Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time to Rethink Afghanistan? Cracks in the Jihad by Thomas Rid

Thomas Rid has written an article in the “Wilson Quarterly” entitled Cracks in the Jihad. In it he provides a useful summary of how the world of Islamist jihadists has evolved in recent years. In the period prior to and immediately after 9/11, Al Qaeda could be viewed as a dominating force in organizing and driving jihadist actions around the world. If that was once true, it is no longer true today.

“In the years since late 2001, when U.S. and coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime and all but destroyed Al Qaeda’s core organization in Afghanistan, the bin Laden brand has been bleeding popularity across the Muslim world. The global jihad, as a result, has been torn by mounting internal tensions. Today, the holy war is set to slip into three distinct ideological and organizational niches. The U.S. surge in Afghanistan, whether successful or not, is likely to affect this development only marginally.”

“The first niche is occupied by local Islamist insurgencies, fueled by grievances against ‘apostate’ regimes that are authoritarian, corrupt, or backed by ‘infidel’ outside powers (or any combination of the three).”
These locally formed and motivated groups have had to walk a fine line with regard to allying themselves with Al Qaeda. The rigid ideology and the violent actions demanded by Al Qaeda bring the groups prominence, but they also invite retribution from the authorities and often cost them the support of the local people. The author uses the “awakening” among the Sunnis in Iraq as an example. He also points out that in multiple locations a number of previously sympathetic conservative religious leaders have begun criticizing Bin laden for damaging the faith with his violent tactics and his emphasis on global jihad.
“Filling the second niche is terrorism-cum–organized crime, most visible in Afghanistan and Indonesia but also seen in Europe, fueled by narcotics, extortion, and other ordinary illicit activities.”
Rid presents typical scenarios for local extremist groups. They start with a cause and a mission, but they need funds to operate. The easiest source of funds is crime. They have a period in which they need to sell their cause and methods to the populace. If they are successful they become a political force. If they do not succeed they lose favor and are left with only the criminal activities.
“Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb funds itself through the drug trade, smuggling, extortion, and kidnappings in southern Algeria and northern Mali. Indonesia’s Abu Sayyaf Group and the Philippines’ Jamiyah Islamiyah engage in a variety of criminal activities, including credit card fraud. The terrorist cell behind the 2004 Madrid bombings earned most of its money from criminal activities; when Spanish police raided the home of one of the plotters, they seized close to $2 million in drugs and cash, including more than 125,000 Ecstasy tablets, according to U.S. News and World Report. The Madrid bombings had cost the terrorists just $50,000.”
While Al Qaeda’s influence and popularity may be on the wane, it is still able to attract recruits although some of them are more trouble than they are worth.
“In the final niche are people who barely qualify as a group: young second- and third-generation Muslims in the diaspora who are engaged in a more amateurish but persistent holy war, fueled by their own complex personal discontents.”
Second or third generation Muslim immigrants often face an identity crisis, feeling like outsiders in their inherited countries. They often find some feeling of “belonging” in a religiously driven mission like international jihad. These people often come from well-off families and are mainly driven by individual motives that produce erratic behavior and results.
“The grievances and motivations of European extremists and the rare American militants tend to be idiosyncratic, the product of unstable individual personalities and a history of personal discrimination. Many take the initiative to join the movement themselves, and because they are not recruited by a member of the existing organization, their ties to it may remain loose. In 2008 alone, 190 individuals were sentenced for Islamist terrorist activities in Europe, most of them in Britain, France, and Spain. ‘A majority of the arrested individuals belonged to small autonomous cells rather than to known terrorist organizations,’ EUROPOL reports.”
There are other indications of displeasure with Al Qaeda and their methods. The author points out that when an Al Qaeda group tried to set itself up in Gaza, the Hamas leaders had members executed. Polling indicates that Al Qaeda is losing favor throughout the Islamic world.
“Eight years after 9/11, support for Islamic extremism in the Muslim world is at its lowest point. Support for Al Qaeda has slipped most dramatically in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Jordan. In 2003, more than 50 percent of those surveyed in these countries agreed that bin Laden would “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” the Pew Global Attitudes Project found. By 2009 the overall level of support had dropped by half, to about 25 percent. In Pakistan, traditionally a stronghold of extremism, only nine percent of Muslims have a favorable view of Al Qaeda, down from 25 percent in 2008. Even an American failure to stabilize Afghanistan and its terror-ridden neighborhood would be unlikely to ease Al Qaeda’s crisis of legitimacy.”
The author provides us with an image of Al Qaeda as an organization set back on its heels. The author points out that it has trouble recruiting adherents from countries where there is a local jihadist movement. Al Qaeda’s recruits seem to come from locations where there is no option for an effective local group such as Muslim states like Saudi Arabia and Syria, or from Europe. Its capability to plan and execute major actions seems diminished, along with its ability to influence the actions of other groups. Al Qaeda’s dream of a united war of the Islamic people is being superseded by a collection of mostly locally-oriented groups with their own motives and little need for Al Qaeda direction or association. These groups are definitely a danger in their own neighborhoods. Some still pursue international terror goals, and while a danger to us and others, they are less of a threat to instigate something on a massive scale like 9/11.

