The roots of terrorism

The Thinker by Rodin

Ever get this strange feeling of déjà vu? Last Friday’s horrific terrorist events in Paris are being called France’s 9/11. Last I checked there were 129 mostly French citizens murdered in six separate but obviously well coordinated terrorist incidents in Paris, and more than three hundred wounded. I don’t think it’s coincidental that these incidents occurred on a Friday the Thirteenth. The date may not have the same unlucky connotation in France that it has here in the United States, but ISIS (which admitted to sponsoring the acts) and al Qaeda know the power of marketing and symbolism. Anything that they can do to make such events more memorable will be done, and tying events like this to memorable dates is one.

Shortly after 9/11 here in the United States, our military did the expected things. We sent our air force into Afghanistan. In our case it worked reasonably well, at least at first, because we destroyed the Taliban government there that hosted al Qaeda. We installed our own more secular and western government in its place; a form of government that was not natural to the region and which unsurprisingly caused a strong insurgency.

Fourteen years later al Qaeda is a diminished presence in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is hardly stable, secular or particularly democratic. The Taliban are resurgent and it looks like more civil war is ahead there; in fact it has already begun. Our leadership took being caught with its pants down as a sign that America had to be proactive to address these threats, so we unwisely toppled Saddam Hussein. The state of ISIS, such as it is, is a direct result of that unwise action. Indirectly, the U.S. has contributed to last Friday’s events.

The French government of course quickly decided that their own 9/11 could not go unanswered, so it sent its considerable air force to bomb targets in Syria controlled by ISIS in coordination with our own. This was done to presumably degrade and destroy ISIS that just last week President Obama unwisely asserted was contained. ISIS proudly admitted that it had planned and coordinated these attacks. It was done for the same reason that Osama bin Laden planned and coordinated 9/11. His goal was not so much to destroy the United States, as it was to use the U.S. as a proxy to further his cause. And it worked amazingly well for him, actually better than he imagined as our invasion of Iraq introduced anarchy that eventually allowed ISIS to rise.

Presumably France won’t go the extra mile the way the United States did in Iraq, but it does not have our vast military resources anyhow. Presumably its leadership is a bit clearer-headed than ours was after 9/11 and realizes these military strikes are more to satisfy their citizens’ cry for a counterpunch rather than to meaningful affect a particular outcome.

Fires remain fires only as long as they have a combination of fuel and oxygen. Understood in this context, ISIS’s actions were predictable. The neophyte state is rather amorphous but it certainly needs energy to continue. The oxygen comes from more people committed to their ideology, and the fuel comes from its funders. ISIS exists in a resource poor part of the Middle East, so most of its money actually comes from outside the state, i.e. those with money that support its radical version of Sunni Islam. To get the money it needs to continue to demonstrate it has power and can draw recruits. So going for soft targets like innocent civilians in Paris is logical. It’s relatively easy to demonstrate that it can execute power over a free society like France. Such acts will inspire many and it will impress its creditors. It allows the state to continue because its military has been significantly degraded by allied airstrikes and by the many forces engaged on the ground in the region.

Fourteen years after 9/11 it’s obvious from these incidents that if there were easy ways to contain terrorism they would have worked by now. In fact, if there were hard ways of containing terrorism, they would have shown affect by now as well. Invading Iraq and trying to stand up a secular government there is a hard thing to do. Actually there has been a lot of progress, but it’s mostly unseen. While intelligence within ISIS is poor, our intelligence capability has improved remarkably during this time. It’s just not enough in a free society to stop periodic incidents like these, although many do get deterred and prevented. A state cannot know everything and call itself free.

It’s possible that with time ISIS will be degraded and destroyed as President Obama hopes. However, even if this victory happens, it doesn’t solve the problem. Ideology in general is the real problem. If ISIS goes and the dynamics of radical Islam are not addressed as well, it will simply spring up elsewhere in other forms in the Middle East. Wiping out ISIS in other words is merely winning a battle. The real war is to change hearts and minds.

