The moment U.S. armed forces are deployed somewhere, that place moves to the top of the pundit queue. As a result, the bylaws of the International Brotherhood of Foreign Policy Pundits mandates that I blog something about Mali of a higher quality than my glib post from last month. So here goes.
In a refreshing change of pace from to Previous Armed Forces Deployments that will Go Unamed, the New York Times is already voicing questions about the purpose of this mission. Indeed, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt litter their front-pager with some "first principle" questions to U.S. foreign policy principals:
The administration has embraced a targeted killing strategy elsewhere, notably in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, after top White House, Pentagon and C.I.A. officials determined that militants in those countries were bent on attacking the United States.
Asked if fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb posed such an imminent threat, Gen. Carter F. Ham, the top American commander in Africa, said, “Probably not.” But, he said in an interview, “they subscribe to Al Qaeda’s ideology” and have said that their intent is to attack Westerners in Europe and, “if they could, back to the United States.”
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made it clear on Wednesday that he considered the group a serious danger. “This is an Al Qaeda operation,” he told reporters while traveling in Italy, “and it is for that reason that we have always been concerned about their presence in Mali, because they would use it as a base of operations to do exactly what happened in Algeria.”....
[W]hat remained an open question, at least until last Friday, was whether the militant threat in Mali was serious enough to justify military intervention. Now, the context of that debate has changed.
General Ham put the matter succinctly in the interview, which took place last Friday, just hours after he learned about the French incursion into Mali.
“The real question,” he said as he raced off to a secure teleconference with senior Obama administration officials, “is now what?” (emphasis added)
Now, admirably, the Financial Times' Xan Rice does explain rather concisely what France's aims are in Mali:
France has three aims in Mali: to stop the Islamist insurgents’ advance on the capital; to help the government regain control of the north of the country; and to leave the country with a stable government.
But the strength of the well-trained Islamist militant forces points to a protracted intervention in the country where rebels maintain control of two towns in the centre of Mali, while Jean-Yves Le Drian, French defence minister, this week acknowledged the campaign was “very difficult”. (emphasis added)
Now, the tricky part of all this for the U.S. government is that while the first goal seems easy enough to achieve, the second seems much harder. And, most important, the United States has been trying to accomplish the third goal for the past decade -- and it turns out we kind of suck at it:
In 2005, PSI was replaced by the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a partnership of State, Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) meant to focus on improving individual country and regional capabilities in northwest Africa.
According to a Government Accountability Office study, Mali got roughly $37 million in TSCTP funds from 2005 through 2008. More than half went to Defense projects. But GAO reported that there were bureaucratic differences over the programs and funding problems. “USAID received funds for its TSCTP activities in Mali in 2005 and 2007, but not in 2006,” for example. “Because it received no funds for 2006, the mission suspended a peace-building program in northern Mali,” the area with the greatest threat.
So the initial reporting suggests that the U.S. is about to blunder into another far-flung overseas operation in no small part caused by prior U.S. f**k-ups with no end in sight and a hostile population on the ground. Right?
Not so fast. Contrary to the claims of some militant anti-interventionists, the U.S. counter-terrorism policy didn't cause the problems in Mali. And, indeed, based on this survey of Northern Mali villagers conducted by some kick-ass political scientists early last year, it would seem that the locals would welcome further U.S. involvement, particularly on the humanitarian side of the equation:
The majority of our respondents were in favor of military intervention: 78% said it was worth the fight, 9% wanted to peacefully separate, and 23% were undecided (July). When asked how the northern crisis should be resolved, 50% of our respondents mentioned negotiations, while 60% cited military intervention as important to restore territorial integrity (May). Most respondents who felt that military intervention was necessary preferred exclusively domestic involvement by the Malian military (43% of respondents). Of those citing the need for foreign intervention, the US was the most popular of the potential allies (23% of respondents favored US intervention), followed by France (18%) and then ECOWAS (15%). In light of changing public opinion in Bamako it is possible that if asked today, villagers would be more pro-foreign intervention and pro-French....
