Al-Qaeda’s New Geostrategic Master Plan
What do the new al-Qaeda videotape and audio speeches of Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri tell us about the hopes of the remaining top leadership of the organization? Because the US and Pakistan have managed to capture or kill about 2/3s of the top 25 al-Qaeda commanders, the middle managers are not in close contact with al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden. The tape was a way to signal priorities.
1) Assassinate or overthrow Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani military “president” who had made a coup in 1999 and has thrown in his lot with the United States against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Musharraf has been trying to purge his officer corps of the substantial number of al-Qaeda sympathizers. His military intelligence has captured major figures like Abu Zubayda and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, as well as nearly 500 other al-Qaeda operatives, over 400 of whom the Pakistanis have turned over to the US. Musharraf held elections in October of 2002, in which center-right parties did well, but in which nearly 20 percent of parliament seats went to the fundamentalist religious party coalition, MMA. MMA also captured the Northwest Frontier Province, which probably shelters Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, and is in a joint government of Baluchistan Province, also on the Afghanistan border. If al-Qaeda can kill Musharraf or instigate a military coup against him by Islamist junior officers, they can hope to catapult the MMA to power as political allies and hosts. They would thereby gain control of a major base for terrorist operations, which is also a nuclear power. All this is highly unlikely, as with most al-Qaeda crackpot schemes. But so was it unlikely that a small group of Arab mujahidin would virtually take over Afghanistan.
Response: The US must do whatever it can to strengthen the legitimacy of the Pakistani government. On the one hand, it should pressure Musharraf to take off his uniform and run for president in a fair election, and to repeal the contentious “Legal Framework Order” that essentially perpetuates his dictatorship. On the other, restrictions should be lifted on the mainstream Muslim League-N and Pakistan People’s Party, who can defeat the MMA in fair elections if not hogtied by the secret police.
On the other hand, the US should strong-arm India and Pakistan into a final settlement of the Kashmir issue. Al-Zawahiri attempted to use Musharraf’s lack of progress in helping the Muslims of that Indian state as a justification for his overthrow. The Kashmir issue generates far more terrorism, and even the threat of nuclear war, than Iraq ever did.
2) Target Israel and encourage the worst elements of the Palestinians by playing on the iron fist policies of the Sharon government.
Response: The US has succeeded in politically isolating Hamas, and started the process of cutting off its funding. This terrorist organization can now only pull off far less sophisticated bombings and attacks. It should continue to be defanged. But Sharon’s iron fist is simply not working as a means of establishing general peace, and the Bush administration will have to finally apply effective pressure on Sharon to stop his outrages in and colonization of the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon’s hard line has worked in tandem with Hamas’s terrorism to ratchet up tensions further and further, which spill over into the Muslim world and serve as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda in its search for agents willing to hit the United States. Israel owes the United States at least this much, in this crisis, to cease militarily unnecessary provocations and establish genuine peace.
3) Make Iraq another Afghanistan, using the Republican Right’s own tactics against them.
Response: Iraq is actually hostile territory for al-Qaeda, and without Iraqi sympathizers it cannot succeed there. By moving quickly to Iraqi sovereignty and improvement of Iraqi lives, the US may be able to get Iraqis on its side, so that they turn in the foreigners. Certainly, the Shiites already hate al-Qaeda and would help; likewise the Kurds. The problem of mollifying the Sunnis, though, has to be solved to avoid giving al-Qaeda an entrée. The Americans have to put away their free-market fetishism for a while and find ways of creating jobs and pumping money into Iraqi households. We need an FDR in Iraq, not a Ronald Reagan. Of course, the sooner the US soldiers can be withdrawn in favor of less-provocative local or international forces, the better. Getting the Spanish out of Iraq isn’t nearly as good a rallying cry for al-Qaeda in the Arab world as getting the Americans and British out.
The thing to keep in mind is that Sunni Arab nationalists and Baathists and local Sunni radicals are likely to remain far more dangerous to the US in Iraq than al-Qaeda infiltrators, and it would be dangerous to take one’s eyes off the former ball.