Sunday, September 03, 2006

# Posted 5:56 AM by Patrick Porter  

ENDGAMES: James Fallows writes a fascinating article in the Atlantic Monthly about where we are in the struggle against Al Qaeda.

He interviewed a number of experts on national security, terrorism, and the complexities of asymmetric warfare.

First, the good news: Al Qaeda has been damaged and weakened since 9/11. Its operational security has been compromised, it has been denied safe sanctuary in Afganistan, many of its seasoned top leaders have been killed or captured (including just now, the BBC reports, one of its top commanders in Iraq).

Fallows doesn't claim that Islamist extremism has been curtailed. It has been forced to change, however. Now it has new more polymorphous nature, with lots of different jihadist groups operating independently and loosely without much central direction or command structure, is itself symptomatic of the success with which Al Qaeda has been disrupted.

Moreover, in a debate which focuses overwhelmingly on the impact of American policies on public opinion, Fallows points out that jihadists and their brutal tactics can alienate people too, a view that enjoys support in many opinion polls throughout the world.

In other words, terrorism can be effectively combated. And though the threat of severe attacks remains real, as the aborted attack on British aircraft recently reminded us, it was aborted, after British police had monitored the group. This then makes it harder for other groups to trust and organise their own recruits, and they can't roam through the open societies they want to attack as easily as they roamed before 9/11.

On one point I'm a little agnostic: Fallows argues that part of Bin Laden's grand strategy was to bait the superpower (USA) into over-reacting and into self-damaging wars. I'm not sure: Bin Laden's rhetoric before 9/11, and the broader occidentalist stereotype of the west held by Islamists and others, is that the west was so casualty averse and materialist and corrupt that it would retreat whenever it was injured. As Christopher Hitchens argued:

In a sermon to his troops before Sept. 11, and on many other occasions that we have on tape, Bin Laden told them that beating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan had been the hard part. The destruction of the other superpower, he asserted, would be easy. America was soft and corrupt and sunk in luxury, controlled by venal Jews. It was so weak and decadent that it had run away from Somalia. It would not risk its own forces and could not face the idea of taking casualties. If you care for the evidence then, you might note that Bin Laden recruits on the basis that the United States will not fight.

Of course, both themes - America as a cowboy aggressor, or America as a decadent post-heroic retreater, can be exploited by his recruiters even though they are contradictory. If America does react violently, it gives his forces the chance to attrite the USA in a quagmire, if not, then it supports his portrayal of US cowardice.

Anyway, here's where Fallows' argument gets really interesting: he argues that because of these successes, now its time to declare victory in the 'war' part of the project, and redefine the project as one of policing, detection, intelligence and public relations:

War implies emergency, and the upshot of most of what I heard was that the United States needs to shift its operations to a long-term, nonemergency basis. “De-escalation of the rhetoric is the first step,” John Robb told me. “It is hard for insurgents to handle de-escalation.” War encourages a simple classification of the world into ally or enemy. This polarization gives dispersed terrorist groups a unity they might not have on their own.

Last year, in a widely circulated paper for the Journal of Strategic Studies, David Kilcullen argued that Islamic extremists from around the world yearn to constitute themselves as a global jihad. Therefore, he said, Western countries should do everything possible to treat terrorist groups individually, rather than “lumping together all terrorism, all rogue or failed states, and all strategic competitors who might potentially oppose U.S. objectives.” The friend-or-foe categorization of war makes lumping together more likely.

Fallows adds other problems that come with continually defining the project as a war: a war mentality makes us do unwise things that hurt us, things we otherwise would not countenance (eg. Guatanamo); war rhetoric fuels a sense of anxiety and fear, which is precisely the kind of demoralising psychological state that terrorist groups wish to instill in our societies; war rhetoric lowers the priority and energy given to the vital diplomatic dimension of the project (the US military's image should be diversified far beyond combat operations - humanitarian aid, etc); if the enemy successfully strikes you with terrorist attacks while you are calling it a war, it magnifies the meaning of the act - it makes it look even more like a victory and a greater failure of your own government.

In sum, there is a symbiotic nature in the relationship between us and the terrorists: if we de-escalate the rhetoric, it will help to lower the value and power of their attacks, whereas if we give them war rhetoric, it will feed their own representation of themselves as jihadists.

But the difficulty here is that, whatever our rhetoric, the USA and Britain and other countries objectively are at war. In Afghanistan, Britain is fighting some of its most intense battles since World War Two. Iraq may not be hosting formal, classic, set-piece confrontations between large-scale and opposing uniformed armies, and the violence there is tribal and criminal as much as it is anti-American and Islamist, but to describe it only as a 'police action' is to trivialise the intensity of the fighting, even if most of the fighting is being done in small pockets and small groups.