In 1995 the United States endured the Oklahoma City Bombing, an act of domestic terrorism. This act was similar in size and scale to last Friday’s incidents in Paris. Its perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was not particularly religious, but he was dogmatic. He was deeply conservative in the sense that he was upset about changes happening in America. He believed that changes disenfranchised white people, and that these changes were being achieved through the federal government through what he perceived as its pro-liberal policies. At its root, McVeigh’s complaint was that he was against democracy when it did not favor his interests. He believed enlightened ones like him had the duty to change things through acts like terrorism when this happened.

Basically McVeigh was an authoritarian, something that resonates strongly with many Americans, most of who align with the Republican Party. Stripped of its religious façade, that’s what the War on Terrorism is really about: it’s a struggle between those powerfully pulled to an authoritarian framework versus those who believe government should be run democratically come what may. The roots of this conflict might very well be genetic, as there is convincing research that shows that liberals and conservatives are wired differently right down to their DNA. Conservatives believe in authoritarianism and feel in their bones that they must follow the leader like a sheep providing they can trust their leader and conversely to wholly distrust the leader when they don’t (hence their utter contempt for President Obama.) You can see this in Donald Trump’s appeal. Conversely, liberals are comfortable with ambiguity and want to empower all the people.

This conflict is probably not going to go away with ISIS or even al Qaeda. However, it’s clear that within the last hundred years or so liberals have been winning promoting a more secular, humane and tolerant world. Regardless of the rationalization that impels terrorists (God, Islam, racism, communism) the common threat is liberalism (i.e. progressive social change), which is manifested through secularism, representative democracy, freedom and tolerance for those unlike us. If more intolerance in France can be created then France begins to model ISIS in spirit. Islam is more likely to take hold in a country where the culture favors authoritarianism.

ISIS isn’t explicitly aware of this, but in this mindset requires intolerant and authoritarian governments. It fights for a world where government enforces its own radical brand of Islam worldwide, but this is a fight that can never be won. However, it can inadvertently be a proxy in a larger and more nebulous cause to put in power those whose DNA makes them comfortable with the leader-and-follower model, and that reviles tolerance and ambiguity.

France must do what is pragmatic to lessen the likelihood of future incidents. However if in response it discards its values of freedom, secularism and tolerance then whether ISIS thrives or dies does not really matter: the uber-cause of authoritarianism wins, and France loses.

Free speech has limits

The Thinker by Rodin

If freedom is not free then last week’s terrorist incidents in Paris by Islamic terrorists proves that free speech is not free either.

In the unlikely event you were away from the news the last week, sixteen people including four French Jews and one Muslim policeman were murdered by Islamic terrorists in two incidents in and around Paris. The resulting shock and outcry has predictably led to more security in France. It also caused an impressive rally yesterday that brought about one and a half million protesters into the streets of Paris. The protesters shouted that they would not be intimidated by these incidents.

The primary attack occurred at the offices of the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Three terrorists with automatic weapons quickly killed twelve people and wounded many others. Many of those killed were cartoonists that drew what most reasonable people would call patently offensive cartoons, far beyond what is depicted even in edgy publications here in the United States. In fact their offices had been attacked years ago for publishing cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammad. Four Jews were also killed in a subsequent attack at a kosher market near Paris on Friday.

Free speech is only possible in a culture where its underlying population is civilized enough to not take violent action when the hear or read what they perceive as grossly offensive and/or blasphemous speech. No such society actually exists, which means that incidents like these are bound to happen from time to time. They are more likely when terrorist organizations and states proliferate and their ideology gains traction within free societies. French citizens were of course outraged but no one was particularly surprised. The only real question was why something of this magnitude had not happened earlier in France.

Perhaps you have heard of this saying: if you are playing with fire, expect to get burned now and then. Charlie Hebdo had already played with fire and had gotten burned and it continued to pay with fire. It indiscriminately and most would say offensively satirizes people and groups from all sides of the political spectrum. Creating outrage was how it makes money. It is a profitable niche. It was also what they felt called to do.

