Archive for April, 2010

Untangling the Muslim web

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

There really are only three available solutions for our problems with terrorism in the Muslim World: (1) we can respond to all such situations with military power, (2) we can disengage militarily from the Muslim world or (3) we can try to implement a hybrid of the first two. Under the Bush administration, we were totally married to the military solution. Under the Obama administration, it would appear we are flirting with the hybrid. No one has tried disengagement.

What we know is that a decade of military confrontation has created at least as many problems for us as it has solved, largely because it has alienated, infuriated and neutralized moderate Muslims, our major hope and potential ally against fundamentalist terrorism. It seems highly unlikely that the ongoing hybrid Obama approach will be any more successful, as the same issues of alienation and hostility still exists.

Yet, a careful examination of the realities of the Muslim world and our relationship with it will argue favorably for our complete military disengagement from the region. That act would effectively remove the primary motivation of present and future moderate Muslims who, as a result of our ongoing policies, have come to support, or at least not actively oppose Al Qaida.

To survive, Al Qaida must have an external enemy and we have turned ourselves into Al Qaida’s enemy of choice. If we disengage militarily from their battlefield before the majority of moderate Muslims turn against us, they will have to deal immediately with all those unavoidable, intractable, internal Muslim issues that have made our lives so complicated since the Iraq invasion. Religious, ethnic and national differences, rivalries and conflicts will be Al Qaida’s to deal with in their quest for the Caliphate. They will loose.

There will be major concerns here at home that our military disengagement from both Iraq and Afghanistan will precipitate internal strife in those countries, or worse yet, a general conflagration in the Middle East. Almost all of the disparate ethnic and sectarian components in each of the countries there have external advocates or protectors in the Muslim world. Iraqi Shia have Iran, the Sunnis have Saudi Arabia and Syria, etc.

It does not appear at this time that any of those “protectors” actively seeks to precipitate strife either in the countries involved or in the greater region. Quite the opposite, they have every reason not to seek regional strife. It is far too destabilizing and threatening to governments now in power.

However, if such strife does come on the heels of U.S. military disengagement, it will be the endemic hatreds and rivalries that will precipitate it, whether we leave now or 50 years from now. These divisions and hatreds have existed for millennia. How long are we prepared to stay?

It will be argued that military disengagement will jeopardize the West’s energy supplies, but oil is fungible and only has value when pumped out of the ground and traded. It is also the only major economic asset most of those countries have with which to satisfy the needs of their peoples.

Are we deserting our friends? Who are they and are they really friends, or are they in it simply to get whatever support they can from us for their own narrow national goals, without making more than a minimal commitment to us and to our needs?

Some will say Israel will be jeopardized, but despite the fact that we have been their primary protectors for 40years, they seem recently to have ignored our needs in the region in favor of their own, calling into question their previous contention that our national interests are identical.

The fact is that our recent military-based and spearheaded policies in the Muslim world have exacerbated our problems with terrorism, added endless new terrorists to our enemies’ ranks, filled their coffers, sullied our previously good reputation with Muslim moderates, maintained and encouraged despots in power and accomplished very little positive for us.

If nothing else, it’s time to consider change. In that context, it might be a profitable departure for America to see the world as it really is, not as we would like it to be. Only then will we get policies that are in harmony with the existing facts on the ground.

Military confrontation has rarely successfully been used with insurgencies, it has never succeeded against terrorism. A far better result against terrorism has been achieved with police and intelligence operations.

Within the framework of our national interests, there is no viable military solution for terrorism in any part of the Muslim world. Everything we do militarily is directly contradictory to our national interests. The reason for that lies partly in the fact that Muslim terrorism seems to regularly morph into or become absorbed by insurgencies as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More importantly, it stems from the critical, decades-old complaints that Muslims have had about American policies and activities in their region. What Americans need to understand is that as long as those American policies continue, we will be dealing with terrorism and rejection in the Muslim world. They are the causative factors behind the fact that, “they hate us for what we do, not who we are”.

If, on the other hand, we were to modify those policies, Al Qaida would not last long in an increasingly moderate Muslim world hostile to terrorism’s extreme, un-Muslim philosophies and activities. Without the United States as an intrusive, compliant, external whipping boy, Al Qaida would be forced to deal with the realities of their own diffuse and fragile Muslim world, a world largely hostile to them.

But this is a suggested policy built on the realities on the ground in the Muslim World and we all know that U.S. policy is more often built on the internal political needs of the Administration in power, in this case, the Obama administration.

