Building a Coalition Among Muslim Nations No Easy Task

Editor's Note: This is the first of a four-part series examining the challenges facing U.S. efforts to build an international coalition to fight terrorism.

As it moves ahead with plans to build an international coalition aimed at wiping out terrorism, the Bush administration faces some fundamental questions:

What would such a coalition look like? Does the U.S. really need it? And how will the U.S. translate words of international support into real rubber-meets-the-road action?

Experts say the American public can expect a complex, protracted coalition-building process, one that could include everyone from loyal allies like Britain, to the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, to Iran, a steadfast enemy of U.S. foreign policy.

"They will pursue this coalition with every country to the best of their abilities, but it’s akin to peeling back an onion," said Ret. Navy Rear Admiral Stephen H. Baker, a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.

With Usama bin Laden the prime suspect in the attacks, the military effort will almost certainly center around the region of Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. That means diplomatic efforts will focus on nations like Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan to the southeast, and a host of predominantly Muslim countries whose relations with the U.S. have not always been close.

Only Turkey, a secular Muslim country and member of NATO, has offered its full support to the U.S. Turkey's commitment includes allowing the use of Incirlik air base, currently home to about 60 U.S. and British aircraft charged with policing the northern no-fly zone over Iraq.

Others nations, like Egypt, have said it is "too early" to talk about an international alliance against the Taliban.

Washington is also attempting to engage frontline Arab countries in the Mideast and other Muslim states that have acted as a home base for bin Laden’s Al-Qaida movement, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and the Philippines. U.S. relations with some of those countries, including Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan itself, have been downright hostile.

And what role Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat might play in any coalition is also uncertain. He has been criticized as complicit to the violent extremist movement in Israel and abroad, but successfully agreed to a cease-fire in the Palestinians' bloody war with Israel on Tuesday.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip are home to the Islamic Jihad and Hamas, two groups that have carried out numerous terrorist attacks against Israeli.

The pressure from Washington may be increasing on some of those states. Congress on Tuesday heightened calls for economic sanctions on Sudan in North Africa, which has been charged with anti-Christian atrocities, slavery and harboring Islamic extremist movements from Egypt, Palestine and bin Laden himself.

Exactly what role a country like Sudan could play in any coalition is unclear. "It will be a coalition no one had ever dreamed of," said Stephens.

He noted the need for urgency, coupled with the fragile relationships the U.S. has with many nations, will make George W. Bush's coalition-building task much tougher than his father's efforts in the Persian Gulf 10 years ago. "It’s harder. It’s more complicated and rightly so," Stephens noted.

And of course, the U.S. must find some way to deal with Iraq, the only nation in the world that did not issue a statement condemning last week's attacks. The U.S is already engaged in a 10-year mission to isolate Iraq, which includes economic sanctions and periodic bombings, following the Persian Gulf War in 1990.

Pakistan also presents a challenge. It has granted the U.S. rights to use its airspace, but has yet to fully commit all of its facilities to a coordinated attack on Afghanistan, though talks continue. Pakistanis say they are willing to engage the Taliban-declared Holy War against the U.S. if it retaliates against their brethren in Afghanistan.

"In some of these countries, bin Laden has contacts with some very important people," said Kenneth Pollack, deputy director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

While some of these countries’ leaders may have openly supported bin Laden in the past, others are nervous, outnumbered in the streets by the movement’s anti-Western campaign.

"We are going to have to press them very hard because they will tend to give us lip service and then continue to backslide," said Pollack. "Beyond that, they don’t like it when the United States throws its weight around, especially against Muslims."

Iran has no diplomatic relations with the U.S., but is no friend of the Taliban either. Iranians are Shi'ite Muslims, which have fundamental differences with the Sunni Muslim Taliban. Shi'ites have been threatened by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iran has been unwittingly used as a conduit in the drug trade from its neighbor to the east.

It is no surprise Iran expressed mixed reactions to last week’s attacks. Some officials have hinted they might want to cooperate with Americans. This could have strategic importance, given Iran’s western borders to Afghanistan, which have been sealed by Iran since the attacks.

On Tuesday, senior Iranian officials sent a message to Bush saying Tehran would not oppose U.S. military retaliation, according to reports. But Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi predicted the U.S. would not get help from Muslim states to fight Muslims in Afghanistan.

He also joined U.S. ally Saudi Arabia in calling instead for a United Nations-led response, something the Bush administration has rejected from the outset.

Thomas Mehnken, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, said many Muslim governments fear retribution by extremist followers if they chose to cooperate too closely with the U.S.

"I don’t see states choosing between us and bin Laden at all. I think if they side too openly with the United States, the radical element of their populations would become increasingly mobilized," he said. "We need to be modest in our attempts to engage them."

He said the best thing for these countries to do is support condemnation from Muslim clerics worldwide. "The clerics in Saudi Arabia have already declared this (attacks) murder," he said. "These types of measures could be extremely helpful to isolate bin Laden and his followers."

Tomorrow: The Role of Russia and the former Soviet republic.