Tag: terrorism

Withdrawing from Afghanistan

Oh, the war in Afghanistan. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced that we need to get out.

As I described the situation to my Cato colleague Chris Preble, for lack of a better analogy, the Afghanistan–Pakistan border is like a balloon: pushing down on one side forces elements to move to another — it doesn’t eliminate the threat.

The fate of Pakistan — a nuclear-armed Muslim-majority country plagued by a powerful jihadist insurgency — will matter more to regional and global stability than economic and political developments in Afghanistan. But if our attempts to stabilize Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, where does that leave us? Like A.I.G., is Afghanistan too big to fail? No.

President Obama earlier this month issued a wide-ranging strategic review of the war and the region, and declared “the core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” But al Qaeda, as we very well know, is a loosely connected and decentralized network with cells in over 60 countries. Amassing tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops in one country — or any country — is unnecessary.

Until Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, changes priorities, this is a stalemate and we are throwing soldiers into a conflict because policymakers fear that, if we leave, it will get worse. Sound familiar?

The only military role necessary in Afghanistan is trainers and assistance for the Afghan military, police, and special forces tasked with discrete operations against specific targets. The bulk of the combat forces can and should be withdrawn.

As for Pakistan’s impulsive act of gallantry in Buner this week, that’s certainly welcome news. But Mukhtar Khan, a Pakistani freelance journalist whom I’ve talked to on numerous occasions, records here that last year in Buner, a lashkar (tribal militia) successfully beat back the Taliban’s incursions.

Thanks to the Swat Valley peace deal between pro-Taliban TNSM founder Sufi Mohammad and the Pakistani government, militants have spilled back into Buner, killing policemen and terrorizing locals. What’s especially troubling this time around is that the spread from Swat into Buner brings militants closer to Mardan and Swabi, which leads directly to the four-lane motorway running from Peshawar to Islamabad. (I took the picture above when I was on the motorway to Peshawar last August.)

Overall, I’m not optimistic that the Pakistani government’s effort in Buner changes the grand scheme of things. Unless the intervention is coupled with a comprehensive shift in Pakistan’s strategic priorities, which means a move away from allowing its territory to act as a de facto sanctuary for militants undermining U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, then these sporadic raids tell us nothing about their leaders’ overall commitment to tackling terrorism.

For instance, Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently ordered the release of hard-line cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz on bail. Aziz was a leading figure from the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) massacre of July 2007 and faces several charges, including aiding militants. For an idea of how pervasive militant sympathies go, when the Islamist political party Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islami was in power in North-West Frontier Province, a Pakistani territory adjacent to the ungoverned tribal areas, its leaders proselytized in mosques about the need for jihad in Afghanistan. In addition, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, was killed in Iraq, their parliament observed a two-minute moment of silence.

If leaders within Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishments are serious about combating extremism, it will take more than periodic military moves into restive areas. We will not know for the next several months whether they have abandoned their lackadaisical attitude toward extremism.

Bob McDonnell Wants to Scare You and Take Your Money

Though I’m not a Virginia resident or voter, nor a donor to politicians, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell (whose party affiliation I’m not aware of) has added me to his email list. His name is similar to a past roommate, and that affinity has caused me to open more of his emails than I ordinarily would.

Today’s is worth writing about: It’s a political candidate transparently trying to scare voters and use their fear for fundraising.

Dear Jim,

Terror suspects could be headed to Virginia…

With the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay the federal government must find new locations in which to house and try the roughly 240 terrorist suspects currently held 90 miles from our shores. Recent news reports indicate that the Department of Justice is considering transferring a number of the detainees to the Commonwealth of Virginia. One specific location: Alexandria. And other Virginia locations could be possibilities as well.

There are security details to be worked out when prisoners are transferred out of Guantanamo Bay, but the prisoners themselves are not dangerous as such. They’re prisoners, and they will always be under heavy guard. Terrorists are not radioactive, and they do not have lasers built into their eyes.

The problems with housing prisoners in the past have been over-the-top security precautions that make a great show but don’t necessarily meet actual security problems associated with housing terror suspects.

Bills have been introduced to bar detainees from being transferred to various states.

A precious few Americans have exhibited cool in this fear-of-detainees brouhaha. Alexandria Sheriff Dana A. Lawhorne is quoted in this Washington Post article, at least saying “he would do what he can: ‘You can’t run the other way when your country calls.’”

But McDonnell, the politician seeking a prominent leadership position in the state, would “lead” by pretending that captured terrorists are too big a security risk for Virginia. It’s shameful fear-mongering meant to capitalize on the ignorance and weakness of Virginians who don’t understand terrorism. The only links in the text of the email are to the fundraising page on McDonnell’s Web site.

McDonnell exhibits leadership malpractice with this kind of campaigning.

What Is a “Fifth Column” Anyway?

@RadleyBalko points to a Washington Examiner column in which Jim Kouri, Vice President and Public Information Officer of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, says that Obama administration policy changes with regard to the “global war on terrorism” allow “suspected Fifth Column-type groups … to make symbolic demands on agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency.” He says the Council on American-Islamic Relations has called on the FBI to confirm or deny that a number of Long Island mosques are under law enforcement surveillance.

