Permissible Arms

“They Must Fear Us More Than They Hate Us”: Becoming the Enemy in a Counter-Insurgency World

Posted in counterinsurgency, terrorism by ericdcummings on 5 July 2010

by Eric C of On Violence

To defeat your enemy, you have to become him. It’s one of the oldest artistic cliches. Take Aldo Raine, in that trailer-famous, terribly-accented monologue from Inglorious Basterds, he explains the philosophy:

“Members of the National Socialist party conquered Europe through murder, torture, intimidation and terror. And that’s exactly what we will do to them.

We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won’t not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us.”

In the fantastic graphic novel series Fables, the Big Bad Wolf (just go with it) explains his strategy to his arch-enemy, the hegemonic Adversary:

“Every time you hurt us we’re going to damage you much worse in return. It will always happen. Always… And keep this in mind. You have a huge Empire to protect. Guard the ten million most likely targets and there will still be a hundred million ripe, unprotected targets we can hit.”

Yet even today, in the era of religious fanaticism, some people want us to inspire the same fear. A Colonel in Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away tells his men, “Go after them gentleman…until they fear us more than they hate us.”

Fear. Make the enemy fear you. Surprisingly, Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor understands exactly what this turns you into: a terrorist. “There is no other way to beat a terrorist. You must fight like him, or he will surely kill you…Because, in the end, your enemy must fear you, understand your supremacy.”

The point of terrorism is very simple: inspire fear. Make the population afraid. Each of the above speakers is advocating some form of terrorism. Commit terrible acts, and the population will submit.

Of course, we’re not really willing to do this. I’m sure we could carpet bomb villages, rape women and kill children, and I’m sure we would scare the bejeezus out of Afghans and Iraqis. I went to a forum where someone mentioned that Hitler was great at quashing insurgencies. But is that really how we want to win these wars? The obvious answer is no.

Inspiring fear is a pre-counter-insurgency philosophy, the notion that you can bomb your way to victory. But on the modern battlefield, it doesn’t really apply. First, you can’t cleanly kill your enemies–no matter how smart your bombs are–without affecting the population. Second, as McChrystal said in the Rolling Stone article from last week, the Russians tried a scorched earth policy in Afghanistan and it failed miserably.

That doesn’t really matter though. Morality trumps practicality. Fear based warfare is immoral. As Professor Nagl argues, the first pillar of counter-insurgency is “protect the population” for a reason, “The doctrine is doctrinaire about the first pillar for a reason; a representative democracy cannot adopt the Roman method of destroying the province to save it.”

Agreed.

Eric Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs, art, and violence, written by two brothers–one a soldier and the other a pacifist.

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The World, Viewed from a Hotel Basement

I’m hoping to write more on CNAS’s fourth annual conference tomorrow, when my entire day doesn’t get devoted to live-tweeting the event! To read through the day, check out the #CNAS2010 tag on Twitter. But here’s a couple of my particular notes from the day.

Karaka Pend karakapend

Tellis: Mutual suspicions between Pak & Ind over Afgh continue unabated. #CNAS2010 The existential battleground is emplaced in Afgh today.

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Okay, Richard Fontaine wins points for addressing Madam President. #CNAS2010

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Fontaine “…Accepting that a US presence in South Asia has become the new normal.” #CNAS2010

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India is unwilling to push Iran to the point where they might lose a potential ally; but India doesn’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons. #CNAS2010

Karaka Pendkarakapend

Flournoy: We are still trying to face 21st century challenges with Cold War systems and projects. #CNAS2010

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Flournoy: “We cannot keep spending more and more to get less and less.” #CNAS2010 as with everything, money talks.

Karaka Pend karakapend

Fick: Rule #4 for future questions: No quoting TS Eliot! #CNAS2010

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Flournoy: “We have never resourced State to build an expeditionary civilian capacity.” #CNAS2010 There is not enough “word” in the world.

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Sanger: You tend to view the engagement strategy through the most challenging country…it’s only interesting if it’s difficult. #CNAS2010

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Cronin: We have a growing mismatch between our means and needs. #CNAS2010

There’s more at the hashtag, but that gives you a good idea of how the day went. I think overall it was a very strong series of panels, asking difficult questions and providing something of a roadmap towards answering them. We’re still left with a lot of uncertainty in a many different directions–how do we build up a civilian reconstruction program that we’ve never funded or incentivized, how do you balance talking to repressive regimes with the less accessible citizens of repressive nations, what will our conflict environment look like in the next several decades and how should we incorporate lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan–but I think it lived up to its playbill slogan of “Shaping the Agenda.”

