Al Qaeda’s Small Victories Add Up

Anthony Cordesman [RSS] argues in his NYT op-ed, “Al Qaeda’s Small Victories Add Up,” that several mistakes in US policy have bolstered our enemy.

It is all very well to talk about a global war on terrorism. To win it, however, you have to fight it — on every front. We know that by the time of the 9/11 attacks, some 70,000 to 100,000 young men had been through some form of Islamist training camp, and that Al Qaeda had affiliates or some kind of tie to movements in more than 60 countries. In the years that have followed, the United States defeated the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but failed to capture many of the leaders or secure the country, and has not completed the nation-building that could bring true victory. The dispersal of terrorists has destabilized western Pakistan, and the resulting political struggle has strengthened Islamists in the rest of the country and created a new regional threat.

Yet instead of wrapping up that fight, Washington invaded Iraq. While getting rid of Saddam Hussein was wonderful for the Iraqi people, there is still no evidence that Iraq was ever a center of terrorism or had strong ties to Islamist extremists. As in Afghanistan, we failed to secure the country after our military success and have been far to slow to create a meaningful plan for nation-building. There is daily, violent evidence that the American invasion has bred a mix of Iraqi Islamists and foreign volunteers that is a growing threat.

The International Institute of Strategic Studies in London has estimates that Al Qaeda and its affiliates now have a strength of 18,000 men, many joining the movement as a result of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts. Some American intelligence experts on Iraq feel that the number of insurgents may still be growing faster than Coalition Provision Authority’s military operations can reduce them.

It is simply not true that there is no evidence that Saddam was sponsoring terrorists. Indeed, Iraq was one of five states listed as official state sponsors of terrorism on the initial State Department “Patterns of Global Terrorism” list published in 1979. That was during the Carter Administration. Iraq remained on the list every year from then until our ouster of Saddam. That’s 25 straight years. Two Reagan terms. Bush 41. Two Clinton terms. And another Bush.

It’s also unclear to me why it is that more nation-building in Afghanistan “could bring true victory” whereas doing it in Iraq, a far more significant and populous state, is a diversion from the greater war effort.

It may well be that there has been a short-term spike in al Qaeda membership as the West has finally decided to join the war that the Islamists have been waging for a quarter century. The fight is on; it’s not surprising that this has spurred volunteers. The enemy, however, is not fighting us because it’s angry at what we’re doing now but rather waging a counter-crusade–against the Western infidels, the Jews, and the apostate regimes within their own faith. Certainly, we could have done some things better. But let’s not pretend that the Islamists will love us if only we’d play nice.

Update: Score one for our side:

WaPo — To Thwart Terrorism, Saudis Outline Controls on Charities

The Saudi government yesterday outlined plans to dismantle all international charity organizations operating in the kingdom and place their holdings under a new commission in what officials said is an effort to stop the flow of funds to terrorist groups.

***

Frances Townsend, White House deputy national security adviser for terrorism, who has been working closely with the Saudi government to crack down on terrorism funding, told reporters in a conference call yesterday: “The Saudis have been frankly very aggressive about this. They have committed to financial transparency and auditing.”

While this is still a half measure, it’s a good sign that the Saudis finally recognize that they are, indeed, more hated by al Qaeda than the US and can’t survive by appeasing them. If the Saudis are doing this, other Arab regimes can’t be far behind.

Unlike traditional terrorist groups, those motivated by religious extremism do not seriously weigh the political consequences of their actions, since killing their enemies is an end, not a means. As a result, they often seriously miscalculate. Al Qaeda has done so by their recent attacks against Muslim governments. As Stephen Green notes, the Saudis may finally be on our side in this thing.

FILED UNDER: Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Hal says:

    “But let’s not pretend that the Islamists will love us if only we’d play nice.”

    I don’t think anyone is. Nice strawman, but really. . .

  2. Boyd says:

    Strawman? I hear that all the time. The purpose of the IISS’s report (as perceived by me) was to essentially say, “See? There are 18,000 Al Qaeda-trained terrorists [a number that, quite frankly, they pulled out of their asses], and we’re just pissing them off with what we’re doing.” I could be wrong, of course, but that’s how it struck me.

    But the reality is as James has stated it: the Islamists want to wipe us from the face of the Earth, or, failing that, subjugate us to their will. They will continue until they succeed or they’re dead.

    My vote’s for the second option.