Unsurprisingly I don’t get the violent reaction by Islamic extremists to what they perceive as the blasphemy of making cartoon depictions of Mohammed. In reality, even free speech is not entirely free of consequence, certainly not here the United States and in particular not France, which has very un-free and discriminatory laws that target Muslims in particular, such as requiring Muslim women not to wear their head scarves. The cartoon of a Muslim (it was not clear to me that it was supposed to be Mohammad) that seems to have triggered this attack was offensive to me (and I am not a Muslim) because it belittled and stereotyped a religion by depicting it as wildly different than what it actually is, in general. It would be like a cartoon that portrayed the pope as a child molester or the president as a cannibal. At best it was in very bad taste. It really spoke much more about the Charlie Hebdo than it did about Islam. While Charlie Hebdo tends to be nondiscriminatory in its satire, most of its work tends to be stuff that the vast majority of people at least here in the United States would consider beyond the pale. If it had an equivalent in the United States, most people would not want it on their coffee table. They would not want to be known as someone who read Charlie Hebdo. For the same reason most people would not leave out books of hardcore pornography on their coffee table either.

So freedom of the press is not in practice entirely free of consequence. Those who dare to go too far outside the mainstream are likely to find they will pay a price from time to time. And no government can guarantee that this freedom can be expressed without injury. Risk and freedom go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Unsurprisingly most publishers are somewhere in the middle, and seem to understand that it’s okay to express their opinions but that there are practical limits that if you transgress them then you could pay a price. So we mostly stick to moderation. The New York Times, for example, decided not to publish the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoon. While it had the right to do so, it made a sensible decision that the cost of this right was not worth the possible results of doing so. In some sense then the terrorists won, but the New York Times really made a judgment that was as sound from a business perspective as it was sound as an exercise in common sense. People with common sense will exercise reasonable self-censorship for the sake of overall societal harmony.

Of course there are places, like the Islamic State or areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban where freedom does not exist. Those who live there live in tyrannies. And this is evil because it is also not our nature to spend our life wholly muzzled from honest expression. It’s clear to me that those who perpetrated these crimes would have all of us live in such a state, where only behavior they believe to be sanctioned by God and the Quran would be allowed.

They are hardly alone. Here in the United States there are Dominionists that would turn us into a Christian state. If they had their way the United States would look a lot like the Islamic State, just with a cross as its symbol. There would be a state religion, divorce would not be allowed and homosexuality would be criminalized again. Many of us are pulled toward ideologies that will brook no dissent, perhaps for the feeling of comfort that such certainty brings. For these people, pluralism itself is an enemy and feels threatening. They find comfort and safety only when all people, either willingly or by force, do as they believe is required. Occasionally, as in Paris last week, an irresistible force will meet an immovable object. When this happens it proves to me that absolute free speech is an illusion. In reality, self-censorship is a practical way we maintain a broad general freedom of speech. We should not chase the illusion that all speech should be tolerated or permitted without consequence. It never has been and never will be.

Instead, we should work to create and maintain societies that promote general tolerance and moderation. Those that step too far out of this natural comfort zone don’t necessarily deserve what they get, but reality is likely to provide it anyhow, as happened in Paris last week. There is a natural Darwinism at work among these people. Transgressions outside this natural zone of reasonable taste should be rare, if they occur at all.

What goes around comes around, and unfortunately it came to Charlie Hebdo and Paris last week. My comments certainly are not meant to justify the terrorism that occurred but simply to point out that it can be anticipated in cases like these because the speech is so extreme.

We had best learn to live with it because we cannot really change it.

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The Thinker by Rodin

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.

Our Afghanistan folly

The Thinker by Rodin

So General Stanley McChrystal has been fired by President Obama for remarks to a Rolling Store reporter that disparaged he and top officials. General David Petraeus will assume his duties as the top commander in Afghanistan. Obama is expecting that Petraeus will succeed in Afghanistan like he “succeeded” in Iraq.

