It's instructive to linger over the scene-setting, thematic quotations that book authors choose to open their stories. It tells you something about where the tale is going. And where the author is coming from.
Mark Mazzetti, a national security correspondent for the New York Times, opens his new book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, with a passage from John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:
"Good intelligence work, Control had always preached, was gradual and rested on a kind of gentleness. The scalphunters were the exception to his own rule. They weren't gradual and they weren't gentle either..."
Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation magazine and the author of a previous book about the military contractor Blackwater, begins his new book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield with an observation from Voltaire:
"It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets."
These are ominous openings. They signal that the story you're about to read wrestles with the darkest aspects of our human nature. What turns men into killers? What drives them from "gentleness" to savagery? How should we judge them for that?
They also tell you that each writer, who has been widely praised for the strength of his journalism, is after something more substantial here. Maybe even novelistic. You don't invoke Le Carré and Voltaire without a hefty dose of ambition. Fortunately for Mazzetti and Scahill, their gambles largely pay off.
Taken together -- and if you have the time, you really should read these books as companions -- The Way of the Knife and Dirty Wars are among the most comprehensive and soul-searching histories of the now 12-year-old 'Global War on Terrorism.' The authors are covering the same ground, the same organizations, and frequently the same people. Each book examines how the Central Intelligence Agency and the Special Operations forces of the military took leading roles in the terror war and were fundamentally changed by it.
In broad strokes, the CIA turned from an espionage agency steeped in the intrigue of Cold War spying into a global hit squad, killing terrorists in the most unforgiving reaches of the globe with its 21st Century weapon of choice, a remotely-piloted aircraft armed with air-to-ground missiles. The military has always been in the killing business, but the war on terror turned soldiers into spies, made them collectors of intelligence, jailors and interrogators, and deposited them in a world of covert affairs and skullduggery for which they'd never been trained.
Neither the CIA nor the special operators chose this war, which, from the beginning, knew no borders. Soon after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, Scahill writes, "[Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld wanted plans drawn up to hit Somalia, Yemen, Latin America, Mauritania, Indonesia and beyond. ...The world is a battlefield -- that was the mantra."
It didn't matter if the host governments of these nations invited American forces to clean up the dens of terrorist and fundamentalists, or their loose network of "supporters." The United States would find its authority through congressionally-enacted authorizations of force, secretive military and intelligence directives, and a broadly articulated doctrine of self-defense. The CIA and the special operators would be on point, and there was no peace in sight.
Practically from the beginning, it was clear that while the two forces might be after the same enemy, they weren't fighting as partners. "By early 2002, Afghanistan was neither a daily shooting war nor a hopeful peace but a twilight conflict beset by competition and mistrust between soldiers and spies," Mazzetti writes. Navy SEALs and Marines spent eight days digging up graves in a fruitless search for Osama bin Laden, whom intelligence wrongly indicated might have been killed in a recent air strike. In a far costlier communication breakdown, Green Berets shot up a compound they thought was filled with Taliban gunmen. After they'd killed more than 40 fighters and returned to base, they discovered that days earlier the CIA had convinced the men to switch sides and fight with the Americans. The Green Berets never got the message.
The two sides were institutionally at odds. Mazzetti and Scahill chronicle the military's effort to set up its own human spying networks in various countries, behind the backs of CIA station chiefs. There were predictable clashes, and much head-butting and chest-thumping, as the lines between the two sides started to blur, and at times neither was sure which business they should really be in.
The spies and the soldiers were like pubescent teenagers, clumsily responding to the rapid and explosive changes to life as they knew it. On these accounts, the authors agree. But it's when they look for the reasons behind these cultural shifts, and the motivations of the spies and the soldiers and the higher-ups pulling their respective strings, that their stories diverge.
In Mazzetti's account, which is the more empathetic, the responses of the CIA and the military seem biological, a set of almost organic responses to a changing environment. About the CIA's decision to start killing suspected terrorists outside internationally recognized war zones, he writes that "each hit the CIA took for its detention-and-interrogation program pushed CIA leaders further to one side of a morbid calculation: that the agency would be far better off killing, rather than jailing, terror suspects." The CIA was run mostly by men who, like Le Carré's aging spymaster Control, seemed utterly unprepared for the new war, and fought at every turn to preserve the agency to which they'd devoted their careers and pledged their lives. The CIA saw targeted killing with drones as "cleaner, less personal" than detention and interrogation. Killing was new business, to be sure, but doing it at a distance, and with deniability, echoed the old ways. Institutional preservation was their guiding instinct.
In Scahill's story, which is generally more concerned with the military's side of the tale, the transformation of special operations into a global "assassination machine" seems largely engineered by the government's most powerful men, particularly Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who used the crisis of terrorism to create private, "unaccountable" armies. Scahill sees leaders who had a moral choice and took a dark path, because it freed them from the moorings of the Constitution and reset the balance in the separation of powers decidedly in favor of the President. For him, the special operators become a private death squad, answering only to their commander-in-chief, not the Congress, not the public. The response to crisis wasn't about self-preservation, but seizing an opportunity to reengineer power in government.
Again, the authors' choice of opening quotations is instructive. Mazzetti approaches the story with the fascinated, occasionally even cold remove of a newspaper reporter who is drawn to the cultural shifts in the spy game. It's their mindset, how they slowly learned "the way of the knife," that most intrigues him. He's drawn to the humanity of killing, and how it twists people, as evidenced by his choice to close the story, in cinematic fashion, on a face-to-face meeting with an Dewey Clarridge, a complicated and deeply flawed old Cold Warrior-turned-terrorist-hunter who represents as well as any single man the uneven evolution of the CIA.
Scahill, by comparison, is a moralist. He is a journalist in the tradition of the ink-stained wretch, throwing rocks at the castle walls from the outside. Bill Moyers has called him "a one-man truth squad." Scahill inserts himself at times into the narrative (the book has photographs of him reporting in the field, and he is the subject of a new documentary film about his work), but he's not writing in the first-person for the sake of glory. When he asks, on the final pages, "How does a war like this ever end?" he does so with a personal stake. Like his subjects, Scahill has traveled to the frontlines of the dirty wars, and one gets the distinct impression he'd like to come home.
It's these subjective, stylistic differences that make the books such a palpable pair. The subject is the same, but the history is written through different lenses. The final results, however, are equally illuminating.
The books are also especially timely. Right now, the spies and the soldiers find themselves at a turning point. The armed forces are unwinding from a decade of war and relentless counterterrorism operations. The new Director of the CIA, John Brennan, himself a career intelligence officer who was schooled in the Cold War, has said he wants to emphasize the agency's traditional work in espionage and bring the days of killing to an end.
The soldiers and the spies want to return to their old ways. They may succeed, but only if they haven't lost them.
Shane Harris is a senior writer at The Washingtonian magazine and the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State. In September, he will be joining the New America Foundation as a Future Tense Fellow.
C.E. Lewis/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images
Since the brutal attack in Boston a few weeks ago, the word terrorism, without being preceded by the word "cyber," unfortunately returned to our lexicon. For those who have spent the better part of the past decade obsessed by the al Qaeda terrorism threat, there was much in Boston that looked very familiar.
Two men who have spent an even longer time watching the evolution of the al Qaeda threat, Abdel Bari Atwan, the editor in chief of the London-based newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, and Phil Mudd, a former CIA analyst, Deputy Director of the agency's Counterterrorist Center, and Deputy Director of the National Security Branch at the FBI, have both written important and well-argued books that have a direct relevance to the al Qaeda inspired attack in Boston, the ongoing evolution of the al Qaeda threat and the U.S. intelligence community's current and future capacity to understand the ever-changing nature of that threat.
Abdel Bari Atwan's book, After Bin Laden - Al Qaeda the Next Generation, as its title connotes, seeks to explain the characteristics of "Al Qaeda and Associated Movements," or AQAM as he likes to call them, in the wake of bin Laden's death.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Atwan makes a compelling case that while the death of Osama bin Laden and the decimation of al Qaeda Core's top leadership has hurt the central organization that was based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the movement and ideology, with its worldwide presence via regional associated movements, is as much of a menace to the West as ever and undiminished in its goal of a global caliphate.
Mr. Atwan spends considerable time discussing the poorly named "Arab Spring," the successive revolutions which occurred across the Arab world and the relationship that these events have with indigenous al Qaeda-associated movements that have their own deep roots in some of the very states that saw their governments topple, sectarian conflicts break into the open, and civil wars erupt.
While many of us in the West hoped that the revolutions in the Arab states would herald better governance and the opportunity for homegrown secularists with their own domestic legitimacy to rise, Mr. Atwan saw a different future - one where Islamist parties would dominate the ballot box and armed Islamists or AQAM would have a role to play as well.
Mr. Atwan takes the reader on an impressive tour of the Islamic world, with chapters and sections on almost every country and region from Arabia to Uzbekistan. While some of the background history that he provides on each country or region is old news to regular readers of the New York Times international section, they do provide the context in each locale for Mr. Atwan to make his most provocative argument - al Qaeda-associated movements are poised for a comeback when either the Islamists or secularists fail in their efforts of good governance, regardless of whether it is in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Nigeria, North Africa, Sinai, or Central Asia. While the situation in each country is distinct, in general, regional al Qaeda-type violence certainly seems unabated and potentially is on the upswing in countries like Iraq, Nigeria, Mali and Syria.
Mr. Atwan is at his best when explaining the tribal dynamics in such places as Yemen, where different alliances among the tribes and their long standing dissatisfaction with any central government make them a natural ally of al Qaeda-associated movements, who also seek to challenge the central government, are armed, and espouse an austere form of Islam that is not foreign to the locals. Mr. Atwan draws similar astute insights about local dynamics when considering the prospects for growth for al Qaeda in the states of North Africa or the Islamic Maghreb.
Unlike many who follow jihadist groups, Mr. Atwan did not neglect the unstable Russian Caucasus region, including Chechnya and Dagestan -places now etched in the American consciousness. While some may not have understood the centrality of the Caucasus in the al Qaeda narrative, Mr. Atwan captures not only its importance, but also its worldwide links to jihadists in Pakistan, the Middle East, and even Europe.
With such a broad array of al Qaeda-associated threats gathering across the globe, and a sporadic, hard to characterize, homegrown threat now having proven its capability to kill, one is likely to worry how the United States will confront this multi-faceted threat matrix.
Fortunately, we have Philip Mudd, who ate, slept, and dreamt this threat for the better part of this past decade from within various parts the U.S. counterterrorism bureaucracy, to provide a unique perspective on how the United States is organized to confront this threat. What gives Mr. Mudd's book, Takedown - Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda, its arc is his career trajectory within a counterterrorism bureaucracy that was constantly evolving to catch up to and ultimately try to stay ahead of a rapidly evolving al Qaeda threat.
For an outsider, Mr. Mudd provides unique insights as to what it was like on a day-to-day basis working in the CIA Counterterrorism Center and FBI National Security Branch and how those entities functioned, faults and all. Mudd's descriptions of his encounters with senior policymakers and agency heads like Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and FBI Director Robert Mueller could easily have been found in a typical Bob Woodward book about inside Washington. However, Mr. Mudd is a gentleman and takes the high road in his recollections. The book is less about "takedowns" of particular terrorists and much more a story of Mr. Mudd's experiences inside the U.S. national security apparatus, embedded in explanations of the functioning of the U.S. counterterrorism community's threat bureaucracy.
Mr. Mudd's vantage point from inside the different organizations at particular points in time allows him to explain how the al Qaeda threat looked to the U.S. government at various points during the last decade. This perspective is quite important and in many ways sets up the findings of Mr. Atwan's book about al Qaeda post-bin Laden.
Mr. Mudd served as a National Security Council staffer when the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, after which he returned to CIA where he found himself at the rapidly growing Counterterrorism Center. At that time, the U.S. intelligence community was concerned primarily - and rightly - with al Qaeda Core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how to understand the hierarchy and network that supported it. So, the arrests, capture, and subsequent interviews of senior al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Zubayda and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided the intelligence community with information that could help potentially thwart plots or provide insights on other plotters and was, as Mr. Mudd describes it, "gold" for intelligence analysts.
As progress was being made against al Qaeda Core in the Af/Pak region, the United States mobilized for the Iraq War. Mr. Mudd describes how, suddenly, the al Qaeda-linked insurgency in Iraq that rose up in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion became an important focus and required an expansion of resources at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. Moreover, the phenomenon was not confined to Iraq after 2003 - but rather, an al Qaeda threat was spreading through South East Asia, North Africa, Turkey and Europe, as evidenced by attacks in these areas.
Although Mr. Mudd does not provide the detailed historical context or local dynamics that Mr. Atwan focuses on to explain this geographic proliferation of the al Qaeda threat, he does focus on one element that is a key common factor among all the al Qaeda associated groups regardless of where they are - ideology. This ideology is not only anti-Western, but also requires the overthrow of Middle Eastern regimes, and thus "attacks are meant to spark a revolution, not an end in themselves."
Furthermore, Mr. Mudd explains that it was during this time period (2003-2006) that the U.S counterterrorism community felt an acute sense of "surprise and unknowing" given the geographic sprawl that characterized al Qaeda attacks during this time. As time wore on, though, the intelligence community began to dedicate analysts not solely to al Qaeda Core but rather to these geographically disperse regions that now seemingly housed al Qaeda problems. Interestingly, what Mr. Mudd describes happening at the national level was also happening at the NYPD Intelligence Division, and we too had to both widen the aperture of our analytic lens and devote more resources to a broader and more diverse al Qaeda threat during those years.
Once Mr. Mudd moved to the FBI, on loan from the CIA, he gained insight into the threat that was increasingly manifesting itself in the West and ultimately struck in Boston - the homegrown threat, comprised of "loose clusters of youths, typically kids who were angry and thought other members of their communities weren't serious about opposing what they saw as a U.S. or Western crusade in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere." These men had little if any operational links to al Qaeda, but rather were inspired to act by the group's ideology.
As the reader finishes both books, the authors veer off into very different directions. Mr. Mudd makes no predictions as to what the threat will look like in future years, but gives the impression that the terrorism threat management bureaucracy in the United States had become more streamlined and regularized, or "far more well-oiled and less jumpy, than in the first years," suggestive of a higher level of functionality and capacity to thwart future al Qaeda plots.
Mr. Atwan, however, paints a picture that unfortunately does not bode well and in some ways challenges the assertions that the U.S. intelligence community has adequately evolved enough to face the diffuse, de-centralized al Qaeda threat that we face today. In Mr. Atwan's world, various al Qaeda-type groups coordinate and collaborate across huge swaths of the earth and take advantage of the chaos and instability of the post-Arab Spring Middle East. New post-revolutionary governments, whether Islamist or secular, may face protestors and al Qaeda-type terrorists who work together, if they falter or fail to deliver the changes that were promised.
Mr. Mudd is clearly right in that the U.S. intelligence community now has the bandwidth and regional expertise to adequately focus on a diverse and dispersed al Qaeda threat. However, the ability to better understand the threat and the ability to roll it back are different processes (intelligence analysis vs. counterterrorism policy execution). Unfortunately, greater and deeper insights do not assure American counterterrorism success, especially when Mr. Atwan makes a compelling case that we face a future of many ‘al Qaedas' who have metastasized in hard to get at places, are unlikely to be completely defeated on the battlefield, nor collapse because of infighting, nor be successfully rendered impotent via U.S.-led decapitation strategies. Thus, despite the U.S. intelligence community's increase in terms of both breadth and depth of expertise, the longest war will probably go on longer, and we may have to be content with an American strategy that can keep the regional al Qaeda franchise threats in check, but cannot eradicate them.
Mitchell D. Silber is the Executive Managing Director of K2 Intelligence and was the Director of Intelligence Analysis for the New York Police Department from 2007 to 2012.
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images
The looming drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan in 2014 has raised a multitude of concerns, among them fear that the al-Qaeda organization in Pakistan [hereafter AQC] will return to set up camp. This is overwrought. Any residual U.S. force should contain a heavy concentration of Special Forces operators whose top priority will be hunting al-Qaeda remnants who move back across the border into Afghanistan. AQC may be able to carve out small pieces of territory, but even a small number of U.S. troops in tandem with unmanned aerial vehicles should ensure it enjoys little more freedom of movement than at present in Pakistan's Tribal Areas.
Pakistani militants are likely to receive less attention. This is understandable. Yet their access to territory in Afghanistan, alongside the sanctuaries they already enjoy in Pakistan, is cause for significant concern, as it may amplify the threats they pose to India, to Pakistan, and to U.S. interests in the region. Moreover, as Secretary of State John Kerry seeks to jumpstart stalled peace negotiations, it is worth noting that their presence in Afghanistan further complicates the already tortuous search for a settlement.
Home Away from Home
Most of the major Pakistani militant groups and a host of minor ones are active in Afghanistan. They fight alongside the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network, both of which enjoy sanctuary in and support from Pakistan. Some Pakistani organizations are also engaged in a revolutionary jihad against their own government, with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan leading that charge. Organizationally, whether to wage war against the state is the greatest dividing line among militant groups endogenous to and based in Pakistan. Operationally, it does not preclude collaboration on either side of the Durand Line.
Anti-state militants displaced by Pakistani military incursions into FATA and the Swat Valley in 2009-2010 have regrouped across the border in Afghanistan. From there, they launch cross-border raids into Pakistan. The two countries have been waging a low-level border war since the late 2000s, fueling suspicions in Pakistan that Afghan forces are providing sanctuary and support to these militants. Even if true, such assistance would pale in comparison to Pakistan's well-documented support for insurgents fighting in Afghanistan.
Militants fighting against the Pakistani state are sometimes co-located in Northeastern Afghanistan with those from Pakistan's proxy organizations, most notably members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) who have been active there since the mid-2000s. Though still small in number, LeT's presence in Afghanistan has grown since 2010. This likely owes to an increased need for a safety release valve following pressure on the group to reduce its India-centric activities after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, as well as the appeal of the Afghan front for those motivated to fight America or simply to join the biggest jihad in town. Pakistan's intelligence services also may have endorsed this expansion as a means of gathering information about those anti-state militants pushed across the border. The past several years have witnessed attempts by LeT to solidify its presence in the Salafi-strongholds of northern Afghanistan where the group has longstanding roots.
In short, though militants overwhelmingly remain based across the border in Pakistan, Northeastern Afghanistan has become a sanctuary not only for Pakistani militants arrayed against the state, but also those aligned with it.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
No one knows with certainty how the conflict in Afghanistan will evolve once U.S. and NATO troops draw down or what the cascading impacts will be on Pakistan, India or the region. But several broad pathways are easy to envision. The worst-case scenario is a conflagration that draws in regional actors, most notably India. The more likely outcome is an ongoing insurgency that does not lead to the overthrow of the state, but also does not escalate into a full-blown proxy war involving countries other than Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hopes for a political settlement between the Afghan government and the insurgents don't look good at present, but even this best-case result wouldn't come without challenges. In all cases, the drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces brings with it the opportunity for Pakistani militants - pro- and anti-state - to take greater advantage of cross-border sanctuaries in Afghanistan.
In the absence of a negotiated settlement and amidst an ongoing insurgency, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan could deteriorate further, leading Kabul to provide the TTP and associated anti-Pakistan militants the type of support Islamabad already suspects they are receiving. As a result, Pakistan could face not only a domestic jihadist insurgency, but also the sort of durable threat of cross-border jihadist violence that it has long supported against its neighbors. Moreover, an escalating proxy war could create conditions for a greater instability along both sides of the border. A conflict that draws in regional actors, particularly India, would exacerbate this dynamic. But even increased bilateral tensions, fueling and fueled by a cross-border proxy war, would have a destabilizing impact. For U.S. officials, this would further complicate an already labyrinthine regional environment and could impact the operations of any residual force.
Regardless of the outcome in Afghanistan, LeT is likely to keep a small presence in the Northeast where its members have worked to carve out territory. The group is also likely to agitate for regenerating the jihad directly against India, both in the form of terrorist attacks against the mainland and increased activity in Kashmir. The latter has been torpid since the late 2000s. Several incidents there this year may augur the rumblings of renewed jihadist activity, though it is too early to know whether they will amount to much. Important here is that access to safe haven in Afghanistan for LeT and other Pakistani proxy groups conceivably reduces ISI situational awareness of what their members there are doing. This would increase plausible deniability for militant leaders under some form of Pakistani state control and, thus, for the Pakistani state itself. Each could conceivably claim they did not sanction plots orchestrated from across the border, with the result being to heighten the likelihood of such attacks occurring. This is of most concern to New Delhi. Given LeT's past readiness to include Westerners in its target set for attacks in India, this rightly concerns U.S. policymakers and practitioners too.
In the event of a settlement that enabled the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network to migrate back across the border into Afghanistan, it is possible that elements from among them would provide at least a modicum of assistance to India-centric groups with factions operating there. More troubling, it is far from certain that all Afghan-centric militants would buy into any settlement. Questions exist regarding how much control the Quetta Shura (leaders of the Afghan Taliban currently or previously based in Quetta, Balochistan) has over its own foot soldiers, much less those operating under the banner of the Haqqani Network or the Pakistani Taliban. Some could be expected to fight on and, depending on the posture of the Pakistani state, to assist the TTP in launching cross-border attacks as well. Once again, the result could be a durable threat of cross-border jihadist violence. As a result, accounting for Islamabad's compulsions vis-à-vis those militant groups straddling the Durand Line and waging a domestic insurgency against Pakistan also adds another wrinkle to any peace negotiations.
One Factor Among Many
Multiple variables including host nation preferences, domestic political and budgetary constraints and broader U.S. defense policy objects will (and should) determine the size, composition, and focus of any residual U.S. force in Afghanistan post-2014. It is unrealistic to imagine that the main focus of any residual force will not remain on supporting the Afghan National Army and targeting al-Qaeda along with other actors that have the intent and capabilities to launch transnational attacks. However, the presence of anti-Pakistan militants and possibility for escalating cross-border jihadist violence means U.S. and NATO officials will need to contend with whether to target them too.
Doing so could help serve a political purpose, reducing the threat to Pakistan's internal stability and in so doing possibly helping to defuse regional tensions. However, there is no guarantee such a payoff would accrue. More tangibly, it might provide a means for transactional targeting, i.e. the U.S. removes anti-Pakistani militants from the Afghan battlefield in exchange for assistance capturing, killing or otherwise curtailing militants of significant concern in Pakistan. Yet even this would mean sparing sparse resources and require buy-in from a host government in Kabul that has very different priorities.
Hunting India-centric militants hiding in Afghanistan, though likely to engender less animosity in Kabul, would come with its own set of hurdles. To begin with, debates persist about the costs and benefits of aggressively pursuing the small number of LeT militants in Afghanistan if the group is not actively targeting the U.S. homeland. The direct threat consists primarily in the form of terrorist attacks against India that could include Western interests. Indirectly, of course, are concerns another Indo-Pak crisis might eventuate. Either way, it is unclear what role, if any, the small number of LeT militants in Afghanistan would play in generating such attacks. As already noted, the more relevant issue is one of plausible deniability. This suggests the need to realign intelligence officers and analysts whose expertise will be essential for identifying emerging and evolving jihadist threats in the region, thus making it more difficult for militants to carry forward plots or plausibly claim no involvement in them.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and re-forged its relationship with Pakistan in order to destroy al-Qaeda Central. Finishing that job is important. However, with the drawdown looming and AQC's capability to strike the homeland severely degraded, Washington must begin reorienting its South Asian counterterrorism architecture in line with the decreasing threat from al-Qaeda and growing potential for regional attacks against U.S. interests and regional instability post-2014. Although it is but one component among many, the availability of sanctuary for Pakistani militants in Afghanistan should inform this process. It also must factor in broader U.S. foreign and defense policy planning for South Asia, including any strategy designed to reach a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan.
Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His next book, provisionally titled Peripheral Jihads, explores how jihadist groups in S. Asia, the Middle East and N. Africa adapted to the post-9/11 environment and will be published by Columbia University Press in 2014.
Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)
Roderic Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (London: Profile Books, 2011)
Artemy M. Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011)
The idea that history offers lessons for the present is uncontroversial and common to the point of cliché. Yet, American foreign policy decisions often proceed with barely a look to the past. And so we were informed in 2009 by then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, likely to return as a fixture in future Democratic administrations, "[T]here's absolutely no valid comparison between the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan" and the U.S.-led campaign to enable the Afghan people to "reclaim their country." Is that so?
In her award-winning book about the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, Frances FitzGerald states:
Americans ignore history, for them everything has always seemed new under the sun....Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge of it as representatives for all mankind. They believe in the future as if it were a religion; they believe that there is nothing they cannot accomplish, that solutions wait somewhere for all problems like brides.
