All politics is local: Al-Qa’eda and the Afghanistan War

As pressure to end the war builds in Washington, supporters of the war in Afghanistan will invariably return to their strongest argument: the threat of Al-Qa'eda. However, a reasonable understanding of the terrorist organization shows that even Al-Qa'eda is not enough to justify a bloody and expensive occupation.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

In our latest video from Rethink Afghanistan, we close it by asking a question. “Afghanistan got your attention now?” The answer is apparently a resounding yes.

As the president’s so-called “emergency” war supplemental funding finally hobbles onto the floor for a vote in congress, months after it was requested, it is facing furious opposition right up to the last moment.  Republican and Blue Dog members of congress are already being publicly exposed as hypocrites on fiscal responsibility, and that will only get louder if the money goes through. President Obama himself has faced a stinging rebuke from congress for his comments about lawmakers’ “obsession” with the war, and the Out of Afghanistan Caucus continues to chip away at what little apatite for war remains in congress.

Robert Naiman writes:

While press reports suggest that when the dust settles, the Pentagon will have the war money, it’s likely that a record number of Representatives will go on the record in opposition to open-ended war and occupation.

That’s a big deal for those members of congress, but we have to remember where this is coming from. These may be progressive warriors and heroes of the peace movement, but they’re also still craven politicians who spend every second of their free time begging folks (either you or a lobbyist, depending on who takes the initiative) to support them so they can remain in office.

And this is Democratic President Barack Obama’s war in Afghanistan, so the massive, highly-coordinated anti-war push in congress can’t be pinned on the machinations of the Democratic party. No chance in hell the president’s partisan apparatchiks would be managing this kind of opposition to the White House, which means this is entirely the work of grassroots citizens’ movements. Even though we’re talking about a massive war thousands of miles away in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “all politics is local,” and it is average citizens who are making a difference.

Put bluntly, Americans are pissed off about the war, and congress has absolutely no choice but to act upon that anger. But rest assured, supporters of the war aren’t just going to quietly wind down their endless war because of a little congressional pushback. And if the past is any indication, when popular anger with the war reaches the levels its at now, war-makers will play the strongest, most sacred card they have: Al-Qa’eda.

But the warnings about Al-Qa’eda are only effective if you buy into the official spin surrounding the Global War on Terror (GWOT), that being the idea that the United States is engaged in war across the entire globe with a terrorist army called Al-Qa’eda. It brings to mind disturbing memories of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and almost for that reason alone the presidents’, both Bush and Obama, warnings about the threat of Al-Qa’eda resonate powerfully with most Americans.

However, without the official spin, a reasonable and realistic understanding of the threat that Al-Qa’eda poses reveals that even this most foundational justification for the war in Afghanistan is just another hollow excuse for a useless and catastrophically expensive foreign occupation.

Right away, let’s get rid of a little conventional wisdom. The commonly accepted defense against the Al-Qa’eda argument is that these terrorists are stupid. They can’t build a working car bomb, they can’t blow up their own pants on a plane, or they just wind up blowing up themselves. They’re inept, and therefor less of a threat. That’s a little too close to tempting fate if you ask me. It’s practically daring the terrorists to do something. Bring it on, dummies!

But there are also many, many innocent dead people, mostly Muslims, who would likely love to quibble with the characterization of terrorists as incompetent, that is if they weren’t already murdered by Al-Qa’eda, of course. A bomb in New York City does the same thing a bomb in Peshawar does: it kills people. The fact that the US has lucked out on the last few attacks is no reason to dismiss the violence Al-Qa’eda is still quite capable of.

My choice of language there, the “violence Al-Qa’eda is capable of,” is itself laced with some unhelpful conventional wisdom. I am implying that Al-Qa’eda is a coherent organization, a rational actor engaging in policy. But that’s not really true.

The key to understanding the true nature of Al-Qa’eda is right there in the name. Al-Qa’eda means “the base,” but that’s not base as in a military base. It’s base as in database. It is a list of information, in this case, a global rolodex of members of like-minded groups and individuals willing to engage in Jihad. Quite frankly, it’s a craigslist for terrorism. Each “member” of Al-Qa’eda, whether that’s the old guard like Zawahiri in Pakistan or newcomers like Shabaab in Somalia, signs on to a franchise of sorts, carrying with it certain responsibilities, and thus they become a member of Al-Qa’eda.

