Tag: Pakistan

Al Qaeda’s Mythical Unity

The mythical al Qaeda is a hierarchical organization. After losing its haven in Afghanistan, it cleverly decentralized authority and shifted its headquarters to Pakistan. But central management still dispatches operatives globally and manages affiliates according to a strategy.

The real al Qaeda is a fragmented and unmanageable movement. In the 1990s, it achieved limited success in getting other jihadists to join in attacking the West. It was not managerial innovation but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and other governments’ pressures that destroyed  the limited hierarchy al Qaeda Central had achieved. Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. The leaders have cachet but lack the material incentives that real managers distribute to exercise authority. Al Qaeda became bunches of guys with diminished capability.*

The myth is destructive to counterterrorism. Because tightly-run organizations are better at mass violence than disparate movements, the myth creates needless fear that encourages overly ambitious and expensive policies, like the war in Afghanistan. The myth increases the number of enemies we face, taking focus from real ones. Most jihadist militants hate Americans but don’t try to kill us. They fight locally. Attacking them risks making them into what we fear they are and stoking nationalistic resentment that increases their popularity.

My anecdotal sense is that events since 9/11 have increasingly brought commentators around to truth. Even so, the media, for simplicity’s sake, tends towards the myth. And the Obama administration, despite improving upon its predecessors’ absurdly broad definition of our terrorist enemies, still overstates al Qaeda Central’s unity and control of affiliates. More importantly, U.S. policies still pay insufficient attention to the distinction among various al Qaeda entities.

Here are three recent examples of this rhetorical error and its consequences:

(1) Since bin Laden’s death, U.S. officials, analysts, and pundits have claimed that the cache of emails found in his compound contradict recent intelligence reports downplaying his control. The emails, we are told, show that he was still running the show and that al Qaeda Central remained potent.

Last week, however, McClatchy quoted more anonymous officials suggesting that to al Qaeda types in Pakistan and beyond, bin Laden was like a “cranky old uncle” that you respectfully listen to and ignore. The Washington Post reported that the emails show al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan complaining about depleted funds, declining popularity, and CIA drones decimating their ranks.

The White House seems conflicted about which view of al Qaeda to take. It commendably wants to belittle al Qaeda, robbing it of mystique by portraying bin Laden as pathetic and weak. On the other hand, it needs the threat of a powerful al Qaeda to justify the war in Afghanistan and other controversial policies.

(2) Media reports often give the impression that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are the core of the militant group (Ansar al-Sharia) revolting in Yemen’s south. The implication is al Qaeda could soon control territory for the first time. Too little attention is given to the uncertain role AQAP plays among Yemen’s militants and its limited ties to al Qaeda Central. Bin Laden apparently asked AQAP’s leader to attack Americans rather than gathering territory locally, suggesting that its commitment to attacking us may be limited.

The point is not that we should ignore al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. But uncertainty about their role in Yemen and intent cautions against undifferentiated assaults on their leaders, let alone those of Ansar al-Sharia.

(3) Since our recent drone strike in Somalia on leaders of the al-Shabab insurgent group, the administration has claimed that Shabab’s leaders are plotting terrorism against American or western targets. The only evidence given for this assertion is vague claims of Shabab’s ties to Yemeni militants and its claim of responsibility for a 2010 terrorist bombing in Uganda. But that bombing came because Ugandan troops are in the African Union force fighting al-Shabab. While reprehensible, the attack does not show a desire to terrorize Americans.

At the risk of sounding quaint, Congress should make the administration substantiate its claims that Shabab is targeting Americans before we bomb them further. We have enough insurgents to fight these days outside Somalia.

*These positions are roughly those taken by Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman, respectively. My aim is not to perfectly state their views, however, but to describe general views in terrorism commentary.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Overcommitted in Afghanistan

Saturday’s Washington Post ran a story titled “Lawmakers Push for a New Afghan Strategy.” Notably, the number of conservative policymakers looking for a change is growing significantly, as evidenced by the comments of the former governor of Utah (and possible presidential candidate), Republican John Huntsman and Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH) on CNN yesterday.