There is no question that Petraeus made a bad situation much better in Iraq. However, it is premature to call Iraq a success. Bombings, ethnic and religious-driven murders continue daily in Iraq, albeit at a reduced level compared to the height of violence in 2006 and 2007. Its government remains shaky at best, corrupt and unable to provide many basic services, including dependable electricity. With luck, something resembling a real and stable government may eventually emerge.

We won’t care. Once the last American troops leave Iraq, it will become just a bad memory. Of course, we don’t really plan to wholly exit Iraq. The 50,000 troops that remain are there primarily as catastrophe insurance. Fifty thousand troops won’t help much should Iraq devolve into a large scale civil war, but if used strategically they might prevent a fragile country from devolving back into a civil war. At least the level of violence is down in Iraq. However, this is largely due to our withdrawal. It’s harder to work up a dander when the people you hate the most are no longer patrolling your neighborhoods and killing your friends and neighbors.

Iraq and Afghanistan have vastly different cultures and climates, but they do share some similarities. Both have a history of corruption, shaky governments, foreign occupations and playing pawn in larger superpower conflicts. The success of the otherwise reviled Taliban was in part due to their ability to inject something like rule of law in a country that rarely had it before. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan quite qualifies as countries because there is not enough commonality to bind together the ethnic factions into something resembling a nation. Nationhood seems only possible during dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s or when inflicted by repressive local powers like the Taliban. Resistance to foreign occupation is the major uniting factor among these disparate tribes. Loose federations are a more natural fit than strong centralized government, when they work at all.

So given this history, what can we expect in the way of accomplishments in Afghanistan from the wonderful General Petraeus? It’s not hard to figure out and we are seeing it unfold already. First, the government (to the extent it exists) will continue to be corrupt. Petraeus really cannot do anything about that. Second, the level of violence and our casualties will be directly proportional to the number of our troops in the country. Third, and this is really what matters the most, anything we do to bring about a stable government will at best have a very temporary effect.

Since the country has no history of strong and effective central government, in all likelihood the Afghanistan we imagine will never evolve into it. Yet, without an effective central government, any hope we have that its government will, by proxy, control the Taliban for us is just not possible.

Petraeus will try strategies similar to those he used in Iraq. Those strategies have had mixed success. Some of the local Sunni militias that he sponsored felt betrayed when the U.S. withdrew, leaving them outnumbered by larger groups of Shi’ites out to wreak revenge. Expect Petraeus to say that we cannot start to bring troops home in 2011. President Obama seems to already be tacitly agreeing, saying that people are getting too wrapped up around dates. In short, the groundwork is being prepared for an even more extended American occupation. On the surface, this is kind of nuts because our war in Afghanistan is now our longest war. In a few months, we will be beginning our tenth year of war in the country.

This strategy is something akin to making a basket from center court on a first try. It is theoretically possible, but the odds are maybe one in five hundred. Why is our strategy doomed? There are too many risky variables.

  • First, the vast majority of Afghans see us as hostile occupiers, not friends. Why would you take advice from your enemy?
  • Second, corruption is everywhere and deep seated. Our military is contributing to it by giving payola to warlords there to move supplies in.
  • Third, the strong central government we crave has never really existed in Afghanistan before. If it can be created at all, it will take decades to achieve, not eighteen months. Still, this throw from center court might be worth taking if it could be attempted at a reasonable cost, but it is already proving ruinous. Since 2001, we have spent around $280 billion just on our war in Afghanistan.
  • Fourth, the Afghan army is even less coherent than Iraq’s army, rife with the usual corruption and frequently absent if not wholly indifferent soldiers.
  • Fifth, the American people already realize the war is lost, and don’t support it.
  • Sixth, if it can work at all, it will likely take decades and trillions more dollars. We have neither the money nor the time.

At best, Petraeus will stabilize the situation for a short while. However, in the end he cannot possibly achieve the goals Obama laid out. He will be exceptionally lucky if he can succeed just to the extent he did in Iraq. No general, no matter how committed and brilliant, can lead a people or a country to a place they do not want to go.

President Obama is a smart man so he should be smart enough to realize his strategy is doomed. Afghanistan has trapped many a political leader in a box. He will be just another and it may in retrospect be seen as his most unwise action as president.