So what to do? We are at war, and declaring it over flies in the face of the intense combat that is still happening in Afghanistan.

Maybe instead of changing the rhetoric, its a case of reducing the amount of rhetoric. The Bush administration has suffered with its inattention to logistics, detail and execution of policy, and has been preoccupied with narrating the war and indeed life in general purely as a matter of faith and principle.

Maybe its time to assume that the general public is actually capable of participating in a debate not just about the moral case for war, but a debate about the general strategic approach. The jihadist rhetoric itself is preoccupied with absolutist, apocalyptic claims and calls to arms: maybe ours should be about remaining calm, solving problems and engaging the public.

In other words, less preaching, more policy. How should resources be allocated? How can we help to promote the distinction between radical and moderate Islam? What should we be teaching at schools - are there ways in primary education not only of raising awareness not only about extremism, but about the many conflicts and layers within the Islamic world?

This is something that opposition groups also need to contribute to - a constructive debate about policy substance, not just recriminations about who is more patriotic than who. I'm not optimistic.

A thought-provoking article, but I'm not convinced we can declare victory yet.
(6) opinions -- Add your opinion

The opposition will claim victory whatever is done. If their antics were to lead to a mass expulsion of muslims from Western Europe, say, they'd still claim that as a victory. I'd ignore such chat: study what they do.
From the Hitchens article:

It shows Osama Bin Laden in the Uncle Sam finger-pointing pose, proclaiming that he wants us to invade Iraq and thus generate massive infusions of young and eager talent to his ranks. ... the same people who scoff at any connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, ... they take as a given what they otherwise doubt.

This is confusing cause and effect, a common fallacy. There is a linkage, but al-Qaida is in Iraq as an effect of our invasion. Even Bush has said that there was no link between Saddam and 9-11. If al-Qaida had been in Iraq before in the way they were in Afghanistan, that would have been the causal link.

Next from the Hitchens article:

In their propaganda, they speak absurdly of an intervention against Saddam as "an attack on a Muslim country," as if regime change could alter the confessional makeup of the country (which incidentally has many non-Muslims and Christians and used to have an immense Jewish population).

Hitchens is factually wrong. From the 2006 CIA Fact Book, Iraq is Muslim 97% (Shi'a 60%-65%, Sunni 32%-37%), Christian or other 3% Also, Islamic Sharia is the basis of their legal code, much as Common Law is the basis of ours. That's pretty darned Muslim.

Hitchens article isn't real analysis. It's just red meat.
Anon's bean counting isn't analysis. The number of Muslims in Iraq is completely beside the point that we didn't attack the nation of Iraq, but the regime of Saddam.

We are also fighting al Qaeda, who are in Iraq for the same reason they came to Afghanistan: not because of US presence, but because they saw an opportunity to establish themselves in an Islamic country.

I suppose anon's writing is tofu: fake analysis for the sort of people who are opposed to red meat.
Actually, Gates, you're right; it wasn't analysis. Analysis is 'detailed examination of the elements or structure of something.'

I was 'impeaching the witness,' in this case Hitchens, by using transparent logic and readily accessible facts.

You said, The number of Muslims in Iraq is completely beside the point that we didn't attack the nation of Iraq, but the regime of Saddam. Actually, H. J. RES. 114, the use of force resolution, is titled Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq. It doesn't even mention Saddam Hussein.

So now I've impeached you as a witness. This is fun.
So long as these people are putting bombs on our airliners and murdering innocent "infidels," I don't think we should go all soft and fuzzy. We cannot cease the war backdrop, either, without losing exemption from civil rights laws with respect to electronic listening, money freezing, and summary prosecutions. Furthermore, it has long been said people of the M.E. respect only power, so let's show them plenty more of it. We are winning in Iraq, the new government is getting stronger, the President will stand firm until Jan. 20, 2009, and no changes in policy make sense.
The article sounds as if Kerry wrote it. In fact Kerry said the same thing during the 2004 election.

Why does the left urgently wish to reclassify terroism as a police matter?

I may understand this drive better IF nation states where not actively backing all these seperate terrorist groups to further their own aims. Iran, Syria, Pakistain, The Gulf states all use terrorists as their proxies.

We should be doing the exact opposite and expanding the war. It was during the first 3 years that most of al-Qaida was destroyed.

In the last 2 years groups like al-Qaida, the taliban, Hizzballah, etc have reconsituted.

Look at the Afgan theater seeing it's worse fighting since 2001. Look at Iraq and India. The failed terror plot in the UK. All of these show that far from being over the terroist and his nation states are on the offensive.

At this critical time the Left and others want us to declare victory and go home? If you are not sure if we have won they we have not. Anyone question if the USA won in Germany in 1945? or Japan or Panama? We have not won in Iraq nor have we won in Afganistain and the war is far from over.
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