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May 04, 2012

This Week In Threat-Mongering
Posted by Michael Cohen

ScreamThis has been a particularly busy week for the threat-mongering industry. It's the anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, which puts enormous pressure on threat mongers everywhere to inflate the potential threats from al Qaeda and jihadist terror groups in general.

Last week we saw Seth Jones and Mary Habeck take a stab at claiming al Qaeda is as dangerous as ever; this week David Ignatius went in a different direction, arguing instead that the threat from al Qaeda is materializing in new and insidious ways.

According to Ignatius, "In terms of bin Laden’s broader goal of moving the Islamic world away from Western influence, he has done better than we might like to think."

Huh? Hasn't al Qaeda's uncompromising vision of an Islamic state largely been rejected? Hasn't their unpopularity in the Arab world grown significantly? And outside a few towns in Yemen and some affiliate groups that OBL was unable to control, isn't AQ a fairly weak actor?

Not at all says Ignatius, because instead OBL is making inroads via the democratic process, "Egypt is a case in point: This has been a year of mostly nonviolent democratic revolution. But it has brought to power some Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood groups that share common theological roots with bin Laden. And the al-Qaeda goal of driving the “apostate,” pro-American President Hosni Mubarak from power has been achieved."

Let's ignore for a moment that OBL, as actual AQ expert Will McCants notes, "despised party politics/parliaments." But think of the broader argument that Ignatius is making here. AQ is a deeply nihilist Islamist organization focused largely on attacks against the United States and large-scale terrorist attacks. The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamist organization that is largely non-violent and has sought to establish power in Egypt via the political process. From this perspective it's not hard to note that al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood are two different organizations with different tactical approaches to achieving their goals.

Yet by Ignatius's argument, if you've seen one Islamist you've seen them all. In this worldview, AQ shares common goals with Erdogan in Turkey, even Karzai in Afghanistan or practically any Islamic oriented political group in the Arab world - the key difference being that while many of these movements are non-violent and are seeking power via the ballot box, al Qaeda, as Ignatius notes "couldn’t make the transition from violent jihad to nonviolent Islamist politics." Yes, this is something of a crucial distinction.

There is certainly a discussion to be held about the Islamist groups in the Arab world; linking them to a group that killed 3,000 Americans and describing legitimate Islamist political parties as "electoral bin Ladenism" is unhelpful in this regard. 

But it certainly is scary!

Next we have two separate op-eds - first from Michael Auslin of AEI in the Weekly Standard and next from Rep. Randy Forbes in Politico - arguing that we need an even bigger air force. Now I should say, I'm a big fan of the air force, but within limits. Not so much for Auslin and Forbes, the latter of whom argues, "If we weaken our air superiority, our country’s entire war-fighting strategy will be forced to change. We will no longer be able to operate anywhere on the globe without risk."

Left unanswered is the question of why the US should want or need to operate anywhere on the globe without risk, particularly since Forbes doesn't make much effort to identify actual security threats to the United States that would require sustained aerial bombardment. Auslin argues that advances by the Russians and Chinese will make it harder to operate in these particular environments. Indeed, Auslin notes ruefully that more countries are realizing, "to survive an attack on your homeland or forces, deny the United States control of the air."

Again, unanswered is why the United States would want to attack Russia or China.

In the formulation put forward by Auslin so long as other countries are developing their air forces and air defenses to prevent US attack, the United States must continue to build an even larger air force to counteract those advances just in case there comes a day in the future when the US decides it wants to go to war with said countries. So from this formulation the US can never stop building aircraft; if we do there will be a mine shaft, er, air power gap.

To be sure, there is a compelling argument to be made for maintaining an advanced air force and modernizing the US fleet, but the arguments put forward by Auslin and Forbes lead in only one direction - constant, unceasing air force construction to combat unnamed foreign threats.

May 03, 2012

Letters from an Occupant: The Abbottabad Documents
Posted by Eric Martin

The Obama administration - through West Point's Combating Terror Center (CTC) - has released a handful of the documents that were seized in the raid on the Abbottabad complex where Osama bin Laden was hiding out. The summary provided by the CTC is a useful analysis of source documents that, in some cases, include letters from bin Laden himself (as an aside, Will McCants has put together a handy, chronological list of the aforementioned documents).


While the documents that were released represent a very small sample, and broad, sweeping generalizations based on their contents should be avoided, the CTC report does offer this analysis with respect to the controversial notion of an Iran/al-Qaeda relationship:
References to Iran show that the relationship is not one of alliance, but of indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of detained jihadis and their families, including members of Bin Ladin’s family. The detention of prominent al-Qa`ida members seems to have sparked a campaign of threats, taking hostages and indirect negotiations between al-Qa`ida and Iran that have been drawn out for years and may still be ongoing.

