The War with al-Qaeda
The war with al-Qaeda has many dimensions. There is the war with the organization itself. There is the struggle against its offshoots and copycats. There is cooperation with Muslim governments and communities in derailing the threat. There is the question of the strength of Sunni fundamentalist parties that might support al-Qaeda. And there is winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world.
The war with the organization itself largely succeeded by 2003 and no further progress seems to have been made since that time. Some 600 al-Qaeda operatives were captured in Pakistan, many of them through a sting arranged inside the Karachi Western Union office, according to Ron Susskind. The original al-Qaeda has been badly disrupted as to command and control.
It is not, however, dead. Every evidence is that the London subway bombings of a little over a year ago had a strong connection to Ayman al-Zawahiri. He appears to have worked with a Pakistani terrorist group such as Jaish-i Muhammad or Lashkar-i Tayyibah or whatever they are calling themselves these days to recruit the young Britons that carried out the attack. Al-Zawahiri had in his possession their suicide tapes, and broadcast them on Aljazeera. It is urgent that Usamah Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri be captured. Declan Walsh explains why this is is difficult.
It may well be that the Egyptian Islamic Jihad offshoot operating in the Sinai, which conducted the Sharm El Shaikh and Taba bombings of tourist hotels, has a link to Zawahiri.
Al-Qaeda’s popularity is declining in some quarters. A Pew poll in 2005 found that significantly fewer numbers of Moroccans, Turks and Indonesians were confident in Bin Laden that year than the two previous years. On the other hand, a majority of Jordanians and Pakistanis continued to have a high regard for his competency.
The Madrid train bombings show the severe challenge posed by local copycat groups that do not have a direct connection to al-Qaeda, but take up one of its calls to action and learn techniques from the internet. If a group has at least some email connections to a known terror group or individual already under surveillance, at least there is a chance of cracking the plot. If they are all “newskins,” that makes them invisible.
US cooperation with Middle Eastern governments is at a high level, from all accounts. The operation against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appears to have been very significantly a Jordanian operation. Egypt and the US conduct joint military exercises. I have a sense that the relationship with Morocco has deepened. Algeria’s government fought a decade-long civil war against Islamist political forces, some of them very violent, and has reason to cooperate.
On the negative side, the Sunni Arabs of Iraq appear ever increasingly to be organized by radical Muslim fundamentalist forces of various sorts. This population of some 5 million had been among the bulwarks of secular Arab nationalism in the past, but those days are long gone.
The Islamic Action Council in Pakistan, some members of which sympathize with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, continues to rule the Northwest Frontier Province. The central government, however, which is more secular, has stopped it from implementing Islamic law and hisbah (measures that give anyone standing in enforcing morality on others). Parliament has even moved to rewrite Pakistan’s flawed rape law, which is based on Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s Islamization measures and is so poorly framed that it often ends up allowing the victims to be punished!
Four MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan went to mourn Zarqawi’s death with his family, triggering sanctions against them. The incident raised questions about how much distance there is between the Salafi Jihadis, the violent revivalists, and the conservative religious parties that seem to eschew violence and pursue ordinary politics.
The US pressured Egypt to open up its parliamentary elections last fall, and the Mubarak regime took revenge by letting 88 Muslim Brother delegates be seated in a chanber with a little over 400 members. These supported Hizbullah in the recent Israel-Lebanon War and have demanded that the Camp David Accords be revoked.
Hamas won the elections in the Palestine Authority. The Israelis have taken many of the elected Hamas representatives and officials into custody, however, and have repeatedly bombed the Interior Ministry in Gaza. These developments have added to the popularity of Hamas and radical fundamentalism while making a mockery of the Bush administration’s stated commitment to democratization.
Hizbullah itself achieved enormous popularity, and enhanced the prestige of radical Muslim fundamentalism, by its ability to make a stand before the Israeli military machine. This development will ripple through the region, to the disadvantage of more secular, moderate forces.
The evidence with regard to hearts and minds is mixed. The Pew Global Attitudes Project reports on Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, with a population of 224 mn. In 2000, 70 percent of Indonesians viewed the United States favorably. (Such numbers were typical for US Muslim allies in areas not consumed by the Arab-Israeli conflict). In 2002 as a result of the Afghanistan war, the number fell to 60 percent. Then in 2003 after Bush invaded Iraq, it fell to 15 percent. After Bush sent the US Navy to help Indonesia in the aftermath of the tsunami, the numbers rebounded in 2005 to 38 percent. In 2006 they have fallen again, down to 30 percent.
So since 2000, we have fallen from 70 percent approval in Indonesia to only 30 percent, and at some points we were way down. This story contains a caution and also some encouraging news. The caution is that we are losing the Indonesia public because of this Iraq occupation. It is true in Turkey, as well, and lots of other places. The good news is that it is not irreversible. Do some nice things for someone, and the numbers go up. (The numbers also went up in Pakistan after we diverted some military helicopters to help the victims of the Kashmir earthquake). If we ended our Iraq presence, there is a chance we could repair these relationships with some munificent gestures.
In Turkey, the favorability rating of the US in 2002 was 52 percent. It is now 15 percent. That is a scary plummet! I suspect it is all about Iraq, and particularly the feeling that the US is letting the Iraqi Kurds harbor the PKK terrorists, who are blowing things up in Turkey.
The only really good news in the Pew findings is that the US has grown in popularity in Morocco, to nearly 50%, and is especially popular with youth and women. Moroccans have said they are worried about terrorism and about too much influence of religion in politics. I don’t entirely understand what is driving the Morocco numbers, since they were pretty upset about Iraq, but the change should be studied for what it can tell us about doing things right. One thing that helps is that Morocco is a long way from the Arab-Israeli conflict, and, in fact, has good behind the scenes relations with Israel.
The Arab world mostly just dislikes US policy, mainly because of kneejerk support for Israeli depredations against Palestinians. The dislike doesn’t change that much, though we reached a nadir in 2003-2004. In 2002 76 percent of the Egyptian public disapproved of us. In 2004 that rose to 98 percent. It has fallen down to 86 percent in 2006. Very few Egyptians approve of US foreign policy. They don’t even like US intervention to open up the Egyptian political system.
To the extent that small terrorist groups benefit in their recruitment and in motivating recruits from deeply negative attitudes to the United States, these polling numbers are extremely disturbing. The main things driving a polarization between Muslim publics and the US are not al-Qaeda or terrorism, however. They are Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. It is the policy. The policy can provoke anger and engender threat, and that is why it had better be a damn good policy. It can also make for friendships, which is what we should be aiming at.
It wouldn’t take much now to settle the Israel-Palestine thing, and the time is ripe to have Israel give back the Golan to Syria and the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon in return for a genuine peace process. The Israelis are not made more secure by crowding into the West Bank or bombing Gaza daily. South Lebanon has demonstrated the dangers of ever more sophisticated microwars over rugged territory. It is time for Israel, and for the United States, to do the right thing and rescue the Palestinians from the curse of statelessness, the slavery of the 21st century. Ending this debilitating struggle would also be the very best thing for the Israelis themselves. In one fell swoop, the US would have solved 80 percent of its problems with the Muslim world and vastly reduced the threat of terrorism.
But of all the things this administration has done badly, it has been worst of all at making friends in the region. That could end up hurting us most of all, and playing into Bin Laden’s increasingly ghostly hands.