For example, there was an Islamic insurgent group operating in Algeria known as the GSPC. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States dramatically increased its counter-terrorism relationship with the Algerian government. This new support changed the tide of the civil war, and the GSPC was brought to its knees. Facing defeat, the GSPC signed on to Al-Qa’eda, and overnight the old insurgent group, GSPC, disappeared (with the exception of a few marginalized fringe groups), and Al-Qa’eda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was born.

With that membership, Algerian recruits went off to training camps in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, etc. Some went off to wage jihad in those countries (becoming what the military ironically terms “foreign fighters”), while others returned with the knowledge, applying their new training to fresh campaigns of commando raids and IEDs against their home government.

With the Al-Qa’eda franchise came other perks, of course, including connection to international organized crime networks (narcotics, weapons, and human trafficking) as well as the nourishing supply of hard currency from regional oil sheiks that only the Al-Qa’eda brand can deliver. But at no point is there any sort of rigid, hierarchical structure to the organization of Al-Qa’eda. It is not as if the leaders of AQIM take orders from Osama bin Laden, or that they all get together over a map and plan out the global Caliphate. It’s membership in a club – social networking for Jihadists.

What this means is that there technically is no such thing as “defeating Al-Qa’eda.” Quite simply, there is nothing there to defeat. Andrew Exum writes:

In general, we Americans — especially some of our friends on the American Right — tend to overestimate the importance of what we do in comparison to what local actors do. (Iraq and Afghanistan, seriously, should have taught us better.) That doesn’t mean we fold up our tents and head home: we just have to be realistic about what we can hope to achieve through the application of U.S. power, military force especially.

Another way of saying that: “All politics is local.” To use our example of Algeria, there isn’t really an Al-Qa’eda there for us to fight, there is the same religious insurgency, a local phenomenon, that was there before the franchise and will be there after the franchise. The “foreign fighters,” whether that’s Algerians in Pakistan or Pakistanis in Algeria, are products of their own local conditions. To stop AQIM, you have to resolve the issues in Algeria. To stop Al-Qa’eda in Pakistan, you have to resolve the issues in Pakistan.

How do we resolve those local issues? So far the United States has used the military, but as we see in Algeria, and indeed everywhere else, that only drives the local actors, the insurgent groups, extremists, criminals, etc. even closer to a relationship with Al-Qa’eda. It makes the local problem a global problem, exacerbating it beyond control.

The Al-Qa’eda franchise that the US is primarily concerned with is in Pakistan (almost none remain in Afghanistan). Just as expected, the military efforts there have solidified the relationship between Al-Qa’eda and the local actors, in this case the groups comprising the Taliban. As a consequence of assassinating the older, more pragmatic leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many Taliban groups are led by younger, inexperienced commanders who are far more susceptible to the radicalism of Al-Qa’eda. The war has gone on so long now that many of the foreign fighters have stayed and intermarried into local communities, embedding their ideology firmly into the status quo.

So not only is the Taliban closer to Al-Qa’eda, but they become more indistinguishable with every new drone strike and special forces raid. In order to actually reduce the terrorist threat, the US has to do something besides use the military.

To stop the Taliban, they have to be reconciled as the local actors they are. For instance, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has supposedly opened negotiations with the Haqqani network, which is part of the “Pakistan Taliban,” as opposed to the “Afghan Taliban” led by Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura. The Haqqani network is very much a radical Islamic militant group, but they are also an asset of the Pakistani military in their “strategic depth” against India (that is, they kill Indians). Their existence relies on support from the military, so when the Pakistani Army demanded they sever their ties with Al-Qa’eda, they did so.

At Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, we see this [emphasis mine]:

Moreover, the relationship is reportedly strained because of the Haqqanis’ ties to the Pakistani state — an enemy of al-Qaeda. Pakistani authorities have conducted a number of raids on Haqqani compounds that house al-Qaeda men and supplies, but Haqqani fighters are often left untouched.[…]

Former and current Haqqani Network commanders say that their movement is closer to the Quetta Shura’s nationalist rhetoric than al-Qaeda’s vision of global jihad, but some members of the group espouse al-Qaeda-like language. The Haqqanis have avoided the anti-Pakistan rhetoric common to al-Qaeda and the TTP. In June 2006, Jalaluddin Haqqani’s office released a letter arguing that attacking Pakistan “is not our policy. Those who agree with us are our friends and those who do not agree and [continue to wage] an undeclared war against Pakistan are neither our friends nor shall we allow them in our ranks.” Sirajuddin Haqqani has gone further, explaining in an interview that he opposed “any attempt by Muslims to launch attacks in non-Muslim countries.” In May 2009, he argued to two French journalists: “It is a mistake to think that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are pursuing the same aim. Al-Qaeda is trying to spread its influence throughout the world. This does not interest us. The Taliban’s aim is to liberate Afghanistan from foreign troops.”