We asked villagers the open-ended question: what policy area would you prioritize if you were President of Mali? Most individuals prioritized human development issues (health, education, water, agricultural support) both before and after the rebellion. In the January baseline survey, 51% of respondents cited development issues, while 9% mentioned peace and security. After the villagers found themselves on the border of rebel-controlled territory, 67% cited development issues and 14% peace and security (July). Regardless of the level of political stability, the vast majority of respondents would focus on basic human development needs.
Foreign policy pundits are just like the rest of the monkey-brain population -- we like to put things in clear conceptual boxes -- particularly when we lack specific knowledge of the particulars, as is the case with Mali. It will be easy, in the coming days, to put Mali into the "Afghanistan" box (bad) or the "Libya" box (good or bad depending on your partisan affiliation) or what have you. Given that France and the West African countries are willing to shoulder the primary military burden of this engagement, however, it would seem that the U.S. could ramp up some humanitartian assistance for the affected areas. That doesn't mean that hard questions should not be asked about the scope and purpose of the U.S. mission in the Sahel. It does mean that those questions might have some surprising answers, however.
What do you think?
As a group, foreign policy analysts and international relations theorists tend to focus on how large, impersonal factors affect the contours of world politics. We're like this for two reasons: a) Large-scale factors -- like, say, demographics -- really are pretty important; and b) We get allergic reactions to media narratives that stress the ways in which one person or one decision made all the difference.
Because of this trait, an event like bin Laden's death has lead to an orgy of blog posts and essays pointing out that not much has changed. Charli Carpenter's first response was to ccharacterize it as "a single operation in a vast and endless war, that apparently will have no impact on our foreign policy." Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recounts the myriad ways in which Al Qaeda still matters in a post-Osama world. Neither Nate Silver nor David Weigel thinks that the effect on Barack Obama's political popularity will be that great. Ben Smith points out that conspiracy theorists will have a field day with this, just like they have a field day with everything else.
So, let me go against my instinct to agree with all of the above points and suggest why bin Laden's demise really is, in the words of the VPOTUS -- a big f***ing deal:
1) Pakistan. You can slice this any way you want, the brute fact is that bin Laden was living in the Pakistani equivalent of Annapolis -- a posh resort town that happens to house a lot of Pakistani retired generals, not to mention their main miltary academy. This doesn't look good for Pakistan, as their continued silence suggests. As he promised in his campaign, Obama violated Pakistan's sovereignty, sent in special forces, took out bin Laden, and did it all without consulting the Pakistanis about it. So not only does the Pakistani leadership look incompetent, they also look impotent.
I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that anything that destabilizes Pakistan is a BFD -- and the way this played out destabilizes the country.
2) The United States just re-shaped the narrative. International relations scholars assume that most actors in world politics care about some combination of power, wealth and prestige. The U.S. killing of bin Laden strengthens American prestige and weakens Al Qaeda's. According to reports, Bin Laden used
his wife a woman as a human shield to protect himself during the firefight, which will tarnish his legacy, even to AQ operatives. Perceptions matter, and this symbolic victory for the United States will affect perceptions of American power.
Of course, all it takes for for the debt ceiling not to be raised and this'll disappear, but still...
3) The United States has increased its bargaining leverage in the Af-Pak region. As both Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat suggest, the death of bin Laden is one of those symbolic moments during which U.S. policy in the region might be re-evaluated. There are reasons to believe that this blow is actually going to sting for Al Qaeda.
It's at this moment when a president might have more credibility in bargaining with either Afghanistan or Pakistan. A large-scare withdrawal is now politically feasible in ways that it wasn't 24 hours ago -- and anti-war members of Congress are already getting frisky about it. They also have the American public on their side.
If the administration is smart, they will use this pressure to withdraw to start actually withdrawing, or at least pressure Afghan and Pakistani officials into acting in a somewhaqt more cooperative manner.
4) Al Qaeda won't be able to exploit the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda had already whiffed badly in handling the Arab unrerst of 2011, and bin Laden's popularity in the region had been falling as of late. That said, think of bin Laden (in this way and only this way) as like Sarah Palin -- someone who had declining poll numbers but a still-very-rabid base of support. It's not obvious that this support will transfer to any other jihadist.
Al Qaeda's remnants and affiliates might be able to operationally exploit the regimes changes in the region -- but they've lost whatever slim reeed they had at a political presence.
