Experts and policymakers watching the situation in Syria are conflicted about what should be done to stop the bloody actions of the Assad government. Those who support a "responsibility to protect" argue that the international community -- including the U.S. -- should be doing more to stop Assad's slaughter of innocents; realists claim that there is not enough at stake for the U.S. to become involved in yet another Middle East conflict; and al Qaida experts are concerned that aid sent to the rebels could end up helping the extremists rather than ordinary Syrians.
If either the U.S. or international community had intervened before the fall of 2012, there would have been fewer disputes about Syria policy. Both al Qaida experts and those who support "responsibility to protect" were generally on the same page: Stopping the brutal actions of the regime and preventing the extremists from gaining a foothold required involvement, and there was a clear non-extremist resistance group to support.
Since then, however, part of the resistance -- embittered by our lack of assistance and desperate to survive -- has been enticed into the embrace of extremists and especially into that of an al Qaida affiliated group called Jabhat al-Nusra. If the international community or the U.S. decides to arm the resistance now, there is a fair chance that the weapons and other support material could fall into the hands of al Qaida and be used against us after the conflict in Syria ends.
While the experts have debated policy, the bloodshed has continued. Assad's decision to once again bomb civilians has, however, returned to the fore another possibility for U.S. policy in Syria: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from targeting and killing civilians with his air force. This strategy has been proposed by many others over the past two years and was recently raised once more by Carl Levin. I would suggest that now, more than ever, it needs to be seriously considered by both the Obama administration and by realists, since the risks of inaction are now far greater than the risks of action. If the U.S. chooses to continue to do nothing, there are five very bad things that are likely to happen, while if the U.S. chooses to put in place a no-fly zone there is a low probability of bad outcomes and a greater chance for a whole series of good results.
The Risks and Benefits of Inaction
There are only two benefits associated with inaction: We will save a little money and pilots will not be put in jeopardy. The risks of inaction are, in contrast, overwhelming. First, thousands more Syrians will die and Syrians will blame the U.S. and international community for these deaths. After all, the U.S. showed in Libya that it could intervene to overthrow a tyrant whenever it chose, but for reasons that do not make sense to Syrians has determined not to help them. Second, the conflict will continue to spread beyond Syria. Over the past few months, violence has erupted in northern Lebanon, where Jabhat al-Nusra has spread its influence, and the war has spilled across the borders into Iraq and Jordan. Third, at this point, the war in Syria may be radicalizing as many Sunnis throughout the Muslim-majority world as the war in Iraq. Not only that, but this radicalization is being pointed by the extremists at the U.S. and other Western powers. The extremists have been quick to use our non-intervention to argue that the U.S. is allowing the slaughter of Syrians and in fact actually supports Assad's bloody reign. Finally, there is a possibility that the current resistance might overthrow Assad without our help and create a new Syria that is open to domination by the extremists. What chance would the U.S. and the international community have to influence the direction that this new Syria might take if we did not intervene when we could to save lives?
The Risks and Benefits of Action
In direct contrast, the risks of action are minimal: Although highly unlikely, it is possible that Assad might be able to shoot down an American plane. There is also the chance that the U.S. might, however indirectly, empower extremists within the resistance. But the benefits far outweigh these risks. A no-fly zone will save lives, show ordinary Syrians and Muslims around the world that the U.S. and the international community take the bloodshed seriously, help to mitigate the radicalization and influence exerted by the extremists, and grant us some say within any new Syria that is created. But time is running out. The longer the conflict continues without our involvement, the more Syrians and other Muslims will be tempted to listen to the arguments of the extremists about our supposed hatred for Muslims and the more they will be radicalized into action against us and others.
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We now have another opportunity to gain some insight into the inner workings of al Qaeda through captured documents. The French military intervention in Mali apparently forced the insurgents to flee without their most confidential papers. In the chaotic aftermath, journalists found a large number of documents produced by al Qaeda's shadow government in Timbuktu. The documents demonstrate the extent of the bureaucracy erected in just a few months, and show just how seriously al Qaeda takes the political objectives that they have set for themselves.
Although the majority of the material seems to be routine court documents, two deserve closer attention: a complex document that consists of a cover letter and a partial copy of minutes from a meeting of the Notables (A'yan), and a nearly complete document from the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): ‘Abd al-Malik Drukdal (also known as Abu Mus‘ab ‘Abd al-Wadud). The complex document has interesting things to tell us about the administrative and political organization of AQIM, and I will be discussing it in greater detail in another post next week.