It’s hard to find the answer to the first question this raises: “So what?” Kouri does not make the case he implies: that something sinister lurks because this group, having a suspicion of something they see as wrongdoing, asks the agency in question whether it’s happening or not.

But the piece raised another question for me: “What’s a ‘Fifth Column,’ anyway?” The expression has been around forever, but what does it really mean?

Ahead of the Siege of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War, a general under Francisco Franco claimed that he would take the city with the four columns of troops under his command and a “fifth column” of nationalist sympathizers inside the city.

The city never fell to the nationalists, but fear of this “fifth column” caused the Republican government under Francisco Caballero to abandon Madrid for Valencia and it led to a massacre of nationalist prisoners in Madrid during the ensuing battle.

So a “fifth column” is not so much an insidious group of spies or traitors as it is the threat of such a group which causes the incumbent power to miscalculate and overreact. That doesn’t clear up what Kouri is trying to get across, but it does have the air of unintended confession.

Iklé on Pirates

The are a number of statements to take issue with in Fred Iklé’s oped on piracy in today’s Washington Post. Let’s focus on one. He writes:

Terrorists are far more brutal than pirates and can easily force pirates – petty thieves in comparison – to share their ransom money. We already know that Somalia is an ideal fortress and headquarters for global terrorist activity.

Lots is possible, but the fact is that there is no connection between the Somalia pirates and terrorists, as I discussed here.

Terrorism “experts” have been heralding Somalia as the next big terrorist haven for years, and few, if any, have arrived. That is because the idea that violent political chaos is generally conducive to terrorism is wrong. Even in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda got comfortable only once there was a somewhat coherent government that allied with them, not amid total chaos. Civil wars are not, it turns out, ideal locales to hatch international terrorist plots.

While we’re here, it’s worth noting the current level of American concern about piracy is overblown. As Peter Van Doren pointed out to me the other day, the right way to think about this problem is that pirates are imposing a tax on shipping in their area. They are a bit like a pseudo-government, as Alexander the Great apparently learned. The tax amounts to $20-40 million a year, which is, as Ken Menkhaus put it in this Washington Post online forum, a “nuisance tax for global shipping.”

The reason ships are being hijacked along the Somali coast is because there are still ships sailing down the Somali coast. Piracy is evidently not a big enough problem to encourage many shippers to use alternative shipping routes. In addition, shippers apparently find it cheaper to pay ransom than to pay insurance for armed guards and deal with the added legal hassle in port. The provision of naval vessels to the region is an attempted subsidy to the shippers, and ultimately consumers of their goods, albeit one governments have traditionally paid. Whether or not that subsidy is cheaper than letting the market actors sort it out remains unclear to me.

These considerations are worth keeping in mind when we discuss the costs and benefits of particular counter-piracy proposals. Iklé suggests blockading Somalia ports, which would require a massive naval force. Condi Rice suggested a UN peacekeeping force on shore, a far more expensive and risky proposition.

Iklé does make one more promising suggestion, which is to create an international law against paying ransom to pirates. In practice this would require member states to enforce the law against payments, probably making it unenforceable, but it is an interesting idea.

David Axelrod Isn’t a Parrot

So why would he talk like one?

On Fox News Sunday this week, Obama Senior Advisor David Axelrod spoke with Chris Wallace about nuclear non-proliferation, saying, among other things:

[President Obama] wants in the next four years to lock up the loose nuclear weapons that are scattered around Eastern Europe, that could fall into the hands of terrorists. And, of course, that is the big threat. That’s why we have to step up the pace. This represents an existential threat and we need to meet it.

Controlling any loose nukes is important, but the chance of them being used by terrorists is exceedingly small, and it is not an existential threat.

For too long, U.S. national leaders have perpetrated the error of speaking about terrorist threats as “existential” when they are not. Talking this way needlessly riles the U.S. public and thrills would-be or wannabe terrorists the world over. When U.S. leaders donate awesomeness to terrorism, the disenfranchised simply have to join a terror group or make empty threats to impact our discourse, policy, and quality of life.

David Axelrod didn’t need the makeweight argument of terrorist access to justify controlling loose nukes.

(Axelrod’s error was made on the road, from a different time zone. To damn him with faint praise, he comes up looking pretty good compared to Newt Gingrich, who issued spectacularly inconsistent positions from the comfort of the Fox News studio: Gingrich first criticized the Obama Administration for avoiding “war on terror” rhetoric, then sought small-government credibility by criticizing Obama’s budget as the largest non-wartime increase in history. There is no such thing as a limited-government war-monger, and Gingrich should not modulate between treating the country as “at war” or “not at war” within a single television appearance.)

Wednesday Podcast: ‘Turning a Corner on the War Metaphor’

Since President Bush’s “War on Terror” began in 2001, the use of a war metaphor has come with assertions of broader powers by the president. But the U.S. may be turning a corner on how terms like “war” are used, says Cato scholar David Rittgers.

In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast,  Rittgers argues that President Obama’s choice to do away with the war metaphor is a step in the right direction.