Two Imaginary Meetings
In an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke narrates two imaginary meetings. One of these meetings takes place in Rawalpindi, Pakistan among Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba. They note the strategic problems that the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States present for the United States in combatting them. That meeting concludes with a little implicit praise for President-Elect Obama and a warning:
A long pause follows. Bin Laden breaks it, speaking softly, looking at the rug beneath him. “I fear this Barack is not as weak as you think, doctor. Already, many of the faithful are ready to forgive the Americans their sins just because they have chosen him as their leader. It is a setback for us.” Bin Laden raises his head, and a wry smile passes briefly over his face. “But . . . his economy is badly ill. If it gets much worse, he will have to bring all of his troops home. So . . . we may have to increase their pain level. We have done that before.”
The second imaginary meeting is one among members of the National Security Council in the west wing of the White House. It notes the virtually insurmountable obstacles to achieving victory in Afghanistan.
Mr. Clarke concludes his op-ed:
Seven years after 9/11, the United States has neither eliminated the threat from al-Qaeda nor secured Afghanistan, where bin Laden’s terrorists were once headquartered. To accomplish these two tasks, we must now eliminate the new terrorist safe haven in Pakistan. But that will require effective action from a weak and riven Pakistani government. It might also depend upon dealing with the long-standing India-Pakistan rivalry. On balance, al-Qaeda’s agenda for 2009 looks to be the easier one.
The op-ed itself is mild, even banal. However, it presents a wonderful example of how the known facts can be distorted through the mode of presentation.
We don’t know what the operational links between the various Islamist organizations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India are. I doubt very much whether a meeting of the sort that Mr. Clarke describes taking place in Rawalpindi has ever or would ever take place. For dramatic impact it’s fine.
But the link to the op-ed in the online version of the Washington Post at least is placed above a photograph of the single terrorist captured in Mumbai last week. The teaser to the op-ed is Envisioning the next chapter in the shadow war between the U.S. and al-Qaeda.. The combination of the two creates the impression that there is a known operational connection between the attacks in Mumbai and Al Qaeda which is decidedly not the case.
The attacks in Mumbai apparently exhibit similarities to those used by the Naxalites, a native Indian communist organization. The Indian authorities have blamed the attacks on the Pakistani ISI. Statements in the press have linked the terrorists to the LeT while the widely used phrase India’s 9/11 creates the impression that there’s a link between the attacks and Al Qaeda.
Dangerous as operational links among all of these terrorist organizations might be, frankly, I doubt that they exist in any really tangible form. There is no terrorist central command.
What may be the reality is even more disquieting: these are disparate groups that share a common philosophy, share at least some common objectives, and certainly share a willingness to kill to achieve those objectives. There is no master stroke, no decapitation strike, or even a simple strategy that will deal with all of them at the same time.