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Washington Post
October 15, 2001
Parallel Propaganda
By Jackson Diehl

Six days before Sept. 11, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- the leaders of two countries that never used to get along -- met in Moscow and found one strong area of agreement: "the danger," as Sharon put it, "of fundamentalist, extremist Islamic terror." It was the beginning of what is becoming a beautiful friendship -- and one of the most dangerous points of weakness within the U.S. counterterrorist alliance.

With their handshake in the Kremlin, Sharon and Putin exchanged a common falsehood about the wars their armies are fighting against rebels in Chechnya and the West Bank and Gaza. In both cases, the underlying conflict is about national self-determination: statehood for the Palestinians, self-rule for Chechnya. The world is inclined to agree that both causes are just. But mixed among the insurgents in both places are Islamic extremists, including some who share the ideology and methods or even the funding of Osama bin Laden. Sharon and Putin both have tried to convince the world that all of their opponents are terrorists, which implies that the solution need not involve political concessions but merely a vigorous counterterrorism campaign.

Before Sept. 11 their parallel propaganda may not have been persuasive even with each other. But in the past five weeks, the two have been emboldened to believe that they can force the world to accept a new understanding of the Chechens and Palestinians -- and though the logic is no better than before, the power of Sept. 11 is working for them. Last week President Bush again agreed that al Qaeda was operating in Chechnya and that its fighters there should be "brought to justice"; meanwhile, bin Laden did Sharon a favor by trumpeting the cause of the Palestinians, forcing Yasser Arafat to open fire on pro-bin Laden demonstrators in Gaza.

In one sense the events of Sept. 11 created an opportunity to break what have been dismal and bloody stalemates in both Chechnya and the Palestinian territories. Since neither the Chechen rebel government of Aslan Maskhadov nor Arafat's Palestinian authority really is pro-bin Laden -- and in fact both have long been under threat themselves from the Islamic extremists -- there is a chance to split them off from the terrorists. That would both weaken bin Laden's organization and make possible a peaceful settlement with the nationalists -- a double blow to the Islamic extremist cause. The Bush administration has tried to do just that, pressuring both Arafat and Maskhadov to make a clean break with the terrorists, while urging Putin and Sharon to open political negotiations.

Arafat and Maskhadov, who have made use of the terrorists against a common national enemy, have responded ambiguously. But it's meanwhile become clear that neither Putin nor Sharon wants a political settlement. Each has a different set of war goals: Putin would like to crush Maskhadov's Chechen independence movement once and for all, and force Chechens to accept the puppet administration he has installed in the republic's ruins. Similarly, Sharon dreams of destroying Arafat's Palestinian Authority, an act that would allow him to begin imposing his own long-cherished vision of a West Bank dominated by a grid of Israeli territorial holdings, with the Palestinians squeezed into weak, disconnected cantons.

So both Sharon and Putin have gone through the motions of talks-about-talks with Arafat and Maskhadov in the past two weeks, while making sure that nothing comes of it. Putin has set impossible conditions, demanding that the Chechens surrender and disarm before any negotiations begin. Sharon similarly demands periods of "quiet" before any talks or confidence-building measures, but repeatedly breaks the peace himself with invasions of Palestinian territory. Both meanwhile trumpet their offers of intelligence and logistical support to U.S. forces in Central Asia, hoping that such contributions, and their strident anti-terrorist rhetoric, will overshadow their quiet obstinacy.

It will be tempting to go along with them. Why bother with Chechnya or the Palestinians while the war against al Qaeda is going on? But there is a real danger: The national grievances of the Palestinians and Chechens, though not the cause of Islamic extremism, offer a political bridge between the terrorists and a significant sector of mainstream society in Muslim countries. The two wars and their atrocities are featured on the recruitment videos that al Qaeda circulates. Just as ending them would rob the terrorists of vital oxygen, the failure to do so will make it harder to root them out.

Even worse would be the realization of the Putin-Sharon program -- the crushing of legitimate Muslim national aspirations under the guise of counterterrorism. If the U.S. alliance allows itself to be tied or tarred with that strategy, there will be no hope of victory.

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