It is the document from Drukdal that has the most significant implications, however. Of first importance is that it claims to be a set of Directives (Tawajihat) from a commander to his subordinates. Although his language is collegial, it is clear that Drukdal believes he has the authority to give orders to his "brother Emirs" and that they will obey. The entire document is, in fact, a case study of how much command and control al Qaeda has over its forces in the field, and specifically gives us new evidence about the relationship between AQIM and other jihadist groups in Mali (such as Ansar Dine). The evidence from this document suggests that Ansar Dine, and thus other groups, are in fact an integral part of AQIM and willing to obey orders from AQIM's emir. Thus Drukdal tells the other emirs to make a peace deal with the nationalist Tuareg movement (the MNLA), and Ansar Dine followed through, signing an accord with the MNLA in December 2012. He also instructs commanders to stop imposing al Qaeda's version of sharia in a harsh manner in order to win over more Malians to their cause. In November 2012, Ansar Dine again followed through, publicly announcing that it would no longer seek to impose sharia as aggressively throughout Mali.
Just as interesting is the fact that the emir of AQIM admits his group uses the pretense of a local focus as a cover for its real nature as a global jihadist, al Qaeda organization. He tells his commanders to "adopt mature and moderate rhetoric that reassures and calms. To do so, you must avoid any statements that are provocative to neighboring countries and avoid repeated threats. Better for you to be silent and pretend to be a ‘domestic' movement that has its own causes and concerns. There is no call for you to expose that we have an expansionist, jihadist, al Qaeda project or anything like that." In one short paragraph, in other words, Drukdal explains how to confuse current analysis not just of AQIM, but also of al-Qaeda's branches worldwide.
Finally, the pragmatic nature of al Qaeda's political strategy comes through in this document, providing a strong counterpoint to the group's commitment to ideological purity. This is evident in Drukdal's decision to back away from an immediate and rapid imposition of every sharia statute. His reasoning is entirely based on "interests": the new Islamic state is still in its infancy and therefore the group needs to be flexible and pragmatic in order to win over the people first. He even recommends that commanders on the ground begin with da'wa toward the people of Mali, a process of convincing people to join the movement through argumentation, which al Qaeda has traditionally avoided. In the end, however, he remains committed to imposing al Qaeda's extremist version of sharia, just waiting until the state passes through "infancy" and is an "adolescent" -- one strong enough to stand on its own.
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Late last week key officials within the Obama administration announced a potential new limit for troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 (when the vast majority of the current 40,000 will have been removed). That number-- 2,500-6,000 total -- is far less than the 30,000 that the administration stated just two years ago was the minimum necessary to carry out counter-terrorism tasks in the country.
What has happened to justify this radical shift in policy? I would argue that three key conclusions about Afghanistan have coalesced in the thinking of policy makers since 2010 and have pushed the administration to reconsider its vision for the war.
1. Afghanistan as Vietnam
Perhaps most importantly, administration officials have concluded that Afghanistan is Vietnam: an eternal, unwinnable war that will only drag them and the country down with it if they continue to invest in the conflict.
There are, however, significant differences between the two wars. First and foremost, unlike in Vietnam, there is a clear military and political way forward in Afghanistan. From its success in Iraq, the U.S. military learned how to fight and win these sorts of irregular conflicts. This comes as no surprise to historians, who know that the U.S. military has won every irregular war that it was fought except for Vietnam. This includes three guerrilla wars in the Philippines and a series of irregular fights in Latin America. Politically, the U.S. learned from President Kennedy's disastrous support for the overthrow of Diem and has supported (however reluctantly) a leader who is recognized as legitimate by most Afghans. And unlike Vietnam, Afghans generally do not want a strong, centralized government that will provide a multitude of services, but rather prefer one that provides general security and leaves local issues to local leaders. This makes a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan far more likely than it ever could be in Vietnam after 1963.
The second way that these wars differ radically is the stakes, which are far higher in Afghanistan than in Vietnam. Kennedy and Johnson, unlike Eisenhower, were convinced that Vietnam was an existential issue that had to be fought and won for the safety and security of the free world. Subsequent events would show that Vietnamese leaders were just as much nationalists as they were communists, and that they had no intention of working to undermine the free world. The war in Afghanistan, however, began with a devastating attack on the American homeland and the group that carried out this strike will return to their safe-haven to plot and plan further attacks as soon as we leave. Winning the war in Afghanistan is precisely about our own safety and preventing the death of Americans.