But the Pakistani military’s role doesn’t stop the bleeding over of Al-Qa’eda’s global ideology, particularly into the younger members of the organization. The Haqqani networks and its affiliates still supply foreign fighters and suicide bombers sympathetic to Al-Qa’eda operations, even if this isn’t the express policy of the top Haqqani leadership. To deal with the radical ideology, you again have to deal with the local factors, and of course, it’s not the war that works.

To reduce the extremism in Pakistan, the US has several options, none explicitly guaranteed to work, but also none nearly as damaging and horrific as its current policy of war. The Pakistani military’s relationship with the Taliban must be destroyed, which requires a complete end to their national security strategy of “strategic depth,” the use of terrorism and insurgencies against India. While the US cannot directly force the military to do this, they can engage exclusively with Pakistan’s democratically elected civilian government. This would empower the government, who has no desire for war with India, to reign in the Army and intelligence services, and end their support of terrorism.

This would also allow the Pakistani state to fully extend its authority into Taliban territory, rather than simply cutting a deal with the militants. If Pakistani citizens in the farthest reaches of the tribal areas had the same rule of law (which is itself in dire need of reform) as Pakistanis in suburban Karachi, the environment that produces Al-Qa’eda sympathizers would be dramatically reduced. The US can influence this with development aid, things like encouraging a proper education system and assisting in sustainable energy projects.

Most importantly, the US can end its war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our policy provides the perfect narrative for Al-Qa’eda, as Londonstani writes:

Pakistani 1: “Western countries are trying to destroy Islam. They fear us more than the Chinese. We are the only people who have a system that challenges theirs. They know their system has failed, so they are trying to destroy us before everyone becomes Muslim. They have always hated us. They want to keep us poor. Our rulers have been bought by them. Our rulers sold us for big houses in London and New York. Now Western soldiers and contractors roam around our country looking for ways to steal from us and control us. We are paying the price. If we don’t fight, they will rob us and leave us to die in the gutter.”

Pakistani 2: “Peace is a good thing. You are a Muslim, right? We are all about peace. We love it. Fighting is not the answer. Peace is the answer. Just take it easy, be good and everything will sort itself out.”

Presenting your ideas as part of a bigger picture is much more persuasive than just chucking them randomly out there. The ideology of Islamist extremism has a very effective big-picture story. On the other side, the narrative is a bit…. well,.. lacking.

We can’t make them believe we’re not violent, oppressive invaders, because we are violent, oppressive invaders. They’re going to come up with loony “conspiracy theories” like the US supports the Taliban, because we support the Army and intelligence services which supports the Taliban. It’s just that simple.

Having a reasonable, civilian-only foreign policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan is what will reduce the threat of Al-Qa’eda, not an expensive and bloody occupation. War feeds Al-Qa’eda, and it feeds the Taliban. The local issues must be addressed, primarily by local actors, and it must be done with transparency and legitimacy. The US should not support military despots in Islamabad or mafia chieftains in Kabul. The US should not be occupying Afghanistan or conducting air strikes and raids in Pakistan, nor should it allow the proliferation of private mercenary groups in these groups, which feed into the idea of the US as lawless invaders.

Obviously you can’t completely eliminate the threat of terrorism. Terrorism is a crime, like robbery or murder, and it exists naturally as part of the modern law enforcement environment. Reducing the number of individuals willing to engage in this crime can be done through policy choices, but there is clearly still a role for law enforcement agencies to play.  However, there is a difference between terrorism being a natural occurrence, and our overseas wars blatantly churning out new terrorist recruits. While terrorism will still exist, its scope and degree can be dramatically slashed simply by ending the US wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and lest we forget, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and everywhere else we’re engaging in violent, military conflict with Al-Qa’eda affiliates (both real and imagined).

As we’ve seen, an end to the war is already in sight. Not because of any powerful interference, but because local citizens pushed their representatives to block the president’s escalation. Similarly, when the supporters of the war make their frightening warnings about Al-Qa’eda, the answer again is not war, but local solutions led by the citizens themselves, not the US. A change in US foreign policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a focus on development and rule of law instead of war, is what is required.

But before we can see that change, the war itself has to end. Just don’t let them scare you with Al-Qa’eda.

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