Shadow Government

Evaluating the war with al Qaeda

My last post argued that determining al Qaeda's objectives is vital for any evaluation of the group's progress. I suggested that the U.S. government believes that the main goal of al Qaeda is attacking the United States and its allies, but that this is to confuse means with ends. The stated objectives of the group are to liberate all Muslim-majority countries of non-Muslim occupiers and their apostate rulers, impose their version of sharia in these places, create an Islamic state then that they call the "caliphate," and eventually force all human beings to follow their version of Islamic law. By carrying out attacks on the U.S. -- and other means -- al Qaeda believes that it can achieve these greater ends.

The confusion of means with ends has many consequences, but one of the most vital is that it makes it extremely difficult to understand where we are at in the war with al Qaeda.

If the main objective for al Qaeda were to attack the U.S., then it is obvious that the group has been an abject failure:  It has not carried out a successful homeland attack since 9-11 and has been incapable of a mass attack on our allies since the London bombings of 2005.  The group must be far weaker than anyone thought in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, less capable of projecting power, and therefore less of a threat to the United States than once feared. The death of Osama bin Laden might even mean that the group is finished -- a spent force that can be safely relegated to some second-tier category while the U.S. concentrates on more dangerous enemies (like China).

But if its main objectives are those outlined above, then measuring the successes and failures of al Qaeda is more complex than the number of attacks on the U.S. it has carried out and the casualties of Americans and our friends it has caused. To assess al Qaeda's strengths, we would need to look at where the group claims that it is active worldwide and see how much progress it has made in achieving its goals. Since they will only begin to force all other people to follow their version of shari'a after achieving the first three goals, I won't attempt to assess their progress on this front.

Instead, let's begin by examining al-Qaeda's objective of expelling non-Muslim occupiers and apostate rulers from Muslim lands. Since 9-11, American military forces have withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and soon will leave Afghanistan. Multiple NATO forces have also decided to leave Afghanistan and many countries left Iraq before the defeat of the insurgency. We would say -- and rightly so -- that the reasons for pulling out of these areas have little to do with al Qaeda's actions. The U.S. in fact left Iraq and is leaving Afghanistan because it believes that al Qaeda has been defeated in both countries, and was able to move forces out of Saudi Arabia because Saddam was no longer around to threaten U.S. interests. With our allies the situation is rather different: It was the stubborn refusal of the insurgents (whether members of al-Qaeda or not) to quit fighting that caused many of them to decide to leave first Iraq (see Spain) and then Afghanistan. But, despite the real reasons for the withdrawal of American and allied forces from Muslim lands, Zawahiri and other leaders of al Qaeda have been able to claim credit for pushing them out of these countries, and for achieving one of their most important objectives.

The same holds true for the ouster of "apostate" rulers like Saddam, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi, and Ali Saleh (see Abdullah, "Disobeying Ali Abdullah Saleh Is the Most Important Duty That Was Called For by the Good Predecessors," Sada al-Malahim, Issue 3, May 2008) -- all named by the group as deserving to be pushed from power and/or executed.  The Arab Spring in particular was a force completely outside al-Qaeda's power to begin or control, but this has not stopped its leaders from pointing out that the downfall of these "tyrants" fulfills one of their objectives. From the start of the spring, then, the group could position itself as supporting the uprisings and has sympathizers in Libya and Egypt, and outright members in Yemen, that are in position to take advantage of the social and political foment that has naturally occurred in these countries.

The bottom line is this: regardless of the agency of al Qaeda in these events, the actions by the U.S., its allies, and the people of these Muslim-majority countries have fulfilled two major objectives that al Qaeda has consistently claimed that they are pursuing. And, because of its consistency in calling for the ouster of these rulers, the group is now in an excellent position to build support in all the countries touched by the uprisings.

Al Qaeda has had more direct involvement in achieving its third objective-creating the "caliphate" -- although apparently with less success. The graphic below shows the governance areas for the caliphate that al Qaeda has claimed it is in the process of creating through the jihads of its branches. The exact boundaries of these areas are open to discussion, but the names and general territories are as described by al Qaeda.

In at least five of these areas -- the Sahara, Horn of Africa, Yemen, Iraq, and Pakistan, al Qaeda has claimed to have established amirates, their name for the shadow governments that are supposed to expand their authority until it encompasses the entire governance area. I believe that, eventually, al Qaeda wants to make these areas into wilayat or provinces within the larger caliphate.

