Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How Michael Scott would end the war in Afghanistan

That’s right, I’ve snuck in a clip from The Office.

When it comes to ending the Afghan war, the Administration is trying to have it three ways. It wants to leave Afghanistan—which the American public wants—and appeal to militarists, as is necessary during an election year, while negotiating with the Taliban. 

The Administration is hoping to initiate “authentic political negotiations” by May of this year. Additionally, as part of their “something for everybody” approach, the Administration plans to bring home the bulk of US troops by 2014, while simultaneously leaving behind American forces. Thousands of CIA officers and US Special Forces will likely remain in Afghanistan, focusing on “counterterrorism” operations—whatever that means. This may actually be a rational negotiation strategy: targeted operations against insurgent leaders may pressure Taliban negotiators to reach a settlement, without the "large footprint" of American forces. And, by magically transforming Taliban leaders into “terrorists,” militarists can be assuaged that the War on Terror continues. It’s win-win-win.

Establishing a sort of “stay-behind” CIA/Special Operations force may also be necessary because of the paltry development of Afghan security forces. According to US Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti only 1% of Afghan security forces can operate independently, while another 43% are effective so long as NATO commanders are leading them, gathering intelligence, and providing air support and medical evacuations. Then there’s the material issue: low pay and inadequate weaponry are a significant problem for the Afghan Local Police. With defense cuts and geostrategic shifts looming, it seems that the American government may no longer want to foot the bill for Afghan security forces.

In what some seem to be good news for the Afghan government, fewer foreign fighters are coming to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given that Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns form the bulk of the Taliban’s rank-and-file, this probably won’t actually affect the insurgency. But, it will make it harder to justify the continued presence of western forces in the region: no global jihadis, no rationale for staying. Of course, as I indicated above, counterterrorists are magicians, transforming “insurgents” into “terrorists” with ease.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Al Shabaab welcomed into al Qaeda (and I feel fine)

Ayman al-Zawahiri—who was promoted to al Qaeda’s #1 following the death of Osama bin Laden—released a video yesterday formally “welcoming” the Somali insurgent group al Shabaab into the al Qaeda franchise. The western media has been, unsurprisingly, treating this as “news,” despite the fact that al Shabaab pledged fealty to al Qaeda back in 2008. Spencer Ackerman argues that this indicates that al Qaeda has “replenished its forces and strengthened its brand.” Well, I beg to disagree: al Qaeda has likely done neither of those things. Rather, as it has done in the past, it has latched on to a distant insurgency and claimed it for its own. And the American counterterrorism community and "national security" reporters agains has obliged Al Qaeda in its fantasy of global jihad.

Actual relations between al Qaeda and Somali Islamist insurgents do go back to the nineties. Bin Laden “supported” the original Somali jihadist organization al-Ittihad al-Islami, allegedly giving the group not only international notoriety, but financial and material resources. These “links” were then imported into the Islamic Courts Unions, which was founded in part by members of al-Ittihad al-Islami, particularly the military leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys—which was cause enough for the U.S. to back their enemies, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. According to The Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio:
…the Islamic Courts continued to receive morale and physical support from al Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah. Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other senior al Qaeda leaders praised the "Somali Jihad" in video and audiotapes. Al Qaeda media outlets produced propaganda in Somali and Arabic, with video of Arab and Somali jihadis training and fighting side by side. Hundreds of millions of dollars were funneled into the Islamic Courts coffers by backers on the Arabian Peninsula. Foreign fighters flooded into Somalia, some estimates put the number at over 3,000. Iran provided arms, while Hezbollah provided training for Somali Islamists.
I’m a bit skeptical about the extent to which al Qaeda itself provided direct aid to Somali insurgents over the last decade. After the Afghan war, the group’s capacity and resources were severely diminished and its operations effectively ceased. Ahmad Rashid, in his excellent book Decent into Chaos, notes that following the invasion al Qaeda relied extensively on Pakistani militant organizations for both funds and logistical support. With their assets frozen and the loss of their Afghan base of operations, al Qeada was limited to claiming attacks—the London and Madrid bombings, for example—that it had no role in. (Incidentally, this trend started with bin Laden taking credit for the Black Hawk Down killings in Mogadishu, though no evidence of any direct al Qaeda  involvement has ever been produced.) 

