A New Al Qaeda Strategy?

On Friday, March 27, President Obama announced his plans for Afghanistan focusing on the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  “The situation is increasingly perilous,” he said. He also warned that al Qaeda “is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.”  He added: “We have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”  Obama will deploy 4,000 more troops in addition to the 17,000 he has already commited adding up to more than 60,000 troops.  Expenditures will increase about 60% above the current $2 billion a month to about $3.2 billion a month.  The 82nd Airborne Division, rather than reservists, will act as trainers to double the Afghan army to 134,000 by 2011.  He also called for a dramatic increase in US development assistance for both countries, significantly increased US civilian presence on the ground and a five year program for Pakistan of $1.5 billion a year.  Finally, he said that we would establish benchmarks as we had done in Iraq over the past two years. 

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it is no surprise since the team that gave you Iraq over the past two years is the same team that is now in charge in Afghanistan. While we have certainly made progress in Iraq and the team deserves considerable credit for the change, the question is whether or not the same medicine will work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The conditions are quite different.  The topography in Waziristan and Afghanistan is a terrorist’s dream compared to the topography in Iraq.  The tribal culture is far more intense and tightly knit in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq.  The poverty level is considerably greater in Afghanistan and the educational level lower.  If you want to fuel terrorism, what you need is poverty and money.  And the Taliban has both.  The money comes from the drug trade, the poverty is a given.  And with money, you can buy support and corrupt the institutions of government that could stand against you. 

One wonders whether or not with $3.2 billion a month we could not outspend, out-corrupt and out-buy the Taliban.  That is not the way we want to operate, but until we can dry up the Taliban and al-Qaeda financial resources and immunize the local population from the Taliban’s bribary and barbarity, it is hard to see how we will be able to develop the system of intelligence and local reporting that can defeat our enemies.  NATO continues to be divided on how to deal with the Opium industry since it is the lifeblood of so many Afghanis.  But unless we can come up with an effective strategy for strangling Taliban and al-Qaeda resources, any gains we may make are likely to be subject to reversal.

But lets look on the positive side.  Let’s say we are fully effective and we can blunt the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the question I have to ask is whether or not we will have solved the problem of al Qaeda? There are some clues that are worrisome.

March 17, 2009, Yemeni security authorities said that a suicide bomber who killed four South Korean tourists in Yemen was trained in Somalia.  Acording to a Reuters report, tens of thousands of Somali refugees arrive in Yemen each year while the Yemen government fights an insurgency in the north putting Yemen at risk of becoming a failed state.  Yemen’s problems could then spill over into Saudi Arabia.  Yemen authorities have rounded up dozens of militants linked to al-Qaeda.

On March 18, 2009 another man blew himself up in Yemen trying to attack South Korean investigators.  These attacks followed calls by Al Qaeda leaders for attacks on non-Muslim foreigners in the Arabian Peninsula.

On February 25 the press reported that Islamist militants in Somalia have rejected any compromise and will fight until Somalia is a strict Islamist state.  Meanwhile educated Somalis are leaving the country in droves.

On March 25 the press reported that a tape released by the al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahri called on the Sudanese to undertake jihad against the “crusade” being orchestrated by the West against Sudan. 

In January 2009 the press reported that a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Abu Sayyaf al-Shihri, released to Saudi Arabia, had shown up in Yemen as the deputy leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch.

According to the Timesonline in July 2008, success in Iraq against al-Qaeda has led the terrorists to flee to Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Thailand with the largest contingent going to North Africa.  An arc of terror is taking shape in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, according to the article. 

There is more, but on the face of it, victory in Iraq has led to an enhanced al-Qaeda presence in failed states where Islamic fundamentalism has taken root and training facilities can sustain a steady conveyor belt of suicide bombers and fighters. So the question is, can we afford to focus all our attention and resources on Pakistan and Afghanistan while al-Qaeda turns its attention to the more accommodating environments of failed states?  In short, can we afford to turn our backs on Darfur, Somalia, Yemen and a number of other states that are at risk?