Two historians of Vietnam have aided and abetted in this dangerous analogy-building: Gordon Goldstein and Robert Caro. Goldstein's writing has pushed the President to conclude that LBJ's mistake in Vietnam was not withdrawing early -- regardless of the consequences in SE Asia and around the Cold War world -- and Robert Caro's work argues that LBJ's involvement in the war destroyed his domestic achievements. Both of these analogies have been accepted by at least some within this administration as object lessons for the current situation that can be, apparently, applied without critical thought about the dangers of analogies for decision making at the highest policy levels.
2. The Military Is Untrustworthy
Perhaps due to a seminal event in 2009 -- the leaking of McChrystal's strategy for fighting the war -- administration officials have concluded that, as with the army in Vietnam, today's military cannot be trusted. To save face in an unwinnable war, the military will always request more troops and more money. Beginning with the "surge" that year, every request for troops by the commanders who know the most about the situation in Afghanistan has been treated with skepticism and cut considerably by this administration. This was done without taking into consideration conditions on the ground, but perhaps it seemed necessary to demonstrate to the military that civilian control had to be respected.
The result, however, has been disastrous for Afghanistan, where the lack of sufficient troops prevented a full counter-insurgency from being implemented and the withdrawal of forces will allow the Taliban and al Qaeda to return unimpeded to the East and South of the country. Without more troops, the U.S. will not even be able to carry out the minimal strategy that this administration has itself argued is necessary to prevent another attack on the U.S.
3. A Shift in Objectives
Some part of this disregard for the advice of the military is due to vast changes in strategy. When President Obama was campaigning for office in 2008, he argued that the U.S. had to withdraw from Iraq and focus on winning the war in Afghanistan -- where the U.S. faced a real threat from al Qaeda. Once in office, he held two policy reviews to elaborate the right strategy for confronting al Qaeda and achieving success in Afghanistan. The path forward that he chose was a counterinsurgency that would defeat the Taliban and secure the population of the South and East of the country.
Not long afterward, a change in objectives for the war was announced: rather than defeating the Taliban, the administration supported a negotiated settlement with the group through a process called "reconciliation." In addition, the military objective later shifted from a full COIN to something called "CT Plus," which would focus solely on killing al Qaeda members and disrupting the ability of the group to plot and plan. CT Plus would require far fewer forces than a COIN (around 30,000 was seen as the minimum to stay after 2014).
What then has justified the proposed change from 30,000 to perhaps 2,500? Once again objectives have changed -- in this case from CT Plus to something even less: just holding one or two bases in the country. With so few troops, the U.S. will not be able to carry out CT missions, and if just two bases are held, much of the East and South will be out of reach for strikes on Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership. This change in objectives in fact guarantees that Afghanistan will once again become a safe-haven for AQ and a base for the group to plot and plan and carry out attacks on the U.S.
Perhaps there is a Vietnam analogy that suits this situation, but one provided by the French and not the U.S. experience: Dien Bien Phu. Trapped in a mindset that believed only attrition could defeat the Viet Minh guerrilla army, the French chose to move several thousand troops to an isolated garrison with poor lines of communications at a place called Dien Bien Phu. The troops could not be easily reinforced or resupplied, and came under heavy artillery fire from the Viet Minh forces. Eventually the entire garrison was forced to surrender under humiliating circumstances and France withdrew from all of SE Asia.
Any force less than 15,000 risks precisely this outcome in the isolated battlefield of Afghanistan, which might explain why the administration has been talking about withdrawing completely and ceding the entire country -- as it has Syria, Mali, and Libya -- to al Qaeda.
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The murder of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on September 11 has created a growing political backlash in the United States, but there are three other reasons that this attack is significant. First, an al Qaeda unit successfully assaulted American soil for the first time since 9/11. Second, we were -- once again -- caught by surprise, and third, the attacks show that al Qaeda is not just alive and kicking (as I mentioned in my previous post), but that our current strategy for dealing with the group is failing.
