Global Terrorist Whack-A-Mole

While I’ve been somewhat sympathetic to the Obama Administration’s desire to limit “safe havens” — particularly through the use of Predator drones — for terrorists abroad, I think this article in the New York Times today evinces some of the folly of this particular strategy.

WASHINGTON — American officials say they are seeing the first evidence that dozens of fighters with Al Qaeda, and a small handful of the terrorist group’s leaders, are moving to Somalia and Yemen from their principal haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In communications that are being watched carefully at the Pentagon, the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency, the terrorist groups in all three locations are now communicating more frequently, and apparently trying to coordinate their actions, the officials said.

Obviously, terrorists on the run are terrorists who are less likely to hatch a plot successfully against the United States, but as I was reading the article on the train this morning, I thought sarcastically to myself (it was hilarious), “well here come the drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia.” But then reading further in the article, I learned there’s some indication that’s exactly what the Administration intends to do.

But the emergence of new havens, from which Al Qaeda and its affiliates could plot new attacks, raises difficult questions for the United States on how to combat the growing threat, and creates the possibility that increased missile strikes are in the offing in Yemen and Somalia.

Now, in fairness, the report doesn’t credit an official with raising this specific possibility, but it would seem fairly random to include speculation with no basis in truth whatsoever. In any event, it’s hard to see this strategy bearing fruit in the long term. That is, the world as a truly enormous place, and a fair number of terrorists are going to be able to elude capture if they so desire and I’m not so sure whether it’s worth the cost to be playing global whack-a-mole. After all, the 9/11 attacks were planned in Germany and carried out in the United States, not incubated in “safe havens” and launched from abroad. Of course, there’s obviously value in disrupting organizational and infrastructural systems, but I’m not sure how clear the value is when you consider that this is precisely the reason terrorists operate in cells.

Anyway, it seems to me there’s a definite tipping point where the cost and time spent chasing terrorists around the globe fails to match the benefit. I’m not sure when exactly that is, but I’d guess actions that might further destabalize places like Somalia are a good place to start looking. Ultimately, the fight against terrorists will be won politically.

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Terrorists and Space

Responding to this piece in the New York Times about concerns in the Administration that al Qaeda will be ramping up “domestic” terror in Pakistan and the danger posed to America by territorial gains, Matt Yglesias says this:

I’m not sure I understand the relationship between “territorial gains” and “freedom to plot attacks.” You need a lot of territory to raise cattle or build a parking lot. But plotting doesn’t strike me as a particularly space-intensive activity. When the ThinkProgress team gets together to plot, we usually do it in a small confined space. More generally, the entire safe haven concept strikes me as overrated. The 9/11 attacks were primarily plotted in Hamburg. A terrorist in the Swat Valley is, by definition, not in a position to blow something up in a western city.

This makes some obvious sense, but I think it’s also probably true that the more space in which groups like al Qaeda can safely operate, the more difficult it will be to gather intelligence, which on some level, probably makes the world less safe for Americans. To use Matt’s example, it might be true that ThinkProgress plots in a small, confined space — and I imagine al Qaeda’s similarly nefarious ends are met the same way — but if you were looking to restrict ThinkProgress’ ability to plan, you’d be well served by limiting the number of spaces in which ThinkProgress can meet safely. It’s a lot easier to monitor a group’s activity when you have a very good sense of where the group is based. The more specific, the better.

Eating Soup With A Knife

There’s a disquieting article today in the New York Times describing a Red Cross account of “dozens of civilians, including women and children, [who] have been killed during bombing raids by United States forces in western Afghanistan.” Now, I understand that wars are prone to collateral damage, and that it would almost preternaturally naive to expect a civillian casualty free effort, but I think this latest miscalculation speaks to the tension underlying the Af-Pak mission, and COIN more generally. That is, COIN requires “population security” as its “first requirement of success”,  so even on a superficial level, it’s difficult to see how one accomplishes this when calling airstrikes on villages. More importantly though, it’s worth thinking about the reason that population security is critical in successful counterinsurgency: namely, to allow space for the development of civil society. This is, of course, tacit acknowledgment that insurgencies arise from political grievances, and that their ultimate resolution can arise only from political reconciliation. Obviously, this is something that both sides understand, but is also unquestionably the most arduous part of the mission, and indeed, might be hamstrung by politicians in the United States before it begins in earnest.