We need to cut our losses and just get out.

Mission Accomplished in Afghanistan

The Thinker by Rodin

Tuesday in the Afghani city of Kandahar, five cars rigged with explosives detonated simultaneously, killing at least forty-one people and wounding at least 66. This is just one of the most recent and egregious incidents of terrorism in Afghanistan, which has recently seen a significant upturn in violence. In July, American casualties in Afghanistan reached forty-five, their highest monthly level ever. Great Britain also recently marked a sad milestone, suffering its 200th casualty in the Afghani Theater. The higher casualty rates recently is likely due to the presence of an additional 21,000 American troops in Afghanistan since President Obama took office, as well as a change of military strategy to root out the Taliban by moving our forces into areas they control.

If this strategy feels foreboding, it is because it eerily similar to what we did in Iraq, both years ago as well as very recently. At least in Iraq our troops are now largely out of harm’s way. The Iraqi government has had us move our soldiers out of their major cities. Our troop transports now move largely only at night. Coincidentally, American troop deaths in Iraq have plunged. Unfortunately, as much as the people of Iraq might wish it, their sectarian conflicts have not gone away. Recently, there have been renewed car bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the same ethnic tensions that existed while Saddam Hussein ran the country remain and will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

From my perspective, we are repeating the same flawed strategy in Afghanistan that we used in Iraq. We are not learning from our mistakes. Granted when he assumed office President Obama was very careful qualifying what constituted success in Afghanistan. Nation building and instilling democracy are lofty goals, but are expendable if need be. Our new general in the Afghan theater Stanley McChrystal seems intent on winning through intense nation building facilitated by having American troops control Taliban occupied areas of the country. In addition to the 21,000 new American troops now in the theater, it appears McChrystal will soon be appealing for additional troops.

It seems reasonable to predict our future “success” in Afghanistan based on our “success” in Iraq using this strategy. Why do we need so many troops in Afghanistan? What is it that we are really trying to accomplish? In 2001, we went into Afghanistan because the Taliban were shielding Osama bin Laden and the core elements of al Qaeda. Our strategy then was quite effective. Al Qaeda did a quick tally ho across the border into Pakistan, where they did not have to deal with the hassle of our troops and exploding bunker bombs. According to experts, al Qaeda no longer exists in Afghanistan. What remains of the top al Qaeda leadership (and it is likely that it is a shell of its former self) now exists in tribal northwest Pakistan. In short, we succeeded in our stated mission in Afghanistan: al Qaeda can no longer use the country as a place of organization, training and refuge for attacks against the United States.

We have also tried to foster democracy in Afghanistan. New national elections for Afghan president are being tallied this week. As in neighboring Iran, the eventual results look like they might reflect substantial ballot box stuffing. Our initial presence did drive the Taliban, an admittedly thoroughly loathsome regime from power. Inattention has allowed the Taliban to regroup. Our presence in Afghanistan has brought many good but likely temporal things, including some semblance of national government, economic growth, some restoration of women’s rights and more education to the populace. What our presence did not do, and really can never do, is allow complete control over the country. Afghanistan is far too large to be controlled by any occupying army. Even if it could be, occupying it will prove financially ruinous, as it has in Iraq.

Our expanded mission seems to be ensuring that the Taliban do not return to power.  Should the Taliban return to power, it is certainly possible that they will provide safe harbor to al Qaeda again. Most experts though do not believe the Taliban would be stupid enough to do this again. Al Qaeda’s goals have always been international. The Taliban has no such interests. It is a nationalist movement. It is interested in instituting a strict form of Muslim fundamentalism across all of Afghanistan.

Just as in Iraq, there has been a bad case of mission creep in Afghanistan. In this case, the American people seem to be saying that having been burned once in Iraq, we should not get burned again. A majority of Americans believe, as I do, that this war is not worth fighting. To the extent that we should have a role in the country, it should be to train Afghani troops, police and bureaucrats to secure, police and govern themselves, as we did with some success in Iraq. Regardless of whether democracy flourishes in Afghanistan in the future or not, Afghanistan is extremely unlikely to be part of a war aimed at the United States again.