While various plots have been attempted by al Qaeda and individuals or cells associated with the group, the sacking of the Benghazi consulate was the first successful attack that can be definitively tied to the organization. Excellent work by Thomas Joscelyn suggests that the attack on the consulate was just one of four separate assaults on embassies carried out by al Qaeda that day. This simultaneity is, by the way, one reason that I immediately suspected -- and wrote about - al Qaeda involvement in the raids, since this is as much a hallmark of al Qaeda operations as, for instance, the use of suicide bombers in Muslim-majority countries and the targeting of international organizations.
Just as worrisome for future events is the fact that the United States was caught off-guard, yet again, by this massive and sophisticated operation. I would argue that there are four reasons for this failure: a widely accepted narrative, a false view, the successes of the targeted attrition program, and assumptions about the war in Libya. For the past 18 months there has been a building narrative among both the expert community and this administration that, with the death of Bin Ladin, al Qaeda is nearly finished and that there is nothing left but a small group of "dead-enders," known as the "core," that need to be dealt with. Al Qaeda, in the narrative, is so weakened that it can barely stay alive, let alone carry out successful and complex attacks like that in Benghazi.
This narrative is based on a false view of al Qaeda: that the "core" is a small terrorist group whose main objective is attacking the United States, that the affiliates have primarily local concerns, that there is little command and control between the "core" and the affiliates, and that, therefore, the United States must only kill off the central leadership to be safe. I responded to this view of al Qaeda in several earlier posts, arguing that the core and affiliates are intimately connected, that the main objective of al Qaeda is taking over the Muslim-majority world, and that the organization is, in fact, attempting to create and lead a global insurgency. If this is all true, then al Qaeda is nowhere near defeat, and is, in fact, doing far better today than at any time in its existence.
The successes of counterterrorism czar John Brennan's targeting program played into both the narrative and the current accepted view of al Qaeda by giving the impression of progress in the war with al Qaeda. As each member of the leadership was killed -- most especially Bin Laden, but many others as well -- experts and administration officials proclaimed that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The belief that the United States was making progress against al Qaeda (along with the notion that the affiliates have mainly local concerns) created a false sense of security in many places, including Libya.
Finally, and most controversially, I believe that this administration's incorrect reading of the war in Libya worked with the narrative and analytical issues to create the preconditions for the United States to be caught by surprise in Benghazi. Unlike the war in Iraq, the United States managed to topple the Libyan dictator without putting American lives in danger and without exacerbating local tensions through the presence of our troops. The result should have been less violence, no insurgency, and no organized al Qaeda group in Libya. The continued, and even strengthening, violence in places like Benghazi -- along with a strong al Qaeda presence -- was unexpected and therefore unplanned for, again adding to the shock of September 11.
The third significance of Benghazi is that it underlines the failure of our current strategy to deal with al Qaeda. For several years, the main strategies for combating al Qaeda have been to take them on through our ground troops (in Iraq and Afghanistan), to empower partners to fight them (many places in the Middle East), or to use attrition to whittle down the group's leadership. With the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the slow shifting of some partners away from aiding us (see Egypt and Pakistan, for example), we are more and more dependent on attrition as the means for taking out the group. The spread of al Qaeda to many new places, including the Sinai, Mali, Syria, and of course Libya, points to the failure of this strategy to achieve our goals.
The murder of the ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens -- along with three other U.S. citizens -- has brought Libya back into the American media spotlight. It should never have left. While our media has studiously ignored "post-conflict" Libya, the situation on the ground has steadily deteriorated, with armed militias fighting each other and the nominal government of the country for control on the ground. "Phase IV" in Libya has involved combat with tanks and heavy weaponry, continuing clashes in Tripoli and Libya's other large cities, and even the seizure of the national airport at one point. Benghazi itself is one of the most dangerous places in Libya. Not only is the city home to a militia, Ansar al-Sharia, whose leaders have linkages to al Qaeda, but in April and June 2012 "militants" carried out a series of attacks in that city on the U.N., Red Cross, the U.S. consulate, and the British consulate, all international entities that al Qaeda has specifically targeted in other countries.