Just as history's lessons were dismissed as advisers begat brigades in the jungles of Southeast Asia, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan has been discarded as irrelevant to our own war by American policymakers, commanders, and commentators. This has left us, in the words of Lord Butler of Brockwell, "like a driver who commits to some manoeuvre in the road without looking into the rear mirror." Indeed, American leaders believe we are on a different road entirely. While there are significant differences between the two interventions, the road winds through the same mountains.
Two books released as the latest incarnation of foreign intervention winds down - one by Rodric Braithwaite and the other by Artemy Kalinovsky - tell the troubled tale of the Soviet intervention and withdrawal. In doing so, they shatter mischaracterizations that prevent the West from looking to this decade as a source of lessons. The only major flaws of these books, Afgantsy and The Long Goodbye, is that they were published years too late to serve as rejoinders to Undersecretary Flournoy and others who came before her who insisted that Afghanistan, in the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, stood "at the dawn of a new day."
Yet, while Braithwaite and especially Kalinovksy draw on previously unpublished Soviet records and interviews, they were not the first to strike at the myths of the Soviet intervention rooted in the Cold War. Almost twenty years ago, Diego Cordovez, the U.N.'s point man on Afghanistan in the 1980s, and journalist Selig S. Harrison produced the insightful Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal. These three books demand to be read and revisited in combination. They very much complement each other. Braithwaite's Afgantsy provides a vivid, novelistic account of the war in its entirety. Kalinovsky's more scholarly text provides the oft-missing Soviet perspective based on Politburo records, now housed at the Wilson Center thanks to Kalinovsky himself. Cordovez and Harrison give us the ultimate insider's account, bringing readers along for the ride as the U.N. emissary shuttles back and forth between Moscow, Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad, furiously working to get deadly foes to sit down at a table and talk.
The common Western narrative holds that once Soviet forces crossed their southern border into Afghanistan in December 1979, they were modern-day Cossacks waging a war of unmitigated brutality. With U.S. support, the noble mujahideen prevailed. This narrative, rooted in the hostile spirit of the Cold War, tells us we have nothing to learn from the Soviets in Afghanistan because our mission is so different in its purpose, aims and methods. Our very nature is so different that comparisons are useless. Or so we tell ourselves, and in doing so ignore the nuances of history.
The Soviets also had trouble reconciling their mission with Afghan history. In one memorable exchange captured by Kalinovsky, Soviet Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Mikhail Kapista cited the British experience in Afghanistan in the 19th Century. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko responded, "Do you mean to compare our internationalist troops with imperialist troops?" Kapitsa retorted, "No, our troops are different - but the mountains are the same!"
There are many aspects of the Soviet experience relevant to the current U.S.-led campaign, but none are more relevant to the present day than the Soviet efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement and withdraw their military forces. On these aspects of the war before the war, these three books have a great deal to say, primarily by way of three key lessons: Even a "reconciliation" that promises substantial government concessions may not succeed. Timing is everything. Pakistan is not to be trusted.
By the time Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to power in 1985, the view that the Soviet war in Afghanistan was a quagmire was commonly held in the Politburo and in the military. Frustration with Afghan partners - particularly General Secretary Babrak Karmal - was at an all-time high, leading to his replacement with Mohammad Najibullah in 1986. Gorbachev came to accept that the Soviets would not leave a socialist government in their wake, but he was not ready to abandon their client regime entirely. He pushed a second, internal track on Najibullah: the policy of "National Reconciliation," which was far reaching in its concessions to the mujahideen.
The reconciliation program sought to reach out to biddable elements in the armed opposition, as well as non-Communist political and religious leaders not involved in the rebellion. In doing so, they sought to strengthen the position of the Afghan armed forces. Through a re-tooled aid package, more emphasis on outreach to tribes, efforts to make Afghan officials more independent, and dialogue with insurgent commanders, the Soviets hoped to set the conditions for a durable state as they planned to withdraw. Attempts to make the Afghan government more representative, rather than dominated by the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), were key. The new policy was announced in December 1986. That same month, Gorbachev called Najibullah to Moscow and informed him that a military withdrawal from Afghanistan was now official Soviet policy. The government, with Soviet advisers over their shoulders, drew up a new constitution that established "an Islamic legal system run by an independent judiciary, greater freedom of speech, and the election of a president by a loya jirga assembly consisting of parliament and tribal and religious leaders."
While sensible, the National Reconciliation program arrived too late. All sides were too entrenched. The Khalq and Parcham factions of the PDPA were still at loggerheads. The "Peshawar Seven" and "Tehran Eight" mujahideen parties were strong and confident in the countryside and the mountains, dripping with a desire for revenge and a hatred of the Kabul-based government. The Pakistanis and the Americans doubted the Soviets and the Afghan government were serious about a negotiated settlement. And they understood that, regardless of Soviet intentions, a compromise on their parts was not necessary. One independent-minded Soviet colonel wrote in a letter: "[O]ne has to keep in mind that the counter-revolution is aware of the strategic decision of the Soviet leadership to withdraw the Soviet troops from the DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] ...The counter-revolution will not be satisfied with partial power today, knowing that tomorrow it can have it all."
Gorbachev also fumbled the timing of announcing troop withdrawals. In February 1988, against the advice of the Soviet negotiating team in Geneva, Gorbachev announced a full withdrawal would begin on May 15, assuming an agreement was reached in Geneva. He hoped that his announcement and the signing of the accords would induce the United States and Pakistan to cease arming the mujahideen. According to Harrison, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze had warned Gorbachev that "a formal commitment to a specific target date would give the impression of an urgent need to withdraw." Gorbachev was wrong and Shevardnadze was right. The withdrawal timeline was one of the few cards the Soviets had left in their deck and Gorbachev gave it away. Subsequent Soviet efforts to negotiate directly with the Peshawar Seven and Tehran Eight were futile.
In response to Gorbachev's announcement, U.S. Secretary of State George P. Schultz demanded that the the two superpowers take a symmetrical approach to the withdrawal of military aid to their respective proxies. In other words, American aid to the mujahideen and Soviet aid to the government would be withdrawn simultaneously. Early drafts of the accords had not envisioned symmetry. Gorbachev was apoplectic, but it was too late.
Moscow had greater concerns linked to a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan - namely negotiations over American nuclear-tipped missiles in Europe. Success in these negotiations depended on improving relations with the United States. And so, on April 14, 1988, the Geneva Accords were signed. They committed the Soviets to execute a "front-loaded" withdrawal within nine months. The United States and the USSR agreed to "positive symmetry," meaning that aid continued to the mujahideen and the Afghan government alike, rather than negative symmetry, which would have withdrawn aid to both. Besides, the Soviet leadership believed that the Accords, which prohibited Pakistani interference and intervention in Afghan affairs, would mitigate the problem of aid to the mujahideen. At any rate, Gorbachev assured Najibullah that, "Even in the harshest, most difficult circumstances, even under conditions of strict control - in any situation, we will provide you with arms." Like the rest of the world, neither of them anticipated the dissolution of the Soviet Union less than four years later.
Pakistan has three interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan that endure to the present day: blunting Pashtun nationalism, preventing strategic encirclement by India, and maintaining strategic depth against India. Support for violent Islamist non-state actors, from the Taliban of the present to the Peshawar Seven of the 1980s, has allowed them to accomplish all three. With Pakistan under the leadership of pro-Islamist Zia ul Haq, the idea of a socialist state and Soviet forces on Pakistan's border was intolerable.
As early as 1980, the Central Committee of the Politburo in Moscow understood Pakistan was the key, and envisioned, according to Politburo records, "a complex of bilateral agreements between Afghanistan and its neighbors, above all Pakistan, and systems of corresponding guarantees from the USSR, USA." As such, the USSR and the Republic of Afghanistan signed the Geneva Accords, which committed Afghanistan and Pakistan to mutual relations, non-interference and non-intervention as well as to "interrelationships for the settlement of the situation." The Geneva Accords committed Pakistan to cease support for the mujahideen. As Cordovez explains, the whole negotiations process was premised on "international disengagement" that would "allow the Afghans themselves to sort out their differences."
Anyone hoping for Pakistani "disengagement" was disappointed. According to Shultz, when President Reagan asked Zia how he would counter Soviet accusations that aid to the mujahideen continued, Zia responded, "We will deny that there is any aid going through our territory. After all, that's what we have been doing for eight years." The UN monitoring mission - the key enforcement mechanism of the Accords - was an embarrassing failure. Before the ink on the Accords was dry, the Soviets and Afghan government began lodging legitimate complaints against Pakistani violations of the agreements. At one point, President Zia told the Soviet ambassador to Kabul that he would support a coalition that was divided in three between the former PDPA, "moderates," and the mujahideen. We do not know if he was serious, however, because the offer ended with the Pakistani leader's own life when his plane crashed later that summer. What we do know is that Pakistan has always sought to be kingmaker in Afghanistan, regardless of what outside powers do.
In the face of these treaty violations, the Soviet leadership hinted they might keep their military forces in Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal deadline if the accords were not strictly adhered to. The bluff failed. The Soviets continued to withdraw their forces. The last of them crossed back into the Soviet Union on February 15, 1989.
The Nuances of History
History has not repeated itself in Afghanistan, but it has rhymed. There are important differences between the Soviet and U.S.-led campaigns that are worth keeping in mind. Brutal Soviet tactics, particularly early in the war, targeted entire communities. This had a direct effect on how the international community, Pakistan, and the mujahideen responded, particularly in terms of their recalcitrance to negotiate in good faith. The Soviet campaign was more deadly and indiscriminant in its violence, resulting in the deaths of up to a million Afghans - about 9% of the Afghan population at the time (admittedly, this figure is debatable). By the time of the Soviet withdrawal, there were millions of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Since the U.S.-led intervention began in 2001, most of these refugees have returned.
The scholar Louis Dupree described the Soviet strategy as "migratory genocide." In other words, the Soviets sought, in some provinces, to depopulate the countryside, the powerbase of the rebels. Joseph Collins, a longtime observer of Afghanistan, argued that for the Soviets, "[t]here was no talk about protecting the population; Soviet operations were all about protecting the regime and furthering Soviet control." Later in the war, the Soviets became obsessed with connecting the government and the population - but still, the Soviet campaign stands in contrast to that waged by ISAF, which has focused on controlling key rural areas and protecting rural communities. There has been operational success on this front. While there is reason to doubt these gains will endure, in this respect, the West has learned from the Soviet experience. Now, it is time for the West, and America in particular, to learn from how they negotiated their withdrawal so as not to repeat their mistakes.Ryan Evans is a PhD Candidate at the King's College London War Studies Department. His report, "Talking to the Taliban" - co-written with John Bew, Martyn Frampton, Peter Neumann, and Marisa Porges - will be released this month.
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Conflict in Kashmir has been back in the news recently. In January, a series of attacks and counter-attacks by Indian and Pakistani soldiers were reportedly sparked by a grandmother who crossed the Line of Control to be near her children and their families, resulting in the deaths of soldiers on both sides. What is striking about recent events and seems to be a particular throw back to earlier times, is the apparent brutality with which two Indian soldiers involved were killed. One was reportedly beheaded, whilst another ‘mutilated.' This particular detail seems to belong to an earlier time highlighted in Adrian Levy's and Cathy Scott-Clark's book about the kidnapping of a group of western tourists in July 1995 in Kashmir, when the full insurgency was underway between Pakistan and India over the disputed province.
The portrait that Levy and Scott-Clark paint of the 1990s insurgency in Kashmir is a brutal one: locals living in fear as groups and alliances shift around them. No one is certain who is on whose side, as idealistic Kashmiri freedom fighters are manipulated by Pakistani ISI agents and their families are punished by Indian authorities. Local warlords change sides regularly, turning on each other with ready brutality at the right price. Police and intelligence agents on the same side end up working against each other, each with a different goal in mind. And caught up in the middle of this is a group of foreign hikers, drawn by the beauty of the countryside and kept in the dark about potential danger by inept local authorities eager for the much-needed tourist revenue.
The Meadow is written in the style of a thriller, with an investigative journalist's eye for detail. It uncovers new information, offering definitive conclusions about what happened to the unfortunate foreigners entangled in the kidnapping. It has attracted less attention than previous books the authors have written about the region - their earlier book Deception, about the Pakistani nuclear program, has been widely praised - but nonetheless comes to some dramatic conclusions about what happened to the group of tourists.
At the heart of this narrative are six western (American, British, German and Norwegian) nationals. Snatched by a group of Kashmiri warriors supported by Pakistan, the intention was for the men to be traded for a group of supporters of the Kashmiri jihad, including Maulana Masood Azhar, an increasingly important preacher who had managed to get himself caught by Indian authorities some weeks before. This was in the days prior to Azhar's later fame as the founder and head of Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Led by a Kashmiri called Sikander who fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the team was a mix of raw recruits and experienced fighters. Sikander had participated in an operation involving foreigners before, abducting two British citizens, Kim Housego and David Mackie, in June 1994 in an operation that ended in failure. Under intense international pressure, Sikander's cell had given the hostages up to Kashmiri journalists. The second time around they hoped to avoid this pressure by creating a shell group, al Faran, which people would be unable to link so easily to the group's well-known organizers, the Pakistani-supported, Kashmiri-oriented Harakat ul Ansar (HuA). According to the book, the new group name was chosen ‘randomly.... by someone in Islamabad that had vague Islamic connotations, being a mountain in Saudi Arabia' (p.95).
The kidnappers were initially planning on snatching foreign workers at infrastructure projects, but as they got sidetracked in other operations time pushed on and they decided instead to go after a group of foreign tourists. By the time they were able to get moving on the plot it was June 1995 and it was only by July 1995 that they made it into the eponymous ‘Meadow' above and around Pahalgam in the Anantnag district of Kashmir. Here, they wandered around the various campsites, capturing two British (Paul Wells and Keith Mangan) and two American (John Childs and Don Hutchings) trekkers they found, sending the women they were travelling with back down the mountain with a note demanding the release of Masood Azhar and other leaders. When one of the Americans, John Childs, managed to escape, the group panicked and snatched another two foreigners they found, this time a Norwegian (Hans Christian Ostrø) and a German (Dirk Hastert). Sikander's father recalls his son telling him ‘human cargo' was not ‘like transporting bullets of rice' requiring all sorts of attention and care (p.93).
At this point, the story becomes murkier. Intrepid journalists, Levy and Scott-Clark rounded up as many different contacts as they could, but patching together what happened to the hostages while they were in captivity is something that is always going to be shrouded in mystery and reserved primarily to the hostages and their captors, none of whom are able to talk now. Using interviews with locals, family members, subsequent intelligence reports, and gathering the pieces of information that the hostages managed to leave secreted with locals as they were transported around the region, the authors piece a compelling narrative together. They uncover how particularly vivacious and infuriating a captive Hans Christian Ostrø was, apparently trying repeatedly to escape whilst charming locals with his enthusiasm. Eventually, a brutal faction within the cell tires of him and leaves his beheaded body to be found with the words ‘al Faran' engraved on his chest.
The others were never found; their family members remain uncertain of their end to this day. For the women who had been trekking with the men before they were snatched, the nightmare was made all the worse by the seemingly limited and incompetent assistance they report receiving from Indian authorities. Having come down the mountain to disbelieving and slow-moving authorities, they then find themselves sidelined as geopolitics overtake the incident.
It is here that Levy and Scott-Clark are able to bring the most new information to light, digging into the grim world of the Kashmiri insurgency to offer a novel conclusion of what happened to the hapless trekkers. After Childs escaped, he lobbied for U.S. Special Forces to go back and rescue the others. But he was ignored, as Indian authorities refused to let foreign boots on the ground or accept much international assistance, eager to keep foreign eyes from the awkward domestic insurgency. And so, the captives were left in an isolated area where, as the authors paint it, India had full control. Even though authorities were in contact with the group, and according to the negotiators had managed to obtain a fixed amount of $250,000 to secure the foreigners release, no exchange actually took place. As the book portrays it, elements within India preferred a grim conclusion to highlight Pakistani perfidy. So once the demand had been made through a private communication between a local officer and the group - who allegedly told the officer ‘the movement [those who had sent him to carry out the kidnapping] can go to hell' (p.325) - someone promptly leaked it, rendering it void as the move had not been approved al Faran's superiors.
Instead, the men are sold to a local warlord fighting for the Indians, who then has them executed and disposed of. Indian authorities (or elements within the Indian power structures) are implied to have had full knowledge of everything that was going on, and to have actively pushed events in this direction, a searing indictment that has attracted ire within India.
The Meadow connects this incident to the larger events of September 11, highlighting the proximity of elements linked to al-Qaeda and the subsequent group that Masood Azhar founded when he was eventually released in exchange for a planeload of Indians held hostage while en route to Nepal. That group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been responsible for a number of major atrocities, including the first use of suicide bombers in Kashmir: on Christmas Day 2000, Asif Sadiq, a 24 year old Birmingham student blew himself up at a checkpoint in Srinagar. A year later, as the world was still rocking from the September 11 attacks, a JeM team joined by fighters from Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) launched an attack on India's parliament that almost brought the sub-continent to nuclear conflict.
Levy and Scott-Clark push this web of shadowy links even further, pointing out a connection between Masood Azhar and Rashid Rauf, the British al Qaeda leader who would go on to act as the overseer of the July 7 and July 21 plots against London, before helping mastermind the aborted August 2006 plot to bring down some eight airplanes on transatlantic routes. In their book, Rauf is a bit part, with Azhar meeting Rauf's father on a trip to Birmingham and being introduced to young Rashid as ‘his rootless teenage son...whom he said was in need of a mentor' (p.296). But the connection nonetheless cements Azhar's importance in helping provide links for a man who went on to be one of al Qaeda's most dynamic foreign leaders.
A hefty book at almost 500 pages, the text sometimes gets lost in its own detail and in the numerous, long and detailed interviews the authors conducted. But drawing on a wealth of primary interviews, it tells a compelling narrative about a specific incident, while also painting a picture of a brutal conflict that, as we saw recently, has all the kindling in place to light up again.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of the forthcoming ‘We Love Death As You Love Life; Britain's Suburban Mujahedeen' (Hurst/Columbia University Press).
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Better late than never? We know it's already halfway through February of 2013, but we'd still like to say congratulations to the authors whose AfPak Channel articles received the most views in 2012. The results reveal that AfPak Channel readers have varied interests -- from gender issues in Pakistan to Afghanistan's uncertain future to the controversy over U.S. drone strikes. If you haven't already read these, you can get started by following the links below, which are arranged in the order of views received, starting with the most-read.
1. Pakistan's almost suicide bombers, by Hussain Nadim
2. 10 lessons the US should learn from Afghanistan's history, by William Byrd
3. The once and future civil war in Afghanistan, by Ryan Evans
4. President Karzai and the secondary sex, by Rachel Reid
5. Imran Khan's new Pakistan, by Kiran Nazish
6. Voice of a native son: Drones may be a necessary evil, by Zmarak Yousefzai
7. Putting the Afghans in charge, by Roger D. Carstens
8. Dodging the drones: How militants have responded to the covert U.S. campaign, by Aaron Y. Zelin
9. The dishonorable defense of honor, by Rabail Baig
10. Fixing Pakistan's tanking economy, by David Walters
Big thank you to all of our contributors for their hard work, excellent analysis, and love for all things AfPak.
Jennifer Rowland and Peter Bergen, Editors of the AfPak Channel
AREF KARIMI/AFP/Getty Images
Maintaining a large military presence in Afghanistan is not in the strategic interests of either the U.S. or the Afghan government. It does not help the United States accomplish its long-term goal of countering terrorism from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, nor its short-term goal of helping Afghanistan achieve stability and self-reliance in fighting insurgency. It is also economically unsustainable. However, retaining a smaller, lighter, residual presence in Afghanistan is critical to U.S. strategy and vital to core U.S. interests.
Additionally, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan must be based on a vision that goes out decades: Considering only short-term goals amounts to strategic myopia, unworthy of the sacrifices made by almost 2,200 U.S. service members in Afghanistan alone.
A Case for Lighter, Smarter, Long-term Residual Presence
With Osama Bin Laden dead and al-Qaeda's capabilities diminished in the Af-Pak region, the immediate threat of attacks on the U.S. from the region has greatly diminished. But the ingredients that could help Al Qaeda regenerate in the next decade remain, and thus the mission endures.
In fact, the "surge" of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2009 had little to do with bin Laden; rather, it was an attempt to rescue the failing mission of stabilizing Afghanistan. Bin Laden was hunted and killed not by the surge, but by a small, specialized group, the likes of which I argue should remain in Afghanistan to monitor and guard against the long-term threat of terrorist cells.
More importantly, a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy must include the training of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to counter domestic threats. But this will take significantly longer than estimates suggest. As such, the U.S. must alter its stated strategy in Afghanistan to consider the training and equipping of the ANSF a key element of its plan to counter threats, and support Afghanistan in its domestic fight against terrorists that, left unchecked, could re-emerge. The numbers of trainers must be kept low and should not be outsourced to contractors. Currently, the only elements specifically designed to counter insurgencies are the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF). Considering the nuanced task, the training force should be predominantly SOF.
With nearly 2,200 troops dead, thousands more wounded, and half a trillion dollars spent in America's longest war, merely staying the course in Afghanistan is no longer possible. In fact, with no sound opposition to President Obama's plan of swift withdrawal, the U.S. has decided to accelerate the transition from combat to training mission and, arguably less advertised, concentrate forces in a few heavily fortified locations such as Bagram Air Base.
Eleven one-year strategies in Afghanistan have brought us to a point where people consider "strategic retreat" the best of the worst options available. In pursuing this plan, however, the United States and its strategic partners in the Afghan Government risk a return to a time where fractured Afghan groups battled for supremacy, and an apathetic and financially exhausted U.S. didn't want to spend any more blood or treasure. History has shown that this "strategic retreat," fails to consider the greater geo-strategic importance of maintaining a U.S. presence in Afghanistan
Without a firm presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. will have no bases in South-Central Asia. The only other alternative is Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, whose lease is going to expire in 2014, and Kyrgyz President Almaz Atambayev has made it clear that his government will not extend the agreement any further. From a regional perspective alone, the U.S. must maintain a residual footprint in Afghanistan as a mechanism of influencing Central and South Asia. Stability in the AfPak region is critical in monitoring and combating a reemergence of al-Qaeda.
Ultimately, for the Obama Administration to achieve its objective of maintaining pressure on al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the region, and supporting Afghanistan as a strategic partner - it must consider a nuanced strategy when looking at the composition of the U.S. residual presence. After 2014, Obama should employ a specialized force with a light footprint, but a big contribution. I recommend the following elements be in the mix:
1. A counter-terrorism task force to focus on the remnants of al-Qaeda and any insurgent groups that pose a threat to U.S. assets and interests. The specialized CT elements need to be able to engage targets throughout the country, so this will have to include both primary bases, and lily pads to extend their reach. These elements should train and utilize their Afghan counterparts as much as possible; ultimately, the Afghan counter-terrorism elements themselves should take over.
2. A robust counter-insurgency training force comprised of both ground and air special operations forces that will focus on the training of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in specialized COIN training - similar to that in Colombia. This extends to the mentoring of the Afghan Air Force, civil affairs, etc.
3. The only "conventional force" presence should be in the protection of U.S./Coalition bases. These bases should have maximum flexibility by maintaining minimal infrastructure in only 4 locations (Bagram in the East, Mazar-e-Sharif in the North, Herat in the West, and Bastion in the South). Additionally, a limited aviation training presence should be kept in the main training base for the Afghan Air Force, Shindand Airfield. The U.S. will probably maintain Bagram and Kabul, whereas Mazar-e-Sharif, Herat, and Bastion should be supported by NATO partners.
4. In Kabul, all that should remain are the headquarters at ISAF - with some of its coalition partners' participation - a limited contingent on the military side of the Kabul airfield, and a NATO Training Mission Afghanistan command.
5. SOF should abandon the "Afghan Local Police" (ALP) in most areas and focus more on the development of the ANSF. A few years ago, with over 100,000 U.S. personnel in country, SOF could afford to focus on the ALP concept. Now, with only a few thousand U.S. service members in-country, the emphasis must be on the uniformed security services.
In terms of numbers, the right mix is about 4,000 SOF and SOF enablers, and 4-5,000 conventional forces and headquarters support. While the 9,000 U.S. personnel seems to be the "just enough" figure for an enduring presence, it seems the President may now be set on a lower figure due to financial constraints.
Setting a Long-Term U.S. Strategy for Afghanistan
The United States non-military strategic course in Central and South Asia needs to start in 2015, not end in 2014. The U.S. needs to consider its 2025 strategic vision, and make smaller contributions to the region but with bigger payoffs.
