Facebook Twitter

Keeping allies together is real challenge

SHARE Keeping allies together is real challenge

WASHINGTON — Britain contributed crack commandos for advance reconnaissance. Tajikistan opened its military bases, while New Zealand offered naval patrol vessels. The Czech Republic increased security at nuclear power plants, while St. Croix heightened protection of its giant oil refinery.

Mexico tracked hotel registrations for "unusual" visitors. Cambodia ordered banks to freeze suspected terrorist accounts. And little Grenada introduced parcel checks at St. George's University to protect its U.S. students.

Almost every nation is doing something in response to America's call for a war on terrorism — in some cases, even if it hasn't been asked. But unlike the Persian Gulf War coalition that united 38 nations to liberate Kuwait, the new global alliance is bringing together more than 100 countries in what amounts to four coalitions with distinct but overlapping missions.

And for all the rhetoric about retaliation, the smallest part of the coalition's activities may well involve military action. If all goes as planned, the military's role in the war against terrorism could be as little as 10 percent to 15 percent of the campaign, administration officials contend.

What happens outside Afghanistan's borders will also be more important than whatever the United States does inside the war-ravaged country to track down Osama bin Laden and his allies in Al Qaeda. The new coalition's long-term cohesion in pursuing a wide array of other assignments will, in the end, be more important than the magnitude of short-term military action, according to military analysts, counterterrorism experts and diplomats.

"We've used cruise missiles before," said retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the former Supreme Commander of NATO. "They're effective in hitting targets and they might disrupt ongoing planning and activities of terrorists. But a military strike or two will not resolve the problem. The key to winning this war is maintaining strong coalition support, strong enough that countries can take action inside their own borders to help us. And that's going to be harder than military action."

The alliance behind Operation Enduring Freedom starts out large and diverse — and the sign-up isn't yet over. But its mere scope in ambition and membership makes it highly vulnerable to defections and eventual disintegration.

The alliance's strength may be its unique structure. In essence, it consists of four circles within its larger circle.

At the center of the coalition is a small circle of countries around Afghanistan that are central to most aspects of the war on terrorism — such as providing intelligence in tracking extremists and their plots, military and legal assistance in nabbing them and bringing them to justice, locating and cutting off financial assets and unraveling the wide network of cells that has penetrated an estimated 60 to 70 countries. And that's the agenda just for phase one of the war — dealing with bin Laden's Al Qaeda, the deadliest and most widespread terrorist organization.

The critical countries in the first circle are Pakistan and Russia. Pakistan has the most influence on the Taliban government and, in turn, bin Laden and his operatives in Afghanistan, while Russia, through former states Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, has military and air bases, intelligence and access routes for military operations.

But the participation of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Russian President Vladimir Putin offer microcosms of the coalition's vulnerabilities, for each has his own agenda.

In a recent speech to his nation, Musharraf justified aiding the United States not on grounds of fighting terrorism, but for reasons involving Pakistan's economy and the country's "national survival" in its rivalry with India, with which Washington increasingly had been siding. And Putin's biggest internal threat is the Chechen war, which Russia views as terrorism but which the United States has seen as a struggle for autonomy.

To keep both on board, the Bush administration is now paying more attention to Pakistan's military regime, while President Bush last week for the first time criticized aspects of the Chechen rebellion as extremist.

"We know that countries will not play unless they feel it's also in their national interests," conceded a senior administration official who asked to remain anonymous. "As time passes, some of the costs are going to be hard to justify to keep leaders on board. The president and secretary of state have their work cut out for them."

Efforts to strengthen ties with Russia in the anti-terrorism effort proceeded on two fronts in Moscow on Saturday. Undersecretary of State John Bolton met with Russian Foreign Ministry officials, while a delegation from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

The alliance's second circle is made up of U.S. allies in NATO, the European Union, Canada, Australia and Japan. Some countries have offered elite troops for commando operations, according to European envoys and U.S. officials. Most have promised landing rights for military planes, overflight rights and logistical support.

But the more important contribution in each country will come at home. While the Gulf War coalition drew a single "line in the sand" against one visible army in the distant Arabian desert, the new coalition has no frontline — and the hydra-headed enemy lives in the shadows, a few maybe even down the street. So the primary mission for the nation's in the second circle will be providing intelligence about Al Qaeda and other extremists in Europe and unraveling the financial network.

"The Arabs all say the bin Laden network is much stronger in Britain or France than anywhere in the Arab world because no Arab state will tolerate them," said the senior administration official.

In this context, the European Union's move to create a common arrest warrant for terrorist suspects and commit new manpower to probe everything from money laundering to cyber-terrorism may be more useful than military assistance, U.S. officials say. Even the historically neutral Swiss have imposed financial regulations on companies associated with the Taliban.

The coalition's third circle consists of Islamic and Arab countries, which are more pivotal to the United States than they were during Operation Desert Storm. Their stamp of approval is critical in showing that this war is not against Islam and does not herald a "clash of civilizations" that could once again divide the world into camps.

Yet the Islamic bloc is the most fragile part of the coalition because of the high potential for domestic backlash. Virtually every Muslim country has an Islamist movement, and many have a militant wing. With support already precarious, pictures of civilian deaths from U.S. strikes could ignite the streets of the Islamic world.

The alliance's final circle is the vast array of countries with disparate secondary roles. They range from the Philippines reopening old naval bases for U.S. warships to Cyprus monitoring airport and ports traffic for extremists in transit.

Many are crucial to tracing the terrorists' financial assets. The Cayman Islands is probing its off-shore banks, while Brazil and Venezuela are checking on-shore accounts. Guatemala put a money-laundering bill with tools to track terrorist funds on a legislative fast track, while Hong Kong is drafting new laws to seize assets linked to Al Qaeda.

For now, commitment within the four circles remains high. But the longer the war goes on, the greater the dangers that they will gradually unravel, U.S. officials admit.

In a mere six weeks, the Gulf War coalition achieved its limited objective and then began to disintegrate due to differences on postwar policy. In contrast, the new coalition may take years to make a serious dent in its sweeping goal — and is much more vulnerable to disintegration or defections long before it gets there.