I’m republishing this debate as a result of Obama’s cravenly and strategically foolish action to withdraw from Afghanistan without securing the country from future attacks by the Taliban and preventing its fall into the net of radical Islam.
For those who think we need to redouble our efforts to “win” the war in Afghanistan, I take it they mean we need to do whatever it takes, militarily and financially, to build a stable Afghan state run and headed by a secure and US-friendly government. I have two problems with this idea. First, I tend to doubt that the US has the wherewithal to accomplish such a goal in such a rugged, decentralized and forbidding country – no matter how much our surge surges. The whole idea seems fantastical.
Second, I don’t see how even achieving this fantastical aim would really help with the Al Qaeda issue, since I find it hard to believe that any Afghan government that we can realistically imagine taking shape will have the capacity to prevent Al Qaeda elements from gathering in remote locations and forming bases. As a basis for comparison, can we realistically imagine an Afghan government with even half the capacity of a state like Pakistan? Hardly. And yet Pakistan itself is not in control of large swaths of its country. Pursuing the quixotic state-building plans of the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is a distraction from the methods that actually work.
My understanding is that we have been engaged in a global campaign against jihadist terrorism for several years now, and the main practical method is to rely on intelligence to stay one step ahead of the folks who actually pose a threat, and then disrupt their efforts, kill their leaders and interdict their operations. We’re probably going to have to keep doing that sort of thing for quite some time, just as the effort against organized crime in the US never really ends. If Al Qaeda cadres build some kind of training base in Afghanistan, we go in and blow it up. If they build another one, we blow that one up too. We use predators and covert methods. The same is true of al Qaeda redoubts in Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen, right? We are going to have to do this no matter what kind of government we get in Kabul.
I can’t believe that at this late date American political leaders and opinion leaders are still deluded by the theory that the chief enabling cause of terrorism is “state sponsorship”, and so that our aim is to manufacture strong states where none exist now. This seems wrong-headed to me. I’ve used this analogy before, but the militant jihadist movement seems something like the anarchist movement of a century ago. Parts of that movement were violent. Was the solution some sort of state-building process in Europe and the United States? No. There were already strong states in Europe and the US. But it is of the nature of terrorist groups to slip between the cracks in the sovereign power of states.
Anarchist terrorism was basically a law and order problem. The idea was just to stay ahead of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks, and outlast the movement as its ideological fervor gradually dissipated and it burned itself out.
We should never have gotten involved in state building in Afghanistan. Now we have a generation of American leaders who are invested in that project, and see their personal honor and the national honor as riding on its very unlikely success. They need to get real.
Ben Katcher’s intellectually malodorous, and disingenuous, argument has reached the other shores of the Pacific. While he claims that “pouring more troops…into Afghanistan means fewer resources to pursue our other national security objectives across the globe,” he does not mention any of them by name other than the economic crisis mentioned by Dennis Blair. Hence his statement that “strategy is about priorities and trade-offs,” while true in general, is a contrived fiction when he applies it to international terrorism since these other priorities remain nameless. The reason why he does not name them is that if he had identified these priorities and contrasted them with the priority of global terror he would embarrass himself for being ludicrous.
Dan Kervick’s paragraph that contains “we use predators and covert methods,” which incidentally is an idea that I suggested myself too eight years ago, is very interesting although he contradicts himself further down on his post when he contrasts present terror with anarchist terror in the past and says for the latter that it “was basically a law and order problem,” which he first ventilated in a riposte to me on TWN three years ago. Surely, Kervick, who has learnt his logic by sitting in the spacious intellectual laps of Hume and Russel, could not cogently argue that “predators and covert methods” fall in the ambience of “law and order.”
“Surely, Kervick, who has learnt his logic by sitting in the spacious intellectual laps of Hume and Russel, could not cogently argue that “predators and covert methods” fall within the ambience of “law and order.””
I do. When I say that terrorism is a law and order problem, I don’t mean that the only tools to be used are the methods of the criminal justice system. Those latter tools have proven effective in many cases, including operations interdicted in the UK and Canada. But given the limits of applying these tools across borders and inside rugged countries, sometimes more aggressive means must be employed. What I mean is that terrorism is fundamentally a problem of a limited number of militant “outlaws”, and that the strategy for addressing it should focus on that fact, rather than be distracted by extravagant projects for state improvement and state overhaul.
