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by Haviland Smith

A long time observer of Middle Eastern affairs proposes a radical change in American policy in the region with the goal of “helping Al Qaeda die.” Would this change have unintended consequences? The suggestion itself is sure to be controversial in the U.S. and abroad. -The Editor

Al Qaeda has a major, long term, existential problem in the Middle East and the greater Muslim world. It is a problem that it certainly cannot fix on its own. However, America’s counterterrorism policy has given Al Qaeda hope for the short term and if we continue that policy, it may well assist them in their ultimate goal of establishing a hegemonic Caliphate in the Muslim world.

The US policy toward the Muslim world that evolved after the events of 9/11 was crafted by policymakers who honestly believed that the solution to America’s problems in the Muslim world, or for that matter anywhere else, lay in the swift application of American unipolar military might. That position might have worked in other parts of the world. However, its application in the Muslim world has brought with it problems that its authors probably had not envisaged and for which they clearly had not planned.

Years ago it was said that, “The United States does not have a Middle East policy. That is probably a good thing, because if it did, it would be the wrong one.” That reality has not changed much in the last half century, which underlines the politically partisan difficulties involved in constructing a precise definition of our national interests. Nevertheless, it is impossible to talk about solutions to our problems in the Muslim world without first broadly defining those interests. It is probably safe to settle on the following generalities:

Stability or the absence of armed conflict;
The maintenance of U. S. commercial interests;
An end to being viewed as the enemy of the Muslims;
Realizing our National Security interests, i.e. inhibiting the growth of terrorism by marginalizing secular and religious extremists and supporting Muslim moderates.

After 9/11, the Bush Administration identified fundamentalist Muslim terrorism as our primary concern in the Muslim world. The Obama administration appears to be following that program, and for the last eight years we have chosen military confrontation as our primary tool for dealing with terrorism.

At the same time, largely because of our choice of military confrontation, the nature of the threat we have faced has changed. Iraq was never a terrorist problem before our 2003 invasion. It became one solely because we were there militarily. We provided Al Qaeda with an opportunity for first-rate live training, a target-rich environment and excellent prospects for recruiting. They moved in under cover of the Iraq insurgency against our troops.

The Afghanistan situation began as a struggle with terrorism and has since morphed into a counterinsurgency. Today, there are hardly any Al Qaeda fighters left. Again, we are dealing with an insurgency. Unlike terrorist movements, which are often overcome, insurgencies are extremely difficult to snuff out.

We begin with a major contradiction. We want to fight terrorism, but we are fighting insurgencies. The nature of the Muslim world is such that virtually any time we choose to go after Al Qaeda militarily, we will end up fighting insurgencies, whether in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria or Pakistan. All of these countries, like much of the Muslim world, have built into them the kinds of internal ethnic, tribal, religious and political contradictions that make general civil strife a perpetual nightmare waiting to happen. All it takes to push it over the edge into insurgency is something foreign, like American military involvement.

It would be nice, however irrational, to believe that one day we could actually conquer Al Qaeda and bring an end to the terrorism that has plagued us for over a decade. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. If we are ultimately to rid ourselves of this terrorist phenomenon, it will be because the terrorist movement itself dies, as has been the case with most of the terrorist organizations that have not survived during the past half-century.

According to a 2006 Rand Corporation study, the tactic least likely to succeed against terrorism in the past fifty years has been military confrontation. The Rand finding is supported by Israeli experience, which says that wars against terrorism turn into extended counterinsurgency operations that are seldom won.

Our goal in this ongoing struggle with terrorism is clearly to figure out how to help Al Qaeda die.

The methodical decimation of Al Qaeda leadership over the past few years, mostly by drones and covert operations, has resulted in the franchising of their terrorist operations. Al Qaeda’s leadership has been sharply reduced and inhibited by unconventional attacks. With its surviving leadership concentrating almost entirely on its own survival in Waziristan, there is little if any central command and control left for their operations.

National franchises have sprung up around the world. They operate in Yemen, Somalia, the North African Maghreb, Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere. They are even currently advertising for a start up in Muslim north Nigeria. The scene is further complicated by the arrival on the scene of the new phenomenon of individual volunteers who present a very difficult counterterrorism problem. There is a new air of unpredictability in the counterterrorism field. As these terrorists get more efficient and change their tactics and targeting, which they certainly will, we will have more difficulty anticipating their activities.

“Muslims hate us for who we are and everything we stand for” was an almost constant mantra for the Bush Administration. That is simply untrue. Muslims admire our standard of living, our entrepreneurial spirit, our business acumen and our creativity. Those Muslims, who hate us, and today they come in ever increasing numbers, hate us not for who we are but for what we do. They hate us for our policies.

Unlike Al Qaeda fundamentalists, moderate Muslims, while they may have serious complaints about American policy, are not enthralled at the thought of fundamentalist Islam taking over their lives. Moderates represent our greatest potential allies in this struggle with Al Qaeda, but they are also easily turned against us.

What turns all Muslims, including moderates, against us is:

1. They are offended by the stationing of non-Muslim, foreign (American) troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia.

2. They resent the American history of supporting and maintaining despotic regimes that rule Muslim people by force and intimidation.

