Shadow Government

Can we declare the war on al Qaeda over?

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.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Paraguay's constitutional crisis

A constitutional crisis in Paraguay is developing rapidly. Last Friday, yet another struggling Latin American democracy experienced a traumatic change of government. The prospects are better than you might guess, but the fate of the country might lie in the hands of people like Chavez and Ortega, who excel at throwing stones from their glass houses.

Ex-priest-turned-president Fernando Lugo was one year away from completing his term, having been elected in 2008 as a Chavez-lite leftist in a historic democratic election. He was elected because he inspired the voting poor who outnumbered both the traditional ruling party, the Colorados, and the perennial opposition, the Liberals. His base got him elected and kept him relatively safe for a while. But eventually Lugo proved weak and ineffective in the eyes of that base, and he gave his political enemies what they needed to move against him constitutionally. It didn't help that he had four paternity suits filed against him (he's acknowledged two of the children), including one related to his time as bishop that involved a 16-year-old girl. Weak, bumbling, and lecherous is apparently enough to remove one from power.

Marking the beginning of his tenure with a lot of verbal and symbolic support for Chavez's socialist remake of Latin America, Lugo embarked on a project of agrarian reform to right the wrongs of the last 60 years. He planned to take land from large landowners, most of it tied to the ruling party he ousted. For generations, the long dominant Colorado Party had appropriated the vast majority of the arable land for its cronies.

But the land seizures did not go fast enough or smoothly enough for the poor, who found that sometimes Lugo's government was evicting them for squatting if their demand for land reform got in the way of Paraguay's soybean-based growth trajectory. (Lugo knew how to capitalize on a global boom by getting in bed with the corporate "enemies of the poor.") The most recent case that helped bring him down involved his eviction of squatters from the land of a powerful Colorado politician that left six police officers and 11 farmers dead. Lugo has been blamed by the peasants for turning against them and by the elites for bumbling.

Other charges include allowing leftist parties to hold political meetings in an army base; allowing thousands of squatters to invade a large Brazilian-owned soybean farm; his inability or refusal to capture members of a guerrilla group; and subverting Congress by not submitting an international agreement to them for approval.

Lugo's ouster was effected by the legislature, not the military, and that is at least one bright spot in this situation. A combination of his erstwhile allies and the Colorado Party removed the president in a five-hour trial in the Senate in which he had little time to mount a defense. It is important to note that he used to have a lot of allies in the legislature, but all but a few had turned against him of their own volition. The removal appears to have been technically legal in that the constitution affords an impeachment and removal process, but is light on the details. Since impeachment is really a political action, the reason for it can be, well, pure politics. And it teaches the lesson that political movements built around a personality are inherently unstable.

Depending on your political point of view, there is perhaps another bright spot: The public doesn't seem to believe they have been robbed of their vote. Protests have been rather small and no violence has occurred. It reminds one of when Fujimori did his auto-golpe and the public just went to work and about their daily business the next day.

Regional reaction has been more intense, with many Latin American leaders recalling their ambassadors, denouncing the act as a coup, and Chavez announcing that he will cut off oil supplies. Some governments in the region have had a more muted response, and some Western countries have accepted the new government of Lugo's vice president Frederico Franco. A showdown of sorts was to occur this week with the meeting of the Union of South American nations, where Lugo intended to be present and the new Paraguayan government has been told to stay away. However, Lugo has again changed his mind and says he will not attend. The regional leaders nevertheless intend to discuss a general response to the crisis.

It is worth noting that many of the region's governments who are criticizing the legislature's actions are the first to tell the United States to stay out of the internal affairs of other countries. Apparently sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander, but most observers knew that already. When dealing with leftist governments, criticism of Sandinista-run Nicaragua is bad, criticism of and perhaps even intervention against the new Paraguayan government is good. This might explain why the U.S. response has been rather muted. The best approach of U.S. foreign policy in this case is probably to be as sure as we can about the legality of the legislature's move, even if we don't like it, and wait to see what the people of Paraguay want rather than what Ortega, Chavez, and Fernandez want. Let's not repeat the Honduran situation.

Returning to the Paraguayan public's reaction so far, it bears repeating that their reaction has been quite pacific. One explanation is simply that they, especially the poor, voted Lugo in expecting him to solve problems, yet he didn't. He not only failed to solve those problems, he appears to be of questionable character and competence. They heard these very criticisms for much of the Lugo presidency from his running mate, a surgeon whom Lugo agreed to run with. The public observed Lugo fail, then watched a formal if speedy impeachment, trial and removal of the president, and his replacement by his vice president. They are remaining calm. Maybe they are satisfied with this outcome, hoping the next leader can solve the problems. It might not be as orderly a democracy as many of us would like, including Paraguayans (who knows?), it might be unstable and fraught with future problems, but it does appear at this point that it satisfies the public. And this is a far better state of affairs than the way governments in the region used to change hands, when we saw nothing but uniforms and bullets flying instead of votes in the legislature cast by men and women in business suits. Let's hope the region's leaders as well as the U.S. government does not punish them for this.