If they would like a serious proposal that would bring our level of commitment in line with our interests in Afghanistan, they should have a look at this just-released paper [.pdf] by Joshua Rovner of the U.S. Naval War College and Austin Long of Columbia University. Rovner and Long take aim at the two central justifications for the present strategy–fear of “safe havens” and concerns over instability in Afghanistan putting Pakistan’s nuclear weapons up for grabs–and judge that the current strategy has little to do with those objectives. Instead, they propose a significant change in strategy that would secure our vital interests in that nation at a cost more commensurate with our interests.

One thing that policymakers should know about the issue is that public opinion is resoundingly in favor of withdrawal, not staying the current course indefinitely. As Rovner and Long point out, a March Washington Post poll showed that 73 percent of Americans thought that the United States should “withdraw a substantial number of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan this summer” (although only 39 percent expected that Washington would do so).

Increasing numbers of Republicans seem to be recognizing that the mainstream neoconservative view that we need to stay in numbers in Afghanistan forever is out of step with both sound strategic judgment and public opinion. In a recent House vote on withdrawing from Afghanistan, the number of Republicans voting yes tripled from the last vote on the question (although still a low figure).

If policymakers want to know the responsible way to a more solvent strategy in Afghanistan, they should give the Rovner/Long paper a read. Or they can send staff to our event on the paper here at Cato June 29, featuring Rovner, my colleague Malou Innocent, Joshua Foust of the American Security Project, and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

What Not to Learn from bin Laden’s Killing

The tendency to treat Osama bin Laden’s killing as national holiday akin to V-E day is both understandable and unfortunate. Everyone with a sense of justice appreciates the death of mass murderers, particularly the terrorist sort. But celebrating as if we killed Hitler or won a war plays into al Qaeda’s self-serving myth. Paul Pillar put it well:

An unfortunate irony of the huge reaction to the killing of Bin Ladin is that it continues to give him in death what he worked so hard to achieve in life: the status of arch foe of the most powerful nation on earth. It is a status that conforms with Bin Ladin’s narrative of himself as the leader of the Muslim world, protecting that world against the predations of the Judeo-Christian West, the leader of which is the United States.

We should also avoid drawing sweeping conclusions about our counterterrorism policies from Osama bin Laden’s death. We typically overgeneralize about important events. After the September 11 attacks, for example, even defense analysts tended to interpret al Qaeda’s capability largely through the purview of that plot, rather than treating it as a particularly important data point in al Qaeda’s history. The myopic take made al Qaeda seem far more capable than it was. With that in mind, here are several things that bin Laden’s death either cannot tell us much about or will not tell us much about until more information surfaces.

1. The war in Afghanistan. There are many reasons we should draw down in Afghanistan, but the bin Laden raid offers little intellectual ammunition for either side of the war debate. The intelligence that led to Abbottabad came years ago, from prisoners outside Afghanistan and operations in Pakistan. The helicopters flew from a base in Afghanistan, but it didn’t take a decade of war and a massive ground force to get that. The fact that bin Laden was living in an area of Pakistan where the state was relatively strong does nothing to support the idea that we should fight wars trying to build authority in ungoverned regions lest terrorists gain haven there.

But the fact that Sunday’s events do not serve pro-war arguments does not show logically, the correctness of the anti-war position, which is mine. The pro-war argument, flawed as it is, depends on other claims (i.e. terrorists will gain haven in Afghanistan if we draw down) that bin Laden’s death does not affect. That something is not an orange does little to tell you whether it’s a pear. Hopefully, however, bin Laden’s death may make it easier, politically to get out of Afghanistan.

2. Torture. Some intelligence used to find bin Laden came from prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that were subject to coercive interrogation methods like waterboarding, but it remains unclear whether any of that useful intelligence came via waterboarding. Either way, we can learn little about the efficacy of that and other coercive interrogation methods from this experience. Only the most hackish arguments against torture pretend that it never produces useful intelligence. The real argument against torture’s efficacy is that non-coercive techniques work as well or better. Because you do not know what these guys would have said under standard interrogation—in scientific terms, you have no control—it is hard to draw valid inferences about how well coercion worked.

