June 1, 2008


The Iraqi Upturn: Don't look now, but the U.S.-backed government and army may be winning the war. (Washington Post, June 1, 2008)

THERE'S BEEN a relative lull in news coverage and debate about Iraq in recent weeks -- which is odd, because May could turn out to have been one of the most important months of the war. While Washington's attention has been fixed elsewhere, military analysts have watched with astonishment as the Iraqi government and army have gained control for the first time of the port city of Basra and the sprawling Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, routing the Shiite militias that have ruled them for years and sending key militants scurrying to Iran. At the same time, Iraqi and U.S. forces have pushed forward with a long-promised offensive in Mosul, the last urban refuge of al-Qaeda. So many of its leaders have now been captured or killed that U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, renowned for his cautious assessments, said that the terrorists have "never been closer to defeat than they are now."

Iraq passed a turning point last fall when the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign launched in early 2007 produced a dramatic drop in violence and quelled the incipient sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites.

How To Defeat The Global Jihadists (MICHAEL BURLEIGH, June 2008, Standpoint)

[T]he US is fighting a global war against an al-Qa’eda-inspired nebula of extremists, with both arms and ideas. A vast array of analytic intelligence, is devoted to the threat. Leading figures regard this war as akin to competition between brands. They want al-Qa’eda to go the way of Ford’s Edsel, a notorious failure in the automobile market, rather than to strengthen like Audi, Coca-Cola or Nike. Part of this drive is to depict al-Qa’eda and its affiliates as “architects of chaos”, a term coined by the British general Graeme Lamb. Assistant defense secretary Michael Doran, head of counter-terrorism in the Pentagon, says, “al-Qa’eda builds nothing; it only destroys.” Doran’s object is to sow doubt in the minds of Muslims regarding the grimly narcissistic vision of universal Islamic victimhood propagated by the jihadists. Doran claims that we are “at the end of the beginning”, although any signs of al-Qa’eda’s decline in one region­— say South East Asia— have to be balanced against its resilience elsewhere.

One strategy is to highlight the moral squalor of people who claim the moral high ground vis-à-vis the “decadent” West and its regional “clients”. The bin Laden family construction firm was chiefly responsible for the vulgar architectural modernisation of Saudi Arabia and made money from the deployment of US troops there in the 1990s. More effort should be put into exposing the criminal underpinnings of jihadism, including reliance on conflict diamonds, counterfeiting, drug-trafficking, fraud, robbery and so forth, not to speak of the prior records of fugitive British jihadist Rashid Rauf in an “honour killing” of his own uncle. The British government has still done virtually nothing to undermine the noble self-image of the jihadists in the eyes of those who are drawn to bin Laden as though to a fashionable anti-hero.

Puncturing myths is part of a broader US effort to break up terrorist organisations. The multi-ethnic composition of al-Qa’eda is one weak point, since rewards and risks seem to run along ethnic lines. The risks undertaken by Lebanese money-launderers handling conflict diamonds from West Africa are of a different order to those of a Moroccan suicide bomber. Interrogations of detainees reveal much bad blood between ethnic Chechens, Tajiks or Uzbeks and their Arab masters, who despise them. Al-Qa’eda’s bid for supremacy extends to its own cohorts. The organisation’s attempts to subsume local and regional jihadists are another strategic vulnerability, for there is little affection between Algerian and Libyan Islamists, whom al-Qa’eda seeks to co-opt with talk of a “unified Maghreb”. Algerian Islamism is itself riven with factional disputes about whether to focus on fighting the regime of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, or whether to pursue al-Qa’eda’s anti-Western agenda, thereby incurring the wrath of America, which already has a huge CIA station in Algiers. Franchising leads to loss of central control of how the brand is used by franchisees — most notably by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi in Iraq with his penchant for decapitation videos, a strategy that al-Qa’eda belatedly recognised as a PR disaster.

Another more insidious fracture has resulted from the well-publicised testimonies of repentant jihadists who have been through “de-programming” courses now operating in many Middle Eastern and South East Asian jails. This development has begun to concern such al-Qa’eda leaders as Abu-Yahya al-Libi, one of the few with theological training rather than a background in medicine or engineering. These schemes involve re-integrating former terrorists into their families, while giving them authoritative instruction in a religion most of them only know as a handful of banal slogans borrowed from the Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb. Eventually they are given a home and a job with which they can support a family. [...]

The application of military force and diligent police work is indispensable to defeating the insurgency. It resembles the game of “whack a mole”, not least in requiring resilience from the participants. Capturing or killing the leadership of al-Qa’eda is essential to stalling its momentum. Readers will recall that after a bloody military conflict that resulted in the deaths of 70,000 Peruvian peasants, a small team of detectives in 1992 captured the Sendero Luminoso leader, Abimael Guzman, after they tracked couriers bearing an ointment he needed to treat his psoriasis. The movement further fractured when his successor Oscar Ramirez was picked up in 1999.

So where is Osama bin Laden? He is believed to be sheltering in the Pashtun-dominated Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. According to the expert Steve Coll, he is in or around the Taleban stronghold of Miram Shah. Al-Qa’eda is seeking to establish a terri­torial base akin to the one it enjoyed under the Afghan Taleban. The August 2006 Waziristan Accords between Pervez Musharraf and the local tribal elders disastrously facilitated this regrouping. Some claim that the fractiousness of these tribes means that al-Qa’eda has to constantly focus on squaring some of them rather than mounting major international terrorist operations. The central organisation is also running short of money, judging by its reported dependence on robbing European banks to replenish its coffers, or jihadists who launder money through online gaming sites with the aid of stolen credit cards.

The war in Afghanistan is an “economy of force” operation, partly because of US commitments in Iraq, partly because of Nato “national caveats”, such as a Luftwaffe that refuses to fly at night, or Turkish troops which Ankara refuses to deploy in the south. With a light footprint, because of local political constraints, the US is using cross-border Predator drone missile attacks to complement the activities of thousands of Pakistani Frontier Corps in eliminating key al-Qa’eda figures. Fatalities have included Abu Laith al-Libi, hit by a US missile in January this year in north Waziristan, which checked his efforts to synchronise the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group with al-Qa’eda in the Maghreb. Unfortunately, billion-dollar aid packages, designed to win over Pashtun tribesmen, have stuck to the fingers of the Pakistani armed forces, who regard it as their reward for the sacrifice of some 700 dead. There has been more success across the Afghan border with the grassroots National Solidarity Programme, involving micro-reconstruction schemes that rely upon 80 per cent indigenous labour, and in building a national army that is now about 70,000 strong. Even so, in April the Taleban were still capable of mounting an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai at a parade in Kabul. [...]

No European country faces the global challenges confronting the US, which partly explains why only the US has developed the coherent range of responses outlined above. Because of its success in integrating Arab immigrants (many of whom are Christian refugees) the US largely faces an external threat.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 1, 2008 9:03 PM
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