Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said on his arrival in Kabul that the US could be on the verge of defeating al-Qaeda, and could do so in the wake of the killing of Usama Bin Laden by keeping the pressure on in Afghanistan, northwest Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
According to the Department of Defense, Panetta
‘…explained his reasoning saying there are between 10 to 20 key al-Qaida leaders in areas like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa and tracking them down would mean the defeat of the terror organization. “We have undermined their ability to conduct 9-11-type attacks,” he said. “We have them on the run. Now is the moment, following what happened to [Osama] bin Laden to put maximum pressure on them, because I do believe if we continue this effort we can cripple al-Qaida as a threat. Panetta said al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is most likely in hiding in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area. ‘
Panetta’s way of thinking about al-Qaeda is welcome in the sense that he is depicting it as a small network with only a few capable leaders (10 to 20). After years of getting the scale of al-Qaeda wrong, we should by now realize that despite its widespread tiny cells, it is a miniscule organization, if it can even be called an organization.
But thinking about al-Qaeda as an organization to which entrepreneurial leadership is key is itself problematic. Most al-Qaeda plots have been relatively low-tech and frankly have been mediocre, such as the plan to attack tourist hotels in Jordan in fall of 2000, which was finally undertaken in fall 2005. What did that accomplish? It redoubled the insistence of the Jordanian government on cooperating with the US in the fight against al-Qaeda. It made al-Qaeda deeply unpopular in Jordan, and that unpopularity attached also to some other Muslim fundamentalist groups. It may well have helped lead to the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-proclaimed Jordanian “al-Qaeda” leader active in Iraq, on whom US military men implausibly blamed a majority of attacks in Iraq in that period.
When Zarqawi was killed in spring, 2006, in Iraq it had no effect whatsoever on the rate of the bombings and other killings claimed by radical Muslim organizations in that country. Indeed, the rest of 2006 was the most violent period in 21st century Iraqi history. This outcome was because there were many angry Sunni Arabs in Iraq perfectly willing and able to take up the kind of plots and attacks that were Zarqawi’s trademark.
So here is how you really defeat al-Qaeda:
1. Stop over-estimating it. The organization, despite having one big success at mass murder, is tiny and full of marginal personalities. It should be a concern of the FBI and Interpol, not of the US Secretary of Defense.
2. Don’t depend on private armies, including ‘contractors’. Ronald Reagan’s deployment of the Mujahidin and their Arab allies against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s created al-Qaeda in the first place. Likewise Reagan used right wing death squads in Nicaragua. He seems to have liked to make an end run around the constitution that way. Panetta showed pride in the supposedly apolitical and professional American military in his talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But the US is increasingly willing to mobilize private rightwing militias and mercenaries for military purposes, which likely will create more al-Qaedas. Military actions should be the province of the Department of Defense.
3. Keep a light US military footprint in places where the US is unpopular. Al-Qaeda began with its fight against the Soviet Union, then occupying Afghanistan, and with an alliance with the US. The illegal US invasion of Iraq and subsequent military occupation of that country gave an opening for violent and unscrupulous men to create an al-Qaeda branch in that country of some significance, and created a recruitment tool for manipulative al-Qaeda recruiters.
4. Support Palestinian statehood and immediate full human rights for Palestinians. The Palestinians ethnically cleansed in 1948 now have millions of descendants, millions of them lacking citizenship in any state and therefore lacking ‘the right to have rights.’ Some 40 percent of the people of Gaza are refugees from what is now Israel, many of them still living in camps. On top of all that, the Israelis won’t even let them export their made goods, keeping them down economically. Most Muslims sympathize with the Palestinians and resent the way they have been treated, and the unresolved character of this dispute is a major driver of radicalism. This resentment is a potent recruitment tool for the radicals. Al-Qaeda itself is manipulative and insincere, but it has had some success in recruiting from among ordinary young men..
Instead of doing the above, the US is unwisely pressuring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq to allow thousands of US troops to stay after next January, despite the obvious prospect that their presence will further destabilize Iraq. If you wanted to destroy al-Qaeda, getting out of Iraq militarily would be an excellent first step. Arranging for a just settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict would be the nail in the coffin of such recruiting.
There were never many radicals in the Muslim world, and what little success they have had depended on being able constantly to recruit new blood, preferably from the educated classes. The US should not allow itself to be blackmailed by these small cells of monsters with C4 explosives. But where doing the right thing anyway also has the side effect of reducing resentment, that is yet another reason to do it. The resentments generated by the clear injustices done to the Palestinians, and by big US military footprints in Arab and Muslim lands set the US off on the wrong foot with many in the region. That rift is reparable, but Americans and their regional friends have to recognize it and want to repair it.
The way to defeat al-Qaeda is not to kill 20 leaders. It is not to create an atmosphere in which such hothouse movements thrive.