Friday, July 29, 2005

The Stalled Struggle Against Al Qaeda

The shock and tragedy of the London bombings naturally inspires reflection on the progress of the struggle against Al Qaeda. Sadly, four years later, the state of that conflict remains much the same as it was prior to 9/11. Al Qaeda has lost its base area in Afghanistan, but its leadership remains at large along the Afghan/Pakistani frontier. Whatever strategic assets it lost in Afghanistan it has more than made up in Iraq, where the US led invasion has afforded Al Qaeda and its confederates a foothold in the Arab world more profound and strategically advantageous than it has ever enjoyed in the Arab world previously. London's tragedy demonstrates that four lost years is more than the US and its allies can afford. The longer Al Qaeda is given to martial its resources and develop its plans, the more audacious and destructive its attacks will become. This, in turn, will produce a snowball effect, as Al Qaeda's political capital rises among disaffected elements throughout the Islamic world and its power to intimidate fence-sitters grows.

What, then, is the way forward? Unfortunately, the chaos in Iraq has moved one front of the struggle against Al Qaeda into an arena in which the US and its allies has no control over outcomes. The Coalition can only stand by and safeguard the political rebuilding process in Iraq and hope that, over years, it will choke off Al Qaeda's strategic resources in that country. If and when this happens, if all else remains equal, the situation would return to the status quo just after 9/11.

This is obviously unsatistfactory, however. Fighting back to square one over the next few years would be tantamount to defeat, especially as Al Qaeda can be counted on to present a "moving target" during that time and be working on building its political and material assets outside of Iraq. Genuine, proactive progress can not be made against Al Qaeda in Iraq, but it can be made in South, Central, and Southeast Asia where Al Qaeda's political appeal remains broadest. More military and economic assets must be devoted to the struggle against Al Qaeda's allies, the Taliban, in Afghanistan. The "soft support" of the Pakistani political and military establishment for Al Qaeda must be openly confronted. The Pakistani government obviously lacks the political cohesion and will to root out the Al Qaeda forces that refuge along the Afghan/Pakistani frontier.

The US must exert all of its political, diplomatic, economic, and military influence to gain direct access to Pakistani frontier territory for the US military. This can almost certainly not be done without setting off a radically disruptive international confrontation, but this is a hard medicine that will have to be taken eventually. The Bush administation's decision to focus on Iraq rather than force a confrontation in Pakistan has already had disastrous consequences. The longer US leadership remains blinkered toward the situation in South and Central Asia, the more dangerous Al Qaeda will become, and the more insuperable the task of defeating them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

London Calling

I was shocked and dismayed to read today's news that the perpetrators of the most recent London bombings were Britons of Pakistani descent. That young people born and raised in Britain could give their lives in the murder of their neighbors and compatriots must be deemed a major defeat for the forces of moderation, tolerance, and reason in what Gilles Kepel has labeled the "war for Muslims minds." That living all one's life in an open and democratic society is not sufficient to preclude one's being seduced by Al Qaeda's perverted ideology is profoundly troubling.

London's events underscore the vital importance of the cultural-political dimension of the struggle against militant Islamic extremism. Al Qaeda promotes a grand ecumenical vision the appeal of which is not limited to the Middle East. Outsiders might find its tenets and ambitions so grandiose as to be maniacal or absurd, but its sheer brash extravagance is among Al Qaeda's great strengths. For anyone feeling ultimately alienated, frustrated, disaffected, marginalized, or disappointed, Al Qaeda offers a sweeping vision- the prospect that life does not have to be petty, limited or insignificant. Conversion to Al Qaeda's ideology affords one a part in a cosmic drama of Manichean dimensions.

This might seem like a flimsy asset on which to build a global terror network, but Al Qaeda does not need many warm bodies to wreak a great deal of havoc. In the final analysis London's tragedy may prove to be as much a product of the kind of social and psychological forces that caused the Columbine high school shootings or the '92 LA riots as of an international terror conspiracy. Every community contains young people that are adrift, angry, and vulnerable- they swell the ranks of religious cults and fringe political groups throughout the world and occasionally act out in destructive ways that have nothing to do with militant Islam. Al Qaeda stands apart, however, in having the means and the ruthless will to take those young people it can gather, however few, and channel their energies in ways that will be maximally destructive of global order and prosperity.

It may never be possible to totally eradicate the appeal of Al Qaeda's message- there will always be people deluded or vulnerable enough to be drawn in. But defeating Al Qaeda depends on depleting the suasive power of its ideology. Those who stand for reason and tolerance must make it as difficult as possible for Al Qaeda to convince Muslims that its vision can or should give meaning to their lives and actions.

The first essential step in that process is to avoid playing any part scripted by Al Qaeda itself. Al Qaeda's great cosmic drama is predicated on a world divided between Islam and the forces that oppose it. Any move to bring all Muslims under suspicion or blame the Islamic religion itself for current difficulties will play directly into Al Qaeda's hands. This is not just a cautionary principle for governments- all people of conscience must work to demonstrate that participation in liberal democracy, open civil society, and seperation of church and state are wholly compatible with a life suffused by Muslim faith and practice.

