Solving the Al Qaeda riddle
Kevin McGrath’s book, "Confronting Al Qaeda", was published at a fortuitous time. With the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden, the general public continues to seek guidance on the best ways to confront Al Qaeda and how to protect the world from extremists.
As the public at large is beginning to learn, understanding the complexities of our struggle with Al Qaeda involves methods of comprehension beyond the simple binary contexts of good vs. evil. Also, this complicated subject matter requires further probing through the use of counterinsurgency theory and practice as exemplified by the efforts of Gen. David Petraeus in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The framework of Al Qaeda
The political and military struggles among those we confront include a complex cast of players and regional actors. For example, in Afghanistan you could be dealing with disparate tribes run by warlords who exist as part of an internecine struggle that goes back centuries. Or, you could be dealing with the introduction of foreign fighters representing Al Qaeda, or one of its franchises who represent Wahhabism, for example — a strict band of the puritanical branch of Islam most prominently practiced in Saudi Arabia.
All of this is further complicated by rogue factions within the Pakistani military and/or government who, in their efforts to thwart the perceived ambitions of India, have been protecting and coddling both the Taliban and Al Qaeda for over 20 years.
Further complexity by insurrections results from the “Arab Spring,” where Al Qaeda seeks to fortify their franchise by waiting for the dust to settle stemming from Arab unrest in countries such as Yemen. Al Qaeda, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is the most organized faction in that environment. They can afford to bide their time until a clear direction in the struggle for democracy in that region emerges — then Al Qaeda can organize their potentially deadly response.
Adding to our understanding of the Al Qaeda confrontation
McGrath helps us decipher the complexity of this struggle. He systematically lays out, region-by-region, who the players are; what their goals are; and more importantly, what the United States can do to counteract this volatile mix.
We have already come to some understanding of this in Pakistan, where the following factions are at play:
- Weak central government
- The Taliban Quetta Shura, an extremely militant faction of the Taliban
- Pakistani military
- Rogue members of the Pakistani military and their Secret Service counterparts
- The Taliban faction made up of guns for hire
How the United States should combat factions in Pakistan and Afghanistan
McGrath’s first approach is to note that there is a political struggle underway, existing below the surface, which may defy a strictly military solution. At this point in time, mid-2011, it’s difficult to tell whether the surge in Afghanistan is succeeding. There is some truth to the fact that the Afghani military and police forces have assumed greater credibility, and that the writ of the Afghani government is extending beyond just Kabul. But in the long run, a political solution must be fashioned that supersedes the concept of “winning hearts and minds.”
This political solution, as McGrath suggests is, of course, complicated. The key to success in this process is to remove the oxygen from Al Qaeda by undercutting its political support.
Though there may not be any such thing as “moderates” within the context of this struggle, what can be done — and in fact is being done — is to work with those factions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen who, though still steeped in their ideology, are tired of the struggle. Because of this exhaustion, compromise through economic, political, and cultural incentives could be designed to encourage participation in the political process.
As a result of this new political branding, warring factions have to be convinced to consent to uplifting the status and treatment of women, and to alleviate the overtones of graft, corruption, and authoritarianism that are still synonymous with governmental rule in some parts of the Arab and Muslim world. This is a bold undertaking. But we are fortunate to have the foundation to open up these societies as a result of the emerging effects of the revolutionary Arab Spring.
McGrath, K. (2011). Confronting Al Qaeda: New strategies to combat terrorism. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.