For example, the U.S. should work with other key allies to coordinate on increasing trade and creating more jobs in a region that is currently plagued with high rates of unemployment and poverty. Coordinating with Pakistan and investment giants such as the United Arab Emirates to secure funding for a road or railroad from Helmand to the port of Gwadar, or with Qatar to invest in Afghanistan's and Pakistan's natural resources can create thousands of jobs and boost economies. This is not something that is purely altruistic; such activities can greatly benefit U.S. interests. Furthermore, a strategic "pivot to Asia" can only be accomplished if there is stability in Central and South Asia. Afghanistan is critical to trade corridors from oil-gas rich Central Asia states (including Afghanistan) to the end users of South and East Asia. In effect, Afghanistan's geo-strategic importance goes far beyond trans-national terrorism threats.
Over the past 11 years, the international community has committed billions of dollars in an effort to stabilize and reconstruct a country ravaged by three decades of war. The U.S. alone has spent over $600 billion in the longest war in its history, with over $20 billion in governance and development funds. And yet, Afghanistan is still not economically self-sustainable. Perhaps that is not so shocking, though. President Obama himself made it clear (as early as May 2012) that, "Our goal is not to build a country in America's image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban. These objectives would require many more years, many more dollars and many more American lives."
Another way of looking at this, however, is the way most American veterans of the conflict view their sacrifices: as a strategic investment. They might argue that the dollars spent and the lives lost deserve a much more impressive outcome than simply a strategic retreat with Afghanistan in dire straits.
For their part, few Afghans welcome the U.S. withdrawal. While important to equip and strengthen the Afghan security forces, Presidents Karzai and Obama did not address crafting a long-term strategy that looks towards a stable Afghanistan in 2030, rather than a short-term "stable enough to transition security" by 2014.
Presidents Karzai and Obama - two leaders unable to seek reelection and concerned about their legacy - may still be able to give the people of Afghanistan a gift that can help stabilize Afghanistan. President Karzai has a unique opportunity to leverage his last year in government to broker a deal that can offer real hope of change and progress. On the American side, the U.S. and other donors should minimize "hand out" aid and focus on investments in Afghanistan. Donor programs don't create revenue, but rather act as symptomatic relief. Public funds, partnered with private firms, can help develop a self-sustaining Afghan economy. For the past three decades, the United States has appeared to prefer short-term strategies. They did not recognize the long-term consequences of inattention following the Soviet withdrawal. They seemed satisfied with the near term and non-committal cruise missile-targeting of Osama Bin Laden after a series of terrorist attacks in the late 1990s.
President Obama's inaugural speech last month made it clear that the "decade of war" has come to a close. By 2014, the U.S. should conclude this chapter by leaving behind a small training force, a robust counter-terrorism force, and an economic support model that is viable in the long-term. Significant intellectual and limited monetary capital must go toward achieving sustainable Afghan economic growth in the mid-to-long-term. Rather than how much is spent in Afghanistan, donors - and in particular, the U.S. as the largest - need to start paying attention more to effectiveness of what is spent.
Ultimately, the most important date on our 2014 calendar should be the April Afghan Presidential election rather than the December withdrawal deadline. If the election is not credible or moderately successful in maintaining the trust of key stakeholders in the democratic progress, the numbers of U.S. troops remaining will not make much difference in the post-election environment. The Afghan people and the international community will be watching closely to ensure that the election is an example of the democratic progress that 13 years of Coalition presence made possible. The troop levels, important as they may be, are only secondary to the success of the political process.
Gianni Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/GettyImages
From December 5, 2012 to January 29, 2013, al-Qaeda's top-tier forum Shamukh al-Islam was down (with a brief return for a few days after December 17). The suppression of the forum is likely the work of an intelligence agency, but no claim of responsibility has been announced. It has also accelerated an already growing trend: the migration of jihadi propaganda from web forums to social media.
In response to the blackout, many jihadi groups, media outlets, and individuals created new accounts on Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook). Others have likely migrated to popular second-tier forums like Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum (AMAF), which occurred the last time the al-Qaeda approved forums went down in late March/early April 2012. During that period, I was in the middle of collecting and analyzing data (from February 1, 2012 to April 31, 2012) on a number of jihadi forums spanning multiple languages and Twitter accounts for a New American Foundation paper, which showed empirically for the first time that lower-tier forums did indeed fill the vacuum created by the main forum's absence.
Both of these forum takedowns -- in March and April, as well as in December and January -- exposed the limits of al-Qaeda's official online media procedures, which are headed by its distribution network al-Fajr Media. Al-Fajr is responsible for coordinating between al-Qaeda Central (AQC), its affiliates' media outlets (As-Sahab Media for AQC, al-Malahim for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Furqan for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al-Andalus for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)), and the forum administrators. In both takedown cases, al-Fajr could not deliver content from the al-Qaeda affiliates, at least in an official capacity, to the online masses.
Media outlets, groups, and ideologues that, while not expressly affiliated, are inspired by al-Qaeda's worldview have not been hindered by this process, and therefore have not evolved mechanisms for releasing their content. Previously, popular online jihadi essayists like Abu Sa'd al-Amili wrote articles when the forums when down, encouraging readers to be patient and to understand that the forums would persist and would not be defeated. On December 23, 2012, however, Abdullah Muhammad Mahmud, a writer for the jihadi news agency Dawa al-Haqq Foundation for Studies and Research, which is disseminated via a Wordpress blog, provided guidance to online jihadi activists. Mahmud told his comrades that going forward, it was legitimate to use Twitter and Facebook as sources of information for jihadi-related issues. This advice was in a sense revolutionary, as jihadis had previously emphazized the importance of the forums as a method for authenticating materials, to prevent forgeries of official group content. At the same time, though, many grassroots activists had already been active on online social media platforms for a few years on an individual basis.
If the dissemination of official releases is no longer to be done centrally, it has the potential to make the forums obsolete, and usher in a new era whereby jihadi activists primarily rely on social media platforms to interact with one another. It could also force groups that are part of al-Fajr's distribution network to evolve and change their methods of content dissemination. There is already some evidence that this shift has started during the ongoing forum takedown.
Evan Kohlmann, an expert on online jihadism, noted on December 10, 2012: "Due to the absence of top jihad chat forums, al-Shabab (formerly @HSMPress) in Somalia has been forced to rely on Twitter to distribute its latest video release. This may be the first time that any terrorist group allied with Al-Qaida has ever used Twitter as the exclusive point of release for media." It should be highlighted that unlike other al-Qaeda affiliates, al-Shabab releases its content through the distribution network Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). Al-Qaeda in Iraq's creation in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (@jbhatalnusra), has also over the past few weeks used Twitter as the first point of release of its content, outsourcing what would be a forum thread with a ‘justpaste.it' page.
On January 25, Twitter shut down al-Shabab's extremely active account, which had some 20,000 followers and often featured pithy, tongue-in-cheek tweets attacking Western governments or other adversaries. Twitter said the ban was in response to a tweet sent by al-Shabab announcing that they would kill French hostage Denis Allex, and then saying they had done so, violating Twitter's rules against violent messages. But just yesterday, al-Shabab opened a new account, from which a tweet was issued that read, "For what it's worth, shooting the messenger and suppressing the truth by silencing your opponents isn't quite the way to win the war of ideas."
AQI and AQAP also used alternate methods to release their content. Instead of going through al-Fajr, AQI used the independent Iraqi-focused al-Yaqin Media to post its content to Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum. AQAP sent its content through Abdullah bin Muhammad, a rising jihadi star online, through his Twitter account. The only group that seems to have been left behind in this brave new world is al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan.
It is possible during the takedown in March/April 2012 that some of the forums learned by creating backup options. Both the Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum (@as_ansar) on April 13 and the Somali al-Qimmah Islamic Network (@AlqimmahNetwork) on April 9 created Twitter accounts once they returned. Both now feature links to their Twitter accounts prominently on the front page of their forums. This may be an effort to diversify the forums' ways of communicating with the public and delivering content.
Since the formal period of my study on the state of the jihadi forums and some Twitter accounts ended at the end of April 2012, others have also joined Twitter - though unsurprisingly, none that use al-Qaeda in their official name. They include -- in the order that they joined -- Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen's media outlet Madad News Agency (@W_mdd); Asad al-Jihad2 (@AsadAljehad2), a prominent online jihadi essayist; Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (@MinbarTawhed), a library of jihadi scholarly materials; Jabhat al-Nusra (@JbhatALnusra), the premier jihadi organization active in Syria; Muhammad al-Zawahiri (@M7mmd_Alzwahiri), the brother of AQC's leader and an influential Egyptian jihadi in his own right; Jihad Archive (@jehadarchiv), a website that archives old jihadi organization videos and statements; Abu Sa'd al-Amili (@al3aamili), a popular online jihadi writer; Fursan al-Balagh Media (@fursanalbalaagh), a jihadi translation and transcription service for official al-Qaeda and affiliated content; and Dr. Iyad Qanibi (@EYADQUNAIBI), a popular jihadi ideologue from Jordan.
There is some evidence that use of Facebook is also growing at the expense of the forums, and that individuals are moving jihadi content to invitation-only Facebook groups and pages. The nature of this activity is unclear at this point without further study. Additionally, some jihadi organizations - Jabhat al-Nusra, Jama'at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Jaysh al-Umma, and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia - have even gone so far as to establish their own personal forums.
But while more jihadis continue to be attracted to Twitter and Facebook, al-Qaeda's official distribution route through al-Fajr media has yet to replace its tried and true method of authentication using its approved forums. Also, online jihadis' reactions to the return of Shamukh after it was down for more than seven weeks illustrated that they were still attached to using the forums. In the future, it is possible that if Shamukh were to be suppressed again, al-Qaeda could confer legitimacy on the second-tier forum Ansar al-Mujahidin, which is already seen as trustworthy by online grassroots activists. In the past, after al-Fallujah Forum was permanently taken offline, it conferred legitimacy on Shamukh. AMAF like others forums, though, uses the same tools and is almost certainly vulnerable to the same kind of takedown tactics. And although Twitter provides a more public platform than a password-protected forum, one crucial utility of forums for jihadis is the ability to have relatively private conversations among themselves. At the very least, now more than ever, there is a hybrid ecosystem for online jihadis.
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is author of a recent New America Foundation study on the state of the global jihad online. It provides a qualitative, quantitative, and cross-lingual analysis based on data from February 1, 2012 - April 31, 2012.
Denying al Qaeda's re-emergence in Afghanistan requires ensuring that Afghanistan can be sufficiently stable and capable of defending itself, as President Barack Obama explained during the surge announcement at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. Al Qaeda is not present in large numbers (perhaps less than 1,000) in Afghanistan now, but Secretary Leon Panetta stated in November 2012 that "intelligence continues to indicate that they are looking for some kind of capability to be able to go into Afghanistan as well." The U.S. and NATO cannot allow war weariness and economic conditions to obscure the realities and requirements they face. The recently announced accelerated shift to a "support role" in Afghanistan could become a guise to withdraw if "support" means just a few thousand counterterrorism forces and trainers.
In the eyes of many officials, a sound counterterrorism strategy rests on the assumption that the U.S. and NATO can kill their way toward a better future, against the Taliban and the Haqqanis or against al Qaeda and its affiliates. A decade of war proves the falsehood of this assumption. Experts outside the military are better qualified to determine how best to assist Afghanistan in the areas of governance, economic development, and reconciliation, and how best to move forward in Pakistan. But my experience in accelerating the growth of the Iraqi security forces -- in size, capacity, and confidence -- during the Iraqi "surge" of 2007 to 2008 qualifies me to speak about what is necessary to help the Afghan army succeed in taking lead responsibility.
The Afghans and NATO began a program of accelerated Afghan National Army (ANA) growth in 2009, recognizing that sufficient capacity is still years away. The ANA's combat power is only partially developed. The tip of the ANA's spear, its fighting units, is more developed than its shaft, its enabler capacity. Its human intelligence ability can sense near-term threats, but its capacity to detect and anticipate threats is low. On the ground, it can maneuver well, but the ANA lacks the air and ground mobility to shift forces around the country in order to mass against the enemy. Lack of mobility and its still-developing staff capacity reduce the ANA's ability to apply timely and coordinated force. The ANA can place accurate enough direct fire against the enemy once engaged but has only limited land-based indirect fire ability. Nor does it have adequate air-delivered fires, important in the mountains and remote areas of Afghanistan. Pending medical, supply, maintenance, and transport capacity means that the ANA has limited ability to maintain momentum against the enemy once engaged. Leadership quality varies. All these shortcomings affect the ANA's confidence and combat power; none will be complete by the end of this year or next.
None of this should be a surprise. In 2009, the Afghans and NATO wisely placed primary emphasis on accelerating fighting units, with secondary emphasis on enabler capacity. While their own systems were being developed and fielded, ANA fighting units could receive the support they needed from their NATO partners. As Afghan systems emerged, NATO support could be "thinned out" and ultimately cut altogether. To do otherwise would have been to grow the ANA at the pace of its slowest element, an approach that did not match the Afghan "surge" strategy adopted in 2009. In an underdeveloped country that has suffered from over 30 years of war and has very low literacy rates, growing enabler systems -- supply, medical, transport, analytic, staff, communications, air- and land-based indirect support -- takes longer. For this reason, the ANA will need some U.S. and NATO enabler support beyond 2014.
So how should the U.S. and NATO assist the ANA in taking lead security responsibility? First, leave a combat brigade, at least through 2014, to partner with Afghan forces in the east -- a strategically important area where heavy fighting against the Haqqanis will continue. Second, in the south and southwest, embed assistance teams with every ANA battalion and higher to provide access to NATO enabling support, solidify gains already made, and deny the Taliban's return to their historical stronghold. Third, in the west and north, embed assistance teams with ANA brigades and higher -- again to provide access to NATO enabling support and solidify gains already made. Fourth, provide development teams for the ANA's major commands (recruiting, logistics, medical, areas support, and detention), the ANA's general headquarters, and the Ministry of Defense -- to continue development of the ANA's "shaft." Finally, the U.S. and NATO should leave behind "dual-purposed" enabler forces -- intelligence, airlift and medical evacuation, air and ground indirect fires, supply, maintenance, ground transport, and logistics. These forces would support both the residual NATO training teams and provide the ANA support it does not have, until its systems reach sufficient capacity. Combined, these actions will improve both ANA combat power and confidence, increasing the probability that it will be successful in assuming lead security responsibility.
The exact size of this assistance and support effort can only be determined by a proper civil-military dialogue among the NATO nations and the Afghans. But, if the United States and NATO want to increase the probability that the ANA will be successful, the number will be around 30,000 troops, and this number will be required at least for the rest of this year and next. The size and cost of this force will diminish over time and will be significantly less than then near $10 billion per month the war cost at its height. U.S. and NATO strategic objectives are not yet accomplished in Afghanistan and cannot be "outsourced" to the Afghans. Pushing the Taliban out of the south is not permanent. The counteroffensive in the east is incomplete. The Taliban and the Haqqanis have not been defeated, and al Qaeda intends to return to Afghanistan.
Killing Osama bin Laden was a hugely important success, but it was only a disruption. Al Qaeda is not "dismantled or defeated," and it remains dedicated to bleed America and the West, to depose governments it claims are apostate, to eliminate the state of Israel, and to gain control of Central Asia, North Africa, and the Greater Middle East. Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain active in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. They control an area about the size of Texas in North Africa that includes parts of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, and Chad. Despite ample sanctuary elsewhere, they want to return to Afghanistan -- for historical and symbolic reasons in addition to the complexity of the terrain, which is a nightmare for counterterrorism forces. They still recruit within the U.S. and Europe and have not given up on attacking both directly. They have not waivered with respect to their strategic objectives; neither should the U.S. or NATO.
If the United States and NATO don't finish the job now, they will leave it to another generation. Many of those fighting in Afghanistan now were 5 and 6 years old at the start of the war; we do not want the same future for the current generation of 5- and 6-year-olds. Leaving an adequate assistance and support force in Afghanistan through 2013 and beyond is in the U.S. and NATO's security interest. Certainly, the U.S. and NATO cannot afford to conduct operations as they have for the past decade. But equally certain, the U.S. and NATO cannot allow war weariness and economic conditions to obscure the realities and requirements they face. If the U.S. and NATO provide less-than-adequate support to the ANA this year and beyond, they should at least not fool themselves of the likely waste and result.
Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik (retired) is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, where Jeffrey Dressler is a senior analyst and team lead.
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With all combat troops scheduled to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the negotiations taking place in Kabul on the presence and role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond that point must include a plan for a Contingency Force as part of the troop drawdown. And the United States should take the lead in establishing this Contingency Force, either under the flag of NATO, or as a new coalition concerned with security and stability in Afghanistan in coming years.
The only alternative under discussion within the Obama administration at the moment is the possibility that some Special Forces stay behind in Afghanistan to work in an advisory or training capacity. Similarly, any U.S. residual force that will stay behind following negotiations will likely have a limited role, with additional U.S. military used primarily as force protection: protecting U.S. and international trainers instead of directly assisting ANSF if needed. The residual force options that are currently being discussed are mainly related to support for training efforts and counter-terrorism operations against transnational terrorist groups. This would not be considered a Contingency Force.
In fact, a counter-terrorism residual force, consisting of Special Forces and other troops, can be much smaller if a proper Contingency Force is in place for Afghanistan. Establishing this contingency capacity means the counter-terrorism officers would not have to deal with the emergency situations described in this article.
A too rapid drawdown?
One might argue that the current NATO troop drawdown calendar (2011-2014) was based more on domestic political agendas than on-the-ground security. The result has been an extremely tight and relatively inflexible transition calendar, which leaves few options to respond to potentially changing security dynamics or attacks by the various ‘Taliban' insurgent groups.
Domestic political pressure for a rapid drawdown inside the United States, other NATO countries, and Afghanistan has been reinforced by four key factors. In the U.S. and NATO countries there are calls for ‘an end to the war and return of the troops,' combined with a repositioning toward concerns in the Middle East (particularly Iran and Syria, but also Yemen). Simultaneously, officials in the United States and other NATO countries have become increasingly disillusioned with the Karzai government, and concerned about the deeply troubling ‘insider attacks' on NATO troops.
These political dynamics have created real pressures for a fast-paced troop withdrawal - confirmed by the U.S. Senate recently voting in favour of an accelerated withdrawal - and a neglect of a larger consideration of the security risks related to the upcoming fighting seasons.
The deliberations that existed around contingency planning during the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq are almost completely missing in the case of Afghanistan - and those that do surface are mainly related to safeguarding security during the upcoming presidential elections in 2014 or counter-terrorism in the region. This ignores both the possible threats of the 2013 fighting season, or other security issues that might arise in the years following.
Why do we need a Contingency Force?
Firstly, a Contingency Force would provide an additional guarantee for the safety of foreign interests, infrastructure and staff, such as the diplomats at consulates and embassies, should these come under attack. The recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the coordinated attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in September 2011 and the Indian Embassy bombings in Kabul in 2008 and 2009 are sufficient cases in point.
Secondly, the Contingency Force would offer a safety valve while Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) grow in numbers, strength and confidence in an environment that will remain uncertain and unstable for the foreseeable future.
Will ANSF be able and willing to respond to serious insurgent attacks before and after the transition end date of 2014? Despite progress in some areas, particularly in terms of handing over responsibilities to ANSF as planned, there is a risk that increased insurgent activity in the south or elsewhere in Afghanistan could lead to unmanageable situations.
The actual strengths and weaknesses of ANSF are not the essential point. What should be the focus is proper planning to respond to the possibility that ANSF could be confronted by a manner or level of insurgent attack in the South that means they cannot hold the country together. Since the build up of ANSF is such a key element of the transition plan (and exit-strategy) ‘narrative,' we see a dynamic that any public discussion of possible future failure of ANSF, and planning for that contingency, is considered ‘off-message.' This could ultimately lead to a failure of the entire transition project.
The actual current strengths and weaknesses of the insurgency are also not particularly relevant to the calculations that a Contingency Force is needed. Contingency planning does not depend on a complex debate on the current strength of the Taliban and ANSF; one need only acknowledge a possibility that the Taliban could produce a new security dynamic, which we argue would most likely be focused in southern Afghanistan.
Possible scenarios of concern could include, for example, blockading the Kandahar-Kabul road or the road between Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, a move into the suburbs of Kandahar City, taking over Lashkar Gah and blocking the bridges over the Helmand River, or gaining control of the Spin Boldak border crossing.
For an example of a new dynamic in the insurgency, look to the complex attack on Camp Bastion in September 2012 that resulted in the destruction of six AV-8B Harriers, the death of two United States Marine Corps service staff and the wounding nine others. This single assault - using 15 insurgents, explosions to enter the base, dividing attackers in three different waves, and making use of U.S. army uniforms - resulted in a four and a half hour fire fight, and caused damages of up to $200-240 million.
Clearly this type of complex, coordinated attack was not anticipated by U.S./NATO-ISAF forces at Bastion, and it illustrates unmistakably that the evolution of the insurgency must be considered in proper planning for future security threats. The more recent coordinated attack with explosives laden vehicles on Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad in December 2012 confirms that the Bastion attack is not an incident.
Geo-political consequences of losing the south
Any serious defeat of ANSF forces or a considerable loss of terrain to the insurgency - before or following the 2014 transition - would not only be a symbolic triumph for the Taliban, it could also completely reconfigure the power structure in Afghanistan and the region.
The geo-political consequences of ‘losing the south' or a similar such scenario would be significant, not the least of which would be the destabilising effect on the wider region, particularly Pakistan, where it could provide a boost for the insurgency.
Drawdown Contingency Plan: Size, location, mandate
It is important to note that having a Contingency Force on standby is not the same as continuing an international military operation in Afghanistan. It would provide Western political leaders with options if a security crisis breaks out in the country.
Size: Given the current levels of ANSF and the continuation of ANP and ANA training and capacity building efforts after 2014, a standby Contingency Force of around 5,000 foreign troops would be sufficient. The Contingency Force would be a standard brigade-size combat team of around 3,500-4,000 soldiers, plus mobility (transport helicopters, but also some attack helicopters) and other support capabilities (intelligence, logistics, medical teams, etc.).
The Contingency Force of 5,000 should be on standby from January 2013 onwards. Given the short time frame before the next fighting season, this means the Contingency Force should initially be included in the calculations of the NATO troop drawdown. Until General John Allen has officially presented his recommendations to the White House, it is not clear how many U.S. forces will be withdrawn in coming months. But at the start of 2013, the United States could start contingency planning by delaying the troop withdrawal of around 2,000 forces until the end of the fighting season of 2013 to complement the transitioning NATO-ISAF forces. These troops would not continue fighting but would convert to contingency troops. Thus, they would still be withdrawn from combat, but would move to a different base to prepare for emergency support operations.
During the six months following the 2013 fighting season, the United States could increase its share of contingency forces to 3,000, and request that its NATO and non-NATO allies contribute a total of 2,000 forces to that group before the end of 2013. This would ensure a total Contingency Force of 5,000 under the flag of NATO before the start of the 2014 fighting season.
The graph below illustrates this scenario, which is of course only one of the many possible outcomes, included here to start a constructive discussion on a contingency system.
* The average numbers of insurgency attacks are based on statistics from previous years (NATO, ISAF Violence Trends Presentation, 30 September 2011).
When deliberating strategic options for a Contingency Force, synergies should be explored - whether in terms of providing a model or in more direct ways - with the NATO Response Force (NRF), a joint force of around 13,000 troops, preparing and training together for about a year, at the disposal of the Atlantic Alliance and with the existing EU Battlegroup (EUBG) structure which has at least 1,500 European troops on standby at any time, currently headquartered in Germany.
The allocation of the 2,000 non-U.S. troops could also be based on a rotating roster, where countries commit a small number of standby forces for a specific period, for example six months to a year (similar to the NATO Response Force which recently extended rotation periods from six to twelve months, and the EU Battlegroup system that rotates every six months). After such a period, other countries will take their place, sharing the burden and making sure a nation's contingency troops are only committed in small numbers and for a limited amount of time.
Location: The foreign Contingency Force could be stationed in or close to Afghanistan. For the latter option, contingency troops stationed in, for example, one of the Central Asian Republics, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait or the UAE, could be logistically more challenging but politically easier to ‘sell' than troops stationed in Afghanistan. Another option is to choose several locations, increasing flexibility and linking the Contingency Force to Afghanistan's main geographical areas and the ANSF units operating in these areas.