More tomorrow.

Slingshot politics

A lot to cover today.

I got oversaturated pretty quickly with information and speculation about the Times Square bombing, but I recommend Kings of War, All Things Counterterrorism, and obviously LWJ for the story. And Steve Coll has some perspective:

Anyone who tries to set a vehicle on fire in Times Square on a warm Saturday night is going to make news in a big way. Presumably that was the primary goal of the perpetrators—to attract attention, to spawn fear. The very amateurishness of the attack—unlike the Christmas Day attack, for example, it does not immediately call into question the competence of the government’s defenses—offers President Obama the opportunity to start talking back to terrorists everywhere in a more resilient, sustainable language than he has yet discovered. By which I mean: They intend to frighten us; we are not frightened. They intend to kill and maim; we will bring them to justice. They intend to attract attention for their extremist views; the indiscriminate nature of their violence only discredits and isolates them.

Secdef Gates delivered some mixed news to the Navy this morning (full remarks h/t DoDBuzz):

“Do we really need 11 carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?” Gates asked. “Any future plans must address these realities.”

In a pointed speech about the future of the naval arsenal, the secretary told a gathering of naval officers and contractors that no U.S. adversaries are attempting to out-build the U.S. fleet. Rather, he said, they are developing other ways to neutralize U.S. power. He cited Hezbollah’s anti-ship missiles and Iran’s use of everything from cruise missiles to “swarming speedboats.”

In response, he called for more shallow-water capabilities, long-range drones and sea-based missile defenses.

What’s the saying, fighting the next war while you’re still building for the last one? That seems to be the idea Gates is battling.

Two bits on Kyrgyzstan, which has kind of dropped off the face of news coverage in the last several days. First, the interim government has turned the state-run KTR television channel into a public broadcasting station, which is effectively a show of faith from the interim government to show Kyrgyzs that it’s going to keep the promises it made. Which is great, but more than anything I really love the picture that accompanied the article, reposted here.

The interim government has also authorized cash rewards in exchange for information that helps capture the former government’s leadership, presumably to answer for crimes committed.

Of interest, AFRICOM is undergoing a three-week Operation Flintlock as part of its The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. It’s effectively a military exercise designed to train partner African nations in counterterrorism programs as a deterrent method. At least twelve nations and 1200 people are involved. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

From Diplopundit, it’s been a tough time for mandarins as of late.

And finally, I’m reading Paul Scharre’s article in the AFJ about meeting needs for irregular and conventional warfare in the Army. More thoughts when I’m finished reading, but figured the COINers and anti-COINers would be interested.

I bet the award is already collecting dust.

Posted in terrorism, united states by Karaka on 14 April 2010

So I guess this is why Obama was pre-emptively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? I’ll admit, it reads as a fairly impressive accomplishment for a second year in office. I mean, if the “house gifts” the Obama administration went after can actually be held accountable. And that’s the question, innit?

Still, experts questioned whether it would ever be possible to “lock down” nuclear material completely, noting that there is no uniform standard and no international authority to check on compliance.

Among other challenges, there are still hundreds of civilian research reactors around the world that use highly enriched uranium. Converting them to use low-enriched uranium is expensive.

And some experts raised doubts about whether the IAEA is up to the task of helping ensure nuclear security. The agency’s main job is making sure that countries aren’t building atomic bombs, and it has a budget of less than $10 million for the safeguarding of nuclear material worldwide, Luongo said.

The summit avoided the divisive issue of whether countries should extract plutonium from spent fuel from nuclear energy plants. The material can be reused in other reactors but could also be used in bombs.

I know, I know, the nuclear issue will never truly die (at least not in my lifetime). But I think there’s a point to be taken that, even if it’s thirty years after the Cold War, forty-seven people got around a table and agreed on something positive relating to nuclear weaponry.

Lots of goldfish, one tiny fishbowl.

Posted in iraq, terrorism, united states, us military by Karaka on 9 November 2009

I admit, I find it surprising how much Iraq recedes in our view as 2010’s drawdown grows nearer; I suppose there’s only so much ink for a (electronic) page, and Afghanistan is in everyone’s minds. But Iraq remains a fragile state, and the US presence there is significant still. So, a few pieces from here and there that I thought I’d bring to your attention.