5) It's a social science bonanza!!! Terrorism experts should be positively giddy about this development. Bin Laden's death is a great "natural experiment" to see whether Al Qaeda is as decentralized and resilient as some experts claim. The AP reports that, "U.S. forces searched the compound and flew away with documents, hard drives and DVDs that could provide valuable intelligence about al-Qaida." I, for one, hope that bin Laden's location in Abbotabad means that he was more of a central node than analysts expected.
Readers are welcomed to proffer their own explanations for why this is a big f***ing deal in the comments.
I was going to title this post, "Osama bin Laden, R.I.P." but the thing is , I really don't want him to rest in peace.
He's definitely dead, however. I'll write a longer blog post about the implications of this tomorrow, but for now, commenters should post their own thoughts about this in the comments. For now, three quick points:
1) If what Obama said is correct, then I'm genuinely impressed at the fact that operational security was so well preserved;
2) Everything I've read about Al qaeda suggests that bin Laden's role on the operational side was pretty limited, but this is still, to use the words of Vice President Joseph Biden, a big f***ing deal.
3) Peter Bergen said on CNN that bin Laden's death is "the end of the War on Terror." Do you think he's right? I'd like to think so, but my worry is that the politics of this gives some politicians a very strong incentive to ratchet up this threat. So... is it really over?
What do you think?
Hey, remember Al Qaeda? I wonder if the group responsible for that extra-special pat-down* I got at Logan earlier this week is still capable of serious power projection.
Peter Bergen in Vanity Fair provides one answer:
[I]t is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al Qaeda. About two months after 9/11, bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse." The weak horse turned out to be bin Laden's own. During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror -- notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners -- have bought bin Laden and his allies some time. These actions have won a certain amount of sympathy among Muslims for the Islamist cause. But they have not changed the underlying reality: al Qaeda and groups that share its ideology are on the wrong side of history…
Before 9/11, the group had acted freely in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda conducted its own foreign policy independent from the Taliban, taking the form, beginning in 1998, of multiple strikes on American government, military, and civilian targets. Before 9/11, al Qaeda was an organization of global reach. The 9/11 attack itself played out around the world, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, and money transfers from Dubai -- activities overseen by al Qaeda's senior command from secure bases in Afghanistan. Almost all of this infrastructure was smashed after 9/11.
One of bin Laden's key goals is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the House of Saud and the Mubarak family of Egypt with Taliban-style rule. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the "far enemy" (the United States and its Western allies), then watch as America recoils and the U.S.-backed Muslim regimes regarded as the "near enemy" collapse. The attacks on Washington and New York resulted in the direct opposite of his hopes. After 9/11, American troops occupied two Muslim countries and established new bases in several others. Relations between the United States and the authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes became stronger than ever, based on a shared goal of defeating violent Islamists…
[C]itizens in the West must come to understand -- and their leaders must drive the point home -- that although terrorist attacks, including attacks by al Qaeda, will continue to happen, the real damage is done by the panic and lashing out that follows. This is the reaction that al Qaeda craves -- and it is why terrorism works. It's easy to understand the emergence of a culture of paranoia coupled with rhetoric of vengeance. Prudence, calmness, and patience seem almost pusillanimous by comparison. But they work. Rare is the threat that can be defeated in large measure simply by deciding that we will not unduly fear it. Terrorism is one such threat (emphasis added).
Above all, we need to keep al Qaeda in perspective, remembering that its assets are few, and shrinking. After 9/11, bin Laden employed the imagery of a strong horse and a weak horse, but the reality of his situation was better described by Sitting Bull. The Sioux leader, at the Little Bighorn, is said to have observed: We have won a great battle but lost a great war.
Well, even if the U.S. and Arab governments are more closely allied now, surely Al Qaeda has more sympathizers on the Arab street, yes? Oh, wait, what's this Pew poll saying here?
While views of Hamas and Hezbollah are mixed, al Qaeda -- as well as its leader, Osama bin Laden -- receives overwhelmingly negative ratings in nearly all countries where the question was asked. More than nine-in-ten (94 percent) Muslims in Lebanon express negative opinions of al Qaeda, as do majorities of Muslims in Turkey (74 percent), Egypt (72 percent), Jordan (62 percent) and Indonesia (56 percent). Only in Nigeria do Muslims express positive views of al Qaeda; 49 percent have a favorable view and just 34 percent have an unfavorable view of bin Laden's organization.