If there’s a term within counterterrorism jargon that rivals “support,” it’s surely “links.” Here, however, there’s little ambiguity: members of al Qaeda’s East African branch joined Somali insurgent organizations, most of whom were killed by U.S. forces in recent years: Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Bilal al-Berjawi, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. These three militants were implicated in the 1998 African embassy bombing and the 2002 Mombasa attacks and were later alleged to have joined al Shabaab after passing through the ICU. Their careers seem to indicate something very important about al Qaeda’s activities in East Africa: other than the 1998 and 2002 attacks, the group was largely inactive. And since 2002, they cease to operate independently of Somali organizations. This point needs to be stressed: al Qaeda members joined the Somali Islamist insurgency, not vice versa.

There were also Somali Islamists who travelled to al Qaeda’s home turf in Afghanistan and Pakistan, e.g. Ibrahim al Afghani and Aden Hashi Ayro. But, again, we should note that their visits were prior to 9/11, the heyday of al Qaeda’s largesse. After being kicked out of Afghanistan, it is unclear whether or to what extent this support continued.

Of course, “links” and “supports,” while vague terms from an analytical-historical perspective, are clear enough to serve as the cause for U.S. strikes against both Somali and foreign militants. Starting in 2007, U.S. forces began targeting both al Qaeda and ICU individuals and bases—in addition to providing material support to the Islamist insurgents’ opponents. The effect of this was threefold. First, the ICU was defeated as an organization. Second, the dismantling of the ICU led to the emergence of the more radical and violent al Shabaab—which had been the ICU’s youth wing. Third, partly as a result of ideological and historical affinity, and partly as a result of American actions, al Shabaab reached out to al Qaeda—in what some called a “merger.” By the way, this was way back in 2008. (This illustrates the validity of Joseba Zulaika's theory of counterterrorism as a "self-fulfilling prophecy.")

2008. So, what has transpired over the last three years? What has the “merger” brought to al Shabaab? Not much. The group is factionalized and weakened, facing a much more powerful, international set of opponents. But, it’s 2008 merger caused the group to expand its aims beyond taking over Somali territory, right? By merging with al Qaeda in 2008, it is now bent on global jihad, right? Not really. Its attacks outside of Somalia—in Kenya and Uganda—are not the exporting of jihad, but rather have been aimed at getting African Union troops to leave the Somali conflict, either through direct attacks against military forces or civilians.

Rather than exporting jihad, al Shabaab is seeking to import mujahidin—the most notable examples being the Somali Americans who have travelled to their homeland to join al Shabaab’s war. Furthermore, according to Dawn (Pakistan), al Shabaab “counts a few hundred foreign fighters among its ranks. Most are drawn from other East African nations but a few have traveled from as far afield as Chechnya.”

And this is likely reason for the “merger”—by attaching itself to global jihad, al Shabaab is seeking to attract recruits, much as happened in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, and Iraq. Since the group has been getting pounded by its enemies—much as happened to the ICU before it—it needs to replenish its ranks. Kenyan Defense Forces spokesman Colonel Cyrus Oguna agrees, claiming that the “merger” is a sign of al Shabaab’s weakness.

But we should also see it as a sign of al Qaeda’s weakness—and the overall limited popularity of global jihad. A decade of warnings about al Qaeda as a veritable COBRA Command have turned out to be wrong—just as the threat of “homegrown” jihad were largely bullshit as well. In order to stave off their growing irrelevance, al Qaeda’s have had to rely on taking credit for the Arab Spring and, more recently, the Syrian uprising. And, in this P.R. campaign, the counterterrorism industry has proven itself only too willing to play along—since, if the actual weakness of al Qaeda becomes widely known, the projects and programs of counterterrorism experts may be seen as irrelevant and unnecessary.

Thus the utter seriousness surrounding Zawahir’s formal welcoming of al Shabaab into the al Qaeda fold. That, and the geostrategic interests of the U.S. in East Africa.

The media’s breathless rehashing of these bullshit narratives—and their short memories—has been seen before. The “Japanese Red Army,” the West German “Red Army Faction,” and the Italian “Red Brigades” were all treated by the original counterterrorism community as actual arms of the KGB. Just as this theory turned out to be false, we should take the al Qaeda “franchise theory” with a grain of salt, lest we fall into the representational trap both terrorists and counterterrorists set for us.