Thursday, July 10, 2008

Al Qaeda in Yenemsvelt

The NYT continues its drumbeat for action against Pakistan: With a smidgen of breaking news (the latest word from the DOD) they published this today.

American military and intelligence officials say there has been an increase in recent months in the number of foreign fighters who have traveled to Pakistan’s tribal areas to join with militants there.

The flow may reflect a change that is making Pakistan, not Iraq, the preferred destination for some Sunni extremists from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are seeking to take up arms against the West, these officials say.

The American officials say the influx, which could be in the dozens but could also be higher, shows a further strengthening of the position of the forces of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, increasingly seen as an important base of support for the Taliban, whose forces in Afghanistan have become more aggressive in their campaign against American-led troops.

I understand that the idea of an Al Qaeda haven is startling and conjures up images of Afghanistan circa 2000, AKA: A launching pad for another September 11. But this fear mongering is stirring up calls for an irrational, expensive, useless, and self-defeating mission: Bashing Qaeda in Western Pakistan.

Containment is the smarter policy.

Here's why: Before September 11 we were not on the alert domestically. And so, Bin Laden got lucky. Qaeda may be operating in Western Pakistan right now, but—given our stepped up surveillance and Homeland security measures—I'm not convinced a base in the mountains of Pakistan translates into another 9/11 (or even any sort of Qaeda victory. It's certainly not comparable to the Viet Cong taking Saigon.)

Our policy should be a stalwart defense: 1) Hold the line in Afghanistan (forcing Qaeda and the Taliban to launch attacks into Afghanistan, which pisses off the Afghanis) while strengthening the Karzai government in Kabul, and 2) Keep the radicals isolated in Western Pakistan while strengthening the Democratic government in Islamabad—the coalition between the recently elected Pakistan People's Party and Pakistan Muslim League-N.

The radicals in Western Pakistan want to draw the U.S. in to a full-fledged war there. It will give them a cause. And the fight will be on their terms. The U.S. should not take the bait. The U.S. should focus on what's important: Building up democratic governments and real economies in Pakistan and Afghanistan that engage the public. This strategy will have the added bonus of delegitimizing the radicals who will up their (counterproductive) campaigns of violence.

The radicals in Pakistan also have a major problem: Their game plan relies on recruits from the Saudi Peninsula. This is not a coherent nationalist movement for Pakistan. This is a "movement" with a weird worldwide agenda. The only thing that would help legitimize their fantasy would be if their ranks were seen as rushing in to defend the Islamic world against the U.S. But if the U.S. is helping bring stability to Pakistan and Afghanistan—countries where the public is already intimidated by and weary from the radicals violent operations—the Qaeda troops will remain isolated in the mountains.

There's a metaphor in the fact that Qaeda operates in the hinterlands of Western Pakistan rather than out of Islamabad. The U.S. should concentrate on turning this metaphor into a fact.

Footnote. And apparently the bogeyman in today's NYT article, Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, isn't as popular among the radicals as the NYT spins it. Check out this recent post, "Pakistan's tribal militants turn against each other," from Foreign Policy magazine's blog.

Update: This Newsweek article—which argues the Al Qaeda is not the great Existential threat the GOP wants it to be (to justify Bush's aggression) and the Left wants it to be (to prove Bush has failed)—seconds what I just wrote about going for a more comprehensive strategy of supporting democracy than itching for combat.

It's worth quoting at length:

It is by now overwhelmingly clear that Al Qaeda and its philosophy are not the worldwide leviathan that they were once portrayed to be. Both have been losing support over the last seven years. The terrorist organization's ability to plan large-scale operations has crumbled, their funding streams are smaller and more closely tracked. Of course, small groups of people can still cause great havoc, but is this movement an "existential threat" to the United States or the Western world? No, because it is fundamentally weak. Al Qaeda and its ilk comprise a few thousand jihadists, with no country as a base, almost no territory and limited funds. Most crucially, they lack an ideology that has mass appeal. They are fighting not just America but the vast majority of the Muslim world. In fact, they are fighting modernity itself.

The evidence supporting this view of the threat was already growing by 2003. Scholars like Benjamin Friedman, Marc Sageman and John Mueller collected much of it. I've been making a similar case in columns and a book since 2004. James Fallows wrote a fine cover essay in The Atlantic in September 2006 arguing that if there was ever a war against militant Islam, it was now over and the latter had lost.

These writings never really changed the debate because they fell into a political vacuum. The right wanted to argue that we lived in scary times and that this justified the aggressive unilateralism of George W. Bush. And the left was wedded to the idea that Bush had screwed everything up and created a frighteningly dangerous world in which the ranks of jihadists had grown. But these days, the director of the CIA himself has testified that Al Qaeda is on the ropes. The journalist Peter Bergen, who in 2007 wrote a cover essay in The New Republic titled "The Return of Al Qaeda," recently wrote another cover essay, "The Unraveling," about the group's decline. The neoconservative Weekly Standard finally recognizes that "the enemy," as it likes to say ominously, is much weaker now, but quickly notes that Bush deserves all the credit. Terrorism is down in virtually every country, including ones that took a much less militaristic approach to the struggle. (Ironically, the two countries where terrorism persists and in some cases has grown as a threat are Iraq and Afghanistan.)

The administration does deserve some credit for its counterterrorism activities. The combined efforts of most governments since 9/11—busting cells in Europe and Asia, tracking money, hunting down jihadist groups—have been extremely effective. But how you see the world determines how you will respond, and the administration has greatly inflated the threat, casting it as an existential and imminent danger. As a result, we've massively overreacted. Bush and his circle have conceived of the problem as military and urgent when it's more of a long-term political and cultural problem. The massive expansion of the military budget, the unilateral rush to war in Iraq, the creation of the cumbersome Department of Homeland Security, the new restrictions on visas and travel can all be chalked up to this sense that we are at war. No cost-benefit analysis has been done. John Mueller points out that in response to a total of five deaths from anthrax, the U.S. government has spent $5 billion on new security procedures.

Of course, this is actually what Osama bin Laden hoped for. Despite his current weakness, he has always been an extremely shrewd strategist. In explaining the goal of the 9/11 attacks, he pointed out that they inflicted about $500 billion worth of damage to the American economy and yet cost only $500,000. He was describing an LTA, a leveraged terrorist attack. But by the same token, the 9/11 attacks caused an economic swoon because of their scope, and because they were the first of their kind. Since then, each successive terrorist attack—in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Britain—has had a much smaller effect on the world economy.

We are in a struggle against Islamic extremism, but it is more like the cold war than a hot war—a long, mostly peacetime challenge in which a leader must be willing to use military power but also know when not to do so. Perhaps the wisest American president during the cold war was Dwight Eisenhower, and his greatest virtues were those of balance, judgment and restraint. He knew we were in a contest with the Soviet Union, but—at a time when the rest of the country was vastly inflating the threat—he put it in considerable perspective. Eisenhower refused to follow the French into Vietnam or support the British at Suez.

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