Combating Al Qaeda in Pakistan

David Ignatius notes that al Qaeda has “all but disappeared” from Afghanistan and “is on the run” in Iraq and thinks we can draw lessons from these facts.

First, al-Qaeda isn’t a permanent boogeyman; it’s losing ground in Iraq and Afghanistan because of U.S. counterinsurgency tactics, especially the alliances we have built with tribal leaders and the aggressive use of Special Forces to capture or kill its operatives. These anti-terrorist operations require special skills — but they shouldn’t require a big, semi-permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. Local security forces can handle a growing share of responsibility — perhaps ineptly, as in Basra a few weeks ago or in Kabul last weekend, but that’s their problem.

Second, the essential mission in combating al-Qaeda now is to adopt in Pakistan the tactics that are working in Iraq and Afghanistan. This means alliances with tribal warlords to bring economic development to the isolated mountain valleys of the FATA region in exchange for their help in security. And it means joint operations involving U.S. and Pakistani special forces to chase al-Qaeda militants as they retreat deeper into the mountains.

The solution isn’t to send a large number of U.S. soldiers into Pakistan — indeed, that could actually make the situation worse — but to send the right ones, with the right skills.

Rusty Shackleford diagnoses Ignatius with “Delta Force Syndrome,” a malady wherein “the sufferer delusionally believes that all of America’s enemies can be defeated by sending in small units led by Chuck Norris.”

Iraqis are now and have always been much more secular & forward looking than Pashtuns in the so-called tribal areas of Pakistan. For Iraqis, the horror of living under forced sharia was something they hadn’t experienced for 100 years or more and was enough to turn the tide of public opinion about who the greater enemy was: the Great Satan and their allies in Baghdad or al Qaeda and their local Islamist allies. But in Pakistan, local tribal rule is virtually synonymous with Taliban-like sharia. Tribal alliances with Islamabad do not put an end to the horrors of sharia, only reinforce them. It is the status quo, and the Pakistani strategy of “turning” the tribes into allies does nothing to change this.

The alliances formed between our “allies” in Pakistan and the “tribal leaders” have never born any positive fruits and are counterproductive. We may be able to exploit the petty political ambitions of one tribal group against another for temporary tactical gains, but aside from inter/intra-tribal wrangling the vast majority of “tribal” Pakistan have two things in common: devotion to an 8th century version of Islam and a hatred for America.

Such a culture does not give one much hope for an “Anbar awakening” in tribal Pakistan.

That’s probably right. The question, then, is What will work? There might not be an answer.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    The mostly-quiescent No Comment blog @ Harper’s noted Ignatius’s similar column of a couple days ago, and Iggy’s parallel appearance on Charlie Rose, where Iggy got his ass pretty much handed to him by Barnett Rubin, who also discusses the TV spot here:

    I thought that after all the scandals about journalists misleading the public by repeating government leaks and press releases and “reporting” from escorted tours, major journalists like columnists at the Washington Post would have learned something. Apparently not. Repetition of government propaganda without independent investigation or analysis does not constitute journalism. Readers can decide what it does constitute.

    Of course, if you’re not an expert like Rubin, you hear Iggy and you have no clue that you’re just hearing gov’t talking points, so you can’t really judge what it *does* constitute.

    We have this image of journalists as independent researchers, where it seems they’re both intellectually and professionally lazy, on the whole.

  2. legion says:

    Probably the biggest criticism of the “surge” still under way was that, if we put increased troop levels into focussed areas of Iraq, that the insurgents would simply leave those areas and go someplace else to raise anti-US and anti-Iraqi gov’t havoc. That’s pretty much a definition of how insurgencies work. And you don’t beat an insurgency by sending your troops chasing them all over the planet – you do it by finding a way to keep the people from supporting the insurgency.

    Note-anyone whose instinctive response to that last line was “then kill the people supporting the insurgency” need to punch themselves in the crotch about a dozen times.

  3. Michael says:

    For Iraqis, the horror of living under forced sharia was something they hadn’t experienced for 100 years or more and was enough to turn the tide of public opinion about who the greater enemy was

    From what I’ve read, it wasn’t so much the idea of Sharia law that turned Iraqi Sunnis against Al Qaeda, it was that Al Qaeda became a burden rather than a guest of those tribes. Rather than supporting and protecting those tribes, they put them in danger and began to micro-manage their daily lives and social structure, to the point where Al Qaeda leaders were arranging marriages of Iraqi women against the father’s wishes. In the end, Al Qaeda was killing them when they didn’t do as they were told. Once Al Qaeda became the oppressor, then then re-evaluated their opinions of the US backed government.

    If you ask me, the way to beat Al Qaeda is Pakistan in to work to create a similar environment. Make sure that the Pashtun tribes there become burdened with Al Qaeda, and they will soon turn against them.