Assigned Reading: Al-Qa’ida prefers U.S. to stick around
(FROM: The Australian)
There’s a lot of talk about Afghanistan these days, but almost all of it involves domestic politics. Conservatives–and to an increasing extent all Americans–are frustrated with Obama’s indecision. The country is sending a message that Jeff summed up nicely: fish or cut bait, Mr. President.
Obviously some decision is better than no decision, but I’m not seeing a lot of discussion about which decision would be best. Prominent counter-terrorism expert Leah Farrall weighed in a couple of days ago with a thoughtful perspective that is worth reading. She writes:
A key objective is the denial of al-Qa’ida access to sanctuary in Afghanistan — a goal the Bush administration also shared. There has been vigorous debate within the US political establishment about what strategy will best achieve this goal. Counter-insurgency proponents argue for increased troop levels while others believe it can be achieved by a targeted counter-terrorism campaign with a lighter force footprint.
Both of these approaches rest on the longstanding premise that al-Qa’ida wants another safe haven in Afghanistan. However, this premise is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of its strategic intentions. Afghanistan’s value to al-Qa’ida is as a location for jihad, not a sanctuary.
While calling for jihad to liberate occupied Muslim lands is a potent radicalisation tool, it only yields substantive benefits when there is such a conflict at hand. Before September 11, 2001, most volunteers at al-Qa’ida’s camps in Afghanistan wanted training for armed jihad. Al-Qa’ida had problems with attrition of its members and trainees who left its camps to seek armed jihad elsewhere, usually in Chechnya.
This was one of the driving reasons behind Osama bin Laden’s decision to attack the US with the specific aim of inciting it to invade Afghanistan. For bin Laden, this created a new, exploitable jihad. Since the US invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, al-Qa’ida has become the pre-eminent group fighting a self-declared jihad against an occupying force. These invasions allowed al-Qa’ida to exploit allegations that the US was intent on occupying Muslim lands.
A withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan would undoubtedly hand al-Qa’ida and the Taliban a propaganda victory. However, a victory would deny al-Qa’ida its most potent source of power, influence, funding and recruits — the armed jihad.
I think Farrall is right as far as her analysis goes, but I’m not sure that it changes much from a strategic standpoint. The ironic thing is that both the US and bin Laden may want the same thing for the time being: conflict in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda benefits from having a flashpoint to galvanize recruits. The US benefits because we’d rather face more radicals in the Afghan wilderness than fewer radicals in the American suburbs.
This may work as a short-run equilibrium, but in the long-run we need a better solution.