Mandate: The Contingency Force would safeguard the results of past and present efforts to ensure stability and security in Afghanistan, while guaranteeing the security transition process can be completed in a sustainable and responsible way. The Contingency Force would, in essence, have the same mandate as NATO-ISAF - particularly its current ANSF support role - but it would be subject to a very specific, predefined set of conditions with regards to when and how it could be deployed. The Rules of Engagement need to be specified as soon as possible in full coordination with the Afghan government.
The Contingency Force should remain operational in Afghanistan until at least 2024, in line with the ten-year timetable envisaged during the Chicago Summit in May 2012, unless of course the security situation changes drastically. The mere existence of the Contingency Force would boost the confidence of the ANSF.
Conclusion: the Contingency Planning window is open
The moment to act is now. With the U.S. presidential elections out of the way and only two more years in the tight calendar of the security transition process a Contingency Force should be established as part of the remaining terms of withdrawal. An operational reserve Contingency Force would provide options to western political leaders when faced with a crisis situation in Afghanistan. It also represents a politically viable compromise between the two extremes currently being talked about in Washington: leaving just a few thousand troops in Afghanistan after 2014, or leaving as many as 30,000 troops.
The fewer foreign troops there are in Afghanistan, the greater the need for proper contingency planning, especially given the essentially uncertain nature of the situation before and after transition. Security transition planning should be based on a solid assessment of possible future scenarios of instability and insecurity, rather than on political hopes or aspirations for what the future will hold.
Norine MacDonald QC is the President and Founder of the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS). Jorrit Kamminga is Director of Research at ICOS and Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael.
Anyone seeking to understand Afghanistan in general, the flaws in the United States' effort there, or life on the ground as a political advisor in the midst of a counterinsurgency, should read The Valley's Edge by Daniel Green.
The book is a detailed, first-hand account of how a team of U.S. soldiers and civilians, focused on improving governance and development, operated in the midst of a worsening insurgency in one of the most remote provinces in Afghanistan. In the popular media and in academic articles, those who have followed the war over the past decade have been inundated with terms such as "Jirga," free and fair elections, pervasive corruption, and the nature of the Taliban insurgency. The Valley's Edge gives life to these expressions as the reader experiences through Green a meeting with disgruntled elders, seating a provincial council for the first time, a patrol to inspect development projects, the deaths of friends, and the inside stories behind how local government officials actually conducted their corrupt activities.
I first met Dan Green during his second tour as a State Department political advisor to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Uruzgan Province, one of the world's most remote locales, while serving there as a Special Forces officer in 2006. My distinct memory after sitting down with Green for the first time was that he was the first person that I had come across who seriously dedicated himself to understanding the complicated tribal and interpersonal political dynamics at play in every corner of Afghanistan. His work made me realize how superficial our knowledge of Afghan society and the insurgency was at the time (and still is to a large degree), and how those dynamics were critical to understanding popular support for the insurgency. In 2005 and 2006 the U.S. and coalition effort was taking a very black and white approach to the growing insurgency - those in government positions were good and deserved our support, while those labeled as "Taliban" were targeted.
Green's efforts, as described in The Valley's Edge, helped me realize how much we had to learn and how long it was going to take. As shown in the book, after sustained efforts to engage a cross section of Afghan leaders, it took Green the better part of a year to even begin understanding the complex and decades-old rivalries, feuds, and competing tribal groups that were interwoven into the fabric of a fledgling government, an under-resourced coalition effort, and a resurgent Taliban.
The Uruzgan described in The Valleys Edge is a microcosm of issues that have plagued the war effort in the past decade. For example, Green highlights the dichotomy that exists between maintaining security and improving governance. Security in Afghanistan was often established and sometimes brutally maintained by warlords cum government officials. In the case of Uruzgan, one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords, Governor Jan Mohammed Khan, ruthlessly repressed the Taliban's attempts to reassert their influence in the province. However, his efforts were often at the expense of his tribal rivals, from whom he would withhold government positions and development aide. Green slowly peels back the onion on Jan Mohammed's network of supporters and rivals, and describes how the disaffected tribes viewed the United States as complicit in the repression because we often took the default position of supporting the "legitimate Afghan government".
Green aptly describes how Jan Mohammed's removal as governor ushered in a more democratic and legitimate official, but, in turn, also created a vacuum of significant tribal support for the government. This vacuum opened the door to the resurgence of the Taliban backed by the tribes that were forcefully repressed during Jan Mohammed's rule. The result was a significant spike in violence by the summer of 2006 that lessoned the ability of the PRT and NGOs to conduct development programs. Thus, though governance improved in Uruzgan, the removal of the province's most powerful strongman and his allies, coupled with the transition from the U.S. to the Dutch military in 2006 was a recipe for disaster.
Throughout The Valley's Edge, the reader is able to witness the evolution in the Taliban's tactics, from an uncoordinated and sporadic hit-and-run campaign to classic insurgent techniques of intimidating and assassinating government supporters. Green describes how by his second tour in 2006, the first suicide bomber, car bombs and a huge increase in IEDs were taking a toll on the populace, the efforts of the PRT, and him personally.
The reader also experiences the inadequacies of NATO. Green gets a firsthand look at the Dutch replacement of the U.S. presence in Uruzgan, and again it proves to be a microcosm of the broader flaws associated with NATO taking the lead for security in Afghanistan. He aptly describes how the Dutch found themselves dealing with a very hostile insurgency by the time they took charge of the province in the fall of 2006, which was far removed from the peacekeeping-like effort the Dutch government had signed up for in 2004-2005. In hindsight, this proved true of the entire NATO effort, as evidenced by the myriad of national caveats imposed on the various NATO forces by their governments intended to limit their exposure to the insurgency. The caveats imposed various limitations on what each nations' forces could and could not do, such as engaging in offensive operations or imposing geographical limitations on where units could patrol. Ironically these caveats over time prevented NATO from dealing with many of the sources of instability driving the insurgency, and severely hampered the flexibility of the NATO-ISAF commander. Green describes first-hand what he noticed during his third tour in Afghanistan as a military officer: the lack of will and capability in our NATO allies to prosecute a fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign. Voicing frustration, he also describes the lack of planning behind, and relative ineffectiveness of, the U.S. civilian surge in the fall of 2009.
The strength of The Valley's Edge is that it gives the reader perspective on the war's progression over time, while remaining focused on one geographical location. Green's multiple tours span six years and allow the reader to experience the digression in security, the transition to NATO, and our evolution in dealing with the Afghans. The Valley's Edge is certainly a recommended read, and one that historians will reference generations from now as they recount the history of the war in Afghanistan.
Michael Waltz is a Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation and a former advisor on South Asia to Vice President Cheney.
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An October report by Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic claims to have found significant flaws in media reports regarding casualties caused by U.S. drone operations in Pakistan. Three organizations, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation, maintain databases that collect information on the casualties for each strike and their research is regularly cited in congressional reports and news articles. While the Columbia report laments that these estimates can only "substitute for hard facts and information that ought to be provided by the U.S. government," it proceeds to weigh in on the casualty debate. After a strike by strike comparison of the three databases' 2011 data, Columbia concludes that two of these organizations "significantly undercount the number of civilians killed by drone strikes," while singling out the Bureau as the most accurate and reliable source of information on drone casualties.
The Columbia study is quick to critique the drone data compiled by the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal, yet it devotes negligible attention to potential shortcomings in the Bureau's reporting. The study repeatedly applauds the Bureau's investigative practices, analysis criteria and the breadth of its sources. It offers the most guarded criticism, writing only, "we do not agree with the Bureau's analysis of media sources in all cases." Upon reading Columbia's "Counting Drone Strike Deaths," one is led to conclude that the Bureau's casualty estimates are both methodologically rigorous and empirically sound.
And yet, a careful reading of the separate 65 page dataset, which details the findings of Columbia's exhaustive comparison, reveals numerous instances in which the Columbia researchers reject the Bureau's interpretation of the evidence or dispute the credibility of their sources, criticisms that receive no mention in their widely circulated report.
Columbia only analyzed reports for 2011, but had they continued on with their research, they would have found that these problems pervade the Bureau's reporting on strikes from 2004 through 2012.
Based on this tenuous evidence the Bureau has claimed 45-240 civilian casualties. Taken together, this methodologically flawed reporting accounts for over 25 percent of the 474-884 civilian casualties the Bureau claims died between 2004 and 2012. While it is highly probable that some of these deaths may in fact have been civilians, in the face of so much ambiguity, it would be more prudent to label the deceased as unidentified or unknown. This would provide a more accurate representation of the evidence, and acknowledge that despite the best attempts to gather information, there is still much uncertainty about the outcome of individual strikes and the overall effect of the U.S. drone program.
The trends highlighted above point to three broader methodological flaws in the Bureau's analysis that Columbia researchers fail to highlight. The first is a problem of evidence. The Columbia report suggests that the widest range of sources will provide the most credible evidence, and based on the fact that the Bureau cites the largest body of sources and has the highest casualty figures, its numbers are the most reliable. Beyond the fact that the Bureau is a notable outlier as compared to the other two datasets produced by New America Foundation and The Long War Journal, it is a mistake to privilege quantity of evidence over quality. Pakistan Body Count, South Asia Terrorism Portal and the Long War Journal are secondary sources that rely on reporting from other media outlets and should not count as corroborating sources, yet the Bureau does so. Antiwar.com, sify.com, Prison Planet and the World Socialist Web Site are simply not credible news outlets, yet these are some of the sources that the Bureau is praised for citing.
The second problem is the absence of transparency in investigations of drone strikes carried out by the Bureau's own researchers. The Bureau says it has conducted independent investigations of certain strikes and their database includes 13 strikes where the sole source of information citing civilian deaths is from "the Bureau's own researchers." These uncorroborated claims account for at least 56-64 of the Bureau's reported civilian casualties. The strike on January 6, 2010 includes a typical description: "According to the Bureau's researchers five rescuers died, named as Khalid, Matiullah, Kashif, Zaman and Waqar, all belonging to the Utmanzai Wazir tribe." However there is no indication of whom these researchers are or the standards they apply to their reporting.
The same criticisms that the Columbia report levies at unnamed Pakistani government officials discussing drone strikes on the condition of anonymity, could just as easily be aimed at the Bureau's own reporting:
We do not know who the unnamed Pakistani officials are, although observers believe they are Pakistani army officials. What definition these officials use to categorize a person as a militant or civilian is unknown. Nor do we know how the Pakistani Army confirms such deaths or the quality of information it is able to rely on given the limited accessibility of some of the tribal regions to even the Army.
The Bureau's researchers might well be the sort of local journalists or "stringers" the Columbia report is quick to term unreliable. Nor does the Bureau make mention of whom their sources are, when or where they were interviewed, or what was said. If the Bureau wants its findings to be taken seriously by other researchers, then it should provide independent reports of its investigations rather than cursory references in the midst of its dataset.
The third problem is one of interpretation. The Bureau consistently counts references to "local" deaths as civilian casualties, but as the Columbia dataset notes, these descriptors are not synonymous. The media reports are riddled with references to "local militants" and "tribal militants." It stands to reason that a significant number of the militants operating in the tribal regions of Pakistan would live in the area, and thus the mere fact that the deceased are reported as local is not sufficient to establish that they are civilians. And yet, the Bureau consistently claims just that. Even worse, it frequently labels the fatalities as civilians when the media accounts refer to them in neutral terms such as "people" or admits that their identity is unclear.
Furthermore, the Bureau's written methodology provides limited insight into how it makes these interpretations. The methodology makes no mention of how the Bureau treats reports of "local" deaths. Nor does it explain how it deals with conflicting reports. The methodology says that when reports differ it provides a range of total casualties, but it does not explain how the Bureau determines who to count as a civilian. It goes on to state that "where media sources refer only to ‘people' killed... we indicate that civilian casualties may be possible." One would assume they indicate this by way of an asterisk or note, but it would seem that in most instances it reports a range of civilian casualties with a low end of zero and a high end of the total killed. This denotes the uncertainty but potentially inflates the high end of the range of civilian deaths. Moreover, it signals a clear preference for counting unidentified casualties as civilians.
Admittedly, this somewhat esoteric discussion about the veracity of the Bureau's claims versus those of other databases, or the appropriate methodology for counting casualties, risks losing sight of the broader picture. These are not merely numbers; these are people. And no matter which database you reference, civilians are being killed by the hundreds. While this consideration should be paramount, an assessment of the drone program should also take into account those factors that are less quantifiable: the elevated rates of PTSD in areas where drones operate, the dangerous example being set for other states, most notably China and Russia, and the increase in anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan that risks endangering the lives of American citizens.
But as the Columbia study points out, numbers matter. Numbers drive our public discourse. Numbers are how politicians measure outcomes. Numbers are how we make sense of our world. And numbers are vulnerable to manipulation, a distortion that is equally dangerous whether it involves government officials lowballing civilian casualty reports or independent researchers potentially inflating them.
Meg Braun is a Rhodes Scholar and MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, where she is researching the evolution of U.S. drone policy. She was an intern at the New America Foundation during summer 2012, where she worked to revise and update its drone database.
Correction: This post initially stated incorrectly that "The Bureau says it has conducted independent investigations of certain strikes and their database includes 15 strikes where the sole source of information citing civilian deaths is from "the Bureau's own researchers." These uncorroborated claims account for at least 65-73 of the Bureau's reported civilian casualties." The correct numbers are 13 strikes and 56-64 reported civilian casualties.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant group based in Pakistan's tribal agencies, has suffered a series of major battlefield setbacks over the past year. But despite the loss of several senior leaders and a key media operative since 2011, the group remains one of the most militarily capable and media savvy militant outfits operating in the region. It maintains working relationships with a number of other Sunni militant groups active in the region including al-Qaeda Central, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Afghan Taliban. The IMU has particularly close ties to the TTP, with whom it has launched joint military operations against Pakistani military targets inside Pakistan, as well ISAF and Afghan government targets in Afghanistan. In April, an estimated 150 IMU and TTP fighters launched a successful attack on Bannu Prison in northwestern Pakistan, freeing nearly 400 prisoners, including Adnan Rashid, who was convicted in 2008 of involvement in an assassination plot against then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. Rashid was subsequently featured in videos released by the IMU and TTP.
Tahir Yuldashev, the group's co-founder, took over as the IMU's leader in 2001 following the killing of fellow co-founder Jama Namangani during their retreat from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to South Waziristan. Yuldashev used his charisma as a preacher to rebuild the IMU's cadre of fighters, which had been hit heavily in fighting with the Northern Alliance and U.S. military forces in the autumn of 2001. Under his leadership the IMU turned its attention toward targeting the Pakistani and Afghan governments, as well as U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The group also continued to issue statements about events in Central Asia such as brutal attacks on Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan by gangs of Kyrgyz youth in 2010.
Yuldashev forged close relations with Baitullah Mehsud, the founder of the TTP, and his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, who took over the position of the TTP's amir in 2009 after his predecessor was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Yuldashev also oversaw the expansion of the IMU's membership base from Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz to multiple other nationalities and ethnicities, including Uyghurs, Turkmen, Turks, Afghans, Pashtun and non-Pashtun Pakistanis, Arabs, Chinese, Chechens, Germans, Norwegians, and Russians. A number of the IMU's senior leaders and ideologues have been non-Uzbeks, including its former Kyrgyz military commander, Abbas Mansur, and its Pakistani guiding religious authority (mufti), Abu Zarr Azzam. A number of the IMU's senior media operatives in its Jundullah (God's Soldiers) Studio, including the German brothers Yassin and Mounir Chouka, are also non-Uzbeks.
Wounded in an August 2009 U.S. drone missile strike, Yuldashev later died of his wounds. His death was formally announced by the IMU in August 2010 when it released a eulogy video for him, Banner of Jihad. In the video, Yuldashev's successor, Abu Usman Adil, was named. Adil maintained the IMU's close relations with the TTP, meeting with senior TTP leaders, including Hakimullah Mehsud, and local Pashtun tribal supporters, such as tribal chief Noor al-Islam, on numerous occasions. Hakimullah and other TTP leaders and members are featured frequently in IMU videos including the 3-part series Glad Tidings from Pakistan. Qari Hussein Mehsud, the TTP's feared ideological trainer of "martyrdom seekers" (fida‘iyin), was first shown in extensive video footage in the second installment of this series. In early August, an IMU statement reported that Adil was killed in a U.S. drone strike. He was succeeded by Usman Ghazi, another senior IMU leader.
The IMU's talented military commander, Abbas Mansur, was killed last year alongside Abdul Aziz Ukasha, a key IMU media operative and insurgent "journalist," in a U.S. drone strike. Their killings were announced in a December 2011 statement from the group along with the deaths of 85 other IMU fighters that year. And during 2010, the IMU reported that 52 of its members were killed. High battlefield losses have taken a toll on the IMU's membership, which is believed to have once numbered several thousand. Some estimates put the group's remaining fighting force at only a few hundred.
Mansur, who joined Namangani to fight in Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s when he was either 16 or 19 years old (IMU sources have given both ages), rose through the IMU's ranks to become its chief military commander, a position to which he was appointed by Yuldashev shortly before the latter was mortally wounded. Mansur exhibited great courage on the battlefield and was chosen to undergo special training for bodyguards, eventually becoming a bodyguard to Namangani in Afghanistan. After Namangani was killed, Mansur became a bodyguard and then a close aid to Yuldashev. Known for his battlefield prowess, Mansur participated in hundreds of military operations according to IMU media, in which he was frequently shown leading military operations against Pakistani army and Frontier Corps bases and convoys.
Ukasha, a young Uzbek from Tashkent, was a member of the IMU for six years and fought in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was an active member of Jundullah Studio and hosted and narrated the video series What's Happening in the Tribal Areas, which is currently in its tenth installment. In the series, he took viewers around Pakistan's tribal regions, from the gun markets of Pashtun towns to the inside of teaching circles by Yuldashev and the ‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr "jihad school" for the children of IMU members. In addition, Ukasha also worked as a video editor. He was replaced by another young IMU media operative, Isamudeen, who eulogized both Mansur and Ukasha in the ninth installment of What's Happening in the Tribal Areas and said that he was tasked with continuing the series and the media role of Ukasha by Adil.
The IMU has been survived its many losses in part through the charisma of its chief juridical voice, Abu Zarr Azzam, a Pakistani of Burmese descent who is also known as Abu Zarr al-Burmi (the Burmese) and Abu Zarr al-Pakistani. Claiming to be a former teacher at Jami‘at Faruqiya, an Islamic university in Karachi, where he taught the TTP's Qari Hussein, Abu Zarr has been featured frequently in IMU video and audio productions. Close to both the IMU and TTP leaderships, Abu Zarr speaks fluent Urdu, Arabic, Burmese, Pashto, and Uzbek. He has stated that the goal of the IMU and other "mujahideen" in the region is to eventually retake all of the region's lands that were previously ruled by Muslims, which are currently the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bhutan in a military expedition called "Ghazwat-ul-Hind," roughly translating to the "military expedition of the Indian subcontinent." Abu Zarr has also declared the Pakistani government and members of the military and police who attack the "mujahideen" in the service of the U.S. to be apostates who may be killed.
Despite suffering significant battlefield losses in its leadership, media department, and rank-and-file fighting force, the IMU has proven itself resilient. It continues to work alongside other regional militant movements, particularly the TTP, which has allowed it to continue to project significant military force in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It continues to also be actively engaged in targeting the Pakistani military with the TTP. Jundullah Studio consistently produces high-quality videos that play an integral role in the IMU's multi-layered media operations, which also include the publication of audio and written statements, and newsletters in Uzbek, Russian, Persian, Arabic, German, Burmese, Urdu, and Pashto. With an eye on ensuring its survival beyond the current generation of members, the group has also invested significant time and material resources in raising the next generation of IMU fighters, particularly the children of current members, who are taught military tactics, how to use firearms and other weaponry, and to value self-sacrifice and martyrdom. In spite of its losses, the IMU remains active both inside Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal agencies.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, contemporary jihadi movements, Shi'ite Islam, and Islamist visual cultures. He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.
Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 - Seth Jones
The Al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West - Mitchell D. Silber
What is the nature of al-Qaeda? Is it an organization with tight leadership structures and command and control, or is it an idea that takes harbor in the hearts and souls of disenfranchised or disillusioned young men and women seeking some greater meaning to their lives? Over time, the importance of these two schools of general thought has waxed and waned with various academics, authors, pundits and practitioners alternatively concluding the importance of one over the other largely depending on the nature of the latest plot to be disrupted. Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qaeda since 9/11 by Seth Jones and The al Qaeda Factor: Plots Against the West by Mitchell D. Silber offer different insights into this question, while reaching largely similar conclusions about what al-Qaeda is and how it has targeted the West.
Both of these books were published over a decade after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington bloodily thrust al-Qaeda into the public consciousness, meaning they are able to look back at a considerable amount of data. While Jones' is the more narratively satisfying book, telling a story of al Qaeda around the world, there are omissions in the text that reflect its heavy American focus. Silber's, on the other hand, is a case-by-case analysis that lacks a narrative storyline, but the accounts of the plots in question are drawn from primary sources that make them some of the most factually accurate versions yet told of the various plots, and bring new and interesting insights useful to analysts and researchers.
Gathering information from court documents, press, personal experience, and interviews the books focus on two different theses that ultimately reach the same goal. Silber sets out to find, "what is the "al Qaeda factor" in plots against the West?" For Jones, the central question is "what factors have caused al Qaeda waves and reverse waves?" "Waves" are "surges in terrorist violence" and "reverse waves" are "decreases in terrorist activity." The underlying aim of both is to understand how it is that al-Qaeda has targeted the West, and to what degree we can ascribe responsibility to the core organization.
Silber argues that there is a distinction to be drawn between those plots he characterizes as "al-Qaeda command and control," "al-Qaeda suggested/endorsed," and "al Qaeda inspired." As the definitions quite clearly imply, in each case there is some semblance of a connection to al-Qaeda or its ideas, but there is a distinct difference between the cases in which individuals sitting in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have provided direction, and those in which individuals internalized al-Qaeda ideas to try to carry out plots (or al-Qaeda-like ideas, given the inclusion of the 1993 attempt by Ramzi Yousef to bring down the World Trade Center, something he did after having been trained in Afghanistan and having plotted with his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but prior to Mohammed's swearing of bayat (allegiance) to bin Laden). The end result, however, of all three types is the same: a plot, or attempted plot, to attack the West in support of al-Qaeda's ideology. The cases offered are a laundry list of some of the most prominent plots targeting Europe, North America and Australia.
Jones' thesis is instead that al-Qaeda's violence has come in waves, the product of more or less intense and effective focus by counterterrorism forces. Identifying three key prongs to an effective counterterrorism strategy - a light military footprint, helping local regimes and authorities in their counterterrorism efforts, and exploiting al Qaeda's tendency to massacre civilians - Jones draws upon events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen, as well as al-Qaeda plots in America, Spain and the United Kingdom, to map out how these waves have crested and broken against determined counterterrorism efforts.
Al-Qaeda's ability to shoot itself in the foot, as in the wholesale butchery by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is highlighted as an example of where the group goes too far and causes a local resurgence from which American forces were able to profit. It also serves to highlight how al-Qaeda Central can lose control of affiliates and suffer as a result. AQI's butchery not only appalled the general public, but it also led a number of scholars to write about the group's brutality and the numbers of Muslims that it wantonly killed whilst claiming to be targeting the West.
Here we can see how the organization would have liked to have tighter control, but was unable to maintain it. As the ideas it has been advancing take root, they increasingly find themselves being used by groups that take them in directions that detract from the original strategy of using terrorist attacks to stimulate the broader ummah into rising up. In some cases, like the Madrid bombings of 2004, the inspiration approach seems to work, as a group loosely connected to -- but not directed by -- al-Qaeda managed to carry out a successful attack on the West. In Iraq, on the other hand, where a local affiliate became too bloodthirsty, massacres of civilians led to the "Anbar Awakening" against al-Qaeda.
While al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is not the focus of attention in either book, he lingers as a background presence, his letters and writings surfacing as he tries to assert authority over the network he has created. In Jones' book we see others in the organization finding his leadership somewhat lacking. Jones quotes a letter in which top al-Qaeda operative Saif al-Adl expresses anger to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed about how Osama "‘had failed to develop a cogent strategy for what would happen after the September 11 attacks." In Silber's text, bin Laden features even less, mentioned only as being aware of the 9/11 attacks (though plotting is described as being led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and as meeting with some of the members of the ‘Lackawanna Cluster,' a group of Yemeni-Americans who prior to 9/11 travelled to Afghanistan and trained at al-Qaeda camps. Some of these young men heard bin Laden speak, and soon afterwards concluded they were not interested in doing any more training.
