War on Four Fronts

War on Four Fronts

President Barack Obama’s war on al-Qaeda is assuming awesome dimensions. From Afghanistan, the war first spread to the tribal regions of Pakistan, before returning more recently to Yemen and Somalia, with further forays deep into the wastes of sub-Saharan Africa.

These territories, where wars are now being waged, have several features in common: They are Muslim, tribal and poor, and much of their home territory happens to be wild and inhospitable, with little modern infrastructure. Weighed down by cumbersome logistics, Western armies are at a disadvantage against tribal fighters, who tend to be fleet-of-foot, lightly armed and indistinguishable from civilians.

There is no doubt that al-Qaeda poses a security threat to the United States. The most recent demonstration was the Christmas Day attempt by a young Nigerian to ignite explosives on a U.S. commercial aircraft. Fortunately, he was overpowered by other passengers, allowing the plane to land safely at Detroit.

Equally, there is no doubt that Barack Obama must make war on such militants, and seek to destroy them, with all the power at his command. American opinion — and his duty as commander-in-chief — demands nothing less.

All is not plain sailing, however. Many experts believe that provoking the West into attacking Muslim countries is precisely al-Qaeda’s strategy — indeed that acts of terrorism like the one the young Nigerian attempted are intended to draw the United States and its allies into wars which are, by their very nature, unwinnable. If this view is correct then 9/11 was the biggest trap of all, since it triggered America’s war in Afghanistan and its invasion and occupation of Iraq. These catastrophic campaigns, with their fearsome cost in men and treasure, and their devastating impact on the civilian population of the countries concerned, have overstretched the U.S. armed forces and bankrupted America, morally and financially.

It would seem that far from weakening al-Qaeda, every missile strike by an American drone, every lethal raid on a village, every door kicked in and the privacy of a house violated, inflames anti-American sentiment and draws recruits into al-Qaida’s ranks — especially when there are civilian casualties, as there invariably are.

The question must, therefore, be posed whether military force alone is the best way to defeat a dangerous enemy. Should American hopes of victory lie in the further deployment of troops in Afghanistan; in clandestine operations by Special Forces; in remote-controlled missile attacks; in pouring American money, training and equipment into Pakistan and Yemen to urge them to confront the militants? Or should priority be given to other means — more political and economic — to isolate and neutralise al-Qaeda’s fighters? According to most experts, al-Qaeda’s numbers are still small, counted in the hundreds, rather than the thousands, but they are increasing.

In wars of this sort, two powerful mobilizing agents are at work, which draw men into militancy. The first is the perceived need to defend Islam against the aggression of infidels; although tribes are notorious for feuding, they will unite against a common enemy, especially if they are called to do so under the banner of Islam. The second is the all-pervasive tribal code which dictates that attacks from outside cannot be left unpunished. Retaliation is a central fact of tribal life. If a member of your tribe, clan or family is killed, his death must be avenged.

In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, tribal traditions are still very powerful. They provide the basis for tribal solidarity. The tribe or clan is the ultimate focus of loyalty, rather than the nation. Seeking to impose a Western model of society on such countries by force of arms is to court defeat.

On Al-Jazeera the other night, a plainly nervous Yemeni foreign minister, Abou Bakr al-Qirbi, made clear that his country did not want foreign intervention. It needed economic aid and military equipment, but not American troops. Although he did not spell it out, his meaning was plain. American air strikes destabilize and discredit the Yemeni government by portraying it as a stooge of Washington. Exactly the same phenomenon can be observed in Pakistan’s tribal areas where the Pakistan army is seen as waging war against its own people on America’s behalf.

Gregory Johnsen is an expert on Yemen at Princeton University. His views are worth considering. Military strikes, he said in a discussion with salon.com, “need to come at the end of the process, when al-Qaeda has been isolated from the population, when its rhetoric has been discredited, not at the beginning of the process, when al-Qaeda members are still seen as pious individuals defending their faith.”

Johnsen warns against considering all hard-line Muslims as members of al-Qaeda: “If you want to broaden the war out, and target all of these people, or say that they’re all al-Qaeda, then you’re opening yourself up to a war that you can never end, because you’re just fighting way too many people in Yemen.” Before America attacks, he recommends that it “narrow this point of who exactly is al-Qaeda to as small as it can possibly be.”

His basic point is that a military approach needs to be coupled with a development approach, because it is poverty, unemployment, a corrupt government and a general sense of hopelessness that cause young men to take up arms against America and its allies.

High-level international meetings are to be held in London on 28 January to examine the situation in both Afghanistan and Yemen. No doubt the emphasis will be on counter-terrorism. It might perhaps be wiser if priority were given to devising a political exit strategy from these conflict zones.

In Afghanistan and Yemen, mediation by influential neighbors or by respected individuals — such as the former Algerian foreign minister and veteran negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi — could help to bring about a ceasefire, so as to provide space in which differences can be aired, governments restructured and conflicts resolved.

It seems clear that President Obama’s expanding war against al-Qaeda is leading America deeper into a quagmire. I have long argued that he needs to apply political shock-therapy to the conflict in Afghanistan, rather than the shock of war. The same applies to Yemen, a country of mountains and powerful tribes, much like Pakistan. Obama urgently needs to change America’s image in the Muslim world from that of an enemy to that of a partner.

When he came to power a year ago, he tried to do just that. But like George W. Bush before him – he has fallen into al-Qaeda’s trap.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.