Now Ansar al-Sharia has been implicated responsibility for this latest attack on the U.S. consulate. If this is true, then Libya's security problems are no longer a matter solely of local concern, but have global implications. Even before this attack there was evidence to suggest that al Qaeda was involved in Libya. Although there is no proof of al Qaeda participation in the original uprising against Qaddafi, high-ranking al Qaeda leaders did make their way to Libya at the end of 2011. Not long afterward the al Qaeda flag -- a distinctive black banner adopted officially by al Qaeda in Iraq and other affiliates -- was openly flown over public buildings; al Qaeda's version of sharia was demanded and Sufi shrines attacked; and by the spring of 2012 an al Qaeda military unit was strong enough to hold a public parade in Sirte (Qaddafi's former stronghold) featuring heavy weaponry and dozens of technicals. The entire region was in fact affected by al Qaeda's presence in Libya: AQIM openly boasted of benefiting from Qaddafi's weapons cache and many of the members of a new al Qaeda-linked group, Ansar al-Din, came out of Libya to take over northern Mali and impose al Qaeda's version of sharia on a reluctant population.
It is worth emphasizing that we are facing far more than just further chaos in Libya and the possibility of an al Qaeda terrorism problem. The assault on the Benghazi consulate was a sophisticated and complex attack, involving automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), suggesting that Ansar al-Sharia is preparing for an insurgency and not just carrying out terrorist attacks. The group's imposition of sharia and attempts at shadow governance in Benghazi (see their Facebook page for details), support this interpretation of the group's longer-term objectives.
The death of Ambassador Stevens is a wake-up call to the U.S. The Arab Spring is in the process of being hijacked by al Qaeda and we ignore the spread of violence and of al Qaeda's pernicious vision in the Middle East at our own peril.
Peter Bergen has a new piece up on CNN's website that argues the United States can declare victory over al Qaeda and wind down the war against the group. Reading through his article, I found several places where I profoundly disagreed with his analysis and therefore with his overall conclusion that al Qaeda has been defeated.
First, Bergen begins with a false analogy by arguing that the current war is nothing like World War II, and that therefore there can be no culminating peace as was signed between the Allies and Nazi Germany. This argument implies that a definitive victory over al Qaeda, one on the model and scale of the victory over the Nazis, is impossible. The current war is indeed nothing like WWII -- it's an irregular conflict being fought against an insurgent group, while WWII (for the most part), was a regular conflict fought against recognizable nation-states. It might therefore be impossible to sign a peace treaty on the decks of a battleship when this war ends, but it is entirely possible to win irregular wars and to win them as definitively and recognizably as WWII was won, as the examples of multiple conflicts throughout the twentieth century show. For instance, from 1898-1954, the U.S. absolutely defeated three separate insurgencies in the Philippines, including a nationalist insurgency, an insurgency by local Muslims, and a communist insurgency. The British took on and repeatedly defeated insurgencies (the Boers, the Malay communists, and the Kenyan Mau-Mau, for instance), and it is actually difficult to find, beyond the Sandinistas and Castro's group, an insurgency that has succeeded in Latin America.
Second, Bergen argues that the war against al Qaeda is not an "essential challenge" to the U.S. and thus can be safely relegated to some level of effort short of war. It is true that the death of 3,000 Americans in the first attack on the U.S. homeland since WWII was not an existential threat to the U.S., nor have the pinpricks that al Qaeda has managed since 9-11 posed a serious challenge to the continued existence of the United States. On the other hand, this assessment fails to take into consideration the global growth of al Qaeda, its absorption of every other major jihadist group on the planet, and its ability to take and control territory throughout the Muslim-majority world. While I have heard some deride this spread as only threatening the 'garden-spots' of the world, we need to remind ourselves that it was from just this sort of uncontrolled territory that 9-11 was carried out, and once the 'garden-spots' are taken, our vital lines of communications and territories that we (apparently) care more about will be threatened. In addition, I would note that it has only been through our wartime footing that we have managed to keep al Qaeda in even this loose net. If we downgrade our effort, al Qaeda will be able to grow even faster and push its control even further.
