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18 July 2003

Liberia Intervention Could Prevent Terrorist Attacks, Experts Say

Ambassador Herman Cohen participates in panel discussion

By Jamie Martin
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- U.S. intervention is justified in Liberia because, as a failed state, Liberia could serve as a terrorist "breeding ground" and platform for attacks on America as well as the rest of the world, says former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen.

The retired diplomat participated in a July 17 forum, "Liberia: The Bush Doctrine Comes to Africa," held at the American Enterprise Institute. He was joined on the panel by U.S. Special Forces officer Major Roger Carstens, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, and New Republic magazine writer Ryan Lizza.

Cohen, who helped negotiate and resolve several conflicts on the continent ,said that "in a time of globalized peril...the failed state is a breeding ground for all sorts of problems."

As a threat to the region, the former U.S. envoy to Senegal said, "I fear for the future of Liberia, as well as for the stability of West Africa from Senegal to Ghana, if nothing is done."

As an example of how terrorists can take advantage of a failed state, the diplomat said, "I have seen governments in Africa, not just Liberia, where outsiders can come in and do all sorts of mischief. For example, the Central Bank of Congo/Kinshasa had become a transit point for all sorts of dirty money including terrorist and drug money."

He said, "We've also heard of the diamond trade that came from Sierra Leone through Liberia, which was exploited by people supporting terrorist networks like al Qaeda who have an insatiable need for clean, laundered money. So, I personally believe that the failed state is no longer something that can be ignored. It is part of the global peril that we are facing today."

As for Liberia, Cohen said, "It should be the neighbors taking care of the problem. But the track record of West Africans in Liberia has not been good. We have spent a lot of money supporting West African troops who did not solve the problem."

Cohen said his "feeling is that considering the brutalization that has taken place over 13 years -- the degradation, the depths to which that country has fallen -- there is no internal corrective and I don't think there is a West African corrective. There is only one country that can initially get Liberia back to a peaceful transition and that is the United States."

Charles Krauthammer acknowledged the instability in the region but said he still did not feel that Liberia passed the threshold test for U.S. military intervention. "Before you send troops to fight and to die, you have to be sure that the stakes in the conflict are such that they will have an important influence on American national security and American interests, and I would humbly submit that Liberia does not meet that criterion by any stretch of the imagination."

Major Carstens agreed with Cohen that the stakes are high for Liberia and that its stability is a part of America's greatest battle to date, the war against terror. He added that the events of September 11, 2001 changed the way the U.S. administration looks at its security interests -- everything now viewed through terrorist-colored glasses.

"Constitutionally speaking, intervention in Liberia may be providing for the common defense of the U.S. -- not this year, not next year, but probably five or ten years from now when a failed state could become a problem just like Afghanistan did," the soldier told the panel.

As a journalist who has written several articles on "failed states" in Africa, such as Liberia, Ryan Lizza said Liberia not only provides the breeding grounds for terrorist activities but also harbors a president with terrorist connections, Charles Taylor.

He said, "If the Bush administration decides to send a peacekeeping force to Liberia, it will be safeguarding not only humanitarian concerns but national security ones as well."

According to Lizza, al-Qaeda bought large quantities of diamonds from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group supported by Taylor, in exchange for weapons and cash. The operation, which peaked in the months before September 11, 2001, is believed to have offered Al-Qaeda a way to convert its assets into a form that could be moved across borders more easily.

Lizza said, "This relationship has been carefully documented by the Washington Post's Douglas Farah, by a year-long European intelligence investigation, and most recently, in a 100-page report the nongovernmental organization Global Witness released in April." He added, "Liberia's links to al-Qaeda, in other words, are far more well-documented than Iraq's."

In opposition, Krauthammer stated, "Taylor is a piker [small figure] next to Saddam Hussein." He said, "In [Taylor's] tiny corner of the world with no oil resources and no scientific infrastructure for developing instruments of mass murder, he has neither the reach nor the power to wreak Hussein-class havoc."

Lizza said Africa must become a rock of stability in order to fight corruption and terrorism. "Imagine the impact of a successful American intervention in Liberia and what that would do to the psychology of some of the terrorists who believe that we just won't risk our men and women in places like Africa."

Cohen offered his scenario for intervention in Liberia. "There will be a small U.S. military presence in a lead role, with West Africans in a backup role, making the peace process irreversible." He continued, "My prognosis is that within six months, the administration of Liberia could be taken over by an interim regime bolstered by a heavy presence of U.N. civil servants, as in the early days of Namibia and East Timor."

He stressed an initial U.S. unilateral role in Liberia rather than a multilateral operation. "Only the United States can send peacekeepers to Liberia and confidently expect Liberians to welcome them peacefully because of the historical relationship between the two countries."

"This relationship strengthens the intervention," Cohen said, "using examples of previously successful interventions like the U.K. in Sierra Leone and France in the Ivory Coast.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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