How does this information inform us on the issue of our policy with respect to Afghanistan?

The first question to consider is: “Is Al Qaeda still a threat.” The answer would have to be a definite yes. Al Qaeda remains the organization most intent on doing direct harm to the western nations. It does not take many people or a lot of money to do great damage. Most important is the will to do such acts. That is still Al Qaeda’s intention.

The administration says we are in Afghanistan to make sure that Al Qaeda cannot recover its safe haven in that country. Critics counter by saying there are only a few Al Qaeda in the country, so, on that basis, how can our actions be worth the cost? One of the reasons there are few Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is because it is dangerous to be in Afghanistan. It is still safer for Al Qaeda’s people to reside over the hill in Pakistan. If the day comes when the Taliban takes over the country, I would expect Bin Laden to erect barracks for the troops and a guest hotel for visiting dignitaries. He still must wait a while for that day.

Rid introduces the notion that change is occurring in the Islamic world. This introduces the notion of timescale. Besides Al Qaeda gradually falling out of favor, he mentions the increased tendency to justify jihad as a local activity.
“Classical Islamic legal doctrine sees armed jihad as a defensive struggle against persecution, oppression and incursions into Muslim lands.”
If Islamic sentiment is trending in this direction then time is working in our favor. Local groups can be contained and local issues can be changed or negotiated. A universal caliphate is not negotiable.

What is our timescale in Afghanistan? The administration wants to start removing troops next year. I think the correct interpretation of that timeline is that in at least one location where we now have troops stationed, the Afghans will be able to maintain order and our troops there will come home. This should be an easy goal, but do not expect many soldiers to be headed out. A more reasonable timeframe is five years. I have heard that figure quoted as the time when we can reasonably expect to have most of the troops out.

People criticize timescales for working to the benefit of the Taliban. The argument is that the Taliban can just sit back and wait for us to leave and then come roaring into action. That is a specious argument. We are in a struggle to help stand up an Afghan government that can function and defend itself. The Taliban have to make sure that does not happen. If they want stand down and relax for five years while we do our thing, then that would be fantastic. No, the Taliban has to keep fighting, and five years of fighting is a long time for anyone.

The real issue with regard to the Taliban is deciphering their current goals, and predicting what their goals might be after a few more years of stalemate. Everyone seems to agree that by numbers most of the Taliban are driven by local concerns and loyalties. The ultimate intentions of the leaders are less clear. They now profess to be nationalists dedicated to Afghan issues. If so, that is promising. But that was not always the case. They did provide a home for Bin Laden. I doubt if that was because he had a long-term lease and paid the rent on time.

If the Taliban has international ambitions their potential to cause havoc is unlimited. That is why it is so important to bring them under control in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan is not a robust democratic state. It would be at risk if an insurgent group could have a safe haven in neighboring Afghanistan. The fates of the two countries are tightly coupled. The notion of a Taliban-led Pakistan in possession of nuclear weapons is not one I wish to consider. An aggressive Islamist regime could cause trouble throughout Asia. It would not be difficult to see India being drawn into conflict with Pakistan. Russia is already having trouble with terrorists, and China, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan all have their own jihadi insurgencies. The Taliban is also causing trouble by pouring their narcotics into neighboring Iran and Russia.

There is a lot at stake here. It has to be done right. There are no quick or easy solutions. Time may or may not be on our side.

I believe we also have humanitarian issues to consider. If the Taliban were to retake control, everyone who collaborated with the NATO forces would be at risk. All women would see what few rights they have eliminated. The Afghan author, Tamim Ansary, described such an outcome more eloquently.
“Afghanistan is largely conservative, rural and tribal, but it does have urban modernists who long to leave their country's medieval themes behind, city folks who embrace modern science and struggle to reform Afghan social norms, artists who dream of their art being taken seriously abroad, young people aching to participate in global pop culture.”

“Shortly after U.S. forces leave the country, a lot of these people will be dead.”
When can we in good conscience leave? The minimum goal would be to leave when the Afghan government is strong enough to defend itself against the Taliban if that is necessary. The desired goal would be a situation somewhat like Iraq faces: current stability, but with an uncertain future. We all have uncertain futures.

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