Sunday, July 10, 2005

Afghanistan and al-Qaeda

Over at Eric's place, I've gotten into somewhat of a debate with a very nice fella named Matt in this post. The debate has covered four major areas: al-Qaeda's organization, our success/failure in Afghanistan, that success/failure vs. our decision to invade Iraq, and just how much the U.S. is responsible for the creation of al-Qaeda in regard to our support for the Mudjahadeen in the '80s. I'm going to address the first three here, the last one will come later, if at all.

So, first off, al-Qaeda's organization. As I said to Matt, al-Qaeda is a very decentralized organization, especially post-9/11. Too often, many people seem to get the sense that al-Qaeda is a huge, monolithic organization, almost reminiscent of the "terrorists" in Team America. In a large part, this is due to the constant drum-beat in the media of "terrorism, terrorism, terrorism." Al-Qaeda is the catch-all those in the media often use to describe those who carried out some sort of attack. The Millenium attacks? al-Qaeda. 9/11? al-Qaeda. Bali? al-Qaeda. Madrid? al-Qaeda. London? al-Qaeda. In reality, al-Qaeda is much smaller and much less hierarchical than we are often led to believe. In order to understand al-Qaeda fully, we must go to the start. And the start is Sudan, in 1990.

It was here that Osama bin-Laden fled after he was kicked out of Saudi Arabia. And it was here that he first formed al-Qaeda, which translates to "The Base." The name is very indicitive of its early existence, because for most of the early 1990s, al-Qaeda was more of a support group than an actual striking force. One government analyst described it as the "Ford Foundation of terrorism." Various groups would come to bin-Laden and present a plan. If bin-Laden approved, he would give them money to carry out the attack. So for much of its early existence, an al-Qaeda organization hardly existed at all: just leadership (bin Laden, Zawahiri, and a few others) and some foot soldiers to provide disbursement of the money and to collect resources for the organization. However, as the organization became larger, bin-Laden became more interested in actually carrying out attacks. However, even then, the organization was very non-hierarchical. The leadership would come up with an idea for an attack. One or two foot soldiers would then be told the plan and sent to the area of the world where the attack was to be carried out. Here they would meet up with some sort of local extremist group. For example, Abu Sayyaf and MILF (possibly the funniest name for a terrorist group) in the Philippines, Hamas in Israel, GIA in Algeria, several local war-lords in the Horn of Africa, and smaller extremist cells based out of European (or American) mosques. The local extremist group provides the actual man-power to carry out the attacks, while the al-Qaeda "foot soldiers" act as the leaders of the operation. This template has been followed for almost all of the attacks attributed to "al-Qaeda," with the possible exception of 9/11.

Now, post 9/11, al-Qaeda has been forced to become even more decentralized, because of the simple fact that most of its leadership is now on the run. Orders do not necessarily come from the top anymore, with local groups given more authority to act on their own (which isn't to say they didn't do this before 9/11), and those orders are often more vague. A perfect example is the Madrid attacks. While I won't go into the reasons here, there were a lot of ways the attacks could have been deadlier and better coordinated, but were not. I don't think the same people that thought up 9/11 dreamt up this one. (Well, Khalid Mohammed's been captured, but that's beside the point). In addition to this authority, local groups are often required to come up with their own supplies, as appears to have been the case with the recent London attacks. The size of explosives used was rather small, paling in comparison to those used in the Madrid attacks. (Update: check out this NYT story, which somewhat supports my point about London, in regards to both organization and supplies. HT to Cliff May via Instapundit) And this brings me to my next point.

As I stated above, post 9/11, al-Qaeda has become even more decentralized because of the loss of its base, Afghanistan. Matt made a very valid counter-point to this, in that much of Afghanistan is still lawless and probably harboring some al-Qaeda and Taliban. And this is true. But as any counter-terrorism expert will tell you, two things make it much easier for terrorists to operate: a friendly, legitimate government to faciliate international travel and communication, and a friendly area to act as the "rear." Up until 1996, al-Qaeda had the former in Sudan. They had use of Sudan's diplomatic pouches to send materials, and more importantly, use of their passports to travel. After bin-Laden was expelled from the country in '96, he fled to Afghanistan, which became the organization's secure, "rear" area. Here is where they could conduct training in relative impunity, and here is where leadership could meet, relatively securely, to plan. After our invasion, the organization lost this as well. Yes, Osama might very well be hiding in some cave on the Pakistani border, but he isn't in regular communication with his leadership or operatives, and he definitely isn't doing much planning.

