The year 2009 closes. The President of the United States contemplates his generals’ request for 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while searching for the additional billions of dollars such a move would require.
The legacy left to him by his predecessor was a policy of pre-emptive strike, nation defeat, followed by nation building in a democratic format. In a sense, it seemed a moral departure from years of American policy placing puppet strong men such as the Shaw Pahlavi in Iran to subjugate and control the population. From the early years of counter-Communism and support of the Domino Theory, America sought to solidify its position around the world by identifying, supporting or propping up strong men of control, no matter how corrupt or brutal.
The early attempt of neo-con thought was to phase into nation building as a different strategy to support imperialist desire. The fall of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union opened the door for this new policy, and at first, it did seem more moral, more humanist than the old counter-Communism approach. As capitalism was globalizing and wealth was developing in third-world countries, it seemed to make economic sense to nation build, while developing an additional trading partner.
With the attack on America of 9-11 by Al-Qaeda based in Afghanistan, the policy of attack, destroy and nation-build by America took on a flourished meaning. The policy, however, was diverted simultaneously, by a desire of pre-emptive attack against Iraq for reasons unrelated to Al-Qaeda and quickly overshadowed the Afghanistan attempt.
Over a ten year period, America’s attempt to nation build in Iraq in its own image proved to be a failure in Afghanistan and created an anti-American backlash throughout the Arab world. The destruction of the Iraqi army and totalitarian regime, which had been a counter-balance to Iranian territorialism destroyed the Arabic balance of power in the middle east.
Moving from Iraqi failure back to the original policy in Afghanistan, the current President is now faced with a three-tiered policy selection, none of which are perfect. The potential goals are:
There would be, of course, the possibility of a combination of all of the above at a very high personnel and economic cost. Beyond that, either of the first two (Nation/state building or counter-insurgency) will require the dedication and economic costs of many, many years. This is a country that has never had an effective government and a people who have never known a mindset other than tribal fundamentalism. Possibly, that can all be changed over time, much time.
Counter-terrorism can be just as effective as counter-Communism was if it is indeed embraced by the American government as a policy and a mind-set. It would require enhancing and developing our spy agencies and learning to blend with ethnicities and terrain. There are no clear victories in counter-terrorism, and it provides the administration with no public relation drama. It is not a vote getter. It is a long, slow process which takes agency astuteness and patience. It is effective as a “counter”.
So the year 2009 closes, and the President of the United States must make a choice. Can there be a correct choice? No, not if the definition of “correct” is a Hollywood idea of military success with the tanks rolling into Kabul and the people waiving American flags and inviting the Americans into their homes and lives. It is not WWII. It is a different world, now.
In fact, the idea of a massive, consolidated presence in Afghanistan is within itself misplaced. The American goal is or should have been to counter terrorists, most importantly Islamic terrorists. That said, it is clear that Islamic terrorists cannot be contained to one locale. The religion of Islam has over a billion adherents and is spread geographically throughout the entire world. A cell group can morph into any country, and society, anywhere in the world. To follow 20th century military strategy and chase them with the marines is folly. Just because Al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan/Pakistan in preparation and implementation of 9-11 does not mean that area is the source of next American homeland attack. The terrorists will be there, of course, but there are more efficient ways to counter them than attempted nation building or the use of classical warfare. To be preoccupied with Afghanistan dilutes any hope for effectively countering terrorism as it moves from country to country.
Take for example the republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, not to mention Chechnya. Moscow’s strategy of buying off corrupt local elites in the region has not purchased stability. It has been as much a failure to counter terrorism as America’s classical military operations and attempted nation building in the western format. Islamist radicals thrive on official corruption, interclan warfare, and the heavy-handedness of police, security services and military expeditions. Moreover, Islamic terrorists are warriors without borders. Border restrictions of countries from East to West mean nothing to them. They are fluid.
It is perhaps true that Al-Qaeda is the most sophisticated and better organized of terrorist groups. However, their ability to hide, morph, flow and reorganize is based on their access to a widespread network of radical clerics and loosely associated jihadist groups. Take for example Somalia. For the better part of two decades, instability and violence have confounded U.S. and International efforts to bring peace to Somalia. The attempts to create a government have failed, even backfired. The United States’ efforts since 9/11 to prevent Somalia from becoming a safe haven for Al-Qaeda have alienated large parts of the Somali population. Was this the “nation/state building” paradigm, again?