Back in 2003, President Bush foolishly proclaimed Mission Accomplished on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The irony in Afghanistan is that President Obama could pull the same stunt and plausibly get away with it. We really have accomplished our mission in Afghanistan, at least as it was originally defined. Al Qaeda is gone and is unlikely to return. Even if they try to return, the Taliban are likely to throw them out, knowing they lost power by letting them in. In fact, our original mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished for several years now. We won this battle.

Granted, it might not make a great photo op proclaiming Mission Accomplished when Afghanistan seems to be teetering back toward anarchy. Violence today in Afghanistan may be as bad as it has ever been since we engaged our military there. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most of this violence is a direct result of our troops being in the theater. It is evidenced, not just by these car bombings but also by the many roadside bombings that are killing our soldiers, just as they did in Iraq. In short, many Afghanis, many of whom are also friendly to the Taliban but certainly not all, simply do not like having their country occupied. They are doing what most nationalists do in such circumstances: resisting through force of arms.

Thinking we can succeed in nation building through force of arms in Afghanistan of all places is foolish. To the extent we succeed in this expanded mission, it will not be because of military action, but because we helped create and provided effective aid and advice to the shaky Afghani government. Afghanistan has a long history of attempts at foreign occupation and none succeeded in the end. The USSR was the most recent country to fail spectacularly in Afghanistan. So will we, if we think we can build a new nation though our occupation, however benign and temporal our stated intentions.

It is up to Afghanis to chart their own way forward. Fortunately, despotic regimes like The Taliban rarely stay in power long. Any government that oppresses for too long meets resistance. In time, balance will be restored to something that approximates natural governance in Afghanistan. In the end, it is unlikely to look like a western democracy.

The only question for the United States is how many more lives we want to waste on a flawed military strategy after we accomplished our original goals. If we had the right general in the theater, which apparently we do not, he would be advising that this war cannot be won militarily, so we should no longer try. Instead, we should provide money and advice only and use our military inside the country only when we know al Qaeda has returned.

No Easy Answers on Islamic Terrorism

The Thinker by Rodin

Perhaps it got your attention on Wednesday when Senator and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama said this about the Pakistani government:

There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

From the back of the Republican pack, on Tuesday representative and presidential nominee Tom Tancredo had this suggestion for what we should do if there is another 9/11 type event:

If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Obama at least tempered his remarks by saying that he would double foreign aid to $50 billion a year, and allocate $2 billion to combat the influence of Islamic madrassas schools and to improve our public relations. These are actions that I support. However, statements like those quoted suggest to me that neither Tancredo nor Obama are ready to be our next president. Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn toward candidates who truly grasp the dimensions and nuances of the terrorist threat. Maybe it is time for me to give money to Senator Joe Biden’s campaign. At least Senator Biden gets it.

There is no question that our erstwhile ally in the war on terrorism, Pakistan’s president and possible dictator for life General Pervez Musharraf, could do a lot more to root out elements of al Qaeda. It, along with the Taliban, controls a rather lawless area of northwestern Pakistan. Osama bin Laden, if he is still alive, is likely living in that remote area. Even if he is not, it is clear that what leadership al Qaeda has is likely concentrated in that area.

The real goal of the United States is to reduce and eventually eliminate Islamic sponsored terrorism. Would capturing Osama bin Laden solve this problem? It probably could not hurt. Certainly, the man deserves to be brought to justice. However, al Qaeda has no centralized leadership. Those who think al Qaeda would go away with his capture or death are likely deluding themselves. Indeed, it could be argued that we are better off with bin Laden alive but on the run than we would be if he were dead. There is no way to know for sure, of course. That is part of the problem. The chessboard we are playing is bafflingly complex. One thing we have learned is that our actions, which often seem entirely reasonable and logical, are often counterproductive. Our invasion of Iraq is a case in point.

