Tag: david ignatius

Ignatius on Pakistan: Actually, We May Have Only Had One Year

In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius writes that Pakistan is reaping the whirlwind of homegrown terrorism by having “squandered the opportunity presented” with a large-scale U.S. troop presence next door and for refusing to work with Washington to stabilize its mountainous tribal region. Recent history suggests a more complex reality.

Mr. Ignatius is correct when he writes that Pakistan has pursued self-defeating policies, as I have written about extensively and at length. In the seven-year period leading up to 9/11, Islamabad directly armed, funded, and advised the Taliban regime that provided sanctuary to al Qaeda. As former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice explained in April 2004:

Al-Qaida was both client of and patron to the Taliban, which in turn was supported by Pakistan. Those relationships provided al-Qaida with a powerful umbrella of protection, and we had to sever them. This was not easy.

Indeed, it was not. Years of assistance to select militant groups cemented ideological sympathies for radicalism among elements of that country’s armed forces and civilian political elite. Such sympathies cannot be turned off overnight. After former President-General Pervez Musharraf deployed 70,000 troops to the fractious tribal areas in early March 2004, and ordered the ham-fisted raid on Lal Masjid in July 2007, Pakistan and its porous border with Afghanistan became even more inflamed. Over the past couple of years, this author has become far more pessimistic about Pakistan’s viability as a functioning state, given the continuing devolution of power to incompetent local bodies and the disturbing increase of Punjabi militants.

Given all of this, it is mistaken for Mr. Ignatius to leap to the assumption that by deploying over 100,000 foreign troops to Afghanistan nearly a decade after 9/11, the U.S. and its allies could have miraculously stabilized the region. If anything, right after 9/11, Islamabad and Washington had dropped the ball. Back in 2008 when I was in Lahore, I bumped into a former head of Pakistan’s military-dominated spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. We had very brief and candid discussion about the forgotten war raging next door. He said quite explicitly that Pakistan was willing to relinquish support for the Taliban, but that after President George W. Bush lost Osama bin Laden and turned his sights on Iraq, the Pakistanis believed (and understandably so) that the United States didn’t care about the region. Pakistan continued to pursue its own objectives since the United States was focused elsewhere. In essence, he said, Washington had one year after the initial invasion to leverage Islamabad and persuade it to alter its strategic policies.

Of course, who knows for sure? Alas, we will never know, but it was immediately after the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and sadly, it seems, we may never recoup the goodwill we reaped and eventually—and gratuitously—squandered.

Osama’s Feckless Plot against Obama

In three recent colums for the Washington Post, David Ignatius reveals bits of two letters found in Osama bin Laden’s compound after the raid that killed him. One is a 48 page letter from bin Laden to Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior al Qaeda operative since killed in a drone strike. In the letter, bin Laden dispenses advice and dreams up potential terrorist acts, including a suggestion that al Qaeda teams shoot down planes carrying President Obama or General Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Ignatius is doing some excellent reporting here, providing insight in bin Laden’s last days. But he inflates bin Laden’s stature, calling him a “terrorist CEO” and his feckless hope to kill Obama a “plot” that we should find “chilling.”

As I wrote in a letter published in Wednesday’s Post, Ignatius’s article reveals something closer to a fantasy than a “plot.” Ignatius notes that al Qaeda probably lacks the weapons to down standard military aircraft, let alone Air Force One. Additionally, it’s not clear that Kashmiri had the men to pull off the plan. We should not assume that he took these suggestions seriously rather than simply listening to bin Laden with strained patience, as with a cranky uncle. Perhaps the most absurd element of the letter is bin Laden’s political analysis. He argues that elevating Joe Biden to the presidency would somehow lead the U.S. into crisis rather than creating a massive rally-around-the-flag-effect.

This is a happy reminder of al Qaeda’s incompetence, not a chilling one. As John Mueller recently noted, the materials revealed about al Qaeda since bin Laden’s death are more evidence that the cunning, disciplined al Qaeda of popular imagination is a myth. Al Qaeda consists of disjointed groups of guys dodging drones and desperately trying to live up to their inflated reputation to terrorize. There is no true central command. That is clearly true today, and was likely the case even the al Qaeda’s 1990s heyday. That disorganization helps explain why most terrorism, even al Qaeda terrorism, is homegrown—mostly organized by small groups of people in the country where it occurs with little help from abroad. That gets you awful tragedies, as we saw this week in France, but hardly the apocalyptic nightmares we’ve been told to expect.

On April 13, Cato is holding a morning conference to explore homegrown terrorism, with one panel focusing on the United States and one on other western states. The panelists (including Mueller, Risa Brooks, Brian Jenkins, Glenn Carle, Michael Kenney and Mitchell Silber) will discuss, among other things, how al Qaeda’s lack of hierarchy affects its capacity to kill and terrorize. You can sign up here.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.