One of them, Sahim Alwan, was invited to speak to bin Laden directly, and the al-Qaeda leader asked why he was leaving and more generally about what Muslims in America were like. But, as Silber points out, while this presented an opportunity for the group to recruit the men, "it did not happen." Both authors conclude that bin Laden was important primarily as a figurehead. As Silber writes towards the end: "regardless of the nature of his precise operational role in the organization, in the ten years since 9/11, he had become a legendary and mythical source of inspiration to individuals in the West who aspired to join his movement, regardless of whether they were in London, New York, Toronto or Madrid."
But the larger figures in these books are the operational leaders underneath bin Laden. Coming from authors with deep involvement in American counter-terrorism efforts, the books are highly tactical in their approaches. Silber's is written from the perspective of a man who has spent many years tracking al-Qaeda's threat to New York as Director of Intelligence Analysis for the NYPD, while Jones writes as a researcher at RAND, drawing heavily on interviews with key players from the American counter-terrorism community, including Bruce Hoffman, Philip Mudd, Art Cummings, and John Negroponte.
Both authors conclude that al-Qaeda Central has tried and failed repeatedly over the years to launch attacks against the West. September 11 was a thundering success in this regard, but since then, while we have seen surges of terrorist violence around the world linked to al-Qaeda affiliates, the core organization's ability to effectively launch attacks has clearly been stymied by effective counterterrorism efforts. Heavy pressure means less time for people to be trained properly, and this means less effective operators and a reduced capacity to attack.
And while the spread of extremist ideas is important, it is not always going to produce great cells. While the Madrid group or the Hofstad Cell in Holland were reasonably productive cells that connected with peripheral al-Qaeda figures and led to results like the Madrid bombings or the murder of Theo van Gogh that impressed al-Qaeda, the Duka family in New Jersey or Russell Defreitas in New York (both highlighted in Jones' text) produced half-baked plots like the effort to blow up the fuel pipeline to JFK airport with no proper training that are hardly the sort of activity that al-Qaeda would want to be associated with.
Both books are useful in painting a methodical picture of how al-Qaeda has tried to attack the West, but where they are maybe less effective is in identifying how it is that these individuals can be prevented from ever going down the path of seeking meaning in al Qaeda's ideas. Jones does suggest finding ways to exploit the inconsistencies in al-Qaeda's narrative in order to undermine their capacity to recruit, but the fact is that more than a decade since the group's official creation, people are still being drawn to the flame. This suggests that we have still not figured out how to offer an appealing alternative narrative, and that the ideas that al-Qaeda advances are still able to draw recruits.
Jones's Hunting in the Shadows could be described as an official history of sorts of al-Qaeda from the U.S. government perspective. This makes it a different beast to Silber's The Al Qaeda Factor, in which a much more coldly analytical process draws a clear conclusion about the ‘al Qaeda factor' in various terrorist plots.
Jones and Silber both conclude that it is becoming ever harder for al-Qaeda to effectively connect with and re-direct these recruits back home to carry out terrorist plots. Taking this conclusion a step further, we may assume that over time this sort of pressure will wear the network down. But if they are able to harness individuals drawn to them more effectively and enable a further wave of terrorist violence, the al-Qaeda ideology may survive longer. The solution advanced in both of these books, and echoed by the U.S. counterterrorism community, is to maintain heavy pressure through drone strikes as well as support to the host governments, and continue to focus on disrupting the groups' capability to launch attacks on the West.
Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming 'We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain's Suburban Mujahedeen' (Hurst/Columbia University Press).
A report released in September by human rights researchers at Stanford Law School and New York University Law School sets out to demonstrate that U.S. drone policies are "damaging and counterproductive."
Media outlets from CNN to BBC hailed the report as new evidence of the U.S. government's false narrative on drones and the New York Times' Scott Shane described the study as "among the most thorough on the subject to date."
While the Stanford-NYU report certainly presents a comprehensive review of existing drone research, its new contributions to the evidentiary record are far more modest than its sweeping conclusions would suggest.
The U.S. government claims that civilian casualties caused by drones are in the "single digits" during Obama's years in office, while the Stanford-NYU report seeks to establish that there is significant evidence that U.S. drone strikes have killed and injured a larger number of civilians. This is a low bar, and would merely necessitate proving that more than 10 civilians have been killed by drones since Obama assumed office, a claim that has been made by all three major databases aggregating information on drone strikes. The Stanford-NYU report goes further, claiming that between 474 and 881 civilians have been killed since 2004.
However, this does not represent new evidence. Stanford and NYU researchers made no attempt to offer new statistical analysis on the number of civilian casualties caused by drones. Rather, their report is essentially an extended endorsement of a database compiled by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a small team of journalists based out of City University, London. In doing so, the report rejects the findings of two other widely cited databases, The Long War Journal, which reports 138 civilian deaths and New America Foundation's Year of the Drone, which lists 152-191 civilian deaths and the deaths of 130-268 "unknowns."
If the Stanford-NYU team wants to paint a picture of the U.S. as a human rights abuser, then the Bureau, whose casualty statistics dwarf the more conservative estimates of the other databases, is best suited to that purpose, but that does not make it the most reliable source.
While a comprehensive assessment of the Bureau's data should have been conducted before giving it a resounding endorsement, just a cursory review of its account of 2012's drone strikes reveals problems:
- On May 5, 2012 the Bureau reports that a strike in North Waziristan killed 8-10 people, of whom between zero and ten are listed as civilians. Upon reviewing the accompanying sources one find that early reports said the identity of the dead could not be determined, but subsequent reports from government officials identified them as militants. Of the 15 sources cited by the Bureau, not one states that the victims were civilians.
-On June 2, 2012 the Bureau reports that 2-4 people were killed and between zero and two of them were civilians. These civilian deaths were inferred based on a report that a motorbike was accidentally hit, but the Bureau fails to take note of a later report from The Express Tribune identifying the motorbike victims as suspected militants Khalil Yargul Khail and Rehmanullah Gangi Khail.
-On July 23, 2012 the Bureau references 25 sources for a drone strike, only one of which described the victims as local residents and based on this the Bureau reports that up to 14 civilians were killed.
The Stanford-NYU report critiques the Long War Journal for not making its data available in a verifiable strike-by-strike format, over-relying on U.S. intelligence sources, and identifying all victims as militants unless they are specifically identified as civilians. These are reasonable criticisms, but when the critique turns to New America Foundation research, it becomes logically inconsistent.
While Stanford-NYU researchers admit that all three databases rely on "the same universe of publicly available press reports," they criticize only the New America Foundation for over-relying on the anonymous Pakistani government officials cited in such news reports. The Stanford-NYU report laments that these officials are cited in 88% of articles referenced in New America's 2012 data but fails to consider that these same articles are referenced by the Bureau. Furthermore, the only reason the researchers were able to generate that statistic is because New America compiles a highly transparent summary of media sources relied on for each strike with a list of which sources reported which casualty estimates, something no other database provides.
The Stanford-NYU report goes on to question the "deep reporting" capabilities of New America's sources (The New York Times, Reuters, AP, BBC, etc.) while uncritically accepting the veracity of reports from fringe outlets such as the Kuwait News Agency, the South Asian News Agency, Central Asia Online, and Punjab News, which are sometimes the sole sources for the Bureau's reports of civilian casualties.
This is not to suggest that the Bureau's research is without merit, but it should be noted that it represents an interpretation of the facts with a bias toward reporting civilian casualties. The Bureau's database does not even have a category for reporting militant deaths. It seems counter-intuitive that the organization's researchers can have such absolute faith in their civilian casualty estimates, but not have the confidence to label any of the deceased as militants.
And the Stanford-NYU team was not impartial. By the report's own admission, the research project it undertook in Pakistan to interview family members of drone strike victims was commissioned by Reprieve, a UK based advocacy organization. Reprieve, which filed two lawsuits on behalf of alleged drone victims in May of 2012, arranged, paid for and collaborated on many of the victim interviews conducted by the Stanford-NYU researchers.
No database is perfect, but a strong argument could be made that the New America Foundation's policy of attempting to identify both militants and civilians while maintaining an explicit category for "unknowns" to represent the uncertainty surrounding many of the strikes is a more balanced representation of the facts. After all, if the public is to assess the efficacy of drone strikes then we need to consider the strikes that hit their targets as well as the ones that do not.
Stanford and NYU's analysis of the three drone databases, in some respects, misses the forest for the trees. A comparison of the annual data collected by the Bureau with that compiled by the New America Foundation suggests that while their numbers may differ, their underlying findings are substantially similar. Both the Bureau and New America have observed a general decline in the percentage of civilian fatalities since the high in 2006, with a sharp decrease during the Obama administration. According to the Bureau's data, the proportion of civilians killed in drone strikes fell from 35 percent in 2008 under President Bush to 9 percent thus far in 2012. Similarly, New America reports that the rate of civilian and unknown casualties decreased from 23 percent in 2008 to 2 percent in 2012. This stands to reason when we consider that the Bureau tends to err on the side of assuming that unidentified dead or individuals of disputed identity are civilians, while New America prefers to accommodate ambiguity by listing "unknowns" and only reports a civilian or militant casualty when it is reported by two independent sources.
If one takes the average number of civilian and unknown deaths counted by the New America Foundation from 2004-2012 as a percentage of the total number of people killed in drone strikes, the civilian and unknown deaths represent 15 percent of the total. The Bureau's data suggests that civilian deaths account for 22 percent of the total killed. These numbers are in fact, not so very far apart. And while the Bureau has criticized New America for reporting that in 2012, civilian deaths are approaching zero, the Bureau's own data suggests that the percentage of civilian casualties in 2012 is at nine percent, an all-time low and significantly less than the 23 percent the Bureau reports during Obama's first year in office. This suggests that the choice is not between two very different data sets, but rather two different interpretations of similar evidence. Contrary to the Stanford-NYU report's claims, the New America Foundation is not underreporting civilian casualties; its researchers have simply chosen not to feign certainty in the face of ambiguity.
What They Didn't Say
The Stanford-NYU researchers also fail to incorporate evidence that might temper their claims. Their report makes numerous references to an AP investigative report that interviewed 80 villagers at the sites of the ten deadliest attacks in 2011 and 2012 but neglects its conclusions that "a significant majority of the dead were combatants" and the numbers of casualties gathered by AP investigators "turned out to be very close to those given by Pakistani intelligence on the day of each strike."
Numerous media accounts, including the LA Times, have highlighted that "the [Stanford-NYU] study concludes that only about 2 percent of drone casualties are top militant leaders." The study reached no such conclusion. This claim is based on research conducted by New America and published last month on CNN. While the Stanford-NYU report summarily dismissed New America's militant and civilian casualty estimates, they have been quick to make this statistic a centerpiece of their argument. In doing so, they also take the conclusion out of context, and ignore the possible tactical utility of deliberately targeting low-level militants. Indeed, destroying communication centers, training camps and vehicles undermines the operational effectiveness of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and quotes from operatives of the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network reveal that drones have forced them into a "jungle existence" where they fear for the lives on a daily basis.
A second key contention of the Stanford-NYU report is that drone strikes are "damaging and counterproductive" to U.S. national security. However, it is shortsighted to evaluate U.S. security in isolation from Pakistani domestic order. Terrorist attacks have been a pervasive problem in Pakistan, especially since 2007. While the report references these attacks and the frequent assassinations carried out by Taliban forces, it makes no reference to recent research by an analyst at the RAND Corporation, who identifies a negative correlation between drone strikes and militant violence inside Pakistan, indicating that the rate of violence has gone down as the rate of drone strikes has gone up. Analysis by New America suggests that while only 10 percent of drone strikes target al-Qaeda operatives, approximately 50 percent hit Taliban targets and in 2009, 19 of the first 32 drone strikes targeted the organization of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis, and the alleged mastermind of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud was a far greater threat to Pakistani security than that of the United States.
These criticisms are not to suggest that the Stanford-NYU report is without merit. The anecdotal evidence on the adverse mental health impact of drones, the economic hardships created by attacks and the restriction of movement caused by FATA residents' anxiety about potential strikes are all valuable contributions to the public's understanding of drones, as is the report's succinct and cogent summary of some of the key legal issues. Both of these topics merit further research and the teams at Stanford and NYU seem well poised to continue contributing in these areas.
However it would be a mistake to unequivocally accept all of the report's conclusions or its stance on the civilian casualty debate. The U.S. government's claims that civilian casualties from drone strikes during Obama's term in office are in the single digits are manifestly untrue, but there is no need to overstate the rate of civilian deaths to make the point that drones strikes are legally suspect and morally hazardous.
Meg Braun is a Rhodes Scholar and MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, where she is researching the evolution of U.S. drone policy. She was an intern at the New America Foundation during summer 2012, where she worked to revise and update its drone database.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The biggest debate surrounding the Afghanistan-Pakistan region today concerns the U.S. drone program in Pakistan's tribal regions, which target the militants who terrorize and kill local residents, and who attack American soldiers inside Afghanistan. Ironically, the anti-war group CODEPINK -- members of which visited Pakistan last week to protest drone strikes -- along with much of the American left, the Pakistani establishment, and the Taliban are all on the same side in their opposition to drone strikes. While silent on the many more targeted killings of innocent civilians by Taliban militants in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Pakistani establishment and the American left both loudly criticize U.S. drone strikes, albeit for different reasons.
Pakistani officials cite Pakistan's sovereignty as their main justification for opposing drone strikes. But sovereignty is neither the actual reason for their anger, nor is it a legitimate argument against drone strikes. The actual reason is that the United States blames Pakistan for its failure to clear militants out of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. FATA serves as a base for militants and is therefore the target of drone strikes. In return, Pakistan uses anti-drone campaigns to stir up anti-Americanism through the media and insists on its national sovereignty over FATA.
Pakistan's sovereignty claim itself is completely invalid. Pakistan does not now nor has it ever had a complete sovereign control -- as modern nation-states define the term -- over FATA. In fact, it is precisely Pakistan's lack of sovereign control over FATA that allows the militants, many of whom are not Pakistanis, to operate so openly there and invite drone strikes. And that is the best case scenario for Pakistan; the worst case, many believe, is that Pakistan houses and trains these militants in FATA. Indeed, we just saw a fitting example of Pakistan's lack of sovereignty over FATA last week. An anti-drone march to the FATA area of Waziristan on October 7 led by Pakistan's leading politician, Imran Khan, and accompanied by CODEPINK members, failed to reach Waziristan. The march was halted when the Pakistan security forces could not guarantee the safety of the participants. Moreover, there is at least some evidence that the drone attacks are taking place with Pakistan's consent. If the Pakistani government was seriously against drone strikes, it could take a number of actions against the United States, including blocking the NATO supply route that goes through Pakistan, the way it did in late 2011 when NATO forces mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two military posts near the border with Afghanistan.
For CODEPINK and the American far left, the opposition to drone strikes rests on the idea that drones kill innocent civilians. The recently published "Living Under Drones," a report based on 130 interviews with family members of drone strike victims, studied the negative impact of drone strikes on civilians. But the debate on the drones' effectiveness and its impact on civilians is far from settled. For example, a February 2012 investigation by the Associated Press, which interviewed people inside FATA, reported that civilian casualties from drones are far lower than Pakistan civil society figures, journalists, and party officials assert publicly. Another study, relying on open-source data on reported U.S. drone strikes and terrorist activity in FATA between March 2004 and 2010, also found a negative correlation between drone strikes and militant violence. The strikes have also killed high-level Taliban leaders, like Baddrudin Haqqani and Baitullah Mehsud, and key Al-Qaeda militants, like Abu Kasha Al-Iraqi and Saleh Al-Turki. The New America Foundation estimates that around 84% of the people killed in drone strikes from 2004 to the present were al-Qaeda or Taliban militants. The drone accuracy rose to an amazing 95% in 2010.
It is perhaps for these reasons that polls show that the residents of FATA, who are the target of drones, are less opposed to drones than the rest of Pakistanis who are not the target of drones. FATA residents are eight times more supportive of drones than are the rest of Pakistanis. Moreover, a mere 48% of FATA residents believe that drones kill innocent civilians, compared to 89% of people in the rest of Pakistan. Surveys consistently find that FATA residents fear bomb blasts by Taliban and the Pakistani military more than they do drone strikes. According to the Community Appraisal and Motivation Program (CAMP), a Pakistan-based research group, when asked open-ended questions about their greatest fears, very few FATA residents ever mention drones. Even the Peshawar Declaration, a conference organized and attended by leaders of these tribal areas, showed strong support for drone strikes.
That being said, there is little doubt that civilians have died in drone attacks. But that just raises the bigger question: is there a better alternative to drone strikes for counterterrorism in northwest Pakistan? To answer that question, we can look to the Swat Valley, just north of Waziristan, where 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban militants last Tuesday for advocating for girls' education.
Swat, like Waziristan, has been a stronghold of the Taliban. But unlike Waziristan, Swat has not seen any drone strikes. Instead, in Swat, the only available alternative approach was taken. For much of 2007 and 2008, the people of Swat were left at the mercy of the Taliban, who operated with impunity and killed, tortured, wounded, and displaced countless people. Then, after being pressured by the United States, the Pakistani military entered Swat and conducted an operation to root out the Taliban. The military operation resulted in thousands of deaths, many more wounded, and over one million people displaced, with a quarter million refugees crammed into mere 24 camps -- the worst crisis since Rwanda in 1994, according to the United Nations. The operation also resulted in the destruction of hundreds of schools and egregious human rights violations by the Pakistani military - some of which I witnessed personally. By comparison, there are far fewer cases of displacement, civilian deaths, and other destruction in Waziristan where drone strikes are used.
Nevertheless, by yet another comparison of hypocrisy, those who are loudest about casualties from U.S. drone strikes have rarely protested the far higher numbers of civilian casualties as a result of Pakistan Army operations or Taliban violence in the Swat Valley and FATA. Silenced in this double standard are the varying motives of different parties as well as the voice of the Pashtun people in these tribal areas. At least one voice -- that of this native Pashtun -- is speaking out to say that there are serious downsides to these drone strikes, but they may be a necessary evil and the lone option to combat those who are responsible for the severe suffering of our people - like Malala Yousafzai.
Zmarak Yousefzai practices national security litigation in Washington, DC for an international law firm. He was born and raised in the tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan provides all too many examples of the wisdom of Winston Churchill's saying "those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it." Great Britain forgot the hard-learned lessons from the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) and got caught in the misadventure of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80). The Afghan Communist government that took power in a military coup in 1978 did not appear to have learned from the failed westernization and reform experiment of King Amanullah (1919-29); it imposed radical changes and engaged in brutal repression, quickly stirring up a violent reaction that threatened the new regime. The Soviet Union optimistically viewed its military intervention in Afghanistan at the end of 1979 as a limited action with a short time horizon-assumptions that proved unfounded and whose lack of realism would have been apparent from a review of Afghan history. And it does not seem that the United States and its NATO allies reflected on lessons from the Soviet occupation when they initiated the international military intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11, even though, as Bruce Riedel noted: "A country rarely fights the same war twice in one generation, especially from opposite sides. Yet that in many ways describes the U.S. role in Afghanistan today."
Afghanistan and its international partners now face a challenging process of international military drawdown and transition-in security, political, financial, and economic spheres. What can be learned from Afghanistan's history to inform and help guide this process? A recent paper outlines parallels and contrasts between past and present, and distills some historical themes and lessons that may be relevant for the current transition and beyond. It focuses on the change of Soviet strategy and its military withdrawal from Afghanistan (1986-89) and the subsequent Soviet-backed Najibullah regime (1989-92). Of course, any lessons from history must be applied cautiously, in full cognizance of the current situation and major differences from the past. Nevertheless, findings of the paper do shed light on themes and lessons from Afghanistan's history that could inform current transition planning and the path ahead.
First, it is necessary to clear up some myths and misconceptions. Afghanistan is a geographically well-defined country, whose borders were formed during a long period of conflicts and resistance against outside powers, most notably the British and Russian Empires. Dating from 1747, the country has a far longer history as a distinct national entity with continuity to the present than most of its neighbors-such as Pakistan, created in 1947 with artificially demarcated borders in two separate parts, or the central Asian states to the north formed after the break-up of the USSR at the end of 1991. Unlike some of its neighbors, Afghanistan has never had a significant secessionist movement. And the 1933-73 period shows that the country can be stable and effectively governed. The Afghan monarchial state did not penetrate deeply into the countryside, nor was it very successful developmentally, but it did keep the peace and maintain order, was perceived as legitimate internally and externally, maintained reasonable control over its borders, exercised independent diplomacy in a difficult region, and limited and monitored the activities of foreigners within the country-basic state functions which subsequent Afghan governments have struggled to fulfill.
Second, expectations about the pace of progress need to be kept modest. Whether domestically or externally driven, overly ambitious reform efforts with unrealistically short timeframes-particularly those disturbing established power relations in rural areas and affecting religion, culture, and the role of women-have led to sharp domestic reactions that set back development, sometimes for decades.
Third, the possibility of Afghanistan's neighbors playing "spoiler" roles and of regional rivalries undermining transition is very real. Historical experience and the current situation in Pakistan indicate that there may be a need to plan around, or at a minimum for contingency planning, with respect to Pakistan for example preventing a meaningful peace agreement with the Taliban. Iran and to a lesser extent other regional countries may also raise issues for the transition. More generally, the Soviet withdrawal period shows both the difficulties in reaching a peaceful solution to a conflict during military withdrawal, and the adverse consequences of failure to do so.
Fourth, Afghanistan's history has been characterized by chronic succession problems and associated conflict. Indeed not since 1933, and only three times since 1747, was there a smooth succession from one ruler to the next. Of the eight leaders of Afghanistan during 1973-2001, all but one died violent deaths or were ousted/exiled from power. Thus history highlights the challenges associated with the 2014 political transition and underlines the need for effective election preparations and a political strategy to maximize the prospects for smooth elections. If successful and not followed by post-election violence, the next Presidential election would comprise an unprecedented peaceful transfer of government leadership in Afghanistan's recent history.
Fifth, the post-Soviet withdrawal period shows the potential and limitations of Afghan security forces: holding onto Kabul and other large cities is probably the most that can be hoped for. Indeed, more risks may be associated with the Afghan National Army during and after the current transition given greater ethnic factionalization; parts of the ANA could fragment or desert earlier rather than later, whereas the post-Soviet Afghan army held together reasonably well until near the end.
Sixth, the Soviet and post-Soviet experience with arming and paying militias suggests that this approach is fraught with danger, risking instability given dependence on payments to militia leaders and exacerbating grievances and drivers of conflict due to predatory behavior of many militias. A "political marketplace" as seen in some African countries, where factionalized and short-term patronage is used for political and security management to hold together different ethnic groups and regional interests, and where deals reached can be-and frequently are-re-opened including through violence, is unstable and does not provide a good foundation for successful transition or sustained political progress.
Seventh, effective Afghan leadership, pursuing a national agenda, has been critical for achieving positive outcomes in times of change and transition in Afghanistan, including foreign military withdrawals. International experience also underlines the importance of effective national leadership during transitions, as emphasized in the 2011 World Development Report Conflict, Security, and Development.
Eighth, Afghanistan during most of its history has depended on outside financial support in various forms, and the current transition and following period will be no exception. While aid certainly can and should decline from the extraordinarily high levels seen in recent years, abruptly stopping or suddenly cutting back support would be a recipe for disaster, as occurred most notably in 1991-92 when the Soviet Union in its final days stopped all support to the Najibullah regime and it quickly collapsed.
Ninth, the Afghan economy currently is in much better shape than during the Soviet and post-Soviet period, having seen recovery and rapid growth over the past decade in contrast to the widespread destruction of infrastructure and the rural economic base and massive displacement of population during the 1980s and early 1990s. In coming years the destabilizing effects of a deep economic contraction must be avoided, which will depend on maintaining political stability, avoiding deterioration in security, and building confidence, as well as gradual rather than abrupt declines in international aid.
Finally, it is also important not to overlearn some apparent lessons from history. For example, Afghanistan's problematic experience over the past five decades with divisive, ideologically and ethnically driven political parties has made political parties in general an anathema to many Afghans. But effective political parties are an essential ingredient in successful democracies around the world, and a signal failure of the post-2001 period has been that more nationally oriented political parties have not emerged and developed.
In conclusion, some lessons from Afghanistan's turbulent history constitute warnings and cautionary themes about what can go wrong. This reflects the reality of the country's history, and both Afghans and international partners should move forward with eyes open so problems and risks can be managed better and mitigated to the extent possible. Certainly Afghanistan, the region, and the world cannot afford a repeat of the disastrous history of the 1990s-a worst-case outcome whose ramifications and damaging effects continue to be felt to this day. All parties must make strong efforts to ensure that such a repetition of history is avoided.
