Despite trillions of dollars and thousands of lives lost, it now appears that Al Qaeda is far from defeated and even on the rise in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somali and Mali. The American counterterrorism strategy, symbolized by the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, and while inflicting serious damage on the network, has failed to prevent its spread and regeneration. Counter-insurgency, the rival Pentagon strategy of providing security for local populations, is already being shelved after a brief period of enthusiasm among defense intellectuals and journalists.
The counterterrorism approach supported by Vice President Joe Biden against advocates of counterinsurgency has succeeded in allowing the US administration to withdraw significant numbers of ground troops and create the public impression that the two wars are winding down. But the underlying crises of Iraq and Afghanistan - ethnic divides, economic corruption, and utter political dysfunction - remain, giving rise to violence that was never suppressed. Since Obama has decided to heed the huge majority of Americans supporting an end to the two quagmires, the president is left with a defensive military strategy combining drones, CIA clandestine operations and propagandistic information warfare in a climate of ratcheted–up official secrecy. With a declining US troop and financial commitment, the US is not and cannot win the scaled–back Long War, a defense strategy which projects 50 to 80 years of continuous combat against Islamic jihadists. After a decade of fruitless fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Long War is being conducted only from the shadows.
Take the case of Syria. A Syrian popular movement, based largely among the Sunni majority, has risen against an Alawite (Shiite) dictatorship. Thinking in classic balance-of-power terms, the US is siding with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey against Iran, Russia and China in pushing for regime change. According to the New York Times, CIA officers have been operating on the border in support of Syrian opposition fighters, and no doubt are in close contact with informants on the ground in Syria. Negotiations are going nowhere, partly because the Western powers are intent on a "win" as in Libya. The Assad regime may be disintegrating from within, and may redeploy to coastal mountain areas in a de facto partition of the state. "We are already heading to a partition of the country,” according to an anonymous US official. (Wall Street Journal, July 21)
The Syrian opposition is based on an oppressed Sunni population that spans the porous border from southeast Syria to northwest Iraq. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq are growing.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is largely the spawn of the US invasion and occupation, rooted in Sunni heartlands like Anbar Province. Several years ago, there was a violent falling out between Al Qaeda and the homegrown Iraqi insurgency over questions of making it a sectarian war (against the majority Shiites) and whether to transform Iraq into a staging area for jihadism against the West. Al Qaeda lost so much support that the Anbar insurgents allied with the US to wipe them out. But Al Qaeda learned from its defeat and gradually regenerated. Last week, for example, they took responsibility for bombings in Iraq that killed over one hundred people, and announced their intention to strike at the American heartland. (Los Angeles Times, July 26)
History demonstrates that the Al Qaeda threat is exaggerated by US intelligence, as a diversion from focusing on popular discontent and local insurgency. There is no question that Al Qaeda in Iraq is a relatively small fraction of the minority Sunni opposition to the Baghdad regime. Nor is there any doubt that Al Qaeda in Syria is a small fighting force grafted on to a massive majority movement against Assad. Nor is it possible for Al Qaeda to come to power amidst quarreling ideological and sectarian factors in the Islamic world. But Al Qaeda militants are a reality even after the destruction of top leaders of the organization by assassinations, drone strikes and secret operations. The militants do regenerate, and are capable of learning from mistakes. The greatest myth is that the US War on Terrorism has eliminated them by force.
In Syria, for six months, US analysts have noted Al Qaeda-type violence, 10 suicide bombings and 35 car bombings by one count. (New York Times, July 25) Finally, this week the Times ran a scary headline, "Al Qaeda Taking Deadly New Role in Syria Conflict,” and confirmed that Syria is becoming "a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda." (New York Times, July 25) One week later, the Times underscored the story with a headline announcing, "Jihadists Taking A Growing Role in Syrian Revolt." (July 30)
Al Qaeda is motivated by a dream that the West dismisses as obsolete fantasy. In a rare interview last week, one Al Qaeda operative said, "Our big hope is to form a Syria-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine." (New York Times, July 25) While utterly implausible through conventional war, it is quite feasible for them to inflict terror bombings on Iran and Israel while defending a vast sanctuary area encompassing the Iraq-Syria border, now inhabited by about 25 million Sunnis who are historically disenfranchised. Call this de facto region "SunniStan."