Hmm… well, I'm sure that U.S. government officials aren't this equanimous about the threat posed by Al Qaeda. Oh, hey, look, Wired's Spencer Ackerman has a write-up of this speech by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC):
"We aim for perfection," Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies yesterday, but "perfection will not be achieved." That's perilous for a senior counterterrorism official to say, since, like terrorism, it's easily demagogued. Leiter repeatedly stated that there's no excuse for terrorism; that any successful attack is a tragedy; and that he'd welcome due oversight and criticism of his efforts if a terrorist pulls something off, just in case his admission seemed self-serving.
But in order not to make terrorists seem "ten feet tall" -- in other words, inadvertently support their narrative that they're world-historical forces on par with the U.S. -- it might be time to publicly de-emphasize terrorism in the public discourse. "Sometimes we ought to just talk about this a lot less," Leiter said....
Ultimately, Leiter said, it'll be the "quiet, confident resilience" of Americans after a terrorist attack that will "illustrate ultimately the futility of terrorism." That doesn't mean not to hit back: Leiter quickly added that "we will hold those accountable [and] we will be ready to respond to those attacks." But it does mean recognizing, he said, that "we help define the success of an attack by our reaction to that attack."
I know that assessing the capabilities of terrorist networks is sometimes a no-win exercise, but isn't it about time to acknowledge that Al Qaeda is no longer in the first tier of national security threats? And that maybe, just maybe, really expensive incursions related to Al Qaeda should be reassessed?
Am I missing anything?
[So how extra-special was that pat-down? -- ed. I was hurt that the TSA guy didn't tell me his first name afterwards. Seriously, I'm stunned that the porn industry has yet to exploit this new scenario for "intimate contact."]
Stephen Colbert's Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's attempt to rally fear in the hearts of Americans through its foiled toner cartridge gambit continues to reverberate in homeland security circles. Clearly, there are still a few bugs in the system. That said, here are my quick takeaways:
1) Al Qaeda failed… again. Seriously, if al Qaeda is ostensibly the New York Yankees of terrorism, the Steinbrenners would have fired the GM and coach years ago.
2) As this New York Times round-up suggests, al Qaeda has had to adopt new tactics because its preferred tactics have been thwarted:
[It was] a rare attack aimed at the air cargo system -- one of the foundations of the global economy -- rather than the passenger system, which has received the most attention from governments working to avoid a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Times story goes on to bemoan the failure to ratchet up security in the cargo system, which is a fair point. An implicit conclusion to draw from this switch in tactics, however, is that al Qaeda-affiliated groups are being frustrated on the passenger front.
3) Will Juan Williams now be fearful every time he sees a toner cartridge, even though most toner cartridges are not evil?
4) A common mantra about combating terrorism is that homeland security officials have to aim for a 1.000 batting average, while terrorists just need to get lucky once. I wonder if this is really true, however. Each time a new type of attack is thwarted, government officials learn a great deal about new tactics and methods, and a treasure trove of intelligence can be quickly generated. Failed attacks are likely to discourage some al Qaeda sympathizers, leading to more informants.
No, al Qaeda doesn't need a perfect track record, but failure after failure does carry strategic and operational costs.
5) The Saudi counterintelligence effort is getting an awful lot of good press.
Am I missing anything?
Over at Wired, Spencer Ackerman assesses how low al Qaeda has fallen:
Nine years ago, al Qaeda crashed a plane into the Pentagon and came dangerously close to taking out the White House. Now it wants to hit places like Cosi and Potbelly during the lunch rush in the hope of taking out "a few government employees," writes an extremist using the name Yahya Ibrahim, who also wrote for the launch issue.
That’s not the only idea Inspire floats for al Qaeda wannabes. Got a pickup truck? Why not create the "ultimate mowing machine" by welding steel blades to the grill and driving up on crowded sidewalks to "mow down the enemies of Allah?"
But it’s "paramount" to target government workers, Ibrahim boasts, "and the location would also give the operation additional media attention," according to our friend James Gordon Meek of the New York Daily News. In other words, killing a lot of people all at once is less important than letting Americans -- and government workers in particular -- know they aren’t safe in their capitol city.