William Byrd is a visiting senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.
Less than half of Americans approve of Obama's job as president. According to Gallup's most recent poll, his job approval rating is 49 percent. However, there is one area where President Obama gets high marks: drone warfare. In June the Pew Research Center reported that 62 percent of Americans approve of the President's use of drone strikes.
Targeted killings by drones were first introduced under President Bush in 2002 when a Hellfire missile slammed into a Jeep in Yemen, killing Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, a key conspirator in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. And yet it is President Obama who has consistently made headlines for authorizing hundreds of attacks in Pakistan, and recently dozens more in Yemen. According to a recent CNN article based on data compiled by the New America Foundation, President Obama has carried out six times more strike during his first term than Bush did during his entire eight years in office.
On its face these numbers would seem to suggest that President Obama is the more aggressive commander-in-chief, that he is uniquely unencumbered by concerns for Pakistani sovereignty, a stronger proponent of drone warfare and disproportionately committed to killing al-Qaeda members. However, analyzing Obama's drone policy in isolation from larger geopolitical issues, obscures that which is truly radical about his foreign policy.
The rate of drone strikes was already increasing exponentially when Obama took office. He continued that trend and made the politically unpopular decision to give Afghanistan the resources he thought it deserved, while using drones to deny terrorists safe haven in Pakistan and targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban rank and file rather than just their commanders.
During his tenure, George W. Bush did not fail to use drones effectively; rather he was preoccupied with Saddam Hussein. From 2002 to 2008, the Bush administration devoted a preponderance of the United States' military assets, political capital and administrative attention to Iraq. In 2005, the Air Force had just two Predator drones monitoring the whole of Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas, to say nothing of resources in Pakistan. It was not until the summer of 2008, seven long years after 9/11, that they began to shift their focus back to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. From January to June 2008 U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan nearly doubled, going from 26,000 to 48,000.
At the same time, the Bush administration made a critical decision to stop requesting Pakistani authorization prior to each strike. With a new government taking over in Pakistan and a renewed sense of urgency brought about by a Presidency quickly coming to a close, the White House seized the opportunity to re-write the diplomatic rules of the Predator program. The impact was immediate. During the first half of 2008 Bush authorized a modest five drone strikes. In his last six months he approved 31. Had he served a third term, we can reasonably expect, based on this trend, he might have carried out 62 strikes a year, if not more. Obama's annual average is 75.
This shift was facilitated not just by domestic factors, but by a
fundamental change in Pakistan. Just as Bush and the U.S. military were pivoting
their attention back to Afghanistan, domestic security in Pakistan was
deteriorating. In December of 2007 Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of
Pakistan and then opposition party leader was assassinated in a combined sniper
and suicide bomb attack. Bhutto's death was just one of many. Prior to 2007,
there were less than ten suicide attacks a year, however, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace, by 2009 there were 87
suicide attacks and 2,586 terrorist, insurgent and sectarian related incidents
of terrorism. Afghanistan succumbing to a Taliban coup would be tragic, but in
Pakistan, a country with over 100 nuclear warheads, it would be
catastrophic. Thus domestic terrorism and political insecurity presumably made
the Pakistanis more hospitable to drone strikes, while making intervention an
From the outset of his presidency Obama identified Afghanistan as not only a just war, but a strategic necessity. Within a month of entering office, President Obama announced the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and within a year he announced a surge of 30,000 more. Shortly after the reinforcements arrived, in September of 2010, the military launched a major offensive in Kandahar province. Drone strikes in Pakistan immediately skyrocketed from an average of 7 per month to 24 in September. This remains the deadliest month on drone record, with approximately 140 militants reported killed and zero reported civilian deaths.
This aggressive pursuit is a marked difference from Bush's Battle of Tora Bora, during which bin Laden and dozens of his followers escaped into Pakistan.
While Bush sought to decapitate the leadership ranks of al-Qaeda, Obama has sought to cut their legs out from under them, destroying the foot soldiers, rather than just the officers. According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, while a third of all strikes by President Bush killed a militant leader, under President Obama, that number has fallen to 13 percent and leaders account for only 2 percent of all total drone related fatalities.
However a war of militant attrition is not without advantages. Drone attacks based on patterns of activity rather than individual identity have decimated the ranks of low-level combatants, forcing would-be terrorists to look to their own survival rather than plotting the next attack. The omnipresent threat of a missile strike has restricted freedom of movement, impeded communication and destroyed dozens of training camps.
Under Obama drones have not only been a tactic to hunt terrorists leaders, they are also a tool for preventing spillover into Pakistan at a minimum cost of U.S. blood and treasure, and, despite some civilian casualties, with minimal disruption to the state of Pakistan.
Finally, there is also evidence to suggest that many of the attacks were designed to appease Pakistan, in that drones have pursued Taliban leaders who were more threatening to Pakistan than to the United States. In the first eight months of 2009 the United States carried out 32 drone strikes, 19 of which targeted Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban and alleged mastermind behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Thus some portion of the increased targeting of the Taliban may simply reflect the costs of doing business.
What Obama deserves to be lauded for is not increasing drones strikes, but rather a willingness to give Afghanistan the attention and resources it deserved while confronting the spread of violence in Pakistan. Facts on the ground indicate that the drone program has been an operational success. Under Obama's watch drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 1,332 to 2,326 combatants and the number of monthly terrorist attacks in Pakistan has fallen by over 50 percent since the high in 2008.
The question is not whether the next administration, be it a Romney or Obama one, will continue to use drones. The question is whether drones have reached the limits of their tactical utility. The core of al-Qaeda is in disarray and drone firepower had begun to focus on regional affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and beyond. However, killing militants will not cure the world of terrorism, it can only help to restrain it. The solution lies in committing the diplomatic and financial resources to address the political and economic instability upon which Islamic extremism feeds. A truly courageous commander-in-chief must know when to prioritize statecraft over armed force.
Meg Braun is a Rhodes Scholar and MPhil candidate in International Relations at Oxford, where she is researching the evolution of U.S. drone policy.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Over the past decade U.S. drone strikes have killed between 1,800 and 3,100 people in Pakistan, along with hundreds more in drone attacks in Yemen and Somalia, as a result of the United States' efforts to combat al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The rise in strikes since the beginning of the Obama administration, and the growing stridency of questions surrounding the legal, moral, and practical efficacy of the program, have led to a lively debate among the commentariat. This debate is indeed important, but it is also crucial to understand how the drone program has affected the jihadis, and how jihadis have deployed the issue of drones in their propaganda. This is a necessary part of gaining a wider understanding of whether the program is a worthwhile endeavor.
Surprisingly, one does not see much discussion of drones by al-Qaeda Central (AQC), or by the Taliban (though it is possible that individuals in these groups are talking more about this in face-to-face encounters than online). Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), on the other hand, has exploited the drone issue extensively in the newsletter put out by their front group, Ansar al-Shari'ah (AS). As a result, question of whether drones are drawing more individuals into the arms of AQAP has been raised frequently in the past year.
In the documents collected by Navy SEALs during their raid of Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan last May, bin Laden nicknamed Pakistan's tribal areas the "circle of espionage" for the network of spies that helps identify targets and place tracking devices for the strikes. The issue of spies has become so prevalent that Abu Yahya al-Libi wrote a book in 2009 regarding rulings on how they should be treated and prosecuted once captured.
The fear of infiltrators has created an atmosphere of paranoia within the jihadi movement, and has led many of al-Qaeda's operatives in the Pakistani tribal areas to move to more urban areas like Karachi. In one of bin Laden's Abbottabad documents, he advises the "brothers" with "media exposure" to move "away from aircraft photography and bombardment." Bin Laden also suggested that individuals flee to Afghanistan's Kunar province, where he thought they would be safer from the spy networks that have supported the drone campaign.
In the same document that bin Laden suggested his associates move, he also warned that even if one is in a safer place, one should still be cognizant that spies are lurking. The drone danger has also forced the Taliban to think twice about which journalists they meet with. A local Taliban leader remarked to Pakistani journalist Pir Zubair Shah: "You never know who is a reporter and who is a spy." But even if drone strikes provoke a higher level of distrust of outsiders (which itself is a normal characteristic of a terrorist or insurgent group), it does not appear to have hindered the Taliban's ability to project power into Afghanistan over the past few years. Many individuals look to the Taliban's shadow shari'ah courts for solving disputes, and the Taliban has been collecting taxes at the local level.
Frequent drone strikes in northwest Pakistan have also degraded al-Qaeda's ability to train individuals over long periods of time. In the past, AQC could spend a month (if not longer) training an operative in bomb making. In some cases, such training lasts as little as a few days now. Abbreviated training is less effective. Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber, received five days of training in the tribal areas with AQC's affiliate the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This lack of training proved decisive when Shahzad's bomb malfunctioned and he was spotted acting suspiciously.
Similarly, AQAP has been forced to change the locations of their training camps. The move to more mountainous areas like Ibb and al-Daleh provinces came about because AQAP was exposed to airstrikes when they had been training in Radaa directorate. Like the Taliban, however, AQAP has still been able to plot large-scale attacks against the West - even if they have failed - as well as occupy towns locally. And although there have yet to be any extensive academic studies on the wider effects of the drones in Yemen, Patrick B. Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi concluded in a working paper that the drones in Pakistan have actually decreased suicide attacks across the country.
Although AQC and the Taliban have been under severe drone pressure for the past several years, they have said little about the strikes in the propaganda they release. When eulogizing Abu al-Layth al-Libi in 2008 after he was killed in a drone attack, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid described the drones as cowardly, since the United States did not confront him on the battlefield, but rather in a manner of "treachery and betrayal." More recently, Ayman al-Zawahiri called in a message directed toward Pakistanis in March for them to rise up against the government and "compel them to stop drone strikes."
Unlike AQC and the Taliban, AQAP has only seen frequent drone attacks for the past year and a half, but AQAP has exploited the issue extensively in their media work. (It should be noted that the United States has also used cruise missiles in attacking AQAP and al-Shabab operatives. There have been claims that what have been reported as Yemeni airstrikes have really been drones, and vice versa). AQAP has been especially active in highlighting the achievements of its counter-spy networks. In February 2012, AQAP sentenced three spies - two Yemenis and a Saudi - to death in a shari'ah court in Ja'ar. They had allegedly been placing tracking devices on cars for drone targeting. One of the individuals was killed in Azzan by way of crucifixion while another was shot at point blank range in Shabwa as a circle of men cheered. The execution was shown in a video as part of AS' "Eyes on the Event" series. This was not only a message to the locals to deter them from becoming spies, but also a way for AQAP to show the United States and Saudi Arabia that they were bringing the war back to them.
In addition to highlighting civilian casualties and showing pictures of dead children, AQAP has used critical analysis of the drone program from individuals in the West to gain sympathy for their plight. In issue nineteen of Ansar al-Shari'ah's newsletter they write an exposé on Obama's "crusade." In it, AS points out the "signature strike" policy, which allows the United States to target individuals based on behavioral patterns without actually identifying the individual: "Hellfire missiles ... troll the skies of Yemen to kill ... in cold blood and without accountability, as usual!" In the past, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen has pointed out that signature strikes pose the danger of targeting and killing individuals that are not members of or associated with AQAP. In issue three of the newsletter, AS also questions the United States' commitment to the rule of law in light of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son Abdul Rahman in a U.S. drone strike "without charging them [Anwar and his son] with a single crime."
Some analysts believe there could be blowback from the drone program from AQAP, which might be encouraged to plan a revenge attack on the United States. AQAP hinted at this in the eulogy for Fahd al-Quso, who was killed in a drone strike in May this year: "war between us is not over and the days are pregnant [and] will give birth to something new."
While the militant response to drone strikes in Yemen remains to be seen, there is scant evidence that drones strikes have been mobilizing AQC to conduct attacks in response. After Faisal Shahzad's Times Square plot failed, he told investigators that one of his primary motivations had been the increased pace of drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal belt. Al-Qaeda leader Ilyas Kashmiri was also reportedly frustrated over the drone strikes in the tribal areas, leading him to plan an attack on the CEO of Lockheed Martin, according to the testimony of prior associate David Headley, a key operative in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But besides Shahzad's failed attack and Kashmiri's aspirational plan drone strikes do not appear to be the primary reason why al-Qaeda, its branches, and its affiliates are plotting attacks against the United States.
During the Obama administration, drone strikes have taken out many top al-Qaeda, AQAP, and Taliban leaders, and killed hundreds of mid-level fighters. The losses have pushed these militant groups to establish counter-spy networks, as well as beef up their operational security. Al-Qaeda Central's ability to operate in Pakistan has been severely degraded. At the same time, the drone campaign does not appear to have had an appreciable impact on AQAP or the Taliban - both still show the ability to plan attacks against the United States (either into Afghanistan for the Taliban or against the American homeland for AQAP) and still have influence in their local areas of operation. Defeating these groups with drones is unlikely, but the strikes have at the very least created a nuisance for the militants, as well as prevented more invasive military action that might have otherwise occurred. There are still lingering questions on whether or not the drones have played a significant role in radicalizing a new generation of fighters, but understanding how the drones are affecting and changing these groups can provide new perspective on a vexing challenge.
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
Ethan Miller//Getty Images
As Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was declaring the "fight against extremism and terrorism" as his own war at the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) Kakul (located less than a mile away from the now demolished bin Laden villa in Abbottabad) on August 13, militants were planning two audacious attacks: One against a key security installation in the country's heartland, and another on innocent civilians in the remote northern areas.
Less than 72 hours after Kayani's address, which many observers termed a landmark speech because of its tone, wording and timing, nine armed men in uniforms belonging to security forces mounted a daring attack on Minhas Airbase Kamra, located less than 70 kilometers west of the country's capital Islamabad, on the Grand Trunk (GT) Road leading to Peshawar.
The second attack, more barbarous in nature, was carried out in the Bubusar area of Mansehra district, located around 100 miles north of Islamabad, where armed men wearing military uniforms forced 20 Shia Muslims off a passenger bus and shot them at point blank range.
Responsibility for both the attacks was claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the group considered by the Pakistani government to be the ‘bad Taliban.' Both the attacks were not the first of their kind. The Minhas Airbase in Kamra was the third major attack on a military base since 2009, while the killing of Shias in Mansehra was the third incident of its nature in the past six months.
Over the years, Pakistan's army and intelligence agencies have been under severe criticism over their failure -- and, many believe, their willful negligence -- in dealing with the various Taliban and sectarian groups that continue to keep their bases and training facilities in the tribal areas, and spread their tentacles to cities as far away as Karachi and Lahore.
Better late than never
In this context, General Kayani's statement, given the day before Pakistan's Independence Day, is of utmost importance. The country's most powerful man touched the right chord by warning of a "civil war" and calling the fight against terrorism "our own war."
Aside from falling right before Independence Day, the timing of General Kayani's statement is significant for a number of reasons: Pakistan's ambassador to Washington Sherry Rehman and the country's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar have recently openly stated that the days of strategic depth -- Pakistan's pursuit of its interests in Afghanistan by working to install a Pakistan-friendly government, as well as keeping India away from establishing a foothold in the country -- are over. Pakistan's spymaster Zaheerul Islam also held "productive" talks with his CIA counterpart David Petraeus during his recent visit to Washington. And U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, after months of frustrating efforts to convince Pakistan to take action against the militant groups operating on its soil, expressed some degree of optimism by telling Reuters that Pakistan will be launching an operation against militants in North Waziristan.
Is there room for suspicion?
Judging by its wording and tone, General Kayani's Independence Day statement leaves no room for suspicions about the intention of the Pakistani security establishment with regards to extremism and terrorism. Yet, Sec. Panetta's latest revelation, despite its optimism, leaves some question marks when he states that the main target of the possible operation in North Waziristan will be the Pakistani Taliban rather than the Haqqani network.
The point in question is: has Pakistan really done away with the ‘strategic depth' approach towards Afghanistan? If so, what keeps the country's armed forces from going after individuals such as the Haqqanis, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, (a leader of Taliban fighters in North Waziristan who is believed to have good ties with the Pakistani establishment as well as in close contacts with the Arab fighters), and Maulvi Nazeer (a militant commander based in the Wana area of South Waziristan, Wazir is an anti-U.S. but pro-Pakistan leader, and liked by the Pakistani establishment), instead of chasing the already shattered TTP?
After all, individuals forming the TTP umbrella, such as Hakimullah Mehsud, (leader of the TTP in South Waziristan), Faqir Muhammad, (the Taliban leader in Bajaur tribal agency) Fazlullah (a Taliban leader from Swat who is believed to have escaped into Afghanistan and to be involved in carrying out attacks on Pakistani civilians and security forces from there) and the warlord Mangal Bagh (head of the banned Lashkar-e-Islam) were once overlooked for being the ‘good guys,' but are now turning their guns on innocent civilians as well as the country's strategic installations.
Another duplicity that still provides room for suspicion is the freedom of propaganda and movement allowed to people such as Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. The banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief, who is wanted in India for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and is the subject of a bounty put out by the United States calling for information leading to his arrest, is still leading pro-jihad rallies in major Pakistani cities, including the capital, without being stopped or even warned by the authorities.
This kind of willful negligence with regards to people such as Hafiz Saeed, Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazeer, as well as groups like the Haqqani Network, is calling the writ of the state into question for ordinary Pakistanis, who have already lost trust in their political and military leadership for a number of other reasons.
For years, Pakistan has been accused of having a double standard regarding its actions against the militants by its allies and neighbors. This is the first time since Musharraf's era that the world is hearing Pakistan's top cop owning the anti-terror war in the strongest words, which is refreshing.
However, Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike want General Kayani to adopt an evenhanded approach towards all militants. People across the country welcomed the army when they ousted the Taliban from Swat in May 2009, and helped return the displaced people to their houses within a few months.
All of this goodwill was washed away when the army went after the TTP in South Waziristan the same year, though. Nothing resulted from that operation, except the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are still living in refugee camps. The people of the Bajaur tribal agency, where the army launched an operation in mid-2008, have yet to return to their houses. Similarly, the people of Bara district in the Khyber tribal agency have been living under a curfew for the past three years, while thousands of former residents are living in refugee camps with no sign of calm returning to their homes. And the militants are still targeting leaders who challenged the Taliban and raised Lashkars (peace committees) in their respective areas.
Those are the factors that shatter the people's trust in the state and its security agencies. To win their support like General Kayani wants to do, the political and military leadership need to conduct meaningful operations against all the militant groups in Pakistan, and block the escape routes of their leaders to prevent the repetition of what happened in the cases of Mullah Fazlullah, Faqir Muhammad, Mangal Bagh and Hakimullah Mehsud, all of whom escaped previous military campaigns. Only then will the public come forward and own the war alongside the Pakistani government and security forces.
Daud Khattak is a Pakistani journalist who writes about FATA, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Khattak worked for several Pakistani newspapers in Peshawar and Islamabad as well as for several years in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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"If [the] United States claims to be a humanitarian power set out to free the people from tyranny, then why does it refrain [from intervening] in Baluchistan?"
This was a question put forward by a student from Balochistan studying at Quad-e-Azam University, Islamabad, to a senior member of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad whom I had invited to lecture on U.S. foreign policy in my international relations course. The question naturally came as a surprise to the visiting U.S. delegation.
What the student pointed out was the alarming rise of the Quetta Shura, a council of Taliban leaders who took refuge in Quetta, Pakistan after the Taliban regime was toppled over by the United States in 2001, as a major power broker in the area, and the frustration it is causing among the local Balochis who are suffering at the hands of this new class of militancy.
According to the locals, the Quetta Shura has within the span of a decade gotten to the point where it "runs the show." From managing neighborhood security and harassing those who oppose them, to investing in hospitals where militants returning from Afghanistan are treated and in real estate as far as Karachi, the Quetta Shura has not only become the face of insurgency in Afghanistan, but indeed, it has become the face of destabilization in Pakistan.
Several of the locals that I talked to suggested that Quetta Shura is openly collecting funds through its hoax Islamic charity fronts in major cities of Pakistan, and recruiting local Balochis to torch the NATO supply tankers. "They tell us that each truck that we will blow up will get us several ‘hoors' in paradise. We don't get fooled, but many do."
As another local suggested, "[A] few years back, Quetta Shura was passive and was only urging people to wage war against the U.S., but now they are forcing people to wage war, not only on the US, but also on Pakistan."
Daily life has also been severely disturbed, as suggested by a local woman who was frustrated with Quetta Shura's moral policing in their neighborhoods and restrictions upon women to move freely in the city. As a part of its moral policing, militants working for the Quetta Shura have bombed internet cafes, music and CD shops throughout the city. The police force, I have been told, is ill equipped, powerless, and scared to confront the growing power of the militants who possess automatic and sophisticated weapons and have recently targeted and killed the policemen who opposed their power.
While the media in Pakistan remain obsessed with U.S. involvement in the country's affairs, the radicalization and breach of sovereignty by the Quetta Shura is going unnoticed, allowing it to grow exponentially.
The people in Balochistan are frustrated over this foreign intrusion into their territory, as depicted in the question asked by my student. Many Balochis will tell you that radicalization started not because of the drones, but the moment the Taliban began reorganizing as Quetta Shura in parts of Balochistan after being pushed into Pakistan by NATO.
Contrary to the polls that suggest around 75% of Pakistanis are anti-American, Balochistan is an area where, surprisingly, people are relatively less anti-American, severely critical of Taliban, and are looking towards the United States for help. Although no official polls have been conducted in Balochistan due to the lack of access in the area, I conducted an unofficial survey of 1,500 people from Balochistan, of which only 38% had a negative stance towards the United States. This is because people in Balochistan have been suffering for decades under the complex sardari (feudal) - Pakistan Military alliance, and recently under the suffocating presence of the Quetta Shura. Because Balochis are the direct victims of the Quetta Shura's militancy, they have a better understanding of the threat posed by the terrorists, and are more amenable to the U.S. campaign against terrorism, unlike the urban centers of Punjab where the anti-American sentiment runs high for political reasons.
Most of the Balochis with whom I have spoken about the matter expressed their acceptance the United States as a possible third party, which could alter the status quo in their area by not only flushing out the Quetta Shura, but also weakening the control of the Pakistan Army in the province.
While the official stance of the Pakistan Army is to reject any notions that Quetta Shura exists, the research I have conducted suggests quite the contrary. The Army is indeed aware of the presence of the Quetta Shura and the significant role it is playing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the hands of the Pakistan Army are tied because of the large Pashtun population within the Pakistan Army, domestic instability in the province, a lack of means and resources, and particularly by their reluctance to open another war front. Matt Waldman wrote in a 2010 report that the continued presence and growth of the Quetta Shura in Balochistan is a clear sign that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) supports the militant group.
But there is a difference between all out support and an effort to influence militant organizations, something that has been confused in many policy circles in Washington, DC. The Pakistan Army -- or for that matter any military -- does not have the ability to fully control militias. However, in warfare militaries do try to maintain communication channels with these groups in order to influence them through either direct or indirect means. The efforts of the Pakistan Army to influence the groups are at times taken out of context, and amplified in the media as direct sponsoring and support of terrorism - which doesn't quite compute, especially keeping in mind the fact that the Pakistan Army has been the major target of violence by these militant groups.
Rather, in an already troubled province, where the Pakistani Army has been engaged in a war and is not well liked, it is left with little or no resources or morale to wage a full-out war. This is especially true when Pashtuns in the Pakistani Army increasingly defy orders to kill the Pashtuns in the Quetta Shura. A senior army official who requested anonymity stated, "The American policy until 2008 was focused strictly on curtailing al-Qaeda; hence, the Pakistan Army was more relaxed towards massive migration of Afghanis flooding Quetta. It's hard to distinguish between a Taliban fighter and a civilian migrating to save his life. It becomes even harder when civilians carry an arm for protection in Pashtun culture."
The Pakistan Army has, for the past decade, attempted to strike a balance between the domestic repercussions of waging a war on its own people, not losing legitimacy internationally, and keeping the economy afloat.
However, its efforts to maintain balance have been deemed suspicious and labeled "backstabbing" by both the international community and by the Balochis, who are now highly frustrated with the rise of the Quetta Shura in their province, and the incapacity of the Pakistan Army to provide security.
Balochistan's gas and mineral reserves and strategically located Gwadar port are crucial to energy-starved Pakistan, making it an important strategic area for stability to both the Pakistan and the United States. More importantly, the current instability and radicalization fed by the Quetta Shura, and especially the sentiments of the Balochis opposed to this group, provide a unique opportunity for the United States to play a constructive role in the region by cooperating and facilitating the Pakistani government and allowing it - not the Army - to take the lead. The United States could be providing the Pakistani government with the means and resources to secure and develop the area, and eventually free the people from the tyranny of Quetta Shura.