The report goes on to note:

Al-Qa`ida did not appear to have looked to Iran from the perspective that “the enemy of my (American) enemy is my friend,” but the group might have hoped that “the enemy of my (American) enemy would leave me alone.” [...]

Although the documents make it clear that the relationship between Iran and al-Qa`ida is antagonistic, it is difficult to explain Iran’s rationale for detaining en masse these jihadis for years, without due process. One plausible explanation that has been advanced is that Iran held them “in part as a deterrent against a Qaeda attack on Iranian soil.” Another widely reported explanation is that Iran was holding al-Qa`ida members “as a bargaining chip in its war of nerves with the US, and will only allow their extradition in return for substantial concessions.” Whether Iran was aware of it or not, al-Qa`ida had plans to put the released detainees to “work.”

Something to consider, at least in terms of past Iran/al-Qaeda relations. The rest of the report is highly recommended.

The Problem With Obama's Afghanistan Speech
Posted by Michael Cohen

Kick the canSo two days ago, President Obama traveled to Afghanistan to remind people that he killed Osama bin Laden a year earlier . . . and while he was there sign a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with the first thing and the second is actually an important step forward for Afghanistan's future. But then the President gave a nationally televised speech about the war . . . and that's where the trouble begins.

First, the President was for lack of a better word, disingenuous, about the state of the US mission in Afghanistan. According to Obama:

We broke the Taliban's momentum. We've built strong Afghan Security Forces. We devastated al-Qaida's leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The goal that I set - to defeat al-Qaida, and deny it a chance to rebuild - is within reach.

Much of this statement is simply not true or exaggerated. The Taliban's momentum has been slowed, but broken? As long as the groups has support from Pakistan and safe havens across the border the Taliban will continue to be a disruptive force in Afghanistan's future. As for the ANSF, as my friend Micah Zenko noted on twitter the other day, the new Sigar report on Afghanistan indicates that only about 6% of units are able to operate "independent with advisors." While the the ANSF is improving it seems far from clear that they are close to being able to operate on their own and without US guidance.

And while the President is certainly correct that the US has devastated AQ's leadership it should be noted that the surge he ordered in 2009 did little to add to that devastation. I get that the President wants to put a positive spin on the war, but Afghanistan is very far from being on the glide path to stability - and indeed, seems likely to continue to be mired in low-level civil war for some time to come.

Part of the reason for this comes in this section of Obama's speech:

In coordination with the Afghan government, my Administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We have made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws. Many members of the Taliban - from foot soldiers to leaders - have indicated an interest in reconciliation. A path to peace is now set before them. Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan Security Forces, backed by the United States and our allies.

It's a very positive sign that the President is publicly acknowledging talks between the US and the Taliban, but statements like those in italics don't really amount to negotiation - they are basically calling on the Taliban to surrender.  This isn't really a path to reconciliation because it presupposes the outcome. Clearly the Taliban are not going to break with al Qaeda, renounce violence or agree to abide by the Afghanistan Constitution as the first step in a political negotiation - rather all of these steps come at the end. The White House position, which has been the case for quite some time, is not to treat the Taliban as a political actor with legitimate grievances but rather an adversary to be beaten into submission. Not only is this unlikely to occur, but it makes it ever harder to come up with a sustainable political settlement.

Obama's statement is indicative of the lack of seriousness to which the US has approached the subject of political reconciliation. For example, late last month, we saw indications that the Administration was pulling back on plans to release five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay as a good faith measure to jumpstart talks. The reason: fears of a political backlash. That an Administration, which has already endorsed troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, is afraid of the political fallout from a confidence building measure with the Taliban because it might lead to a one day story of criticism from Republicans is an indication of how minimal the courage is inside the White House to push for a political solution.

That Obama reiterated on Tuesday his "negotiation by surrender" strategy is further evidence that the White House is disinclined to use any political capital in pursuing the path of reconciliation. The result is that US troops could be in Afghanistan for years to come.

The fact is, the SPA is really just a means to an end - the end being a political deal with the Taliban.  The whole rationale for the SPA is not to keep the US in Afghanistan forever, but to use it as a tool of leverage to push and prod the Taliban to the negotiating table. It's a way of saying to the Taliban, 'we're staying for at least ten years . . . unless you want to have a serious conversation about reconciliation that might get us out sooner.'

But for such a plan to work the White House has to demonstrate a modicum of political courage and take the steps necessary to make a political settlement to the conflict possible. Instead Obama seems more than happy to kick the can down the road - and in the process ensure that Afghanistan has something very far from the rosy future that he talked about on Tuesday night.

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