Two thoughts. First, this will be an interesting test of homeland security priorities. If al Qaeda is relying on disaffected Americans to do their dirty work for them on U.S. soil, then we will soon see just how many AQ sympathizers there really are in the United States. If nothing happens on this front before the midterms, however, then I'm going to conclude that al Qaeda's latest tactics are a big flop.
Second, even if AQ's latest gambit succeeds in fomenting one or two attacks, this is really and truly small beer. Al Qaeda is now following the narrative arc of VH1's Behind the Music franchise:
ANNOUNCER: Al Qaeda had burst onto the global scene with an array of pyrotechnic successes. After the 9/11 attacks, they seemed unstoppable. Even after losing their base in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora seemed the stuff of legend. It looked like the supergroup created by a construction magnate from Saudi Arabia and a surgeon from Egypt would never fade away.
As the years passed, however, al Qaeda found it difficult to top their greatest hits. For a few years they coasted on prior successes, along with minor hits in Bali, Madrid, London, and parts of the Middle East. By 2009, however, their lack of success was becoming noticeable.
FORMER AQ MEMBER: Oh, yeah, it drove Osama crazy. He'd keep saying, "we need to top 9/11." It started to drive al-Zawahiri nuts. Why do you think he made that stupid "house Negro" tape?
ANNOUNCER: By 2010, al Qaeda was a shell of their former selves, and in a strange reversal of fortune, relied on their groupies to help them out.
TERRORIST ANALYST: You knew they were desperate when they started calling on their tribute bands to perform for them. "Bomb this for us, shoot that for us." That's the last act of a desperate group.
FORMER AQ SYMPATHIZER: That English-language Inspire magazine was the last straw for me. I mean, seriously, it was clear that they had sold out by then. I only think about their earlier work when I think of them now. Seriously, did Tucker Carlson design that thing?
ANNOUNCER: By late 2010, the Mexican drug cartels were all the rage. Al Qaeda's time… had come and gone.
Hopefully, there will be no third act in which al Qaeda bounces back with a comeback hit only to fall prey to a shame spiral.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Over at Shadow Government, Mary Habeck argues that al Qaeda's capabilities are on the rise, as evidenced by the recent effort to launch a trans-European Mumbai-style bombing. This is akin to a CNN headline I just saw: "Europe plot reveals al Qaeda adapting."
I would have assumed that these analyses argue that recent events demonstrate al Qaeda's abilities to find ways to overcome current counter-terrorism tactics.
But then I read the actual CNN story:
With al Qaeda struggling to replicate attacks on the scale of the devastation witnessed on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, security experts believe the Mumbai attack, which gained worldwide publicity, may provide the template for its future operations.
"This new plot is perhaps an indication that al Qaeda is trying to change its strategy," said CNN's Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson. "The high-profile attacks that it has always liked using explosives are clearly getting harder and harder to perpetrate.
"The cells are being spotted and it's harder to keep undercover when you're making bombs. Even buying the material to make bombs is getting harder, so many analysts believe al Qaeda would be unable to mount a 9/11-style attack in the current climate.
"Therefore Mumbai would have been viewed as successful by the al Qaeda leadership as it killed a large number of people. This type of attack is just as deadly but harder to stop."
In the last year, a number of plots targeting the West have been foiled, including the failed Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner; the failed car bomb attempt in New York City's Times Square and an alleged plan to attack shopping malls in Manchester, England over one holiday weekend in 2009.
This strikes me as defining adaptation down. Technically, events suggest that al Qaeda is adapting, which is a bad thing from the perspective of everyone preferring, you know, civilization. But the nut of this analysis is that al Qaeda's preferred tactics are being thwarted, and that they therefore have no choice but to switch tactics. This switch might lead to a greater likelihood of actual attacks, but their lethality seems lower. [But the CNN story suggests that this kind of attack is "just as deadly" as a 9/11-type attack?!- -ed. Yeah, that's wrong. The Mumbai attacks led to 173 deaths and 308 wounded. These are appalling numbers, but they are not as appalling as the loss of life on 9/11].
You wouldn't know it from the blog, but for the past week I have been astonishingly productive. I've written long-overdue papers, copy-edited long-overdue page proofs, prepped long-overdue syllabi, refereed long-overdue manuscripts... you get the drift.
