Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Long War's Long Reach

It is a common refrain among opponents of the Iraqi campaign that it constitutes a "distraction" from the "real" war against al Qaeda, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The implication here is A) that our forces are so hopelessly bogged down combating AQI and other Iraqi 'insurgents' that they lack the surplus capacity to wage war on our enemies in any other theaters; and B) that there are no ultimately meaningful ("real") Islamist targets elsewhere (which itself implies that events such as 9/11 should be treated as law enforcement matters, best addressed by seeking and meting out justice on the proximal perpetrators).

This narrative tends to lose some steam when confronted with stories like this, of US Special Forces successfully targeting key leaders of AQ-linked Islamist forces in Somalia (see also here).

In point of fact, Somalia is emerging as one site of an increasingly ominous push by al Qaeda and related Jihadist organizations to extend their reach and establish footholds in failed and failing states, from which they can deploy operatives whom they can train and equip with impunity, from far off the 'grid' of lawful, functioning societies. North Africa has been a source of growing concern over the prevalence of militant Islamist groups, and their capacity to spread mayhem and misery far beyond the shores of the African continent.

Indeed, I would be very concerned if we did not see stories like the above-linked from Somalia, and from numerous other regions. If in fact we are engaged in a global war, then we should be seeing evidence that our efforts are not confined to any one set of theaters, even such crucial ones as the Middle East and West Asia. I draw no small comfort, then, from accounts of our actions and those of our allies in such far-flung places as Mauritania, from which accounts emerge of vigorous anti-terror operations, and the Philippines, where US-backed allied forces recently took down a camp operated by Abu Sayyaf, another AQ-linked group.

As I discussed in my post, Global Counterinsurgency, what we are trying to accomplish in this Long War is, yes, to pursue and vanquish our foes where we find them, but also to deny them the safe havens in which they tend to thrive. Doug Farah's post on al Qaeda in Somalia offers important clues to how we might accomplish this:

One question often asked in counterinsurgency is what drives people to enlist in the jihadist armies. There are, of course, many reasons and many steps in an individual’s radicalization process.

But sometimes it might be, in part, as simple as that the radicals appear, at least for a time, to offer a better solution than the failed and corrupt governments that currently exist.

No one in Mogadishu has forgotten that under the ICU, for the first time in a decade, trash was picked up, the streets were safe to walk at night, and the nightly mortar battles were a thing of the past.

The main part of how we will win This Thing is by showing people that rejecting the intimidations and seductions of radicalism offers the best chance at a healthy, prosperous life. Given the global aspirations of those radicals, it is incumbent on us to be similarly global in our efforts. To those who ask the perfectly legitimate question: "what gives the United States the right to act as the world's policeman, to impose our version of a just society on others," it is equally legitimate to point out that we are not the only actors on that particular stage. Al Qaeda and its ilk are also striving to export their version of the good life across the world (as did Communism and Fascism before them). If the United States and its allies were to abrogate their role as champions of free and open societies and as foes of those who would subsume the world to a totalitarian vision -- religious or secular -- it is dangerous folly to think that those totalitarians would then be pacified, their aspirations magically mollified. Tempting as the isolationist, culturally relativistic position may be, the overwhelming preponderance of historical evidence supports the proposition that indulging it would do nothing save to embolden those for whom brute force is the ultimate arbiter of Right.

As a psychologist, my stock in trade is to suspend judgment and strive to comprehend how an individual construes his or her experience, such that we may detect, examine, and challenge the underlying assumptions which maintain a maladaptive behavior pattern. However, if confronted with a true sociopath, this approach would be far worse than useless; my empathy would be perceived as weakness, my suspension of judgment as carte blanche to steamroll over all boundaries and standards. Similarly, in our Global Counterinsurgency we must be just as prepared to foster and harness the legitimate strivings of a society to improve itself, as we are to offer no quarter to those nations and non-state actors for whom diplomacy is little more than an opportunity to play the irresolute for time, while consolidating their ability to reach out and crush them.

Al Qaeda and other radical terrorist entities will flow like water into the weak spaces of any effort to contain and defeat them. For this reason, we must be prepared to confront and preempt their ambitions wherever they may appear, whether this be in the sands of Iraq, the jungles of Asia, or the treacherous trenches of Washington, DC.

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