If our military were to strike in northwestern Pakistan with a limited but sustained military campaign to root out al Qaeda, what would be the results? It is hard to say for sure but I doubt we would end up safer than we are now. I hope that we would not try to emulate our tactics in Iraq by essentially occupying that part of Pakistan and hoping for its eventual pacification. I hope that if we did go into that lawless area that our mission would be targeted, surgical and we would withdraw after a matter of days or weeks. However, even if we succeeded in finding bin Laden and destroying the nexus of al Qaeda in that area, I doubt we would end up more secure from Islamic terrorism. I think it is much more likely that it would inflame anti-American feelings, already very high in that area of the world. I think it would lead to the recruitment of fresh terrorists to take up their cause. Islamic inspired violence directed against our country would increase rather than decrease.

Osama bin Laden understands all this of course. The reason he chose to attack us on September 11, 2001 was that he knew we would respond with 20th century tactics to a 21st century problem. By doing so, it aided his ends, as the spread of terrorism inspired by al Qaeda since that event demonstrated.

Just as we cannot solve Iraq’s problems through military force, neither can we win the war on terrorism through military force. Iraq’s problems, in the unlikely event they can be solved at all, are political in nature. The same is true with our war on terrorism. This is a political war that is won through succeeding at political tactics.

Obama was half-right by realizing that in order to end terrorism we have to address the issues that feed it. It is much as firefighters create fire lines to stop forest fires. We need to focus most of our resources in the war on terrorism, not by sending occupying troops or selling high tech military hardware to Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, but by working toward political reconciliation and improving the living standards of people in the region. We must replace religious fanaticism, oppression and despair with its most potent antidote: hope.

Principally this means bringing a just and lasting political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will require personal diplomacy, it will require the United Nations, it will require the organizations like the League of Arab States, and it will require any resource that can be brought to bear. While we are doing this, we must invest massively in sound non-partisan non-governmental organizations. We need to use these organizations as proxies to address the poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity that feeds the cycle of violence in that area. It means building schools by the hundreds in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It means creating affordable housing instead of refugee camps. It means building and improving roads, bridges and water treatment plants.

It also means making our military aid to Israel conditional on their solemn commitment to remove government support for Jewish settlements outside the state of Israel. It means making our aid to Israel conditional on their agreeing in principle that it will eventually withdraw to their 1967 borders. The conflict in that part of the Middle East is has its roots, not so much in the creation of the state of Israel, as it does in aftermath the 1967 Gulf War. Obviously, these are not easy things to do, which is why new workable political and economic tactics are vital.

Our real national security interests are in fact intimately tied to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. We must not do this unilaterally but together with the United Nations and other multinational organizations. We need to reduce the number of sticks and increase the number of carrots. The one resource Americans have in abundance is money. We have huge gobs of money, which are a direct result of our peace, freedom and stable democratic government. By the time our debacle in Iraq is over, we will have squandered at least a trillion dollars. Yet even this vast sum will hardly be noticed in our massive economy. We can afford to sponsor a Marshall-type plan for the Middle East, through neutral parties, that should replace hopelessness with hope. We also need to provide huge amounts of basic humanitarian assistance for a region that is still very much war torn and overflowing with refugees. Any new Marshall plan should cost a tiny fraction of what we have already recklessly squandered away in Iraq.

Our primary goal should always be to do what we can to reduce the factors fueling Islamic terrorism. If a particular action is likely to add fuel to the fire, we need to assess whether it is really in our national interest. Certainly destroying cities like Mecca and Medina as Rep. Tancredo suggested would guarantee eternal war and enmity against our country. It would be the most counterproductive, not to mention the stupidest thing we could possibly do in reaction to Islamic terrorism.

Our next president, unlike our current one, needs to be fully mindful of these tradeoffs. He or she must be progressive enough to push for the real political changes that might actually solve our long-term problem with Islamic terrorism. Senator Obama’s unwise remarks suggest he has not grasped the totality of the problem facing us. Let us hope that Democrats choose a nominee, based not on how inspiring they find his or her speeches at political rallies, but on whether they have the maturity, wisdom and judgment to apply our country’s resources wisely in these areas of the world during these very turbulent times.