While the Pakistan Army is not well liked in Balochistan due to the number of missing persons whose disappearances are blamed on security forces, the recent court cases against the Army by the Supreme Court, along with the Balochistan Package and other trust-building measures by the Pakistan government, provide a unique opportunity for the government to play a dominant role in Balochistan. The government has a unique opportunity to take charge of making policies towards Balochistan, instead of letting the Pakistan Army call all shots on the province. The move, if played right, will not only bring peace to the turbulent province of Balochistan and raise the status of the U.S. and Pakistan governments among the people, but will also ensure the security of Afghanistan by rooting out the center of Afghan insurgency
Hussain Nadim is a Visiting Scholar with the Asia Program Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.
Terrorism watchers are engaged in a heated debate about the strength of al-Qaeda, the central leadership of which is believed to be in Pakistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has claimed that al-Qaeda's "strategic defeat" is within reach, a message that was amplified by prominent analyst Peter Bergen's proclamation that it is time to declare victory over the group.
Though this debate is unlikely to be resolved soon, it suffers from an under-theorized argument. How resilient is a network like al-Qaeda? How much attrition can it endure? Often, claims related to such questions represent assumptions about al-Qaeda's resiliency, but lack an overarching framework. A new monograph by one of the U.S. Army's most innovative thinkers may shed light on this debate. Recently published by the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), Lt. Col. Derek Jones's Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Insurgent and Terrorist Networks is of relevance far beyond the debate about this one organization, albeit an organization that has dominated the past decade of the U.S.'s national-security priorities. Yet it is also an important read for thinkers who desire a more contextualized assessment of al-Qaeda in 2012. (Full disclosure: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross knows Lt. Col. Derek Jones personally, having first become acquainted with him at a Special Operations Command-hosted conference in the fall of 2009.)
Jones, having observed the rise of "counter-network" military theories, analyzes whether these theories correctly understand the nature of the threat posed by twenty-first century violent non-state actors-and whether counter-network operations have been as effective as many theorists believe. (For one review of counter-network theories, see this article by David Tucker.)
Given the advances in communication technology that were well underway before the 9/11 attacks, it is natural that many counter-network theorists have employed models explicitly rooted in the information age. Many theorists thought of al-Qaeda and other contemporary violent non-state actors as social networks much like those observed on the Internet.
Jones rejects the idea that the information age has caused revolutionary changes to clandestine networks. To be sure, they have evolved: al-Qaeda represents the first violent non-state actor capable of posing a truly global challenge at a strategic level to a superpower nation-state. But he points to a phenomenon that captions the way new technologies can fundamentally change groups like al-Qaeda: as networks employ such technologies more frequently, risks grow "due to the increase in electronic and cyber signatures, which puts those types of communications at risk of detection by governments." Instead, al-Qaeda employed traditional tradecraft to avoid detection: recall that the U.S. tracked down Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound by following a courier. This older tradecraft in turn "slows their rate of communication down, thus denying the information-age theorists the monolithic, information-aged, networked enemy that they have portrayed since 9/11."
If information-age theorists aren't getting it quite right, what kind of network is al-Qaeda? To answer this question, we need to understand the mechanisms by which its own theorists expect to defeat us.
Historically, the overt and visible parts of a guerrilla group are not the most important components. Instead, look to the clandestine underground. It is a well-worn adage that, by slowly eroding the opponent's will, a guerrilla network "wins by not losing."
Of course, this network doesn't require mere survival in order to win, but must also maintain the ability to mount attacks. However, as Lukas Milevski notes in a perceptive essay for the Royal United Services Journal, the network need not win outright through battles: battle avoidance can effectively deprive counterinsurgent forces of the control they desire. Hence the truth behind the observation that the United States won all of the battles in Vietnam but lost the war. If a military power cannot use battle to annihilate an adversary, nor push the cost of war beyond what its irregular adversary can afford, it cannot gain strategic control over an important territory or outcome. But to outlast a superior foe, the irregular enemy must first minimize its vulnerabilities to attrition.
Unfortunately for us, al-Qaeda long ago understood how to lessen its organizational signature.
The Anti-Social Network
Jones argues that al-Qaeda and similar groups are clandestine cellular networks, rather than information-age social networks. They are clandestine in that they are designed to be out of sight; and they are cellular in that they are compartmentalized to minimize damage when enemy neutralizes some portion of the network.
Social networks are open, and expand by multiplying their connections. They use open tools, and have small transaction costs. Occupy Wall Street, for example, used social media extensively to build a network stretching across many cities. While connection is beneficial for an open political movement, it can be fatal to a terrorist group. So a clandestine network functions radically differently from a social network. We use Facebook to make ourselves more connected, but al-Qaeda's network survives by limiting connections and compartmentalizing information.
Compartmentalization takes two forms. First, at a cell level, a minimum of personal information is known about other cell members. Second, there is strategic compartmentalization between different elements within the organization. Counterinsurgents can capture one person in a cell without destroying the cell itself; and in cases where cell members must interact directly, structural compartmentalization attempts to ensure that the cell cannot be exploited to target other cells or leaders.
The U.S. Army's Special Operations Forces doctrine recognizes three components of an insurgency: the auxiliary, the underground, and the guerrillas. The guerrillas are the fighters. The underground is responsible for command and control, logistics, subversion, and intelligence. The auxiliary is "the clandestine support personnel, directed by the underground which provides logistics, operational support, and intelligence collection to both the underground and the guerrillas."
If insurgencies grow to the point that they are "near-peer competitors to the state," they begin to take on characteristics of a conventional force. Secrecy is traded for efficiency, and building networks rather than cells becomes important. But should insurgencies suffer defeat at this stage, their hidden component-the underground-is designed to survive and regenerate the network.
While al-Qaeda aspires to being a near-peer competitor to the nation-state, it has only reached this point in a few theaters where multiple challenges confront the traditional government. In the vast majority of places where the jihadi group has a presence, it operates as a network of compartmentalized cells.
Such networks are largely decentralized at the tactical level, but have more hierarchical control at the strategic level. The core leadership may be an individual, with numerous deputies, or it may be a coordinating committee. But without centralized control, the network cannot effectively develop a strategy for action. The network's leadership can replace members of the tactical cells easily, but it is harder to replace core members. However, a strong network will ensure redundancy in key areas, so that the group remains viable even if its leaders are captured or killed.
Mistaking Appearances for Reality
Jones writes that counterinsurgents routinely mistake the more overt parts of an insurgency-which can be easily replaced-for the clandestine cells that generate them. But some of the seemingly spontaneously generating cells may say less about the supposedly decentralized nature of a network than it does about the clandestine leadership's ability to hold itself out of view and recover from seemingly fatal reverses.
The more contact that cells have with counterinsurgents and counterterrorists, the more adept they are at defeating interrogation procedures, protecting their own information, and feeding false information to their enemies. Survival creates a Darwinian cycle in which the core members of an insurgency can adapt, learn, and advance.
If there is one weakness in Jones's study, it is, as he acknowledges, that it is based largely on Cold War insurgencies and newer insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. From these we can draw inferences about the covert dynamics of al-Qaeda and other Islamist cells outside of war zones-but more study remains to be done.
Overall, though, this is an extremely valuable study. Its most troubling implication is that al-Qaeda may be well positioned to recover from its losses. As Jones argues, the form, function, and logic of this organization are designed to maximize its chances of survival, and thus "the removal of single individuals, regardless of function, is well within the tolerance of this type of organizational structure and thus has little long-term effect." This point is almost certainly overstated as applied to leaders like bin Laden or effective ideologues like Anwar al-Awlaki. Nonetheless, the powerful point remains that the logic of organizations like al-Qaeda is such that their ability to recover from leadership and other losses is maximized.
Is al-Qaeda's network core still intact? Most specialists would answer yes. If they are right, al-Qaeda may be able to opportunistically re-grow new cells when it is safe, or when public opinion is more favorable.
Most crystal balls are disturbingly cloudy, and only time will tell how well Jones's study predicts the course that the admittedly weakened core of al-Qaeda will chart. However, Jones offers a persuasive framework for approaching the issue. He thus raises a significant challenge to those arguing that al-Qaeda has been defeated, and offers great insight to others studying twenty-first century violent non-state actors.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America, and the author of eleven books and monographs, including Bin Laden's Legacy. Adam Elkus is a Ph.D. student at American University in the School of International Service and an editor at the Red Team Journal. He is also an Associate at the Small Wars Journal's El Centro profile, and blogs at Rethinking Security.
When Zabiuddin Ansari was handed over to the Indian authorities several weeks ago, it was big news - at least in India - as a result of the information he was expected to provide to the authorities there about the 2008 Mumbai attacks. As previous posts have illustrated, his story also provided valuable insights into the nature of the jihadist threat to India, the state of India-Pakistan relations, and the importance of international counterterrorism cooperation to contain the threats posed by Pakistan-based and supported militants. The most important angle according to some observers, however, was the fact that Ansari was arrested by the Saudi authorities, who subsequently handed him over to India despite Riyadh's historically close alliance with Islamabad. While at first glance this could suggest a wider geopolitical realignment, the reality is more nuanced. Though Pakistan is in no danger of being completely abandoned, its continued tolerance of militant groups makes even its staunchest allies skittish.
Pakistan remains the only nuclear-armed Muslim nation and, crucially, it's a Sunni Muslim nation, which makes it an essential Saudi ally in the event that Shi'a Iran acquires a nuclear capacity. Furthermore, the Saudi royal family has depended directly on the Pakistan Army for protection at times and Pakistani soldiers continue to play an important role in Saudi Arabia. It's very difficult to imagine India supplanting Pakistan in these areas. Saudi engagement with India began as part of a wider endeavor in which it sought to develop new markets for oil, expand economically where possible, and forge stronger political ties in Asia to augment the traditional U.S.-Saudi relationship and balance against Iran. However, it would be naïve to think India is ready to line up in lock-step against Iran any more than Saudi Arabia is prepared to abandon its alliance with Pakistan.
Nevertheless, Riyadh's decision to hand over Ansari despite his possessing a Pakistan passport and over the vociferous objections of the Pakistani authorities is a significant event and indicative of several important trends. First, it marked an important turning point in Saudi-India counterterrorism cooperation that could only have occurred amidst improved bilateral ties between the two countries. Second, it suggests increasing concerns within the Kingdom about Pakistani militants in general and Lashkar-e-Taiba specifically, as well as Pakistan's ability to control them. This is related to a more troubling trend for Pakistan in which its continued support for militant proxies has put strains on relationships with even its closest allies who fear the repercussions for their own internal security.
Playing the Field
In January 2006, Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud visited India as part of a four-country tour that also included a stop in Beijing. This was the first visit to India by a Saudi king since 1955, after which bilateral relations quickly froze as a result of Cold War politics. At the time of the landmark 2006 visit, Saudi Arabia provided only a trickle of oil to India, but soon after became its number one crude oil source. Although oil remains the lifeline of the relationship, the two countries' interests now extend beyond black gold. Trade between them has boomed, as have Indian investments in Saudi Arabia, where more than 1 million Indians work, making them the biggest expatriate community in the Kingdom. There is significant cultural exchange as well owing largely to the fact that India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world, many of who are interested in Saudi Arabia as the host of Islam's two holiest sites.
The Delhi Declaration signed during King Saud's visit heralded a "new era in India-Saudi relations" in which both countries would develop a broad strategic vision. As such, it served as a major building block for the relationship, which has since expanded to include notable security-related issues. In 2006 the two leaders initially intended to sign a mutual legal assistance treaty pertaining to criminal matters, which often serves as a precursor to an extradition treaty. Instead, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Combating Crime designed to deal with terrorism and transnational crime. Although it appeared comprehensive on paper and covered a range of issues, perceptual disagreements over the concept of terrorism meant that in reality there would be limited cooperation.
By 2010, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Saudi Arabia, bilateral relations had improved significantly. Prime Minister Singh and King Saud signed the Riyadh Declaration, which set the stage for actual counterterrorism cooperation, as well as signing a separate extradition treaty. Earlier this year the two countries boosted defense ties and further deepened counterterrorism cooperation when Indian Defense Minister AK Antony visited the Kingdom. According to Indian officials, Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism issues has improved significantly in the past six months. By this time, Saudi officials had already had Zabiuddin Ansari in custody for more than half a year.
Ansari traveled to Saudi Arabia on a Pakistani passport in the name of Riyasat Ali to launch a recruitment campaign for future attacks against India. As detailed in the previous post, India-U.S. counterterrorism coordination appears to have enabled Ansari's identification and ultimately led to his arrest by Saudi authorities in May 2011. However, Riyadh was reluctant to hand him over to India for fear of upsetting Pakistan, where officials surely recognized the damage he could cause in the court of public opinion. In the past, any suspected militant traveling on a Pakistani passport would be sent back to Pakistan. In this instance, Pakistani pressure to reclaim custody of Ansari appears to have been intense, but so too was Indian and American pressure to secure his handover.
Riyadh ultimately demanded a DNA profile and other evidence from India to establish Ansari's Indian nationality. New Delhi was able to fulfill these requirements, but Pakistan could not show credible proof that Ansari was one of its own. The ability to make a strong legal case for handing him over and improved bilateral ties between Riyadh and New Delhi were undoubtedly important factors. But baser security concerns likely also were at play.
Running Hot and Cold
Saudi Arabia proved a reluctant contributor to the international effort against al-Qaeda and associated movements after 9/11. This remained the case until the Kingdom suffered directly from al-Qaeda attacks beginning in 2003. However, it remained relatively tolerant of Lashkar-e-Taiba. This owed to Saudi Arabia's relationship with Pakistan, but also resulted from Lashkar's position vis-à-vis the Kingdom.
Some Lashkar leaders have ties to Saudi Arabia dating back several decades, and these men often view Saudi Arabia as the best Islamic state, even if it is not an ideal one. In other words, their attachment to the Kingdom extends beyond its mere utility as a fundraising and support base for militant activity. Similarly, Lashkar leaders' strong commitment to spreading Ahl-e-Hadith (or Salafi) Islam via non-violent activism and their decision to eschew revolutionary terrorism in favor of pan-Islamist jihad makes the group more palatable than al-Qaeda to the Saudi state. Several Lashkar watchers, including this author, have speculated that the group distanced itself from al-Qaeda circa 2003 as a result not only of pressure from Islamabad, but also Riyadh.
Lashkar's relationship with al-Qaeda - the Central organization and its affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula - remains a dynamic one, but interlocutors in Pakistan and the United States have told the author that cooperation between the two has increased of late. Meanwhile, the wider narrative generated by the 2008 Mumbai attacks is that Lashkar is becoming a global threat. Regardless of whether one agrees with this assessment, it would be surprising if American and Indian officials did not make the case that an overly permissive environment could spell trouble for Saudi Arabia, and not too difficult to imagine their counterparts in Riyadh entertaining the notion seriously. Acute concerns about Lashkar exist against the backdrop of Pakistan's unwillingness or inability to reign in the group or others like it as well as growing disquiet over possible jihadist influences on elements within the Pakistan Army.
Putting Ansari in Perspective
Saudi Arabia broke a taboo when it handed over Zabiuddin Ansari and, as should be evident, this has significant implications. Saudi authorities are holding additional Indian militants, and they're willingness to deport these men will be an important means of gauging the constancy of the trends highlighted in this post. However, it must be noted that all of these men are Indian - Riyadh is yet to begin evicting Pakistani operatives, much less arresting and deporting them to India. In short, this hardly spells the end of Lashkar operations in the Kingdom, though as the previous post observed the terrain there has become somewhat less hospitable.
In the zero-sum world of India-Pakistan relations, Ansari's handover was an unquestionable win for New Delhi. In addition to the intelligence gleaned and validation offered regarding the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India also scored a diplomatic victory, albeit with U.S. support. Amidst the focus on signals intercepts and direct action, U.S. diplomatic engagement is often overlooked. In this instance, Indian officials have confirmed it was critical to securing a favorable outcome.
Finally, this event should cause concern in Islamabad and Rawalpindi about the degree to which continued tolerance of groups like Lashkar is creating unease among even its closest allies. China too has evinced concern - rarely and diplomatically, but nevertheless publicly - about the potential for Pakistan-based militants to threaten its own internal security. Saudi Arabia has now gone a significant step further. Neither country is about to abandon Pakistan, but nor is their commitment to Pakistan as absolute as some of its leaders might publicly claim or privately wish to believe.
Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He recently returned from an extended research trip to South Asia examining internal security issues and is spending the summer at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as a public policy scholar.
MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images
The following article was adapted from the author's recently released report, "Breaking the Bonds Between al-Qa'ida and Its Affiliate Organizations."
The death of Osama bin Ladin and the fall of Arab dictators have left al-Qa'ida's leadership in disarray, its narrative confused, and the organization on the defensive. One silver lining for al-Qaida, however, has been its affiliate organizations. In Iraq, the Maghreb, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere, al-Qa'ida has used local groups to expand its reach, increase its power, and grow its numbers. This string of mergers is not over. In places as diverse as the Sinai Peninsula and Nigeria, al-Qa'ida-linked organizations are emerging. However, the jihadist world is more fractured than it may appear at first glance. Many Salafi-jihadist groups have not joined with al-Qa'ida, and even if they have, tensions and divisions occur that present the United States and its allies with opportunities for weakening the bond.
The role of affiliates is perhaps the most important uncertainty when assessing whether or not the United States and its allies are "winning" the struggle against al-Qa'ida. If affiliates are really part of the al-Qa'ida core, then the overall movement Zawahiri champions is robust and growing. But if the affiliates are al-Qa'ida in little more than name, then Zawahiri's organization, the core of which has been hit hard in recent years, may be close to defeat.
The Rewards and Risks of Affiliation
Al-Qa'ida has always been both a group with its own agenda and a facilitator of other terrorist groups. This meant that it not only carried out its own attacks, but it also helped other jihadist groups with funding, training, and additional logistical essentials. Toward the end of the 1990s, al-Qa'ida incorporated Egyptian Islamic Jihad into its structure. After September 11, 2001, this process of deepening its relationship with outside groups took off, and today a number of regional groups bear the label "al-Qa'ida" in their name, along with a more local designation. Some of the most prominent affiliates include al-Qa'ida of Iraq (AQI), al-Qa'ida of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qa'ida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Shebaab in Somalia.
Groups have joined with the core after losing recruits and popular support and otherwise seeing their original goals frustrated. For much of its history, al-Qa'ida was flush with cash, which made it an attractive partner for other terrorist groups. Al-Qa'ida ran training camps, operated safe houses, and otherwise established a large infrastructure in support of terror that offered local groups a safe haven and created personal networks among those who trained and sheltered there. At times, groups sought to replace their more local brand with that of al-Qa'ida, believing the latter is more compelling. Because groups share havens, training facilities, and so on with al-Qa'ida, when these locations are targeted by U.S. or local government forces, the individuals from these join al-Qa'ida in fighting back.
Having a diverse array of affiliates helps al-Qa'ida extend its reach, gain access to hardened fighters, and fulfill its self-image as the leader of the jihadist community. Today, amid the U.S. drone campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the group, the actions of al-Qa'ida's affiliates can serve as proof of the group's continued strength.
Despite the benefits to joining with al-Qa'ida, not all Salafi-jihadist groups choose to affiliate with it, including Egypt's Gamaat al-Islamiyya and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and fighters in Chechnya, Gaza, and Pakistan, though some individual terrorists from these groups did join up.
Doctrinal disputes divide the jihadist community, and some groups go so far as to declare others to be unbelievers, which has tremendous consequences for how a group chooses its targets, and on a group's popularity. In addition, an ideological divide over issues like targeting civilians has caused a rift among jihadists. Local versus global outlooks have also played a role in keeping some groups from linking up with al-Qa'ida. Even if a group shares al-Qa'ida's goals and ideology, going global brings a host of downsides, particularly the wrath of the United States and other strong powers.
Strains in the Relationship
Different aims and divergent strategies may strain the al-Qa'ida-affiliate relationship. Because al-Qa'ida's affiliates started out with local goals, linking with the al-Qa'ida core and expanding attacks to global targets can make it harder for a group to achieve its original aims. On the flip side, the core's anti-Western brand can become hijacked or contaminated by local struggles. Often, local groups have markedly different convictions from al-Qa'ida, particularly when it comes to nationalism and democracy. Expansion also creates tensions inside and outside the core. As the number of affiliates increases, the overall security of the al-Qa'ida network decreases. In cases where al-Qa'ida sends its own operatives and other non-locals to join an affiliate, these foreign fighters may alienate locals through their personal behavior or attempts to alter local traditions.
These issues, and others, may not only create tension between the core and its affiliates, they may be cause for like-minded groups or prominent jihadists to publicly condemn al-Qa'ida-something that costs al-Qa'ida heavily in terms of prestige, and possibly recruitment.
How to Fight Affiliates Better
Often only a small portion of an affiliate's organization focuses on Western targets and an even smaller portion focuses on operations against Western targets outside the local theater of operations. By lumping an unaffiliated group with al-Qa'ida, the United States can drive it into Zawahiri's arms. It is also important to consider how some Sunni groups like Hamas that act against U.S. interests can still serve to weaken al-Qa'ida.
An information operations campaign can try to widen these gaps within the broader movement, highlighting differences and thus encouraging them. In addition, the foreign nature of al-Qa'ida should be emphasized and local nationalisms used to discredit the jihadis. The United States and its allies should also call attention to al-Qa'ida's unpopular stand against democracy and contrast it with statements by peaceful Salafi leaders, including some former jihadists, in support of elections.
Intelligence services can monitor radicals within diaspora communities and work with law enforcement officials to curtail fundraising for affiliate groups. If the core's money diminishes, the core will be less likely to be able to attract new affiliates to its banner. Moreover, depriving affiliate groups of revenue often leads them to undertake illicit activities to make up the funding shortfall. These actions paint the group as more criminal than heroic.
Washington must also understand how actions its takes in the region may influence the al-Qa'ida-affiliate dynamic. In deciding whether to intervene abroad, for instance, U.S. policymakers should consider, along with other more obvious costs and benefits, how doing so may impact al-Qa'ida affiliation.
Ultimately, there are no simple choices when confronting al-Qa'ida affiliates. On the one hand, ignoring groups until they become affiliates, or ignoring affiliates until they strike at U.S. targets, risks leaving U.S. intelligence and security officials in a defensive and reactive mode and vulnerable to a surprise attack. On the other hand, too aggressive an approach can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, strengthening bonds between al-Qa'ida and other jihadist groups by validating the al-Qa'ida narrative and leading groups to cooperate for self-defense and organizational advancement. So, as with most difficult counterterrorism issues, judgment and prudence are essential
Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, and the Research Director at the Saban Center at Brookings.
MOHAMED MOKHTAR/AFP/Getty Images
There is talk of civil war in the mountains of Khost, the fields of the Helmand River Valley, and on the streets of Kabul. With 2014 looming, Afghans, journalists, diplomats, and military officers alike are wondering what the future holds for this troubled country straddling the Hindu Kush.
Will there be civil war or not? In a recent report I co-authored with Scott Bates for the Center for National Policy, we pointed to civil war and the related problem of security force fragmentation as two of the biggest risks Afghanistan faces. Dexter Filkins penned a persuasive essay in the New Yorker full of vivid details about the factional and ethnic rivalries within the Afghan National Army (ANA) and among its glut of militias. One of his interview subjects memorably remarked:
This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government. Mir Alam will take Kunduz. Atta will take Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum will take Sheberghan. The Karzais will take Kandahar. The Haqqanis will take Paktika. If these things don't happen, you can burn my bones when I die.
Another journalist, Robert Dreyfuss, insists that such dire predictions are foolhardy. Citing Afghanistan's former Ambassador to France and Canada, Omar Samad, he argues that Afghans will look into the abyss, lean back, and compromise.
However, people on both sides of this debate are missing the forest for the trees. This misperception begins with our collective failure to take Afghanistan's history seriously.
We often act and talk as if Afghan history began on 9/11, but our reaction to al Qaeda's attacks was an intervention in a long-standing and still-unresolved civil war.
It began over thirty years ago, when the Khalq faction of the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the regime of President Mohammad Daud Khan in 1978 and instituted a series of far-reaching radical reforms that sparked rebellion across the country. Against their better judgment, the Soviets occupied the country in support of their beleaguered communist allies, inflaming conflict, which saw seven main mujahideen parties supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a host of Arab volunteers pitted against the Soviets and the PDPA, who were also divided into two factions.