Beyond this, anything and everything that can practically discredit Al Qaeda will deplete its fund of ideological capital. At present the greatest opportunity for this lies in Afghanistan. During the years of the Taliban's reign Al Qaeda had free rein to institute its "utopian" vision among Afghanistan's people, producing nothing but tragedy and resentment. If the forces of extremism can be finally defeated and Afghanistan reconstructed as a society founded on openness and tolerance in which Islam nonetheless thrives Al Qaeda will be shown false by the hard test of experience. If Osama bin Laden can be captured and forced to stand accused of his crimes Al Qaeda will be doubly humbled.

What role does Iraq play in this struggle? It is difficult to see how the invasion of Iraq decreased the appeal of Al Qaeda's ideology, as Saddam and his ilk occupied the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, thus their defeat does little to discredit Islamic extremism. Now that Al Qaeda's agents are operating actively in Iraq the situation is of course of crucial importance to the larger cultural struggle. If Al Qaeda were to succeed in creating another Islamist state in Iraq its mystique would increase exponentially, thus that outcome must of course be forestalled. But the prospects of the Coalition to win cultural ground from Al Qaeda in Iraq are much lower than in Afghanistan. Whatever transformation the Coalition is able to facilitate, Al Qaeda will be able to claim that had they been given a free hand they could have produced a more ideal and puritanically Islamic society. Moreover the majority of Iraqis are Shi'ites while Al Qaeda claims to represent the world's Sunnis, thus however Islam may thrive in the future Iraq Al Qaeda will be free to brand it a haven of heresy.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Predictions in Iraq

Telling the future is always a dicey business, but I have a strong sense of what lies ahead for the US media and its relationship to Iraq, so I will brave slings and arrows and go on the record. Right now we are in a very "down" news cycle regarding Iraq, with a new surge of violence and some very lurid incidents in the headlines (compounded by the shock of the terror attacks in London). This trend should taper off in the late fall, as the new Iraqi constitution is ratified and elections are held under its auspices. By December an "up" news cycle should be in full swing, followed by a honeymoon period in which news from or about Iraq is sparse and relatively upbeat. By this time next year, however, the insurgency will remain unchecked and the honeymoon will end, precipitating a new "down" news cycle on the run-up to midterm elections.

This may seem cynical or callous, especially as these predictions portend the deaths of more Coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians. My point, however, is that many of us who opposed the war did so because the trajectory of this policy was all too predictable from the outset and remains predictable today. Any attempt by the US to lead an effort at nation-building in Iraq was fated to be tragically costly in both blood and treasure.

A long-term positive outcome now hinges on the Iraqis summoning the political will to develop a new stable state-structure, a process that can not be induced or even much guided by the US. If and when the day comes when Iraq is wholly autonomous and at peace (a day which, I fear, will not come for many years) the debate will no doubt continue as to whether the US invasion was a wise or necessary policy. No outcome so positive or negative as to "close the case" will emerge, partisans on both sides of the issue will be able to draw upon facts and counterfactuals 'til kingdom come. In my mind (though I know this represents a "partisan" view) this fact alone engenders one conclusion- seen in the very best light the Bush administration's Iraq policy has been an ill-conceived gamble with human lives.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Victory in Iraq

Kenneth Pollack had a thought-provoking piece in the New York Times on Friday ("Five Ways to Win Back Iraq" Op Ed p. A17 7/1/05) in which he proposed five strategic policy shifts to the Bush administration in Iraq. While I don't agree that all of his suggestions are feasible, his first principle, "Think Safety First" seems the wisest advice anyone has offered since the conflict began. According to Pollack, the entire mission should be shifted from an offensive to a security posture, rather than sending the Marines on "search and destroy" missions Coalition forces should be reassigned solely to protect the lives and property of the Iraqi people from insurgent mayhem. This would have the dual effect of increasing the prestige of the interim government and draining political capital from the insurgents, who would lose any pretensions of being Davids fighting the American Goliath and be forced into the role mere thugs working harder and harder to injure ordinary Iraqis. The urgency of this policy shift is underscored by yesterday's kidnapping of Egypt's ambassador to Iraq- the interim government can have no international legitimacy if it can not guarantee the safety of foreign delegates.

The Bush administration seems to be under the delusion that aggressive tactics will retard the operational strength of the insurgents. This notion is based on a wild overemphasis of the military aspect of the counterinsurgency and a serious underestimation of its political dimension. The number of insurgents is not fixed, it will vary depending upon the political appeal of their "cause." The technological and material threshold of insurgent needs is so low that Coalition offensives can do little to destroy assets that may not be easily replaced. Offensives do more harm than good, as however many insurgents may be captured or killed the drama of their defying US power increases the appeal of the insurgency while any neutral bystanders that are killed in the fighting do further damage to the image of the Coalition and the interim government.