Freedom fighters obsolete

February 04, 2002|By R. David Harden

NEW DELHI - We are witnessing the historical end of violent revolution as a means of political change. Democratization, globalization and the war on terrorism have sounded the death knell for today's freedom fighters.

Americans long have had a love-hate relationship with freedom fighters, though we were born of rebellion. Yet since World War II, America has opted for a policy of official skepticism toward most freedom fighters. During the Cold War, rightly or wrongly, we linked the means and ends of most Third World rebel groups with the expansion of communism. Today, insurgencies in the Muslim world are often tied to radical Islam.

So how should we distinguish between freedom fighters and terrorists? Since Sept. 11, the international coalition - particularly the European Union - has struggled to develop a conceptual definition that distinguishes between those who terrorize and those who seek legitimate self-determination. This distinction, however, simply does not work.

In the real world, the line between terrorists and freedom fighters has blurred to the point that armed confrontation is simply ineffective as a means to political change. Except in those few remaining countries still under the grip of brutal dictatorships, violent revolution is history.

Here's why.

First, the international economic and political system strongly favors stability over revolution. The demand for predictability and stability in currency systems and among trading partners supports this status quo. These days, countries cannot simply conquer other nations - witness Iraq and its failure to consume Kuwait. Violent political change begets uncertainty, a risk the international system abhors.

Second, there is often a gross imbalance of power between states and insurgency groups. Without superpower sponsors, most rebel groups are reduced to fighting widely asymmetric battles against countries with standing armies, sophisticated weaponry and 21st century information technology.

Finally, most insurgencies succumb to the lowest common denominator of human brutality. Freedom fighters are supposed to battle against so-called "hard targets" - opposing military forces - while terrorists purposefully strike civilians, or "soft targets," as an end itself. Yet freedom fighters often kill innocents, and terrorists regularly strike military targets.

Add these elements to the mix of instant communication, global press and 24 hour news channels, and it becomes clear that in most of the world the use of violence as a means of gaining political autonomy just won't work any longer.

Take Kashmir and the West Bank and Gaza as examples. Setting aside any moral imperatives, Kashmiris and Palestinians must realize that political change through armed struggle is doomed to failure. First, the international systems do not easily adopt new states carved from existing democracies. Second, given the overwhelming military force of both India and Israel, rebel groups in Kashmir and the West Bank and Gaza now regularly attack soft targets while CNN and Fox News continuously broadcast these low-intensity wars. Nothing changes except for the body bag count.

The only practical option is Mahatma Gandhi's approach of political revolution through nonviolent, civil disobedience. Clearly, asymmetrical attacks on soft targets have proved futile and morally hazardous. Direct hard target military confrontation has failed, and will continue to fail, against overwhelming force.

Thus, civil disobedience is simply a more effective ploy to independence; it plays to the media and garners world sympathy. Except in such brutal dictatorships as Iraq and North Korea, true freedom fighters must now realize that the world has come to the end of revolution.

R. David Harden is the legal adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development's missions to Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, based at the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This article represents his opinion only.

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