says Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington.

"The Chinese have made it clear they intend to capitalize on our definition of terrorism to fortify their crackdowns on a variety of minorities including Falun Gong, Christians, and Muslims in their western provinces," he adds.

With the world undoubtedly continuing to keep a close eye on America's war on terrorism, it will become more important for countries to take up the question of what terrorism is - and is not, says Mr. Phillips of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"What's lacking is a clear definition of what constitutes terrorism," he says. While international agreement won't be easy, he says developing a "benchmark" will be important for long-term international cooperation.

And crucial in that defining process will be a US that avoids accusations of applying a double standard, says Mr. Gaffney - by acting consistently with allies, new friends, and enemies alike.

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