Why the burst of productivity? Well, one reason is that I've been avoiding the two Big Questions haunting the foreign policy blogosphere for the past week or so:
2) The whole mosque-in-lower-Manhattan imbroglio.
Sooooooo.... now that I've fully caught up in my day job, I guess it's time to wade in. Let's start with
the hallowed ground of the former Burlington Coat Factory Ground Zero Mosque Cordoba House Park51. I have only two (printable) thoughts on the matter, so let's get them out of the way:
1) Of course the mosque should be built. There is no, repeat, no ground for government at any level to prevent the construction of this structure on private property. The political and moral arguments against this mosque appear to require those making the arguments to fall back on the moral equivalency between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The other objections I've heard/seen on this issue have been either inane or curiously uninformed about the geography about Manhattan (note to smart conservatives: now would be an excellent moment to point out that there is some rough equivalency to these Ground Zero Mosque criticisms and arguments against opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling).
2) I'm getting really sick of "the terrorists will win" line of criticism being levied against those wishing to prevent construction of the mosque. Over the past few days, I've seen bipartisan criticism of the mosque criticism along the lines of, "this line of argumentation is the best way to help Al Qaeda." Exhibit A of this is Mark Halperin's plea to the GOP to drop this issue:
[W]]hat is happening now — the misinformation about the center and its supporters; the open declarations of war on Islam on talk radio, the Internet and other forums; the painful divisions propelled by all the overheated rhetoric — is not worth whatever political gain your party might achieve....
[A] national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner — the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy.
You know, I remember oh so many years ago the constant use of "if you say X, or criticize policy Y, or challenge official Z, then the terrorists win" kind of discourse. It was horses**t then, and it's horses**t now. I'll be damned if I'm going to see debate in the United States circumscribed because of fears of how Al Qaeda will react. [But it's an inane debate!--ed. Really? More inane than death panels? Ha!!]
The truth is that Al Qaeda has been seriously weakened, and that the effect of this kind of debate on the attitude of possible AQ sympathizers is marginal. It is important for presidents and other responsible policy officials to
expose Newt Gingrich's vapidity articulate a clear message, but airheads commentators like Sarah Palin should be encouraged to bloviate articulate their side of the debate freely and fully.
To his credit, this is a distinction that Michael Gerson gets in his Washington Post column today:
Though columnists are loath to admit it, there is a difference between being a commentator and being president. Pundits have every right to raise questions about the construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero. Where is the funding coming from? What are the motives of its supporters? Is the symbolism insensitive?
But the view from the Oval Office differs from the view from a keyboard. A president does not merely have opinions; he has duties to the Constitution and to the citizens he serves -- including millions of Muslim citizens. His primary concern is not the sifting of sensitivities but the protection of the American people and the vindication of their rights.
By this standard, Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement. And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself.
An inclusive rhetoric toward Islam is sometimes dismissed as mere political correctness. Having spent some time crafting such rhetoric for a president, I can attest that it is actually a matter of national interest. It is appropriate -- in my view, required -- for a president to draw a clear line between "us" and "them" in the global conflict with Muslim militants.
Should Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Abe Foxman et al be criticized for making ill-informed, incoherent, and idiotic arguments? Sure, and as loudly as possible, please. But quit bringing Al Qaeda into it. Silencing debate on national security grounds is so very 2002.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Over the weekend, CIA chief Leon Panetta had a chat with This Week's Jake Tapper, and provided the following assessment of Al Qaeda' capabilities:
TAPPER: How many Al Qaida do you think are in Afghanistan?
PANETTA: I think the estimate on the number of Al Qaida is actually relatively small. I think at most, we're looking at maybe 60 to 100, maybe less. It's in that vicinity. There's no question that the main location of Al Qaida is in tribal areas of Pakistan....
PANETTA: I think what's happened is that the more we put pressure on the Al Qaida leadership in the tribal areas in Pakistan -- and I would say that as a result of our operations, that the Taliban leadership is probably at its weakest point since 9/11 and their escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Having said that, they clearly are continuing to plan, continuing to try to attack this country, and they are using other ways to do it.