What we did build and enforce were new bases for Al-Qaeda from which to launch attacks outside the country. Our attempts to establish an American-backed government propelled the indigenous Salafi jihadist groups of Somalia to power. One of those groups, the radical youth militia, Al Shabaab, now controls most of Somalia’s southern half. It is now well tied to working with Al-Qaeda. Recall that Somali nationals were arrested in Minnesota in 2009 after returning from fighting alongside Al Shabaab, and in August 2009, two Somalis were arrested in Melbourne for planning a major suicide attack on an Australian army installation. The first American ever to carry out a suicide bombing did so in Somalia in October 2008. Is it time for America to use its Afghanistan mindset and send the army into Somalia?
Indonesia has been called “The Forgotten Front.” It has the world’s single largest Muslim population: 220 million – three times that of Egypt, the most populous Arab nation. Recently, suicide bombers struck two American-owned luxury hotels in Jakarta, killing nine people and injuring more than 50. Here, terrorism is a secondary issue to poverty and the corruption that nurture it. The side effect is rising religious fundamentalism among the impoverished, uneducated Muslims. The same is true about the savage ethnic fighting between Muslims and Christians in the southern Philippines and between Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand.
In two dozen of Indonesia’s poorest districts, radical clerics, police, and local military officers have imposed religious law, eclipsing the secular legal system. Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian franchise of Al-Qaeda, is flourishing.
In the Philippines, the terror organization, Abu Sayyaf is well formed and strikes frequently against Western interests. The Philippine island of Basilan is threatened by extremists. Since the Islamist insurgency began there in the early 1970s, an estimated 120,000 people have been killed throughout the southern Philippines, some 300,000 have been dislocated, and property damage is estimated to be $3 billion.
Islam’s terror continues in the Sahel, that broad expanse of remote desert stretching from Africa’s north Atlantic coast inland to the border of Darfur. In February 2008 gunmen opened fire on the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania. Then two Austrian terrorists were kidnapped in Tunisia and held for eight months. And earlier in 2009 a Canadian diplomat and two other were taken hostage by militants in Niger and Mali. All the attacks were linked to groups identifying themselves as Al-Qaeda, and all of them are evidence that Al-Qaeda and related groups are tightening their grip over a region that is becoming a haven for Islamic terrorists. Should we send in the U.S. military to fight? Should we capture the area and attempt to build a nation/state?
The average American might ask: “What is going on? Who are these people? Why are they attacking us?” Most Americans wouldn’t know where these places are or why they could even be considered important. Though America has spent a century in post-British colonialism and expanded its military and geo-political influence in war, despot backing and attempted nation/state building in its own image, American citizens generally believe there should be no resentment against their country and have the vision that everyone in the world should be and wants to be like them.
Empire building has always had a high cost of resentment for the empire builder. It has been no different for the likes of the United States. Military force directed at terrorist groups will not win over Afghani Muslims, nor those of Southeast Asia or Africa, and for every central government the U.S. helps, the population sees it as the U. S. paying their government off for doing America’s bidding. The young Muslim men loitering in the doorways and on the corners of impoverished areas of Peshawar or Jakarta with nothing more to occupy them than sharing cigarettes and staring into the distance with no future hear their imam say that Islam is enfeebled and under attack by the U. S. Soon, their self-worth is based on a certainty that they are fighting a just war and that the United States is their enemy.
Terror based organizations are classical in the sense that the footsoldiers, the jihadist martyr, the suicide bomber, comes from the uneducated, the poor and the otherwise hopeless. The recruiters are the extremist imams who flame the fires of hate. The fundamentalist base are the thousands of Wahhabi-oriented madrasas that Saudi Arabia has spent billions over the last few decades establishing throughout central and southeast Asia. Finally, the head of the Python is the educated leaders, particularly Al-Qaeda, but all Islamists, who are highly capable of masterminding strategic attacks and silently moving from cell to cell, from country to country.
So, our President sits and studies and receives diverse studies from expert advisers. Send more troops to Afghanistan? Build the Karsai government? Fight Al-Qaeda? Or, right the Taliban? Build a nation/state? What are the answers? There is no simple, clear- cut answer, and what makes this even more difficult is that the American populace and commercial media and talk shows will not accept complex problems that require complex analysis. American paradigm is typically simplistic and will support only simple solutions. Unfortunately, this is not a simple problem.
Help us continue our mission of embarking down the path of answering the sensitive questions and providing products that reflect this journey.