What I am most skeptical of is the idea that the problem of terrorism is a conventional military problem that calls for the use of conventional military operations – in the form of armies, invasions and occupations – against either states or sub-national “armies”. And I am especially skeptical of the idea that the way to address the problem of terrorism is to launch massive – and generally very unrealistic – state-building operations in the hope that some day the dangerous backward parts of the world will be filled with well-functioning and capable states that will be able to suppress all of the militants operating inside their territories.
There are other means that need to be used as well, including denying the terrorists the ideological foothold that multiplies their influence and capability. That means not doing so many things that provide evidence of the very charges the terrorists make. To counter jihadist charges that the United States is hostile to the interests of Arabs and Muslims across the world the United States should stop behaving as if it is indeed universally hostile to the interests of Arabs and Muslims.
“When I say that terrorism is a law and order problem, I don’t mean that the only tools to be used are the methods of the criminal justice system.”
Your quote states the obvious. Of course one does not fight terrorism only with police methods but the question is out of all the methods which are the most effective by which one can defeat the jihadists. And while your paragraph in your previous post that mentions “predators” and all the other ‘hard things’ that one has perforce to do against the jihadists is full of strategic clarity, by reverting back to your old argument of three years ago that the present terrorists are similar to the anarchist terrorists of the past and can be interdicted by ‘police’ methods, you unconsciously downgrade the seriousness of your ‘hard things’ position.
Moreover, you are locked in the fallacy of a rational person who premises his actions that his enemies that ‘round’ him up are also rational and if he shows by his actions, in our case America, that he is not against Arabs and Muslims this will bring a definitive change in the attitudes of the jihadists. This is a ‘straightjacket’ delusion that has lost all contact with reality. Islamic fanaticism will not be influenced, soothed, abated, or defeated by moral examples or olive branches but only in the field of battle and that is why a military deployment against it is a prerequisite. In short, it’s just another but more effective method in defeating the jihadists in a shorter span of time.
I’m talking about the hearts and minds issue. There is a hard core of dyed-in-the-wool militant jihadists with an uncompromising Salafist ideology. They are not going to be swayed by US public diplomacy, or by forseeable changes in US policy. They can only be dealt with forcibly. They must either be captured or killed, and their plans must be disrupted.
But the hard core is surrounded by concentric circles of people who are associated with the hard core by various degrees of fellow-travelling or sympathizing or onlooking. The extent to which the jihadists are able to expand their movement to get material or moral assistance from people in the out rings depends on how well their message resonates.
In my view, the jihadists have been the beneficiaries in recent years of a number of wrong-headed US policies that help their message resonate strongly. If hundreds of innocent people in Gaza have their lives snuffed out in an over-the-top Israeli attack, some as a result of deliberate crimes, with nary a peep from the US Congress, then when your friendly neighborhood jihadist says, “Muslims lives mean nothing to the Americans,” that message is going to get much more play on the street than it would if the US Congress had stepped up and condemned the excessive use of force.
Certainly the “hearts and minds issue” is a core issue. But the “concentric circles of people,” will not be influenced by US Congress pronouncements and condemnations, in this case of Israeli actions, if they perceive, which they will, that this change of American policy arises from the weakness of the latter and from the strength of the “hard core” “militant jihadists” in their war with the US. The concentric circles of support for the militants will only disappear by depriving the latter of the ‘aura’ of being seen as the victors (The ethos of Arab pride trumps all.) against the American hegemon. And that entails the imminent and decisive defeat of the militants in the field of battle, as it happened in Iraq to the Sadrist militias and al Qaeda.
Furthermore, your concentrated reasoning loses its force if your policy contains these two incongruous parts: The first one will destroy by predators and covert operations (Which will be seen in the Muslim world as American excesses) the incubators of “Salafist ideology”, which are the madrassas, while the second, will denounce American and Israeli excesses. Do you seriously believe that such denunciation will have greater influence upon fellow-travellers and sympathisers, than the destruction of the madrassas in which many civilians will be killed, and will win their hearts and minds?
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