First, it did not go unnoticed that the Iraq parliament succeeded in passing election reform [WSJ]:

Lawmakers agreed Sunday on the key sticking point — how the vote will be held in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, which is claimed by Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but at least it’s done now,” said Fryad Rawandoozi, spokesman for the Kurdish bloc.

Despite the eleventh-hour agreement, Iraq’s election commission said Sunday that it still didn’t have enough time to prepare for the January 2010 vote. The commission can’t delay the poll unilaterally, however, and Parliament’s agreement appears to have put the election back on track.

In the agreement hammered out over Kirkuk, eligible voters will be determined by 2009 voter-registration records, a condition supported by the Kurds. But a technical committee will be set up to review the votes. If there are a certain number of irregularities, the elections will be repeated in a year, a condition pushed by the Arabs and Turkmen.

I think the key word in the phrase “appears to have put the election back on track” is “appears,” though wrestling with the Kurd bloc is certainly a step in the right direction. Kurdistan has always fascinated me, an island unto itself, almost. However, if things truly proceed only a fortnight or so behind schedule, it shouldn’t compromise the US military withdrawal; though I still remain concerned that security in Iraq is of the smokescreen variety.

From Army News we learn of a key-giving ceremony, granting more MNF-controlled land back to, well, the Iraqis:

The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, part of Joint Area Support Group-Central, helped contribute to that progress, Oct. 25, when they handed the keys to two large properties inside Baghdad’s International Zone back over to the Iraqi government — a symbolic gesture that transferred the property to the Iraqis.

“In terms of square footage of habitable structures, Essayons and Freedom Compound are the largest we’ve turned over so far,” said the 32nd Brigade’s Maj. Gregory Schlub, who is the officer in charge of real properties for Joint Area Support Group-Central, in Baghdad.

The two properties, formerly used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, include about 25 acres of land and buildings with about 380,000 square feet of floor space.

I really hope I’m not the only person rather uncomfortable granting a “key to the city” to the people who in fact possess it; methinks a press pool officer might’ve thought a bit harder about that one.

Stratfor, sharing my wariness about January 2010, writes of Iraq: A Rebounding Jihad:

The Sunni sheikhs are using the [Islamic State of Iraq] to send a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the Sunnis must be accommodated if there is to be real peace and stability in Iraq. One sticking point for the Sunni elders is that a large percentage of the Awakening Council members have not been integrated into the security forces as promised. Of course, the Shia and Kurds then use these attacks as an excuse for why the Sunnis cannot be trusted — and it all becomes a vicious circle.

The political situation that is driving the security problems in Iraq is complex and cannot be easily resolved. There are many internal and external players who are all trying to influence the final outcome in Iraq for their own benefit. In addition to the internal squabbles over power and oil wealth, Iraq is also a proxy battleground where the United States and Iran are attempting to maintain and assert influence. Regional players like the Saudis, Syrians and Turks also will take a keen interest in the elections and will certainly attempt to influence them to whatever degree they can. The end result of all this meddling is that peace and stability will be hard to obtain.

This means that terrorist attacks likely will continue for the foreseeable future, including attacks by the ISI. If the attacks in August and October are any indication, the remainder of the run-up to the January elections could prove quite bloody.

Granted, had IED defenses not been put into place, the attack on Oct. 25 in Baghdad could have done significantly more damage, but in a sense this is the crucible in which ISF will indeed prove itself. Can ISF keep its citizens secure as the Americans leave? Can it prevent politically motivated terrorist conflict? Can it do so and remain a strong independent force not subject to corruption?

I hope so. But the first quarter of ’10 will be an important time to watch Iraq, I think.

Finally, Alissa Rubin’s column in the New York Times, From Iraq, Lessons for the Next War:

And victory in Iraq almost always begets revenge.

In my five years in Iraq, all that I wanted to believe in was gunned down. Sunnis and Shiites each committed horrific crimes, and the Kurds, whose modern-looking cities and Western ways seemed at first so familiar, turned out to be capable of their own brutality. The Americans, too, did their share of violence, and among the worst they did was wishful thinking, the misreading of the winds and allowing what Yeats called “the blood-dimmed tide” to swell. Could they have stopped it? Probably not. Could it have been stemmed so that it did less damage, saved some ofthe fathers and brothers, mothers and sons? Yes, almost certainly, yes.

Ricks tipped me off to this article, and while I find it to be one of the least compelling styles of journalism–personal experience masked as opinion masked as news–I do find it interesting to read in the context of the leavetaking that is being prepared. Lessons learned, people? Bring ’em here.