3. Defense spending. Hawks are already arguing that this raid would not have succeeded given a smaller defense budget.  That is silly, obviously. The capability needed to conduct this raid would be intact after the deep defense cuts I favor, let alone the slowdown in defense spending growth that the president is pushing. The budgets of our intelligence agencies and special operations command together account for roughly fifteen percent of U.S. defense spending. Only a portion of that fraction concerns counterterrorism.

4. Bin Laden’s leadership of al Qaeda. The Washington Times insists that finding communication equipment among bin Laden’s effects shows that he was actually running not only al Qaeda central but also its affiliates. They offer little evidence for that conclusion. The fact that bin Laden communicated does not mean that he commanded. There is little reason to suppose that he could control the far flung and disparate entities that use the name al Qaeda, whatever his intent. The National Journal, meanwhile, makes similar assumptions about bin Laden’s operational control in reporting that American authorities expect “a treasure trove of intelligence” to come from bin Laden’s hideout, in the form of thumb drives, hard drives and papers. Even if bin Laden was still capable of providing substantial intelligence on his associates, it is unlikely that he left it sitting around to be gathered. A guy that survived for over a decade while being hunted by various enemies probably knows enough to regularly destroy documents and files. Maybe he got sloppy, but certainly we should not expect to quickly roll up much of the remaining al Qaeda central leadership based on this event.

5. Pakistan’s relationship with al Qaeda. Prior to bin Laden’s death we knew that Pakistan was not as dedicated to hunting al Qaeda as it could have been. It was reasonable to guess that elements of its security and intelligence apparatus either tolerated (if only by looking the other way) or actively supported al Qaeda members. Today the same is true. That bin Laden was living under the nose of the Pakistani military does not show that he was its official guest. And if bin Laden had the help of some Pakistani intelligence or military personnel, it does not follow that many higher-ups were complicit. Pakistan is a factionalized society with weak civilian control of security agencies. It is hard to know who knows what about what or where lies the line between active complicity and unwillingness to look for things one is not eager to find. To be clear, I am not arguing that no Pakistani official is guilty of harboring bin Laden. The point is rather than no new degree of guilt has become obvious since Sunday. Like number four, this issue should be become clearer as more information comes to light.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.

Wednesday Links

  • Osama bin Laden’s death gives us a chance to end what might have become an era of permanent emergency and perpetual war.
  • The Cold War ended–what are we doing in Korea?
  • Two cheers for President Obama for ending eight (well, three) tax breaks to oil companies.
  • Does Osama bin Laden’s death mean an end to U.S.-Pakistan relations?
  • Please join us next Tuesday, May 10 at 4:00 p.m. Eastern for a Cato Book Forum on America’s Allies and War: Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, by University of Mary Washington political scientist Jason W. Davidson. Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and Georgetown University international relations professor Charles Kupchan will join Professor Davidson in a discussion of the book and its themes, particularly U.S. relations with NATO allies, moderated by Cato director of foreign policy studies Christopher A. Preble. Complimentary registration is required of all attendees by Monday, May 9 at noon Eastern. We hope you can join us in person, but we encourage you to watch online if you cannot attend personally.

Tuesday Links

  • “Given America’s large-scale, long-term nation-building mission in Afghanistan, another chapter remains unfinished.”
  • It doesn’t make a lot of sense to refer to a government whose intelligence service assists military efforts by al Qaeda and the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan as an ‘ally.’”
  • “Terrorists are not superhuman.”
  • “Physicians must either make up for this shortfall by shifting costs to those patients with insurance — meaning those of us with insurance pay more — or treat patients at a loss.”
  • Is America in a libertarian moment?


After bin Laden

As Chris Preble noted early Monday morning, Osama bin Laden is dead. In addition to celebrating V-OBL Day, we should take a moment to reflect on wars of the last decade and the civil liberties we have sacrificed since September 11, 2001. Malou Innocent makes the case for reconsidering our foreign policy, and Jim Harper asks if he can have his airport back. We lay out these thoughts in more detail in this Cato video, After bin Laden.

The phrase “after bin Laden” has a nice ring to it. Cato held counterterrorism conferences in 2009 and 2010, and there’s more Cato work on counterterrorism and homeland security here.

Monday Links