3. They hate us for killing Muslims, waging war in and occupying Muslim countries.

4. They would like to see Palestinian aspirations treated with the same respect and care by America as the U. S. treats Israeli aspirations.

Al Qaeda’s primary goal is the re-establishment of strict Islamic rule in a new Caliphate, modeled on the Eighth Century Caliphate that stretched from Spain through North Africa and on through the Middle East to the eastern border of what is now Iran and which held sway over what was then the entire Muslim world.

The establishment of this new Caliphate is designed to rid the Muslim world of what Al Qaeda sees as the corrupting influences of the West. An established Caliphate would diminish support of elements in the Muslim world that would today be opposed to Al Qaeda goals. That would include virtually all of the regimes now in power there, including those that Al Qaeda considers to be the corrupt secular Muslim regimes supported by the West.

In 2005, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago analyzed more than 500 suicide or martyrdom attacks around the world over the past quarter century. He concluded that somewhat over 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks around the world since 1980 have in common “from Lebanon, to Chechnya, to Sri Lanka, to Kashmir, to the West Bank“ is not religion, but a specific strategic goal: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists view as their homeland, or prize greatly.

It follows that the activities of groups that use such tactics are directed toward local, not international goals. Al Qaeda is focused on reestablishing strict Islamic rule in a new Caliphate. To that end, it is doing everything it possibly can to keep the US militarily involved in the Muslim world in the short run. They know that the Muslim world is not yet ready for their fundamentalist Caliphate. They want the US to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan because our military presence and activities strengthen their position with their co-religionists.

Al Qaeda martyrdom attacks are designed to create and maintain an unstable situation, which, in the short term, the US will find difficult to leave. They need us to stay in the Middle East in the short run because our military presence daily coalesces more and more moderates against us and for Al Qaeda.

Moreover, they would be absolutely delighted to see us involved on the ground in Somalia, Yemen or any other Muslim state. Our continued presence and military activities provide them with critical advantages they would not have in our absence.

Direct Al Qaeda attacks in the West are designed to show the Muslim world how all-powerful they are. They even claim unsuccessful attacks. It would also increase western insecurity and disrupt their resolve to maintain their long-term interests in the Muslim World. Such attacks are not designed to take over the West or any part of it. The old Bush notion that “we will fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them at home” has no basis in fact. Thus, it is in Al Qaeda’s interest to keep America on edge at home. When and if airplanes become less vulnerable targets as a result of western countermeasures, Al Qaeda will switch to softer targets; ships, subways, buses, trains, etc. They will do this until they believe America no longer represents a long-term threat to their goals in the Muslim world, when we have withdrawn, or when they have died a natural death.

To survive, Al Qaeda must have an external enemy and we have turned ourselves into Al Qaeda’s enemy of choice. If we disengage from their battlefield before the majority of moderates turn against us, they will have to deal immediately with all those unavoidable, intractable, internal Muslim issues that have made our lives so complicated since the Iraq invasion. Religious, ethnic and national differences, rivalries and conflicts will be Al Qaeda’s to deal with in their quest for the Caliphate.

Al Qaeda and its fundamentalist allies are no more likely to succeed in this than America was in attempting to forcibly install democracy in the Muslim world.

The key to the future of Islam lies in its moderates. Whoever secures their allegiance and cooperation, secures the region. Unfortunately, today’s moderates are driven more by their hatred for U. S. policies than they are about Al Qaeda’s un-Islamic excesses. They are less offended by Al Qaeda’s taking of innocent Muslim lives than they are by U. S. military activities and policies.

When America no longer poses a threat to Al Qaeda, that is, after American military disengagement, the moderates will become the primary counterbalance to the radical excesses of Al Qaeda. Until then, with our military present, killing Muslims and trying to keep the despots in power, we will exacerbate tensions with the moderates and drive them toward Al Qaeda.

Much is made of the necessity for us to pay attention to and “do something” about failed and failing states. Taking Taliban Afghanistan in the pre 9/11 period as our national model, we have apparently decided that the elimination of failed states is the answer to our problems with terrorism.

In the real world, that does not compute, a fact that is perfectly illustrated by Richard Reid, the shoe bomber whose terrorist odyssey was focused largely on the UK, hardly a failed state. Other Al Qaeda affiliated operations have been planned in the UK, Spain and other non-failed states.

All an enterprising terrorist organization needs to carry out a shoe bombing or an underwear bombing is a reasonably secure safe house in a country where not too much attention is paid to people who mind their own business and thus do not come to the attention of local internal security authorities. The 9/11 attacks could easily have been planned in New York City itself and, significantly, required that its participants get their flight training in America.

Such conditions exist all over the world and provide Al Qaeda affiliates with all the options they could need to plan their operations. However, even if it were not the case, the issue of dealing with failed or failing states presents an entirely different set of problems and pitfalls for American policy makers.

The Muslim world is comprised of a number of nation states that were more the creation of Western imperialist powers than the result of natural cultural, political, and economic evolution. The result can be seen in Iraq where there are two major interpretations of Islam, Shia and Sunni, plus two major ethnic groups, Arabs and Kurds. In Iraq as in all the other failed and failing states, those divisions and conflicts are at the root of our difficulties in trying to find solutions to problems there and that are in keeping with our goals and values.

