Al-Qaeda surprised the West again this week with its bold attack on the In Amenas natural gas facility in Algeria. This follows al-Qaeda’s surprise seizure of the central Malian towns of Konna and Diabali last week. That followed al-Qaeda’s surprise seizure in January of the Taftanaz air base in northern Syria and its September 2012 surprise attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
The attacks highlight four uncomfortable truths that few are willing to acknowledge:
1. Western intelligence on al-Qaeda is dismal and shows no improvement. As no Western officials are ever held accountable for their repeated failures there will be no substantive reforms, therefore intelligence failures will almost certainly continue.
2. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are growing in strength, effectiveness and popularity.
3. Al-Qaeda, just like the former Communist party movements before it, is a symptom of the problem, it is not the problem. Destroying the Communist parties in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq and Iran did not solve anything. It merely pushed those oppressed into more radical organizations.
4. This is because there is no overall Western strategy for turning this debacle around. The West has a basket full of tactics, such as drone strikes, targeted killings and secret prisons, but seemingly no understanding of the larger problems. By themselves, these tactics have not been successful at even containing let alone defeating al-Qaeda.
Within the United States the response by the Republican right has been delusional. There have been calls on Fox News for the U.S. to “crack down on Islamic extremists around the world” (whatever that means). What is an Islamic extremist and what does “crack down” mean? What about supporters vs. actual militants? Are Republicans proposing to kill all of them, even if they number in the millions, or putting them all in concentration camps? The Republican “solution” is simply nonsense.
The Obama Administration has no alternative solution other than to increase its targeted killings. The drone campaign was originally envisioned to be an extraordinary measure to be used only against senior al-Qaeda leaders who were beyond the reach of the U.S. It has now degenerated into a large scale bombing campaign targeting low level militant conscripts and civilian supporters and sympathizers. It has lost any moral high ground it might have had and it is a military failure because targeting mistakes and errors have caused far too many civilian casualties. The negative repercussions of the killing campaign outweigh any benefits. The drone program, to its credit, has achieved the impossible. It has pushed such diverse groups as Islamic extremists, human rights workers, Communists and journalists into a broad alliance against the U.S. and the West. Western efforts have also pushed old adversaries like the Taliban and Iran, into an alliance, and placed the West and Al-Qaeda on the same side in Syria, which is amazing.
The other Western response has been to once again embrace right-wing dictatorships with terrible human rights records, such as in Mali, Algeria, Uzbekistan and Yemen. This is the same misguided tactic that pushed the West into supporting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Libyan regime of Colonel Gaddafi and the Shah of Iran. The desperate quest for short-term stability created unholy alliances that only fueled conflicts and assisted al-Qaeda in its recruiting efforts. The West never seems to learn any practical or ethical lessons from its continuing love affair with brutal despots.
There are two possible strategies the West could employ to challenge the threats posed by al-Qaeda. The first is to fundamentally reassess their country team (military/diplomatic/aid/public relations/intelligence) approach to countries in conflict. The West has to recognize that its efforts have been a dismal failure to-date. Recognizing the problem is the first step to correcting it. The Kabul Press has spent years outlining how that effort could succeed. Such a revitalized approach would require massive changes in how each of the five components (military/diplomatic/aid/public relations/intelligence) operate. As there is no will or even understanding within the West for such an effort, this is not a realistic option.
The other solution is to concentrate on areas where the West has influence, which is within its borders. That plan would encompass a ‘fortress-America” and “fortress-Europe” option. The idea is to make the West independent of raw materials, oil and other vital goods from conflict areas and for goods that must pass through conflict choke points. That would allow that West to withdraw from some areas as its vital interests are not at stake. The simple fact is that the West, in its present depleted and drifting state, cannot protect the whole world, so it must narrow its focus. Such fortress plans are achievable, but again there is no will within the various Western Governments for such an ambitious plan.
As the West has no strategy for combating or even containing al-Qaeda, and no plans to adopt a viable strategy, it has no choice but to continue to react to al-Qaeda surprises. The question is how long can the West continue to plug holes in the dike before the dike collapses?