Learning to Float in the War on Terror

Jamelle makes some persuasive points in this post on Afghanistan–arguing that the administration and its supporters have yet to make a solid case that the war is in the US interests.  As he says, the case is still “up in the air.”

I think on that specific point he’s right.  Attempting to build a nation-state in Afghanistan will not destroy the threat of al-Qaeda (especially if AQ is hiding in Pakistan and as appears likely heading either to Yemen and the Horn of Africa and/or northward into Central Asia).

But I think he goes too far in the other direction with this point:

There’s not much evidence to suggest that a stable government in Afghanistan will lead to a lower overall incidence of terrorism.  Of the major terrorist attacks (against Western targets) since 9/11, the two largest – the March 2004 attack in Spain and the July 2005 attack in Britain – were planned and executed within the respective countries.  Indeed, the same is true of 9/11. What’s more, and as Matt Yglesias has repeatedly noted, the terrorist attacks that we’re really worried about – nuclear, chemical or biological attacks – are unlikely to be carried out by terrorist groups located in Afghanistan, or even Pakistan for that matter.  In all likelihood, those plots will be developed and carried out by terrorists within the targeted country.

The Spainish and British cases (even 9/11 for that matter) are a little more complicated in terms of geographic influence/causation.  For example, the idea of the plot for 9/11 was thought up by Khaled Sheik Mohammed.  Not in Germany nor in the US.  The Madrid attacks were largely funded by selling hash and ecstasy on the Spanish nightclub scene (which in Barcelona in particular has a very global makeup).  The hash largely coming from Morocco.

And the British attacks occurred through the pipeline of Pakistani extremism.

In other words, while the standard notion that attacks emanate from one point in the world–i.e. a failed state like Afghanistan–and therefore we need to go and create stable nation-states where there are failed states is really flawed, the opposite is not therefore true. Namely that terrorist attacks only perpetuate within the host countries.

Terrorism is much more like (or is) a black market criminal enterprise.  As such it is global, like all corporations across the planet.  The concept of “citizenship” or which nation-state is the site of the issue is largely a false frame in this age.  As Dan Drezner said, All Politics is Global.  Terrorism included.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here, as I’m very skeptical (as I’ve said before) of increasing troop presence in Afghanistan, but the alternative of assuming that all interventions only make situations worse (which I’m not saying is Jamelle’s position to be clear) is no good in my mind either.

We need some framework for this muddy in between.  Which is why I was so pleased to read Dr. Thomas Rid’s piece in The Atlanticist.  I recommend the post in full.  It’s very good.

He lists ten points to consider in an analysis of what to do re: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the larger operation against terrorism.  Those ten points include insights from both camps–the Afghanistan is central to fighting al-Qaeda/US interests and those who oppose that view. 

His read of balancing these views:

The question is what follows from these assumptions? A complex cost-benefit calculus, I would say. A nasty one. There are costs and benefits attached to trying harder — and there are costs and benefits attached to stop trying harder. And at some point somebody will have to make the decision to start a withdrawal. That much is safe to say. The question is: when do the net costs of trying to solve the problem outweigh the net benefits of trying to solve the problem? The answer cannot be a yes or no. Only a: then. Of course that doesn’t mean that a timetable should be communicated publicly — but the calculation should be clear, or at least clearer. Words like “winning” and “victory” have no place in this debate, even if the street is shouting for it.

What makes this calculus more complicated is that past losses in blood and treasure tend to make actors more irrational. Like on stock markets. The effect is twofold: first the costs of failure are constantly overrated. Naturally those with a vested interest look left and right for reasons to bolster their cause politically. They have to. Second the benefits of success are also overrated — for essentially the same reasons.

I think this is exactly right.  The Taliban and related movements are connecting up with other groups in the region like Lakshar e Toiba (think the Mumbai street attacks).  The administration–particularly Sec. Clinton–has at times used the phrase “the syndicate” to reference this movement.  Something more regional and more embedded than the trans-national al-Qaeda.  I’m not sure syndicate is the right phrase, but it’s at least moving in that direction.  This jihadi activity looks poised to emanate in the coming years up into the “istan” countries of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia as well as the Caucasus.