All these attempts to set up governance have had some success: al Qaeda's branches did not just announce the establishment of a state in each place, but have also been imposing their version of Islamic law by setting up a court system to establish legal penalties and settle cases, along with an institution traditionally called the "hisba" to enforce the law. They have also created a regular army, charged taxes, collected Islamic charity (traditionally the provenance of the state), and much else.  Al Qaeda 's attempts at shadow governance have not been uncontested, however. In almost all these cases, the new amirates are under pressure from central governments and external forces (like the Kenyans in Somalia), and in one case, Iraq, lost nearly everything when the U.S. carried out a successful counter-insurgency in 2007-2008. Yet the new governance structures have proven to be resilient, and even in Iraq are making a comeback that show the depth of their influence. In Yemen, where the central government is weak and there are no strong neighbors to intervene, the situation is particularly dire, and al Qaeda has been able to take advantage of the chaos from the Arab Spring to spread its control across large portions of the country.

Any evaluation of al Qaeda's progress in achieving this objective would have to admit that the group has done far better here than expected, is a real threat in many of these countries, and will require far more effort than the U.S. or its allies is currently willing to exert if the extremists are to be stopped.

In my next post I'll look at how well the U.S. (and other countries) have done in countering al Qaeda, and give my net assessment of where we are at in our war with the group.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

If the Afghanistan mission were at a fateful turning point, how would we know?

It sure feels like we are on a knife's edge in Afghanistan, but I also know how hard it is to assess such things. And I know what it is like to be wrong. Those were my thoughts as I read the various accounts of the day's developments in Afghanistan, and especially after reading this quote from an unidentified "Western official":

A Western official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer his assessment, said he was hopeful that the anger over the shooting rampage could be overcome. The burning of Korans by U.S. troops on Feb. 20 -- which American officials said was accidental -- unleashed a wave of violent protests and prompted Afghan security forces to open fire on U.S. military trainers, but the fury subsided after a few days.

"Everyone said the burning of the Korans was a turning point," he said. "It came and it went. My best analysis is that everyone saw the abyss, and no one wanted to jump in."

That was eerily reminiscent of what Bush policymakers believed after the Golden Mosque bombing in February 2006. There was an immediate sectarian furor and then, as my former boss put it  in an interview with Bob Schieffer, the Iraqis appeared to step back:

Mr. Hadley: ...So this is a society that has been tested for a while. The interesting point here is what conclusions the communities draw from this difficult week. They've stared into the abyss a bit. And I think they've all concluded that further violence, further tension between the communities is not in their interest. And our hope and our ambassador spoke about this this week that in this tragedy there actually is an opportunity where all the communities will decide that really it is in their mutual interest to avoid the violence, pull together and construct the kind of unity government that can move this country forward.

SCHIEFFER: So you're saying they stared into the abyss. Are you saying this may be in some way bring them together?

Mr. HADLEY: That is the hope. Having seen -- having been tested in this way, having seen what the terrorists are doing and trying to provoke the communities. What was interesting is all the statements from all the leaders was that this tactic would not succeed, that the communities were going to stay together and work together and to try and avoid violence and build a unity government.

As we now know, after abating briefly, the sectarian strife intensified throughout 2006 and within months Iraq was trapped in a vicious, self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence.  It took the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker surge to break that and put Iraq on a more positive trajectory.

Viewed through the lens of U.S. policy options, Afghanistan may be in a more perilous situation. Obama has already tried a surge; I doubt he could go to that option again even if he wanted to, which he shows no interest in doing.

The alternative that appears to be gaining momentum inside the Administration involves speeding the transition to Afghan control (ironically, precisely what the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommended as the alternative to the Iraq surge back in 2006), and relying on  counter-terrorism operations by U.S. forces to protect core U.S. interests. However, as Steve Biddle points out, that option is based on "unrealistic assumptions."   

Specifically, advocates of this accelerated transition option have somehow convinced themselves that once we hand over the mission to Afghan leaders, we can step back from expensive nation-building while maintaining precision-strike counter-terrorism operations.  But the Afghan leaders hate most those counter-terrorism operations and like most our expensive commitment to nation-building. Why would they be more inclined to allow us to do what they hate when we have curtailed what they most want?

Of course, our national interest in continuing counter-terrorism strike missions will not wane, so the more realistic choice after transition will be this unpalatable set of options: (1) defer to Afghan concerns, at the cost of an ever-enlarging sanctuary for the terrorist network; (2) shift to longer-range counter-terrorism strikes, ones that do not rely on host-nation support. The problems with #1 are obvious. The problems with #2 are that longer-range strikes are also less precise, so they will involve more civilian casualties, thus inflaming Afghan concerns still further. They are also likely to inflame our NATO allies, who are already queasy about the more precise drone-strikes.

We may be at the worst kind of turning point: One where every turn leads to a worse situation.

AFP/Getty Images