I suppose the bottom line here is that I’m not particularly sanguine about our prospects in the “Af-Pak” region, and though it’s probably too late, I think these realities warranted asking questions about the strategic objectives in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Speculation on Crazy Strategy

I want to first state that this is entirely speculative but I was struck by something in this distressing article in the New York Times about growing collaboration between Pashtun and Taliban militants in Pakistan:

As American drone attacks disrupt strongholds of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, the insurgents are striking deeper into Pakistan — both in retaliation and in search of new havens.

At first, I was sort of baffled by the sentence construction. That is, it seems more accurate to paint the relationship between the growing insurgency in Pakistan’s inner territories and drone attacks on the frontier regions as more directly causal, which would point to an unintended consequence of the Obama Administration’s escalation of drone attacks in Pakistan. But — and here’s where it’s entirely speculative part — what if this part of the long term strategy? What if the strategy is forcing the Pakistani government — traditionally a cagey and intractible ally in this regard — to deal with the insurgent threat by helping deliver it on the government’s doorstep? It would seem to be a pretty risky gambit, and probably too clever, but it would help create a political situation more congenial with the U.S. ultimate aim in the region.

Anyway, I sort of doubt this is the strategy, and is basically a long way of saying it seems like we ought to reconsider the efficacy of these drone attacks.

Diversionary Tactics

An interesting hypothesis I’ve been meaning to write but just haven’t. Ahmed Rashid, for BBC, beats me to the punch:

The group that attacked Mumbai may well include some Pakistanis, but it is more likely to be an international terrorist force put together by al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taleban, who are besieged by the Pakistan army on one side and a rain of missiles being launched by US forces in Afghanistan against their hideouts on the other.

Al-Qaeda is looking for some relief and a diversion.

What better way to do so than by provoking the two old enemies – India and Pakistan – with a terrorist attack that diverts attention away from the tribal areas?

Such a move would force Pakistani troops back to the Indian border while simultaneously pre-occupying US and Nato countries in hectic diplomacy to prevent the region exploding.

A diversion such as this would preserve extremist sanctuaries along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and would provide militants with a much needed respite – especially considering that in the next few months President-elect Barak Obama is due to send an additional 20,000 US troops to Afghanistan, backed by more Nato troops.

What’s more, recognizing the likelihood of this motivation can provide a meaningful platform for Pakistani-Indian rapprochement. Meanwhile, I’m not sure how likely the occurrence of such a positive step really is, but the generally restrained behavior from both countries has been an important first step.

On a totally unrelated note, my inability to prove that this is something I had hypothesized before Rashid put it in writing reminded me of this. Happy Friday.

Lions, Tigers, and WMD, Oh Noes!

The Washington Post glosses the draft report of the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which warns that the likelihood of terrorists securing WMD has substantially increased, particularly from teetering states like Pakistan.

“Without greater urgency and decisive action by the world community, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” says the draft report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

The report concludes any such attack is very much a “preventable catastrophe”, and what I’m sure will be much to the chagrin of Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol, suggests strengthening international treaties and institutions as a preventative measure. In particular, the report recommends reengaging the Non-Proliferation Treaty reviled by the Bush Administration, cracking down on illicit trade, stopping weapons development, and rewarding good behavior by helping develop civilian nuclear programs on a quid pro quo basis.

This all seems to be right, though I think the report ought to be a bit more realistic about America’s bargaining position. That is, the U.S. should not only toughen the NPT, but should also reduce our needlessly enormous arsenal and abandon the faulty missile defense shield in Europe. What’s more, we’re simply in no state to be invading Iran unilaterally, nor would we want to invade North Korea, so posturing from a “position of strength” should be replaced with bargaining with good faith intentions of accomplishing something beneficial.

The War on Extrapolation

So it seems like there’s still a lot left unresolved in regards to the attacks in Mumbai (though it does look like the group had ties to the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba), so I’ll hold off on speculating too much.

Instead, I’ll just make the point that a terrorist attack that arrested the world for over 60 hours resulted in the death of just 162 people (as of now).  Now, I hardly wish to seem insensitive — the attacks were unquestionably tragic for many people — but the fact remains that this is a reminder that international terrorism is more constructively viewed as a small, dangerous, and malign force, but not as an existential threat to civilization. An asteriod strike is an existential threat, worldwide nuclear war is an existential threat, global warming is an existential threat; a handful of gunmen with AK-47s are not. This is not to suggest that combatting interntional terrorism is not a national security imperative, but simply couching the issue as an iminent threat to civilization itself (the “War on Terror”) is an unproductive framework that leads to bad policy making.