How can we solve our problems with Al Qaeda when host governments are not sufficiently helpful in countries where we have tangible military goals? They are either uninterested in our problems, as in Somalia, so busy trying to deal with their own that they have no time for our issues, as in Yemen, or actually have reasons of their own not to help us out, as in Pakistan with the Taliban. In effect, we are left competing for the time and attention of the reluctant or incompetent governments on which our own policies have forced us to rely. That is not a good formula for success.

There really are only three available solutions for our problems with terrorism in the Muslim world:

1. We can respond to all such situations with military power.

2. We can disengage militarily from the Muslim World.

3. We can try to implement a hybrid of the first two.

Under the Bush Administration, we were totally married to the military solution. Under the Obama administration, it would appear we are flirting with the hybrid. No one has tried disengagement.

What we know is that a decade of military confrontation has created at least as many problems for us as it solved, largely because it has alienated, infuriated and neutralized moderate Muslims. It seems highly unlikely that the ongoing hybrid Obama approach will be any more successful, as the same issues of alienation and hostility still exists.

Yet, a careful examination of the realities of the Muslim world and our relationship with it will argue favorably for our complete military disengagement from the region. That act would effectively remove the primary motivation of present and future moderate Muslims who, as a result of our ongoing policies, have come to support, or at least not actively oppose Al Qaeda.

There will be major concerns that our military disengagement from both Iraq and Afghanistan will precipitate internal strife in those countries, or worse yet, a general conflagration in the Middle East. Almost all of the disparate ethnic and sectarian components in each of the countries there have external advocates or protectors in the Muslim world. Iraqi Shia have Iran, the Sunnis have Saudi Arabia and Syria, etc.

It does not appear at this time that any of those “protectors” actively seeks to precipitate strife either in the countries involved or in the greater region. Quite the opposite, they have every reason not to seek regional strife. It is far too destabilizing. However, if such strife does come on the heels of US military disengagement, it will be their endemic hatreds and rivalries that will precipitate it, whether we leave now or in fifty years. These divisions and hatreds have existed for millennia. How long are we prepared to stay?

It will be argued that military disengagement will jeopardize the West’s energy supplies, but oil is fungible and only has value when pumped out of the ground and traded. It is also the only major economic asset most of those countries have.
Some will say Israel will be jeopardized, but we have been their primary mediators for forty years. What Muslims view as our totally biased involvement has led only to a deterioration of the situation there. Demographics argue for a two-state solution for both Israeli and Palestinian survival. It may be time to let them sort it out themselves for their own survival. Our disengagement should help mitigate the participants’ excuses for not really negotiating.

Are we deserting our friends? Who are they and are they really friends, or are they in it simply to get whatever support they can from us for their own narrow national goals, without making more than a minimal commitment to us and to our needs?

The fact is that our recent military-based and spearheaded policies in the Muslim world have exacerbated our problems with terrorism, added endless new terrorists to our enemies’ ranks, sullied our previously good reputation with Muslim moderates, maintained and encouraged despots in power and accomplished very little positive for us. If nothing else, it’s time to consider change. In that context, it might be a profitable departure for America to see the world as it really is, not as we would like it to be. Only then will we get policies that are in harmony with the existing facts on the ground.

Within the framework of our national interests, there is no viable military solution for terrorism in any part of the Muslim world. Everything we do militarily is directly contradictory to our national interests. The reason for that lays partly in the fact that Muslim terrorism seems to regularly morph into or become absorbed by insurgencies as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More importantly, it stems from the critical, decades-old complaints that Muslims have had about American policies and activities in their region. What Americans need to understand is that as long as those American policies continue, we will be dealing with terrorism and rejection in the Muslim world. They are the causative factors behind the fact that, “they hate us for what we do, not who we are.”

If, on the other hand, we were to change those policies, Al Qaeda would not last long in an increasingly moderate Muslim world hostile to their extreme and un-Muslim philosophies and activities. Without the United States as an intrusive, compliant, external whipping boy, Al Qaeda would be forced to deal with the realities of their own diffuse and fragile Muslim world, a world largely hostile to them.

But this is a suggested policy built on the realities on the ground in the Muslim world and we all know that US policy is more often built on the internal political needs of the Administration in power, in this case, the Obama administration.

Whatever happens, whatever decisions are made, we will not “win” our struggle with fundamentalist Muslim terrorism with our military establishment. Quite the contrary, as long as we are militarily involved, we will lose far more than we will gain and we will see no end to this terrorism.

Finding himself in a recently weakened position today vis-à-vis the Republicans and facing disapproval from elements of his own party, President Obama is faced with unhappy choices. If he were to see merit in complete military disengagement from the Muslim world, he would face onslaughts from Republicans and from all those who see advantages in the “long war,” including those people and organizations that benefit politically and economically from its continuation. That might just be enough to do him in.

This commentary was originally published in a slightly different format by the Middle East Institute. It is used by permission of the author.

Haviland Smith
Haviland Smith

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

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