This is where yet again a lack of a global strategy hurts so much.  Even the attempt at a strategy such as “kill and destroy al-Qaeda wherever they are” is not really a forward thinking strategy, but still reactive.  With that reactive frame dominated our thought/analysis, then discussion and decision-making concerning each individual war/hotspot becomes that much more reactive.

Even worser is the fact that having no global strategy–particularly one that could basically cut across various party lines holding the office of President–is that it gives us no sell/buy option for allies around the world, except for arm-twisting (a la NATO).  Or ad hoc largely under-utilized relationships (e.g. India).  Without global coordination, then various rule sets placed in one region only intensifies the evolutionary development of professional criminal enterprises.

As an example of what I mean, take this post on the place of women in Afghanistan.

It contains both of these paragraphs within its short space:

(1) Although the August elections may have been a democratic step forward for Afghanistan, they were ultimately a step backward for Afghan women. In a war-ravaged country, where women have few rights, millions of Afghan women were denied their chance to vote in the presidential election.


(2) A great solace lies in the fact that despite the country’s volatile security conditions, Afghan women not only cast their votes, but also made their foray into Afghan politics. Two women ran for the presidency, five sought the vice presidency, and some 300 women ran for election to provincial councils. The desire to work on Afghan women’s issues was so strong and powerful that despite the fact that their posters were torn down and there was fear for their safety, these brave women still contested elections…Women contesting elections in Afghanistan, braving the repression by family, society, and in some places the Taliban to vote in this election, however imperfect and small, is a welcome change in this patriarchal conservative Afghan society. The women of Afghanistan are gradually learning how to obtain their political rights in a society dominated by men.

I’m not trying to pick on the author of this post (Mona Sarika), I’m just saying look how difficult it is to gauge these things.  Its both better and worse for women in Afghanistan simultaneously.  This I take to be Rid’s point: live with that ambiguity.

The all in or get all out schools I find less and less helpful in these debates.  If we should withdraw from Afghanistan on an unannounced timeline (a la Rid, which I basically agree with), then we need to think about what follows.  It may be that the coming McChyrstal strategy of population-centric warfare is all planned to be one more go in, try to stabilize it, then declare victory and get the f@#! out.  That may be planned in from the beginning–if not by the Generals than by the President himself.  In other words, basically what Rid suggests.

But either way, we still have this language of victory/defeat and in these kinds of scenarios, neither is the reality.

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2 thoughts on “Learning to Float in the War on Terror

  1. Excellent post Chris.

    I guess I’ma rare conservative in that I never supported the invasion of Afghanistan as it was carried out. Our target was Al Qaeda. We should have targeted them and if that meant chasing them through the hinter lands of Pakistan, so be it. They were a state-less actor and there was no real reason to target the government of Afghanistant, corrupt and tyrannical as they may have been. I’m not even convinced they were providing ‘shelter’ to Al Qaeda because really did they even have the power to drive them even if they had wanted to? Their power was mostly concentrated in the capital of a very lawless country and AQ was sheltered by various warlords that were beholden to no one.

    As soon as we targeted the Taliban in what I can only describe as an act of grief-motivated revenge, we made ourselves responsible for cleaning up the mess by the standards that Western nations now play by. That includes basically assuming the operational costs for the country since they have little or no ways of producing revenue. That is, in my mind, a complete blunder of epic proportions. At least even the strongest critics of the Iraq war should be able to concede that Iraq is a major player in the Middle East by location and by history. Afghanistan is no more key to the global fight against terror than anyone of another dozen lawless and/or tyrannical nations with a militant-inclined Muslim population.

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  2. There was some talk (even factions within the Taliban) of trading Osama in exchange for letting the Taliban stay in power. But Mullah Omar was (and still is I imagine) too close to bin Laden. Reports have it that are related by marriage. So while it arguably would have been the best way to go, I don’t know how you could have practically separated the two. At this point, al-Qaeda in Pakistan was, prior to Beitullah Mehsud’s death, a functionary of the Pakistani Taliban. Maybe with Mehsud’s death that has changed and al-Qaeda will try to reassert its independence. The Afghan jihad at this point is pretty well separate from al-Qaeda however and that could be turned down.

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