The mujahideen parties fought each other almost as much as the infidels. The "national" character of these parties was always a screen for a myriad of local conflicts over water, land, tribe, sect, ethnicity, prestige and power.
The Afghan civil war can be divided into different phases. The first was the nascent period of unorganized rebellion that followed the overthrow of Daud Khan. The second phase witnessed the gradual organization of the rebels into the Peshawar Seven and the introduction of Soviet troops. These troops withdrew in 1989 and the mujahideen parties turned on each other along with various quasi-government militias, marking the third phase. The regime of President Najibullah held onto pockets of the country and Kabul. Then the Afghan security forces buckled as Soviet largess vanished into history. Kabul fell in 1992 and the mujahideen continued to fight each other for supremacy, beginning the fourth phase. The Afghans looked into the abyss and jumped straight in.
The fifth phase saw the Taliban - a movement led by mujahideen veterans - storm through the south, take Kabul, and come to a stalemate with the Northern Alliance, a coalition dominated by members of Jamiat-i-Islami. The sixth phase began with Western intervention and the toppling of the Taliban regime in Kabul in response to 9/11. And the current phase has witnessed a return to rebellion, with the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami, and Jalaluddin Haqqani's network battling the American-supported regime. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency has reprised its role in the Soviet-Afghan War, now sponsoring and directing rebellion against an American-led coalition.
The leaders of the current rebel movements are rooted in the Peshawar Seven. Taliban leader Mullah Omar fought the Soviets in the south as a part of Harakat-i Inqilab-i Islami. Gulbuddin, an old rival of Ahmad Shah Massoud, has been causing trouble ever since he took to throwing acid at the faces of unveiled women and brawling with rival student activists at the University of Kabul in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His Hizb-i-Islami fought Jamiat-i-Islami and others for control of Kabul in the early 1990s. Haqqani cut his teeth fighting Daud Khan in the 1970s and as a mujahideen commander under Mohammad Yunus Khalis in the 1980s.
And we see the same cast of characters elsewhere. The same mujahideen and government officials who were fighting for God and/or country, selling narcotics, and committing atrocities since the 1970s are some of our closest friends and allies in the war's current phase.
There are differences in scale between these phases in terms of ferocity of combat and destruction, flows of internally displaced persons and refugees, as well as the numbers of casualties. Estimates of casualty and, to a lesser extent, refugee figures in the last thirty years of war vary widely.
In 1978, an estimated 40,000 Afghans were killed, followed by 80,000 in 1979. By 1987, less than a decade after the Soviets entered the conflict directly between 1 and 1.5 million Afghans had been killed in the war. This represents about 9% of the entire Afghan population, which is higher proportionally than the deaths suffered by the Soviet Union during World War II. Losses were more than twice as high among refugees, who were often more vulnerable to attack, disease, infection, and starvation than those who remained in their villages. By the Soviet withdrawal, there were 6.2 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan.
During the 1990s, estimates of civilians killed range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands as the mujahideen fought over territory. Much of Kabul was reduced to rubble as various mujahideen commanders fought from neighborhood to neighborhood.
In 2001, different tallies claim somewhere between several thousand and 20,000 Afghans were killed as a result of the American-led intervention. Casualties dipped between 2002 and 2005. Since 2006, over 12,000 Afghan civilians have been killed due to the war. Most of these have been killed by the insurgency. These figures were increasing over the last few years, but have dropped in 2012. Regardless, they still pale in comparison to the 80s and likely the early and mid-1990s as well. More than 5.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2002, but 2.5 million Afghan refugees remain, mostly in neighboring countries.
But war is not only a balance sheet of death and destruction. It is a political activity in which force is assessed to be an appropriate means by which to pursue political interests.
The underlying political disagreements, factional rivalries, toxic personalities, and Pakistani interventions and proxies that have been driving war in Afghanistan remain unresolved. The modern bureaucratic system that Western technocrats have willed into existence has not sufficiently vested Afghans in non-violent politics. Afghanistan is already divided into fiefdoms. An ocean of money and the American-led occupation force are all that holds them all together. Both will soon get much smaller.
So the question of whether or not Afghanistan will devolve into civil war after 2014 is the wrong one. The civil war will, of course, only continue. The question is, what will the next phase look like and how can we shape it for the better?
The greatest risk and most likely outcome is the fragmentation of the Afghan National Security Forces. The biggest danger is posed by the divisions within the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) destabilizing the larger security force institutions. Most of the personnel in both of these forces are deployed in or near their home districts.
And like politics, all civil war is local.
The Nahr-e-Saraj police force in Helmand, for example, is divided between competing narcotics thugs, former Hizb-i-Islami fighters, former communists, and their children all of whom share a history of rivalry, murder, war, and hatred that have barely been contained over the last several years. Different ALP militias in Central Helmand also hail from different factions. Once their special operations mentors withdraw, they may begin to clash with each other, the ANP, and the ANA.
As long as the United States and its allies stay abreast of these factional politics, they can mitigate -- but not avoid -- this fragmentation through proactive in-country diplomacy, firm mentoring, and appropriate mechanisms for the distribution of funding and supplies. ALP militias must be integrated into the Afghan National Police now rather than later. As the ALP force currently stands, it poses an unacceptable risk to the long-term integrity of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
The trouble is, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not been systemically mapping these factional conflicts down to the local level and incorporating this information into their planning. ISAF, the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, and the US Embassy in Kabul should create a large and mobile cell of officers, diplomats, aid officials, analysts. This cell would be tasked with traveling around Afghanistan and achieving a granular understanding of the local conflicts that are driving the war and threaten to tear the ANSF and the country apart.
What will the next phase of civil war hold? How many will die? Despite the thousands dead over the last decade, the current phase pales in comparison to the 80s and early 90s. Afghans may come to remember the last ten years as the orange slice in the middle of the soccer match. Some in Washington and London have vested hope in negotiations, but there is little evidence for optimism on that front.
Afghanistan is no longer a counterinsurgency problem. Most foreign troops will be heading for the exits over the next two years. Only by taking its politics and history seriously down to the local level will we be able to help ensure sufficient stability as the International Security Assistance Force itself becomes history.
Ryan Evans is a Research Fellow at the Center for National Policy.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
It is generally
believed in the West that military action can resolve the terrorism problem in
the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region as well as help efforts to thwart
violent radicalism throughout the region. This idea, while sounding sensible
when peering at Pakistan from the outside, misses an important reality on the
ground: according to a new
report released today by the Asia Society, it is the domestic police force
that can best root out terror networks, find and disable their financial
support, and even manage de-radicalization programs in association with local
When faced with a serious internal security crisis, it is crucial that a state pursue reform that entails capacity building not just in the military and civilian government, but within the law enforcement sector. Pakistan is a case in point. The state is facing a variety of internal security challenges that are severely limiting its citizens' potential as well as creating tension between neighbors and potential allies abroad. Without police and law enforcement reform, stability is likely to continue eluding Pakistan.
Meaningful reform is not going to be an easy endeavor. A high number of terrorist attacks and increasingly troubling crime patterns tell the story of a state under siege. An increase in targeted killings of political and religious leaders, attacks on armed forces and police, kidnapping for ransom by the Taliban, and ‘mob justice' incidents show just how daunting the challenges for the police have become. Pakistan's efforts to combat crime and to counter terrorist activities are being outpaced by the innovation and agility of criminal networks and protean terrorist organizations. Radicalized elements within the political and religious spheres further complicate security challenges.
One might assume that, as a result, the government of Pakistan has prioritized reform of the police and other law enforcement agencies, allocating budgets accordingly. This simply is not the case. A lack of resources, poor training facilities, insufficient and outmoded equipment, entrenched corruption, and political interference mar law enforcement institutions throughout the country. Still, the police force is one of the country's few institutions in which internal reform is actually underway. This struggle merits attention and needs support.
Interestingly, the international support provided to Pakistan for antiterrorism operations in the last decade was largely geared towards the defense sector, and very little of that ever reached police. This created a situation in which military control trumped local knowledge and know-how. . A balanced approach is needed to help Pakistan tackle both internal and external challenges more effectively.
Few know that Pakistan is among the top five police-contributing countries to the United Nations over the last decade, and the professional performance of Pakistani officers in UN peacekeeping operations is rated highly. However, Pakistan has no mechanism in place to utilize the services of these officers in such a way that police institutions in-country might benefit from this experience. Many Pakistani police officers were successful in getting Fulbright scholarships and Hubert Humphrey fellowships in the United States in recent years as well. Thus, there is a lot of untapped potential in the country that can help transform the law enforcement institutions.
This week, Asia Society is releasing a report by an independent commission on police reforms in Pakistan that includes contributions from many seasoned and reputed Pakistani police officers, as well as a few American scholars and experts. The report recommends a host of reform measures, with a few key points being:
1. In the face of increased terrorist attacks specifically targeting Pakistan's police, the force has rendered many sacrifices. Two of Pakistan's best police officers - Safwat Ghayur and Malik Saad - died at the hands of suicide bombers. Stories like these demand proper media attention to help drive reform.
2. Focused and targeted international help can play a significant role in enhancing the capacity of Pakistan's law enforcement structure to fight crime as well as terrorism. Technical assistance, training, and modern equipment top this list. Creation of regional mechanisms for sharing of information about organized crime and terrorist networks can enhance Pakistan's standing in the international arena in turn increasing the prospects of such support.
3. The government of Pakistan must provide police with critical technology such as independent facilities for the interception of terrorists' communications, mobile-tracking systems, and telephone call data analysis. Better coordination between police, intelligence organizations and the private sector can make this possible.
4. Legal reform to provide for an effective witness protection system, changes in anti-terrorism law to broaden its scope and a simpler procedure for admissibility of modern types of evidence (e.g., cell phone call data) will strengthen the broader criminal justice system in the country.
5. An improvement in working conditions and salaries and changes to organizational culture would help to create a force that is respected by the people and thus be more effective in maintaining security and stability. The success of the National Highways and Motorway Police is particularly instructive in this respect.
Evidence suggests that a law enforcement model, which by its very nature is linked to rule of law as well as democracy, offers the best bet to confront the menace of terrorism, transnational crime, as well as insurgencies. Placing a priority on law enforcement reform can help Pakistan in more ways than one.
Hassan Abbas is Senior Advisor at Asia Society and Editor of the report "Stabilizing Pakistan Through Police Reforms" being launched by Asia Society on July 24, 2012. He is also Professor at National Defense University's College of International Security Affairs.
This is the third in a series of four posts examining the lessons and implications drawn from the arrest of Zabiuddin Ansari, who played a key role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The first examined the variegated nature of the jihadist threat confronting India today. The second explored the impact of Ansari's revelations regarding the persistence of that threat as well as his affirmation of Indian allegations regarding the Mumbai attacks on the renewed India-Pakistan engagement.
As previous posts made clear, Zabiuddin Ansari is likely providing Indian authorities with all manner of information, which will be picked over and analyzed during the coming months. One fact is immediately clear, however, and that is the Pakistan security establishment remains unwilling to end its support for non-state proxies. In the absence of a policy that succeeds in convincing, cajoling or compelling Pakistan to change its behavior, it has become essential to devise mechanisms to mitigate the external threats from Pakistan-based and Pakistan-supported militants. Even if Pakistan were to make an unambiguous effort to dismantle the militant infrastructure on its soil, such mechanisms would still be necessary in the near term. While a host of states have pursued unilateral measures, calls for international cooperation to manage these threats have also increased. Ansari's story illustrates the importance of this cooperation as well as its limits.
The U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism is more than a decade old, but counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries really accelerated after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The U.S. government only began paying greater attention to Lashkar and its Indian affiliates in the wake of those attacks, while American forensic assistance to India in building a strong case that they were planned in Pakistan catalyzed a willingness in New Delhi to work more closely with Washington. In addition to infusing the U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism with new life, the two countries also launched a Homeland Security Dialogue Ministerial in May 2011. Although ample room still exists for improvement, officials in both countries agree that cooperation has increased during the last few years.
Crucially, in the last several years, the United States, India, and the United Kingdom all took steps to facilitate counterterrorism efforts in Bangladesh. Lashkar has networks throughout South Asia and stretching into East Asia, but Bangladesh has historically been the most important staging ground for attacks against India. The group began building up its networks there in the mid-1990s, and Indian operatives played an important role in this effort from the outset. The growth of the indigenous Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) provided another mechanism for supporting attacks in India, which other Pakistan-based groups (including the original HuJI) could attempt to leverage for this purpose as well. Even more important than its role as a staging point for attacks, Bangladesh became an important place of refuge for Indian operatives as well as a transit point to and from Pakistan for men, material, and money. Ansari was among those who took advantage of its role in this regard, fleeing to Bangladesh in 2006 before ultimately moving on to Pakistan.
Since the mid-1990s, control of the government in Dhaka has alternated between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, with a military caretaker government in place from late 2006 through early 2009. The Awami League historically has been friendlier to India and less tolerant of Islamist-cum-jihadist actors than the BNP, but at different times both parties have been guilty of turning a blind eye to jihadist activities aimed at India.
Bangladeshi authorities began cracking down on domestic jihadists like HuJI-B after 2005 when some of them launched a series of bomb blasts across the country. In 2008, the Awami League won a landslide election in which it campaigned on closer ties with India and a promised crackdown on Islamist militancy. Meanwhile, New Delhi was reaching out to improve relations with Dhaka, while the United States offered valuable military and counterterrorism assistance as part of its push to degrade jihadist networks in South Asia. In 2009-2010, Bangladesh counterterrorism efforts expanded to include foreign elements as well. Indian, Bangladeshi, British, and American interlocutors with whom the author met during a recent visit to Dhaka all stressed that since 2010 Bangladesh has become less hospitable terrain. Officials from India and Bangladesh also agreed that counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries coupled with U.S. assistance contributed to this improvement, a view shared by independent experts.
The Persian Gulf, however, has remained fertile soil in terms of a support base for South Asian militancy. U.S. counterterrorism efforts vis-à-vis the Gulf have focused primarily on terrorist threat financing, which is understandable given that a host of jihadist groups rely heavily on fundraising networks there. What is often overlooked is the role the Gulf can play as a logistical and recruitment hub; for Lashkar, its Indian affiliates, and other Pakistan-based groups interested in launching attacks against India. For these reasons, this author has maintained that in terms of containing and degrading the threat from South Asian militancy, particularly Lashkar and its Indian affiliates, greater focus needs to be given to monitoring and infiltrating Gulf-based networks that could be used to recruit operatives or provide logistical support for terrorist attacks.
Recruitment efforts typically focus on Indian Muslims working in the region as part of a diaspora presence that numbers over 1 million. The presence of a Pakistani diaspora, coupled with the large number of South Asians who travel annually to Saudi Arabia for legitimate religious purposes, enables militants to blend in with the masses and makes the Gulf an opportune place for operatives to meet. Several Pakistan-based militant groups have ties with Saudi Arabia dating back to the 1980s, while the Indian crime boss-cum-terrorist Dawood Ibrahim, currently sheltering in Pakistan, has provided access to additional networks in places such as the United Arab Emirates. Finally, Riyadh's close relationship with Islamabad meant that anyone found engaging in militant activities was simply sent back to Pakistan provided he was traveling on a Pakistani passport. That is, until Zabiuddin Ansari's arrest in May 2011.
Ansari's arrest and subsequent deportation is an example of how such cooperation should work and the impact it can have. As typically is the case, the details of precisely how Ansari's presence was detected in Saudi Arabia are somewhat opaque. It appears he used an alias known to Indian intelligence to set up a website to inveigle new recruits, but according to Indian officials with whom the author spoke, it was U.S. intelligence that initially zoomed in on him. If so, this suggests that information sharing between the two countries coupled with U.S. capabilities to monitor Internet traffic led to his identification. It is clear that once Ansari's identity was confirmed, the United States asked Saudi authorities to detain him, and then worked in tandem with their Indian counterparts to ensure he was not returned to Pakistan despite carrying a passport from that country. It was more than a year before Ansari was turned over to the Indian authorities.
Saudi Arabia's willingness to deport Ansari to India came despite significant Pakistani protestations - a decision which will be explored in the final post of this series. Three points are important here. First, to reiterate, Ansari's identification, arrest and subsequent deportation to India were the result of greater international counterterrorism cooperation. Second, Ansari appears to be providing Indian authorities with a trove of intelligence about Lashkar and IM operations in Pakistan, India, and possibly the Gulf, which they have pledged to share with the United States This is likely to enable additional monitoring and infiltration of Lashkar and IM networks as well as assisting ongoing investigations. Third, the fact that the Gulf is no longer a guaranteed safe space for operations could have an impact on how militants conduct activities there.
None of this spells the end of the threat posed by Lashkar, the Indian Mujahideen, or other militants based in Pakistan. Bangladesh is a far less viable logistical hub than in the past, but gains there are reversible without continued vigilance. Further, although Ansari's arrest and deportation is significant, the Gulf has not suddenly become a no-go area. Finally, international cooperation is primarily a means of threat containment and mitigation. It is no substitute for action in Pakistan. Such a policy shift is unlikely in the near term, but in addition to reducing the efficacy of Pakistan-based or supported militants, international cooperation should send a message to Pakistan that it risks inviting further isolation.
Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He recently returned from an extended research trip to South Asia examining internal security issues and is spending the summer at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as a public policy scholar.
we lose, it's going to be because of the civilians."
This pre-emptive attempt to define the epitaph of the Afghanistan war (made by a U.S. official at NATO) could almost be the one-line summary of Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America. The author himself spreads the blame even wider. "Our government was incapable of meeting the challenge. Our generals and diplomats were too ambitious and arrogant. Our uniformed and civilian bureaucracies were rife with internal rivalries... Our development experts were inept. Our leaders were distracted."
Little America is a well-researched, clearly-written exposé of the debates, disputes and political skullduggery between those involved in the Afghanistan "surge" in 2009. I found it easy to read: it mixes together comedy, tragedy, suspense and political analysis.
It is inevitably influenced by the people who talked to the author, who include (to judge from the endnotes) a large number of people in or close to the U.S. military; military perspectives predominate. And the losers in the book are more numerous than the winners.
Loser: Little America. It turns out that this project, intended to revitalize Afghanistan's agriculture in Helmand in the 1950s, essentially failed. The story of its failure -- over-ambitious, overfunded projects unsuited to Afghan realities -- is eerily prescient.
Loser: The Afghan Army, which comes across as badly-led and inept. "It's better for us," an Afghan soldier tells Chandrasekaran, "to let the Americans chase the Taliban."
Loser: The civilian surge. The image of drunken party-goers urinating against the outer wall of the U.S. Embassy's political section is hard to forget. But there is a lot of truth in the broader, more serious point. Security rules stopped civilians from engaging with Afghans, making the civilians' presence in Afghanistan in the first place a very expensive exercise in futility.
Loser: USAID. Chandrasekaran describes its bizarre war against the sensible, if
short-term, idea of combating drugs production by subsidising alternative
crops. "Their thinking is all about free trade," a USAID official is quoted
saying about the agency's management. "But what about the goal of keeping
people from shooting at our troops?"
Loser: The Brits and the Canadians. I thought this was going to happen as soon as I read the sentence "British commanders planned to show the Americans... how the pros executed counterinsurgency". As ever, pride came before a fall. By the end of the book, the British are suffering casualties at a higher proportion than the Americans, and are not too proud to ask the Marines for help. The Canadians, who preferred to run Kandahar with far fewer troops than the British and without Marine help, also come in for criticism. (As Chandrasekaran hints, the underlying problem was the original decision that provinces of Afghanistan should each be farmed out to separate NATO allies. Surely, the reader might think, there could have been a better way for NATO allies to work together than this.)
Loser: The chain of command. A U.S. company commander was transferred to a desk job as a punishment. His crime? Posting up remarks made by General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. This was apparently an unwise move in a brigade whose commander disagreed with McChrystal's approach. And that wasn't the only time that McChrystal was thwarted by technically more junior staff. The Marines were largely outside his control, thanks to a deal they had made with the Pentagon prior to their deployment to Afghanistan (they reported to a separate, three-star general at US Central Command). McChrystal, despite nominally being the most senior military officer in Afghanistan, wasn't even able to shut down fast-food restaurants at the Kandahar Airfield, which he felt were distractions in a warzone.
Loser: President Obama, whose decision to surge and withdraw comes across as the worst of all worlds - not giving Afghans any reassurance that the Taliban would not come back in a few years' time, while meantime costing tens of billions of dollars and reducing pressure on the Afghan Army to do its job properly. "To many Afghans...more troops meant more insecurity," Chandrasekaran suggests. The book also makes the case that the President was ill-served by bickering among his senior staff.
Winner: The warlords and their militias - presented by Chandrasekaran as brutal and exploitative, but also as effective fighters against the Taliban. Take Spin Boldak police chief Abdul Razziq's militia: "Unlike Afghan army units, many of which needed to be prodded and led into battle, Razziq's troops charged right in."
Winner: Joe Biden, whose proposal of "counterterrorism-plus" in Afghanistan looks to have been dead on. Raids against Taliban commanders could still have continued without pinning down tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the field day after day.
Turning the pages of this book, I felt that I was reading the obituary of muscular nation-building. Chandrasekaran's conclusion suggests not only that America has failed in Afghanistan, but that it was bound to fail. "It wasn't America's war," he concludes.
the reduction in the Pentagon's budget and a shift to East Asia - where the
United States is less likely to get directly involved in combat -
Afghanistan-style interventions may indeed be things of the past. And it's hard
to feel sorry about it after reading this sentence:
"The United States was spending more each year to keep Marine battalions in Nawa and Garmser than it was providing the entire nation of Egypt in military and development assistance."
Nawa and Garmser: population, 160,000; remote agricultural communities; few from the area have ever travelled outside it. Egypt: population, 85 million; highly urbanised and connected by direct flights to the USA; birthplace of modern Islamic militancy and of the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
We need not stop at Nawa and Garmser. The whole operation in Afghanistan departed far from its original objectives, which were to deal a blow to al-Qaeda and reduce its chances of attacking America again. The United States could surely have dealt al-Qaeda a greater blow with the half a trillion dollars that it has spent in Afghanistan, if it had spent a large part of that money elsewhere (Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Mali...). As this book implies, it would have done a better job in Afghanistan, too, if it had spent less money and been more focused on its original goal.
That is what makes me just a little bit more optimistic about Afghanistan than Chandrasekaran. He is giving the war in Afghanistan a fail grade: it was winnable, he says, but the West lost it -- and maybe was bound to lose it, because we just aren't configured to conduct and win such campaigns.
This may be premature. Public discontent with the war and President Obama's determination to pull back combat troops will likely now force a move to a new kind of U.S. presence in Afghanistan -- one that is small-scale, out of the faces of Afghan civilians, and long-term. It may or may not be enough to save Afghanistan from a renewed plunge into civil war; it will almost certainly set a limit on Taliban ambitions and make them keep their distance from al-Qaeda. It makes a great deal more sense than the Sisyphean labors that the United States has set itself for the last six years or so.
Gerard Russell headed the U.K. Government's
outreach efforts to Muslim audiences worldwide after September 11, 2001. He
subsequently worked as a diplomat in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, where
he headed the U.K. Government's political team. He was a Research Fellow at
Harvard 2009-10 and is writing a book on religious minorities in the Middle
East, to be published by Basic Books in 2013/14. He is fluent in Dari and Arabic.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst and the editor of the AfPak Channel, sat down with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a senior correspondent and associate editor at the Washington Post, to talk about his new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. Listen here as they discuss whether the American surge strategy worked, the factors hampering Afghanistan's development, Richard Holbrooke's impact on peace talks with the Taliban, and the state of those talks today.
This video was originally published by the New America Foundation here.
The reported killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi in a U.S. drone strike on the morning of June 4 in the town of Mir Ali, North Waziristan, if confirmed, is a significant loss for Al-Qaeda Central (AQC), and comes at a tumultuous time for the militant organization. U.S. government officials announced a day after the missile strike that Abu Yahya, whose real name is Hasan Muhammad Qa'id, had been killed, though official confirmation has not yet come from AQC itself. Within the organization Abu Yahya served as its chief juridical voice, whose job was to justify, support, and defend its ideological positions. He was also at the forefront of the global jihadi movement as one of the juridical and ideological architects of AQC's positions, particularly vis-à-vis the Pakistani government and military. Abu Yahya's influence extends to AQC's regional affiliates such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Al-Shabab in Somalia. The United Nations Security Council noted in September 2011 when it added him to its sanctions list that he was also a key strategist and field commander for AQC in Afghanistan. His loss would be a significant blow to both AQC and the wider transnational jihadi current.