“Global Jihadist Movement”

Posted in afghanistan, terrorism by Karaka on 20 October 2009

The third installment of David Rohde’s account of his capture and imprisonment by the Afghan Taliban is out today, and it is worth the read. Reader questions are being answered in the NYT At War blog, and this stood out to be as being of particular relevance:

Many readers criticized my statement that I was surprised by how extreme many Taliban had become since 2001 and called me naïve.

The Taliban wanting to brutally impose hard-line Islamic law in Afghanistan was not new to me. What surprised me was that they wished to join Al Qaeda in imposing it across the Islamic world.

This is one of the central questions White House officials face as they try to decide whether to increase American troops levels in Afghanistan. Some experts on the region have argued that the Taliban have not grown close to Al Qaeda and the conflict with them can be settled through negotiations. Those Taliban may exist, but the faction that held me showed little interest in compromising. Given the current debate in the United States on Afghanistan, I felt it was important to publicly describe what I found.

Emphasis mine. Rohde was captured in November of last year and released this summer; Peter Bergen’s Senate testimony from 9 October is consonant with this view:

This influence has been particularly marked on the Taliban on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border. The Taliban were a quite provincial group when they ran Afghanistan before 9/11 and many of their leaders opposed bin Laden‟s presence in their country on the grounds that he was interfering with their quest for recognition by the international community. But since the 9/11 attacks the leadership of the Taliban has adopted al Qaeda’s worldview and see themselves as part of a supposedly global jihadist movement. They have also imported wholesale al Qaeda‟s tactics of planting roadside bombs and ordering suicide attacks and beheadings of hostages, which until recently were largely unknown in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These tactics are a key reason why the Taliban insurgencies have become far more effective on both sides of the Durand line in the past three years.

One of the key leaders of the Afghan Taliban as it surged in strength in 2006 was Mullah Dadullah, a thuggish but effective commander who like his counterpart in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, thrived on killing Shia, beheading his hostages, and media celebrity. In interviews with al Jazeera and CBS Dadullah conceded what was obvious as the violence dramatically expanded in Afghanistan: that the Taliban had increasingly morphed together tactically and ideologically with al Qaeda. He said, “Osama bin Laden, thank God, is alive and in good health. We are in contact with his top aides and sharing plans and operations with each other.”

I think it would be easy to dismiss Rohde’s account as being inaccurate or hyperbolic due to his imprisonment, but I believe that would be a mistake. He, not unlike Bergen, has a very accurate window through which to view the Afghan Taliban. Rohde’s view is from as recent as this summer, and Bergen’s from this month. If we take them seriously, it seems to answer (in the public forum) how al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban are connected today.

Tuesday Errata

Relevant interesting links:

Judah Grunstein over at the WPR blog tackles the lack of response from NATO in regard to the tactical review going on in the White House. Michael Cohen also takes an angle on the McChrystal drama, and Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post does an op-ed comparing McChrystal to Petraeus.

These similarities were a big selling point for the Obama administration, which this summer decided it wanted its own Petraeus — a creative wartime commander and gifted manager who could push the military in Afghanistan into unfamiliar realms, such as economic development and tribal politics…These days, the last thing that the White House and the Pentagon brass want is a general who can bypass the chain of command; a general who speaks directly to the president; a general who emerges as the dominant American voice on the war. The last thing they want, in other words, is another Petraeus.

You know, I always find the USNI blog very interesting and educational, and today it and I wish the US Navy a happy birthday!

H/t Diplopundit for this article on the State Department’s conflict over aid to Pakistan, which continues my media watch on USAID.

Also regarding Pakistan, the Pakistani army launched its offensive today, in response to the significant array of attacks last week.

George Packer has a really interesting post about Rufus Phillps, Vietnam, and the Obama administration:

About to turn eighty, Phillips was contemplating a trip halfway around the world to Kabul. He was worried about the war in Afghanistan and thought that the presidential election, set for August 20th, would be a critical event. An independent Afghan group, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, had invited him to come over as an unpaid adviser. Having seen America try and fail to win a war without a political strategy once before, he thought he had something to contribute in Afghanistan. He asked me for advice on what to wear, what kind of cell phone to bring, how to get into the city from the airport. I asked him why he was going to put himself through it, and he replied that he believed in putting your money where your mouth is. “I’ve still got the fire,” he said as he walked me to the elevator.

Well worth your time, that.