TAPPER: Al Qaida you're talking about.
PANETTA: That's correct. They are continuing to do that, and they're using other ways to do it, which are in some ways more difficult to try to track. One is the individual who has no record of terrorism. That was true for the Detroit bomber in some ways. It was true for others.
They're using somebody who doesn't have a record in terrorism, it's tougher to track them. If they're using people who are already here, who are in hiding and suddenly decide to come out and do an attack, that's another potential threat that they're engaged in. The third is the individual who decides to self-radicalize. Hasan did that in the Fort Hood shootings. Those are the kinds of threats that we see and we're getting intelligence that shows that's the kind of stream of threats that we face, much more difficult to track. At the same time, I think we're doing a good job of moving against those threats. We've stopped some attacks, we continue to work the intelligence in all of these areas. But that area, those kinds of threats represent I think the most serious threat to the United States right now. (emphasis added)
Seriously? 60-100 guys? That's it? As Philip Giraldi points out, this kind of assessment raises some Very Important Questions, like: "If CIA Director Leon Panetta is correct and al-Qaeda has been reduced to a tiny remnant why are we spending nearly a trillion dollars a year on defense, intelligence, and homeland security?"
It's a fair question -- shouldn't these guys be able to deal with 60-100 guys?
The easy answers here are A) path dependence; and B) concerns about U.S. reputation. There's a harder answer here, however, that is buried within Panetta's comments, as well as those of just about every other counter-terrorism expert. Let's call it the Counter-Terrorism Mantra, which consists of the following:
1) Al Qaeda is nowhere near as powerful as it was a decade ago
2) Al Qaeda is now really unpopular among Muslims worldwide
3) Because of their desperate straits, Al Qaeda is encouraging anyone and everyone to try attacking the United States
4) One of these homegrown, disgruntled sorts might
not be a moron be smart and lucky enough to succeed.
I understand why the Counter-Terrorism Mantra is used -- because the political costs of underestimating Al Qaeda's capabilities are far greater than overestimating their capabilities. That said, this kind of mantra leads to Very Stupid and Costly policies.
The fact is, Al Qaeda's abilities to execute Grand Guignol-kind of attacks appears to be nil. There have been plenty of opportunities over the past five years for AQ to launch the kind of attack that would put fear into the heart of the West -- the USA-England World Cup match, most recently -- and there's been nothing. Even if Captain Underpants or the Times Square bomber had succeeded, the carnage would have been on a far lower scale than the 9/11 attacks.
Isn't it time that some rational cost-benefit analysis was applied to counter-terrorism policies? In a world where "The [defense budget] gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time," isn't it time for political leaders to argue in favor of resource retrenchment, even if it increases the probability of a successful attack just a smidgen?
I can ask this question, because I can be dismissed as an out-of-touch, elities, zombie-loving, pointy-headed academic who knows nothing about counter-terrorism. What I'd like to see is a few bona-fide counterterrorism experts have the stones to ask a similar question.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Your humble blogger has been relatively sanguine about the attempted Times Square bombing effort. That said, Bruce Hoffman's National Interest essay -- published before the attempt -- is a sobering read that is worth a close look. The paragraph that stood out for me:
We have failed to acknowledge that al-Qaeda has a strategy and, moreover, that it is one designed to overwhelm us. It is a strategy of attrition. And it is a strategy of attrition that focuses on strengthening its own capabilities and expanding its recruitment pool, particularly on our shores, while weakening our ability to fight. It seeks to flood already-stressed intelligence systems with “noise” and with low-level threats from “lone wolves” and other jihadi hangers-on (i.e., low-hanging fruit) that will consume the attention of law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in the hope that these distractions will allow more serious operations to slip by unnoticed.
Food for thought.
Longtime readers might have noticed that I did not blog about the Captain Underpants Bomber from Christmas Day 2009. Why not? Well,
two three reasons:
Peter Beinart, Marc Lynch and Fareed Zakaria have already said 90% of what I wanted to say. My only additional observation is one I'm reluctant to bring to the attention of terrorists, but the professor in me can't resist.
It's striking how Al Qaeda and its emanations have demonstrated zero creativity in their past decade of attempts to strike the United States. It's all about airplanes, airplanes, airplanes -- even though their ability to use the planes themselves as large bombs has been effectively neutralized.
