Shadow Government

Answering objections: Is al Qaeda really dead, part one?

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.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Remembering why we are fighting in Afghanistan

BRUSSELS – For supporters of the war in Afghanistan, recent news has been depressing. Here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, where I've been observing the so-called "jumbo" ministerial of NATO defense and foreign ministers, officials were forced to address the Haqqani network's brazen attacks in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, over the weekend, as well as photographs published by the Los Angeles Times of U.S. Army soldiers posing with the body parts of suicide bombers in 2010. 

With Australian Prime Minister Gillard's announcement on Tuesday that Australia would end its combat role in Afghanistan earlier than previously anticipated, NATO officials were at pains to show that the planned 2014 transition to Afghan forces was not in flux. "There is no change whatsoever to the timeline," insisted NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a press conference.

At NATO, which oversees the International Security Assistance Force commanded by U.S. general John Allen, the talk is primarily of transition timelines and funding and force levels for Afghan security forces post-2014. Beyond some warnings about the security impact if we draw down too quickly before the Afghans are ready to step up, there is little talk of what we're actually fighting for in Afghanistan.

That's why incidents like the photographs published by the LA Times are so disconcerting. Our leaders are quick to (rightly) condemn the acts. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told the press that these acts violated America's "core values," but they have failed to use this or other recent incidents as an opportunity to remind the American people and the international community why we are in Afghanistan. As I discuss in a piece in the current issue of Commentary, our leaders have, with a few notable exceptions, stopped making the moral case for the war. Instead, we're left with negative story after negative story being rebutted by an insistence that we are still on track for a tidy handover. We've become all about process and have lost sight of our fundamental goals.

When we entered Afghanistan in October 2001, we knew what we were fighting for and understood that improving the moral and strategic cases for the war were intertwined. As I recount in the article, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair said at the time, speaking of the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "I believe their memorial can and should be greater than simply the punishment of the guilty.... To the Afghan people we make this commitment. The conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away, as the outside world has done so many times before." As then-Senator Hillary Clinton wrote in November 2001, "We cannot simply drop our bombs and depart with our best wishes, lest we find ourselves returning some years down the road to root out another terrorist.... It is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do."

But that is what many now advocate doing. Upon entering office, the Obama administration narrowed American goals in Afghanistan to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan." The administration has since entered into talks with the Taliban and even groups such as the Haqqani network who continue to mete out violence on a regular basis against Afghans and coalition forces. Afghan women and minorities have begun to express concern about these attempts to rehabilitate what remains a murderous backwards movement straight out of the Middle Ages.

Making the situation even worse, President Obama has largely abandoned the presidential bully pulpit on Afghanistan, by some accounts, giving as few as four major speeches on the war even as he surged tens of thousands of troops into theater in 2009. The public has responded accordingly. Recent polls have indicated that as few as 25 to 30 percent of Americans support the war. With this lack of moral leadership, it's no wonder most Americans don't know why we are there or what our strategy is and want to speed up the withdrawal.

The roles of explainer-in-chief have been relegated to people like Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen, putting these non-politicians in an awkward position. Allen ended his recent prepared testimony to the relevant House and Senate committees by quoting from a moving letter written by Marine Sgt William Stacey, who recently was killed in action in Afghanistan. Left for his family in the event of his death, Stacey wrote in the letter that "....there will be a child who will live because men left the security they enjoyed in their home country to come to his. And this child will learn in the new schools that have been built. He will walk his streets not worried about whether or not his leader's henchmen are going to come and kidnap him. He will grow into a fine man who will pursue every opportunity his heart could desire. He will have the gift of freedom, which I have enjoyed for so long. If my life buys the safety of a child who will one day change this world, then I know that it was all worth it...."

Sgt Stacey clearly understood why we are in Afghanistan and what we are achieving, but making the moral case for the war should not solely be the domain of the uniformed military. For the majority of our troops in Afghanistan, many of whom have endured two, three, or even four tours, they wouldn't be going back if it wasn't worth it. They are there to serve a cause greater than themselves. As I witnessed in places like Kandahar and Helmand provinces on a trip to Afghanistan in October of last year, we have been successful where we've properly resourced the effort and our men and women in uniform have achieved amazing things not just on the battlefield, but also for the Afghan people. As my fellow Shadow Government contributor Paul Miller has noted, the lives of ordinary Afghans, especially women and children, have improved remarkably over the last decade.

Recent events notwithstanding, we are winning, but as long as we continue to narrow our goals and talk only of metrics, timelines, and the latest scandal, we're setting ourselves up for literal failure and perhaps even worse, a compromising of what we stand for as a country and an alliance.

Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images