Via S&S, AP covers the continuing conflict over the Afghan election, including the resignation of Afghan election commissioner Maulavi Mustafa Barakzai and the acknowledgment–finally–by the UN of the problems with the election process.

U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique called the resignation “regrettable” but said the U.N. continues to trust that the group will produce a fair outcome. “We have full confidence in the ECC as the important work continues,” Siddique said, adding that the U.N. “stands by the work that they are doing on behalf of the Afghan people.”

Barakzai’s resignation was the latest in a series of problems that have confounded the electoral process since the election, the first run by the Afghans since the war began in 2001.

The NYT reports that Secstate Clinton and Secdef Gates are working on the same side of the tactical review, which seems to have surprised everyone but me. I guess I was the only one who listened to that panel from GWU last week; they seemed pretty similar-spirited then.

Khaleej Times printed an op-ed by Ehsan Ahrari today (h/t SWJ) which doesn’t necessarily offer anything new to the debate, but does summarize a couple things nicely:

What most Western observers are missing when they offer their expert advice regarding Afghanistan is an absence of a strong sense of history and an understanding of the culture of that country. Stewart is an exception to 
that observation.

The decision to add more troops in Afghanistan cannot be made purely by couching it in the requirements of American domestic politics, and by viewing it from the perspective of what is appropriate and acceptable inside the United States. I say that because, as more troops are inserted in Afghanistan, that will be seen as an evidence of commitment by outsiders, but not necessarily by the Afghans. They need more persuading than mere escalation troops for now.

The abruptness by which the United States left Afghanistan after the redeployment of the Soviet troops in 1989 leaves them no reason to believe that we are likely to stay there. This time there is no much difference. All they have to do is to watch the current debate regarding Afghanistan inside the United States.

Mind you, I am not questioning the legitimacy of these debates. They are quite genuine in the sense that, before more US young men and women are sent there and before more money is invested, we need to debate the nature of our commitment. However, that is precisely why the Afghans are skeptical that we mean to stay there for a long while this time.

And there went my Tuesday morning.

At what price, greatness

Posted in afghanistan, iraq, pakistan, terrorism, us military by Karaka on 12 October 2009

Another forty plus people killed in Pakistan, following on the heels of twenty killed this weekend in Islamabad. This, I believe, is the bloodiest week of the calendar year.

In Iraq, 26 people were killed as part of a political reconciliation meeting in Anbar, a precursor to the election in January ’10.

An election delay could in turn delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the bulk of which are scheduled to pull out immediately after a new government is seated. U.S. officials have said the elections will have to take place by Jan. 16 if the estimated 80,000 troops, with all their gear, are to leave in time for the August deadline set by President Obama for the withdrawal of all U.S. combat personnel from Iraq.

Iraq’s Constitution also stipulates that the elections must take place by January.

This as General Lanza announced the pace of the withdrawal:

By the end of October, American troop strength in Iraq will be 120,000, a decrease of 23,000 since January, the top United States military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, said Monday. The next big reduction will not come until well after the national elections in January, he added … “I really think the elections will be a point of departure by which we look at an assessment of true drawdown and really start moving our numbers from, let’s say, somewhere between 120,000 and 110,000 by the election, and then getting at that 50,000 by August 2010,” he said Monday.

Regarding Afghanistan, Nathan Hodge picks up the dearth of civilian forces in-nation; at the heart of my thesis about Afghanistan is the belief that US/international civilian involvement is direly needed, and it’s interesting to read it from someone else’s brain.

While the administration is still weighing strategy in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama has already made one thing clear: The mission in Afghanistan may fail without an influx of civilian experts. So where are muddy-boots diplomats and aid workers? According to the New York Times, nearly half of them have yet to get their passports stamped in Afghanistan.

The NYT article he references is here:

State Department officials also said they were close to their target of having 974 aid workers in Afghanistan by year’s end as part of what they called Mr. Obama’s civilian “surge.” They said 575 civilians were on the ground now.

“From the very start, there was an understanding that we need to move quickly,” Jacob J. Lew, the deputy secretary of state overseeing the civilian deployment, said in a telephone interview. “We feel very good about the people we’re sending out. They’re motivated, they’re prepared, they’re brave.”

But Henry Crumpton, a former top C.I.A. and State Department official who is an informal adviser to General McChrystal, called those stepped-up efforts inadequate. “Right now, the overwhelming majority of civilians are in Kabul, and the overwhelming majority never leave their compounds,” said Mr. Crumpton, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan. “Our entire system of delivering aid is broken, and very little of the aid is getting to the Afghan people.”