President Obama is faced with unhappy choices. If he were to see merit in military disengagement from the Muslim world, he would face onslaughts that he is “weak on terrorism” from Republicans and from all those who see advantages in the “long war”. That would include those people and organizations that benefit politically, emotionally and economically from its continuation. Disengagement might just be enough to do him in.

On the other hand, if he can make up his mind to consider what truly is in our national interest and is prepared to suffer the potential negative political consequences of going against the supporters of the “long war,” he could, at minimum, begin the process of solving our most basic problems with the Muslim world and with terrorism.

Haviland Smith is a former counterterrorism expert and station chief for the CIA.

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[Originally published in the Herald of Randolph.]

Over the decades, Americans have fought in a wide variety of irregular foreign conflicts.  They have fought in the Russian Revolution, Northern Ireland, the Spanish Civil War, the 1948 Palestine Civil War, Bosnia and Kosovo. Americans were even spontaneously involved in the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the USSR!  The US Government generally prefers to ignore this kind of activity.

John Walker Lindh chose an inopportune moment to sign on with Al Qaida in Afghanistan and is doing hard time for his troubles.  In fact, his conviction can be seen as the moment when the game changed.  In the eyes of the American government, it is perfectly all right to go and fight with a foreign group as long as that group does not actually threaten the Unites States.  And that is as it should be.

“Terrorism” is a universally condemned word. “Insurrection” is very ambivalent. In this context, we have an extraordinarily legacy left us by the Bush administration.  They continuously and probably consciously conflated terrorism with insurgency here at home to  keep us on edge and to make insurgents fair game. They did it abroad for both tactical and strategic reasons:

Tactically, after 9/11, they wished to curry favor and support.  For example, we went along with Russia when they wanted to designate the Chechens as terrorists when the Chechens clearly were an insurrection looking to rid itself of the Russian occupiers.

During the last eight years, it is hard to find an “ally” of any kind that had an internal security issue whom we failed to support by agreeing to call it terrorism.  In short, the Bush Administration was prepared to label any group, specifically including insurgencies, “terrorist” that was threatening to us or our friends.

Strategically, the Bush administration did so to get those countries on our side, first in our “war on terror” and second in what the Neocons referred to as their “fifty year war” – presumably the Neocons’ war against Islam.

Why does any of this arcane argument matter? After all, a killer is a killer whether terrorist or insurgent.  It matters for a number of reasons.  It determines what tactics we use to combat them in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has a strong effect on how we are viewed in the Middle East and it has a judicial impact on Americans.

Are these struggles really terrorism or are they insurgencies fighting for national liberation? This is a very nuanced issue because insurgencies often use terrorism as a tactic. The US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations includes 45 “terrorist” organizations. Many of those organizations deny using terrorism as a military tactic to achieve their goals.  Many of the others do practice terrorism, but they also run municipal governments.  Clearly in this context are Hamas and Hizballah, both of which organizations are fighting to free their land (Palestine) for their people. To further muddle the issue, there is no international consensus on a legal definition of terrorism.  It is, indeed a confusing and confounding landscape.

The measure of any organization should be its goals, not its tactics.  Is it trying to liberate its homeland, or blow up America?

As an example of the dilemma we now face, consider Somalia. A handful of Somali-Americans have recently been indicted for joining Al-Shabaab.  Al-Shabaab began life as a militant Islamic youth movement devoted to the establishment in Somalia of an Islamic Republic under Shariya law.  Since 2004, it has been primarily involved in insurgent activities against the existing Somali government.  Yet, it is designated a terrorist organization by the US Department of State.

The issue here is whether or not Al-Shabaab really is a terrorist organization which is actually threatening to the United States.  That would appear doubtful, as the great preponderance of its activities concern internal Somali affairs.

As our military involvement in the Middle East evolves, with more and more of our “friends” in the area being challenged by local insurgencies, it might be well for America to review all of its past designations of foreign organizations as “terrorist organizations”.  Many of those designations are absolutely accurate, but many of them come from the Bush era when the criteria used were deliberately aimed at calling anyone we didn’t like a “terrorist”.

In addition, our own citizens are now signing up with foreign civil movements.  If they are insurgencies, the Americans probably are not breaking our laws. The least we owe them is to be sure we know just what they really have done and not be swayed by questionable political decisions made in the aftermath of 9/11.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. A former long term-resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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