Third and fourth, the article goes on to conclude that it is possible to "declare victory" and move on because 1) al Qaeda's offensive capabilities are "puny" and 2) U.S. defenses are strong. The first of these assessments is based on an assumption about al Qaeda that is unwarranted; that is, that al Qaeda's main objective and goal is to attack the United States. The recent release of documents from Abbottabad make it clear that attacking the United States was (and is) but the first step in a staged strategic plan, a plan that begins by attriting the United States, and weakening it so much that the United States will be forced out of all Muslim-majority countries. The next stage of al Qaeda's strategic plan is to take over and control territory, declaring "emirates" that will be able to spread safely because the United States will be too weak to intervene. This means that the affiliates are not just dangerous when they attack the United States (which Bergen implies in his article), but are a threat to our security when they overthrow local governments and set up local emirates that have greater, global ambitions. I would also note that while polling data is important for understanding how well we are doing in our fight against al Qaeda -- and here the indications are positive -- it is a fact that insurgencies need only a tiny percentage of active support in order to be self-sustaining (usually defined as 5 percent of the populace). Al Qaeda would like the consent of the governed, but they are perfectly happy to violently enforce obedience to their rule when necessary. And by the way: No al Qaeda affiliate or partner (including the Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, or the Shabaab) has been deposed from power by an uprising of the local population alone. They have needed outside intervention in order to expel the insurgents, even when the people have hated al Qaeda's often brutal rule.
On Bergen's second point, I agree that U.S. defenses are strong, but disagree profoundly with the current mission of Special Operation Forces as the right method to defeat al Qaeda. This counter-terrorism mission is based on killing al Qaeda members, i.e. attrition, a strategy that assumes that al Qaeda is still a terrorist group as it was in the 1990s. This is simply not true. Even then, the group's leadership aspired to bigger things, and al Qaeda has now succeeded in becoming an insurgent group, one that takes and holds territory, recruits far more soldiers than we can kill, sets up shadow governance and attempts to overthrow governments around the Muslim-majority world. While attrition can succeed as a strategy against terrorist groups (see i.e. the Spanish and French fight against ETA), it is absolutely counterproductive against an insurgency, which simply uses the killings to recruit more members and to fuel its propaganda.
Fifth, some part of Bergen's declaration of victory is based on wishful thinking. He argues, for instance, that killing or capturing AQAP's bomb-maker will 'likely' cause the threat from AQAP to recede. This assumes that 1) the bomb-maker never trained replacements and 2) that AQAP is incapable of thinking up other ways to attack us. It also ignores the real threat from AQAP if it manages to overthrow the government in Sana'a and push on into Saudi Arabia.
Finally, the last sentence of his article is a straw man. The objective of the Allied war on the Nazis was the same as every other regular war: To break the enemy's will to resist. It was simply not necessary to kill every Nazi in order to achieve this objective. The objective of irregular wars is rather different, however: to secure the population by clearing out the insurgents; then holding the territory through persistent presence; and finally creating the political conditions necessary to prevent any further appeal by the remaining insurgents. In this view, winning against al Qaeda does not depend on body counts, but rather would look very much like victories against other insurgents: the spreading of security for populations in Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel, and elsewhere; the prevention of a return of al-Qaeda to these cleared areas; and the empowerment of legitimate governments that can control and police their own territories. By these standards, we have not yet defeated al Qaeda; in fact, beyond Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, we have hardly engaged the enemy at all.
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The disruption of a new underwear bomber plot, once again attributable to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- one of the most active branches of al Qaeda -- is a welcome and yet worrisome development. On the one hand, kudos to our counter-terrorism establishment which, through good intelligence and police work, stopped the bomber before he could carry out his attack. On the other hand, AQAP has shown that it -- and al Qaeda in general -- are alive and well, despite our best efforts to disrupt and destroy them. After years of deadly strikes against the group (see Bill Roggio's excellent work on this here), AQAP has been able to regenerate and continue to plot and plan destructive terrorist attacks against the homeland.
Even more worrisome, however, is that AQAP managed to organize this attack while its fighting cadres are winning battle after battle against the Yemeni government, seizing territory and imposing al Qaeda's version of sharia on the populace. I'll have more to say on this issue soon, when the first part of my reaction to the recently released Osama bin Ladin documents will be posted. For this piece, I will just say that it is a false dichotomy to categorize al Qaeda's strategy as one that is meant solely to take territory OR solely to carry out attacks on the U.S. As the actions of AQAP make quite clear, the group desires both and, more importantly, has the capabilities to do both simultaneously.
The U.S. is on high alert to watch for any further bombs that might be on the loose; I wonder if we have a similarly well-thought out plan in place to deal with the deteriorating situation in the country that allowed these plots to be hatched.
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My last four posts, and particularly the concluding paragraph of the final post (here), have received some critical attention. The claim that al Qaeda is in far better condition now than on 9-11 seems especially egregious to some experts, so I'd like to take this post to state fairly the top five objections to my thesis. In follow-up posts, I'll answer each of these.
