Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Al Qaida a bigger threat than ever? Say what?!?

Actually, President Obama is saying something different. "'Not only were we able to drive al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but slowly and systematically we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda, and a year ago we were able to finally to bring Osama bin Laden to justice,' Obama said to cheers." (Caren Bohan, Obama swoops into Afghanistan on bin Laden death anniversary Reuters 05/01/2012) He was visiting Afghanistan. Bohan's report continues:

But even as he asserted in his speech that there was a "clear path" to fulfilling the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and made his strongest claim yet that the defeat of al Qaeda was "within reach," he warned of further hardship ahead.

"I recognize that many Americans are tired of war ... But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly," he said at Bagram airbase outside of Kabul, where only months ago thousands of Afghans rioted after U.S. troops accidentally burned copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
Matthew Schofield Of McClatchy Newspapers presents a less optimistic picture in After Osama bin Laden, al Qaida still a many-headed threat 04/26/2012. After McClatchy bought Knight-Ridder, it continued the high-quality foreign affairs reporting that Knight-Ridder had established on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. But this one makes me worry that the quality may be slipping.

It's generally accepted among Americans, it seems, that the death of the super-duper master terrorist Osama Bin Laden was such a great event that we killed Osama bin Laden that it was a good thing for people to be dancing in the streets and whooping and hollering and gittin' drunk in celebration afterwards. But if Schofield's report is correct, "There is a growing fear, however, that Osama bin Laden’s death didn’t even seriously wound the international terror threat."

That growing fear in Schofield's report comes from named and unnamed terrorism experts. But the legitimate concerns in his report are hard to separate from threat inflation in the expressed opinions of people who have developed a stake in the fight against terrorism that they aren't ready to relinquish.

Richard Fadden, the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said that this many-headed beast is expected to strike more and more frequently in coming years, and he cited the difficulty of identifying “lone wolf” terrorists — small groups or individuals who self-radicalize.

"It's not easy," he told a Canadian Senate committee this week. "These individuals seem to be a mix of terrorists and people who simply have very big personal problems."

An unexpected example emerged in a Norwegian courtroom last week: Anders Behring Breivik, the anti-immigration nationalist on trial for the murders of 77 people, admitted that he closely studied al Qaida’s methods. He called the group "the most successful revolutionary movement in the world."
This passage reminded me of a scene in George Axelrod's comic play The Seven Year Itch, which provided one of Marilyn Monroe's most spectacular screen roles. In the play, the protagonist Richard Sherman, feeling an exaggerated guilt over a clumsy pass he made at an attractive neighbor the previous night, has persuaded a reluctant psychiatrist visiting in his office to give him a few minutes of a free consultation:

RICHARD I'm desperate, Doctor. Last night after you left, I was just sitting there listening to the ball game ...

DR. BRUBAKER (Outmaneuvered, but still game) This fact in itself is not really sufficient cause to undertake analysis ...

RICHARD No, I don't mean that. I started out listening to the ball game and do you know what I ended up doing?

DR. BRUBAKER I have no idea ...

RICHARD In ended up attempting to commit what I guess they call criminal assault ...

DR. BRUBAKER (Defeated, he takes a pad and pencil from his pocket) From the way you phrase it, I assume the attempt was unsuccessful. ...

RICHARD Thank God! All I did was knock us both off the piano bench. ...

DR. BRUBAKER (A flicker of interest - he begins to write) You attempted to commit criminal assault on a piano bench?
That scene came to mind because that passage of Schofield's report, like Richard Sherman's confession, starts off sounding dire but offers specifics that don't seem to begin to match the buildup.

We're supposed to worry about the increasing influence of the Salafist extremist Muslim group Al Qaida and its dead former leader Bin Laden ... because of Anders Behring Breivik? The anti-Muslim fanatic who shot up a bunch of kids at a social democratic party's youth camp because the thought their Party was too friendly to Muslim immigrants? Does that make jack for sense?

Osama bin Laden's Al Qaida organization of 2001 was a network of terrorists under Bin Laden's general operational control. Bin Laden is dead. The group that was "Al Qaida" in 2001 is essentially non-existent now. The President just said that "we have been able to decimate the ranks of al Qaeda." And in the paragraph that following the one about Breivik, Schofield is reporting the same thing:

Anti-terror experts see the al Qaida influence extending even as the core of the organization is thought to be down to an estimated 100 or fewer followers in its traditional home of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas. A Pentagon spokesman said that even that estimate could overshoot the total number who sleep in Afghanistan on any given night, which might be no more than a few dozen.
But wait!, as the narrator on the campy 1960s Batman TV show used to say:

"What we're facing today is a much, much larger global threat," said Seth Jones, an expert at the RAND Corp. who’s advised the Pentagon on Afghanistan and Pakistan. "It’s a more dispersed threat. The threat is decentralizing to a broad network of groups. Al Qaida inspires, but doesn't control, and they work with locals."
What I take from Schofield's report is that there are still anti-American terrorists out in the world. Some of them use the brand name "Al Qaida". But even his sources trying to pump up the threat find it difficult to make any coherent case that they are the group that attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 9/11/2001.

So, the logical question is, why do we still need a Cold War level (or higher) of military spending to protect us from the Dead Terrorist? And was Bin Laden's group really even enough of a threat to justify such a massive military establishment? Because that's still the chief bogeyman our national security establishment is using to justify this massive military investment.

What's actually happening is that the US adopted a global-dominance foreign policy strategy after the end of the Cold War, which means we can't allow any "peer competitors" to arise in the world and that being able and ready to intervene in a massive way anywhere in the world is a constant need. A less grandiose foreign policy would require something different.

But under the current foreign policy strategy and the chronic threat inflation that goes with it, it makes a twisted kind of sense when Schofield quotes some guy explaining that a radical group in Nigeria that I'd never seen mentioned before "has already hurt our national interests."

But we still need to be asking, if the War on Terror after 10 years leaves us having to tremble for our lives every time there's a shoot-out in Nigeria or local clans in some godforsaken corner of the Yemeni desert start raising hell with each other - isn't there something wrong with our approach?

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