(Adds India foreign ministry comment)
By Rina Chandran
MUMBAI, Jan 15 (Reuters) - British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called on Thursday for a rethink of the strategy against terrorism, saying the notion of a “war on terror” was misleading and mistaken in present times.
Miliband’s comments, days before U.S. President George W. Bush hands the keys to the White House to President-elect Barack Obama, implicitly criticised aspects of the strategy launched by Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. cities in 2001.
Miliband, who is winding down a three-day visit to India, said the motivations and identities of militant groups ranging from the Taliban to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the Mumbai attacks that killed 179 people, called for a different response.
“As you know and I know, terrorism was not invented or started on 9/11. But since then, the notion of a “war on terror” has defined the terrain,” said Miliband at the Taj Mahal hotel, the site of a 60-hour siege in November.
“The phrase had some merit: it captured the gravity of the threats we faced, the need for solidarity amongst allies, and the need to respond urgently — and where necessary, with force.”
But for a couple of years now, the British government has used neither “the idea nor the phrase”, he said, because ultimately, the notion is misleading and mistaken.
Britain, under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, was America’s closest ally in military anti-terrorism operations but the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein split Europe and caused a backlash against Blair in Britain.
Britain is set to withdraw most of its remaining troops from Iraq this year but still has more than 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, invaded by U.S.-led forces after Sept. 11 to root out al Qaeda insurgents and their Taliban protectors.
“The issue is not whether we need to attack the use of terror at its roots, with all the tools available. We must. The question is how we best do so,” he said, after meeting some of the hotel’s staff who shielded and saved guests during the Mumbai attack.
The idea of a “war on terror” gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, Miliband said, when in fact militant groups were diverse and had wide-ranging motivations.
The global threat from extremism was also more real today because technology enables militants to connect more easily.
Today’s terrorist groups need to be “exposed and tackled at root, interdicting flows of weapons and financing”, he said.
A “war on terror” also implied the correct response was primarily military, he said.
“But as (U.S.) General (David) Petraeus said to me and others in Iraq, the coalition there could not kill its way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife,” he said.
While a “war on terror” was a call to arms and an attempt to build solidarity by taking on a single shared enemy, the foundation for solidarity between nations must be based not on “who we are against ... but who we are and the values we share.”
Countries must respond to terrorism by “championing the rule of law, not subordinating it”, he said, adding India’s standing in the 21st century is based not on its population or economic growth, but in the idea that it is the world’s largest democracy.
Democratic governments, wrestling with striking the right balance between protecting its citizens and preserving civil liberties, also must be alive to the impact of counter-terrorism strategies on minorities, Miliband said.
The best antidote to the terrorist threat in the long term was cooperation, Miliband said, adding he would tell Pakistan’s government later this week on his visit to Islamabad it must take urgent action to break up militant networks on its soil.
“But ultimately this is a journey only India and Pakistan can make,” he said.
India’s foreign ministry, in response to Miliband’s opinion piece for the Guardian newspaper, where he wrote that “resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists one of their main calls to arms”, said in a statement it did not need unsolicited advice on its “internal issues”. (Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in LONDON; Editing by Valerie Lee)