Hodge rightly points out that 974 is a great deal more than 575–nearly half as much more–and the concerns that the civilian aspect of this mission are failing has not gone unnoticed by the President. Either way, those jobs I was looking at the other day are in serious need of being filled. And still no USAID administrator.

Tuesday Errata

I’ve been pretty deep in a couple books–Åsne Seierstad’s A Hundred and One Days, the Oxford World Classic edition of the Qur’an, and Nate Fick’s One Bullet Away. My booklist keeps growing like Tennessee kudzu; I think at last count I had sixty-three books on my “remember to buy these” list, in addition to the teetering stack crowding my desk at home.

Even so, I’ve been following a couple things–Secs. Clinton and Gates defending McChrystal from the press backlash at GWU yesterday (and Walter Pincus’ editorial from today), the news of General Petraeus’ cancer diagnosis, the escalating Pakistani response to the Word Food Program, and the face of eastern Afghanistan. I think McCrystal is taking more shit than he deserves, and that it’s easy to jump all over the new guy in charge. It sucks yet is admirable that Petraeus seems to be taking cancer in stride, though it explains his recent absence from the press. And I’m rapidly realizing the more I learn about Afghanistan, the harder it becomes to maintain any black-and-white view.

Granted, I’m a philosopher first and a blogger second, so black-and-whites aren’t really my bag; I’ve always been more comfortable living in greys. But the two books I mention above, minus the Qur’an, are two very different pictures of the same space of time in the same nation, and I’ve been trying to reconcile them with minimal success.

Also, I can’t figure out how to put the VALOUR-IT widget on this blog, and I suspect I won’t be able to unless I purchase something from WordPress, which is very annoying. Any advice, blogosphere?

And then I get to dress like a spy.

Posted in afghanistan, terrorism by Karaka on 28 September 2009

I have kind of been ignoring the long war recently; amid the terrorist plots foiled and potential bombers arrested in the US, I’ve just been idly keeping tabs rather than get embroiled in the drama of it all. But the NYT has an article on Rethinking Our Terrorist Fears that caught my attention.

But important as they were, those news reports masked a surprising and perhaps heartening long-term trend: Many students of terrorism believe that in important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline — with its central leadership thrown off balance as operatives are increasingly picked off by missiles and manhunts and, more important, with its tactics discredited in public opinion across the Muslim world.

“Al Qaeda is losing its moral argument about the killing of innocent civilians,” said Emile A. Nakhleh, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency’s strategic analysis program on political Islam until 2006. “They’re finding it harder to recruit. They’re finding it harder to raise money.”

It’s heartening to hear that there is some effectiveness in the strategies that existed…

Even counterterrorism officials who agree that Al Qaeda is on the wane, for example, say the organization might well regroup if left unmolested in a lawless region in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Somalia. Moreover, they point out that even a lone terrorist with modest skills can produce mass carnage. Six years before 9/11, with no aid from a sophisticated network, Timothy McVeigh used a simple fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City to kill 168 people. And the 2001 calamity was the work of, at most, a few dozen plotters.

…but that doesn’t mean it’s over. I believe the words are, “it ain’t over until it’s over.” Or so I’ve heard.

Peter Mandaville, a professor of government and Islamic studies at George Mason University, says a series of public recantations” by prominent Islamist scholars and militants in recent years have had an effect. But the biggest catalyst has been bombings close to home. “Right after 9/11, people thought, wow, America is not invincible,” Mr. Mandaville said. “It was a strike against the U.S., and they were for it.” But when large numbers of innocent Muslims fell victim to attacks, “it became more and more difficult to romanticize Al Qaeda as fighting the global hegemons — basically, ‘sticking it to the man.’ ”

Rebels aren’t that awesome if they’re killing their own people, too. Then we just call it civil war.

Even those who are convinced Al Qaeda is growing weaker offer a cautious prognosis about what that might mean. They say that what is growing less likely is an attack on American soil with a toll equal to or greater than that of 9/11. But they concede that the example of Al Qaeda will continue to produce copycats: “Bin Laden has given others a narrative, a grand story of struggle, and he’s given them tactics as well,” Dr. Mandaville said … “Terrorism,” he added, “is here to stay.”

This long war ain’t over yet, that should be clear. And the US will be doing itself a disservice if we use this small progress as a benchmark for withdrawal.

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