Any Hollywood hack could devise far more inventive acts of terrorism -- which is why I think we need to treat those hacks the same way we treat nuclear scientists. Don't ever let Michael Bay shoot on location in Yemen (I confess to being on the fence about Megan Fox and/or Shia Labeouf).
Beyond that, everyone just relax a bit.
[Drat!!--ed. C'mon, pay up. I was sure you couldn't connect Captain Underpants to Megan Fox!!--ed. And that's why I get the big blog bucks, my imaginary friend.]
Reuters' Inal Ersan reports on a shocking announcement from Al Qaeda:
If it were in a position to do so, Al Qaeda would use Pakistan's nuclear weapons in its fight against the United States, a top leader of the group said in remarks aired Sunday....
"God willing, the nuclear weapons will not fall into the hands of the Americans and the mujahideen would take them and use them against the Americans," Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the leader of al Qaeda's in Afghanistan, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television.
Well, blow me down!! I had no idea that this would have been their intent! It's a good thing Al Qaeda clarified their policy on nuclear weapons, because there had been some ambiguity on the matter. I, for one, am also unclear about Al Qaeda's position on Israel, or whether they think Adam Lambert got jobbed in American Idol.
Seriously, there was one interesting wrinkle in the interview:
The militant leader said al Qaeda would be willing to accept a truce of about 10 years' duration with the United States if Washington agreed to withdraw its troops from Muslim countries and stopped backing Israel and the pro-Western governments of Muslim nations.
I'm not saying the United States should take Al Qaeda up on the bargain, but I do find it interesting that they occasionally float bargains like this out there.
Al-Qaida's No. 2 leader used a racial epithet to insult Barack Obama in a message posted Wednesday, describing the president-elect in demeaning terms that imply he does the bidding of whites. The message appeared chiefly aimed at persuading Muslims and Arabs that Obama does not represent a change in U.S. policies. Ayman al-Zawahri said in the message, which appeared on militant Web sites, that Obama is "the direct opposite of honorable black Americans" like Malcolm X, the 1960s African-American rights leader. In al-Qaida's first response to Obama's victory, al-Zawahri also called the president-elect — along with secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice — "house Negroes." Speaking in Arabic, al-Zawahri uses the term "abeed al-beit," which literally translates as "house slaves." But al-Qaida supplied English subtitles of his speech that included the translation as "house Negroes."This report observes that, "The audio plays over still pictures of al-Zawahri, Malcolm X praying, and Obama with Jewish leaders." For some reason, this whole "Obama is the tool of the Jews" line put forward by Al Qaeda does remind me of this:
Also, to those people who insisted during the campaign that Obama was actually a secret radical Muslim -- does this refute that charge or does it simply show the cunning, complex web weaved by radical Islam? Question to readers: to Americans, this kind of rhetorical thrust will seem pretty laughable. Will it also play that way abroad?
2008 marks the twentieth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s founding. The movement thus joins a select group of terrorist organizations that have survived at least two decades or more. Such groups are often the most consequential and pose the greatest terrorist threats. They are learning organizations that have adapted and adjusted to even the most formidable governmental countermeasures. They are capable of planning and executing operations as well as identifying and building a long-term strategy. They are equally adept at gathering intelligence and conducting surveillance without detection. They are implacable with a steely determination that is difficult to diminish, much less defeat.Hmmm..... sounds pretty bad. Hey, Juan Cole, what do you think?
The original al-Qaeda is defeated.... I mean the original al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda as a historical, concrete movement centered on Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, with the mujahideen who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s at their core. Al-Qaeda, the 55th Brigade of the Army of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the Taliban. That al-Qaeda. The 5,000 fighters and operatives or whatever number they amounted to. That original al-Qaeda has been defeated.... Marc Sageman in his 'Understanding Terror Networks' estimates that there are less than a thousand Muslim terrorists who could and would do harm to the United States. That is, the original al-Qaeda was dangerous because it was an international terror organization dedicated to stalking the US and pulling the plug on its economy. It had one big success in that regard, by exploiting a small set of vulnerabilities in airline safety procedures. But after that, getting up a really significant operation has been beyond them so far.Hmmm.... commentators, what do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.