The American military establishment has little interest in acknowledging the stalemate in the War on Terrorism symbolized by the renewed appearance of Al Qaeda. Nowhere is the weirdness illustrated better than the new impasse with Pakistan over sanctuaries. The story goes like this: in 2009, the Americans pushed the Pakistani army to `invade and cleanse the Swat Valley of insurgents. In trying to do so, many insurgents were driven from their bases in Pakistan into adjacent Afghanistan, where they regrouped and resumed attacking Pakistan. Apparently someone in the higher echelons of "the best and brightest" thought that this cross-border pressure on Pakistan would cause Islamabad to give up the sanctuaries for the Afghan combatants inside Pakistan. That blew up into brutal tensions between Pakistan and the US this week, with Pakistan's foreign minister asserting that the US had allowed 52 attacks on Pakistan by the Pakistan Taliban operating from springboards in mountainous Afghanistan territory. "Until recently, all three countries had largely kept the problems in northeastern Afghanistan out of the public debate." (New York Times, July 30)
The unending conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan may be prelude to a Syrian debacle, where the ethnic tensions are explosive, are uncontainable within Syria's borders, and seemingly beyond any military solution.
All this raises serious questions about the efficacy of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and the reputation of the Pentagon. A further military deterioration will give rise to calls to "finish the job" from those whose imaginations are limited to escalations. A key US interest is to downplay the significance of Al Qaeda as only a marginal fringe of "dead-enders”, to borrow the language of Vice President Dick Cheney about the Iraq insurgency in 2003. The secret fear in the White House is that there will be a message of failure through a new spiral of violence in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan-Pakistan, or in Iran, or even via a terrorist attack on an American city sometime in the near future. For the White House, two clocks tick, both the electoral clock and the one that might be on a timer in Washington DC.
It was always a delusion arisen from Beltway inbreeding that led to the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies. In retrospect, Bin Laden was correct in thinking that Al Qaeda's massive attack on the United States inevitably would force America into quagmires which we could not afford and where we could not succeed. Now Obama's tragic task is managing the insoluble.
The most constructive steps the US could take are more political, economic and diplomatic than military. American troops in Islamic countries may be invisible to Americans, but they are attractive targets for Al Qaeda targeting and recruitment. Our longtime support for Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs was one of principle reasons for the rise of Al Qaeda in Egypt. Our diplomatic, military and financial support of the Israeli occupation has been the other. The current Middle Eastern upheavals are an opportunity to change our political alignment towards democracy in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, which means acknowledging Islamic majorities. Correct diplomatic relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt means supporting an important alternative to Al Qaeda. Supporting the popular revolution in Syria and protections for beleaguered Sunnis in Iraq can produce the same side effects. So would challenging the repressive policies of the Saudi monarchy. And above all, American recognition of a provisional Palestinian state, not subject to an absolutist Israeli veto, might do the most to realign the United States with the legitimate democratic aspirations of a majority in the Middle East. If the US is seen as a possible partner, as opposed to a hopeless enemy, support for Al Qaeda and its networks will decline.
The ugly alternative is for the United States to join the Israeli right-wing, the Saudi oil elite and the British Tories in a perpetual defensive war requiring military interventions, targeted killings, cyber-attacks, and divide-and-conquer strategies to exploit the Sunni-Shiite conflict. Overlaid with the growing wars over resources, such policies, if continued, will take a grave and perhaps unsustainable toll in tax dollars, democratic liberties, poisoned relationships, and human life. And to what end? To maintain the untenable quo by muddling along, as if our national goal is to buy time.