  3. Joel Gaines says:

    James,

    “It’s also unclear to me why it is that more nation-building in Afghanistan “could bring true victory” whereas doing it in Iraq, a far more significant and populous state, is a diversion from the greater war effort.”

    The majority of those opposing the effort in Iraq don’t do so from a sense of how it will impact Iraq. They don’t oppose the effort out of some sense of which application of force is correct – nor out of any moral inclination.

    The majority of those opposing the effort in Iraq do so because they are afraid. They are afraid the “even handedness” we have exercised in ME relations (giving more money to Egypt than Israel for example) will end, which has been drummed into us as the probable catalyst for the next world war.

    What people have failed to realize is the war is already here. People are coming to our backyard to kill us. At the same time, they are steadily attempting to inject their twisted value base into the mainstream of ME thinking – increasing their ability to gain power.

    Many are stuck in the “here and now” and can’t see past the windshields of their cars. I say it takes a larger attempt at “vision” than that to understand the threats our children will have to face.

  4. Meezer says:

    Why is it that very few (outside the blogasphere) note that it is *not* the U.S. or even the ‘West’ that they fight against? They fight the ‘other’, whatever it may be. In the East they kill Hindus and Budhists.

  5. Brett says:

    There’s a big difference between supporting terrorism and supporting al Qaeda and allied groups. Cuba’s on the state dept. list, too.

  6. pixilateddoctor says:

    There is no god. You people are fools

  7. James Joyner says:

    Hal: It certainly seems to be the implication of Cordesman’s column.

    Meezer: Good question. Pretty much all the mainstream books on either terrorism (e.g. Bruce Hoffman) or Islam (e.g., Bernard Lewis) make that point. It does seem to be missed by most, though.

    Brett: Sure. Remember, though, that al Qaeda is just one loosely organized part of the larger Islamist terror movement. And Saddam was a major sponsor of them, even though his government was secular.

  8. Hal says:

    James, how do you get from

    “Yes, these fights have a military dimension — but the primary struggle is political, ideological and economic. We can’t win it by force or on the cheap. Victory will come only through strengthening local allies and reformers, not by trying to impose our own political values.”

    to

    But let’s not pretend that the Islamists will love us if only we’d play nice.

    Just curious.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Hal: I get it from “There is daily, violent evidence that the American invasion has bred a mix of Iraqi Islamists and foreign volunteers that is a growing threat.

    The International Institute of Strategic Studies in London has estimates that Al Qaeda and its affiliates now have a strength of 18,000 men, many joining the movement as a result of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts.”

    What, we weren’t going to invade Afghanistan?

    And, what precisely do you think he means by “the primary struggle is political, ideological and economic”? It’s the same tired rhetoric that we’ve been hearing for decades. It was at least marginally true of old style terrorist organizations like the PLO and the IRA, that had actual goals in mind. Certainly, economics isn’t an issue, as much of the leadership in Islamist groups is quite well off. And compromise on ideological and political fronts will just embolden the terrorists, who will see it as a sign of weakness. Remember, these are guys who think the Wahabbist Saudi government is insufficiently extreme in its commitment to Islam.

  10. Hal says:

    a) They’re talking about not finishing the job in
    Afghanistan which didn’t kill them and the bone headed invasion of Iraq which drove up recruitment through the roof.

    b) Look to your own leader Bush: Mideast democracy key to terror war.

  11. James Joyner says:

    The Taliban is destroyed. I agree that we should have done better at the mop-up, but the situation in Pakistan made that awfully complicated. I don’t think we could have simultaneously “finished the job” in Afghanistan and respected Pakistan’s sovereignty.

    Bush’s point actually contradicts Cordesman, who says we shouldn’t try to impose our vision on them. I’m skeptical that democracy is going to happen, but agree that it’s the answer.

  12. Joel Gaines says:

    James,

    The article originally quoting the IISS “study” failed to make it clearly understood that the 18000 number they cite is 2000 less than the number of Al Qaeda and affiliated cells/groups according to the same “study”. They also failed to mention that number was a big, wopping, educated guess.

    I no longer remember where the article was, but while the headline made it look like this was some kind of build up from previous numbers, there was actually nothing stated in the article to support the headline. My interpretation of the data is that there are 2000 less now and that the numbers of al-Qaeda MIGHT be increasing due to the happenings in Iraq.

    I am not discounting the data (much), but that was a article most spun, IMHO.

    One thing is certain, foreign fighters who are not having much success getting into Israel right now are coming into Iraq to fight the Infadel there instead. Those are not really al-Qaeda types though.

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