1) The al-Qaeda core does not command and control the affiliates, who are still primarily concerned with local matters.
Al Qaeda consists of the "core," a group of a few hundred men located somewhere in South Asia. Of course the core claims to control the affiliates -- groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- however, a close look at the development of the affiliates suggests that this is nothing but propaganda, used to make al Qaeda look bigger and more successful than it actual is. All the affiliates evolved out of local conditions, have overwhelmingly local memberships, and have local objectives. Many of them were failed terrorist groups, who seized on a relationship with al Qaeda to give them a new lease on life, and do not have any real commitment to al Qaeda's global objectives. The dispersion of al Qaeda core members out to these affiliates shows just how effective our war against them has been and demonstrates the fundamental weakness of the group.
Another line of argument judges that AQAP and others who have sworn fealty to the al Qaeda core are indeed part of al Qaeda, but argues that only in Somalia has al Qaeda -- through the section of the Shabaab that has sworn fealty -- been able to hold ground. In Yemen and other places they do not have any real base and even in Somalia, the Shabaab are now on the defensive from the regional forces that have boots on the ground. This line of argument would also agree with the other described above about command and control: It is impossible for the "core" to effectively control the actions of these distant affiliates.
2) The main objective of the al Qaeda core is to attack the U.S. All the other expressed objectives are mere propaganda by al Qaeda, used to radicalize Muslims and to inspire attacks on the U.S. and its allies.
The argument here is that no one should take seriously the outrageous propaganda spouted by al Qaeda's spokesmen. They naturally want to make themselves out to be more than they are, and claim all sorts of "achievements" and capabilities that they do not in fact possess. In addition, the larger objectives that they say they are aiming for are clearly fantasies (world domination -- really?) and unachievable. The actions of the affiliates, meanwhile, are judged to be either really aimed at local issues, or to be so ineffective that they can be safely left to capable partners.
3) The means that al Qaeda core has used to carry out its main objective are either cells trained in South Asia or adherents ("lone wolves"), who are radicalized through the internet or extremist preachers.
The U.S. has successfully prevented al Qaeda from operationalizing any large cells designed to attack U.S. persons since 2001. Because of these successes, al Qaeda was forced to rely on the far less effective "lone wolves," showing just how weak the group has become.
4) Based on these three points, the correct strategy for dealing with al Qaeda is counter-terrorism plus countering violent extremism.
Al Qaeda is little more than a small group of frightened men in Afghanistan-Pakistan, and thus to use the military against them is to over-react to a limited problem. It is also extremely expensive to involve the military and leads to the unnecessary loss of American lives. Instead, the U.S. should depend on a counter-terrorism strategy to defeat the group. This would entail law enforcement means and methods to take out the criminals, with the main aim of attrition (i.e. killing or capturing al Qaeda members), until the group is so weak that local law enforcement can handle them on their own (as they are doing in places like Indonesia and Turkey). We also need to stop the radicalization of individual Muslims (like Major Hasan) by countering the propaganda of al Qaeda and killing off its most charismatic leaders (see the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaqi and Bin Ladin himself).
For the affiliates, it is enough to involve regional and capable partners, who can be our surrogate "boots on the ground" in places like Somalia.
5) Without its charismatic founder, chief propagandist, main radicalizer and inspiration -- Osama Bin Ladin -- al Qaeda is doomed. In addition, the Arab Spring shows just how irrelevant al Qaeda has become for the life of the Muslim community.
The death of Bin Ladin and the Arab Spring were game-changers. Without its chief radicalizer, al Qaeda core will not be able to replace losses and will not be able to inspire young Muslims to carry out attacks against the U.S. This shows that the U.S. has nearly won the war on al Qaeda. The revolutionary events that we call the Arab Spring also demonstrate that al Qaeda -- once seen as so influential in the Muslim community -- has become largely irrelevant. Al Qaeda neither began nor influenced the course of the uprisings, and was ignored by those who participated in them. We can also see that (in general) the outcomes of the Spring have not favored al Qaeda's resurgence in these areas, and have in fact opened the path for a far more optimistic future for the Muslim world.
Now that I've convinced you that my last four posts are completely and egregiously wrong, you will need to come back over the next few days to see how I'll answer each of these objections.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.