But the fact still remains that we haven't captured him. While more of a symbolic victory than anything else, it would still be a victory, especially in the propaganda war. So this begs the question: did we send enough troops to Afghanistan? First, it must be said that we must separate politics from the military. The military makes plans based on what the politicians ask for. While the politicians do have some say in what the plan will look like, and have the ultimate say in what plan is implemented, the planners at the Pentagon do the actual planning. In the case of Operation Enduring Freedom, the first plan the Pentagon came up with was the "play it safe" plan they had been sending to the Clinton administration for years: send in several infantry divisions, supported by armor, with an extremely large support footprint. The military, unfortunately, has some parts that are risk averse; the Pentagon is one of the largest. To anyone with a knowledge of history, this plan was asinine. For starters, on a specific country-size level, this plan would not work. Afghanistan has been previously invaded twice in its history, the first by the British, the second by the Soviets. Both times the invaders entered the country with large numbers of conventional forces, and both times they were driven out in defeat after having been bled dry by a guerilla war. So history, the terrain, and the composition of the enemy made it clear that U.S. forces would be fighting a guerilla campaign. Time and time again it has been proven that conventional forces do not work against a guerilla campaign. The way to defeat a guerilla campaign is to fight fire with fire. You need small numbers of highly trained troops (special ops units, in other words) that are able to act as force multipliers among local units. The last thing you want is a bunch of tanks surrounded by infantry columns trundling around the mountains. And that is the kind of a plan the Pentagon came up with, after prodding by the administration. In short, the argument that we sent too few troops comes up short. While it would seem logical that more troops = greater chance for success, this is only true in a conventional campaign, fighting a uniformed enemy on actual set battlefields. When fighting someone who blends into the population just as easily as they blend into the terrain, you need fewer troops. More simply gum things up and present a bigger target.

It would appear that the invasion of Iraq took little, if anything, away from the fight in Afghanistan, at least from a military point of view. (Public attention and politics is a different story). But still, there is a persistent question, asked this time by Matt: why invade a country with a secular dictator who was actually suppressing groups like al-Qaeda? Well, setting aside the fact that hatred of a common enemy can make for strange bed-fellows (as articulated by Robert and Eric), there is a larger issue at play, as Eric alludes to at the beginning of his post. Al-Qaeda is just one symptom of a larger problem plaguing the Middle East, a problem that is caused by people like Saddam Hussein. The problem is a combination of things: lack of political representation, often due to an oppressive government, compounded with a stagnant economy and booming birthrates has produced a generation with a lot of young Arab men who are unemployed, unheard, and angry about it. Because of their oppressive, non-representative government, they are often forced to turn to religion as an outlet. Too many of these young men are being converted to Wahhabi style Islamism. What is the solution? Obviously, getting rid of the oppressive government and, in time, the stagnant economy. After all, what would you rather be doing? Beating yourself with chains, reading the Koran in your free time, and ultimately blowing yourself up, or buying a new car and marrying a lovely wife after successfully starting your new business made possible by your country's new rule of law? Hyperbole, I know, but still, the question is relevant. So, if "democratization" (a slightly misleading phrase, as Brad points out) is the key, there is still the nagging question of why Iraq was chosen. Simply put, it was the best with respects to reasons for war, and ease in invading. While Syria would have probably been easier to invade and pacify, the case for war was not nearly as strong as Iraq's. The converse is true for Iran.

So, to summarize, al-Qaeda is still on the run, Afghanistan was a good call, and Iraq was an even better one.

Have fun with those returned comments...I think they might get a little bit of use on this one.