Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Pope and His Shadow

I think Billmon is at least half-right about this:

Since at least the mid-'90s, Al Qaeda's primary objective -- its purpose in life -- has to been to provoke a religious war, one that would polarize the Islamic world and force most Muslims to line up on the side of jihad. Or so bin Laden and company hope.
The "religious war" is, in part, a means to achieve al-Qaeda's ultimate end-game: the creation of a unified Muslim caliphate. And the route to this religious war - through an emphasis and augmentation of the civilizations with the West - was deemed necessary for the achievement of the primary goal only after some initial failures. But first, a rough sketch of the background.

Since al-Qaeda's inception (and before for some members), the agenda was about creating a mass movement of Muslims properly radicalized and motivated that would eventually rise up in a chain-reaction of revolutions that would usurp the corrupt, apostate regimes currently ruling over Muslim nations. After these serial revolutions, a fundamentalist Muslim caliphate akin to Taliban style rule would be "restored" (created anew?) spanning the entire Muslim world (and some currently non-Muslim lands with historical connections). Once the formation of this religious society was achieved, Allah would reward these once-again pious Muslims with blessings that would, at long last, enable the Muslim world to catch up to, and surpass, the West.

Thus, bin Laden's vision provides an excuse and scapegoat for the humiliation and stunted progress in the Muslim world (ie, the lack of piety of its rulers, and their subservience to the West), as well as a romantic vision of some mythological past and possible future that could provide meaning and purpose to young Muslim men alienated, confused and unsettled by the tensions in their disjointed societies/personal lives.

Initially, however, al-Qaeda discovered that attacking the apostate regimes directly tended to alienate many Muslims rather than inspire them. Quite logically, it was Muslims that suffered losses in these attacks (when you bomb the Egyptian regime, Egyptians die), and thus al-Qaeda (and precursor incarnations) were being marginalized, not heralded as the vanguard of a mass movement.

That is when a decision was made to attack America instead of Muslim regimes. This would, in their estimation, serve multiple purposes. On the one hand, it would force America to withdraw support for the corrupt rulers which would weaken them and leave them ripe for overthrow. Second, targeting America would be far more popular for Muslims than attacking fellow Muslims - a target made more attractive by actual unpopular policies and virulent propaganda.

As added benefits, America could likely be provoked into over-reaction and heavy-handed, indiscriminate reprisals, which would only hasten the advent of pan-Muslim solidarity, radicalization and motivation. In this sense, America would do the work of radicalization for al-Qaeda - bleeding the former of vast amounts of money and resources, while al-Qaeda could reap the dividends.

Contra the overly simplistic characterization of al-Qaeda's purpose as expressed by Bush and others - that they attacked us because they hate us for our "freedom" - al-Qaeda had far more practical (if malevolant) designs.

The fact that bin Laden and Zawahiri viewed their mission in such pan-Islamic terms led to considerable tension between al-Qaeda leadership and their adopted representative in Iraq - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - who often acted compulsively out of a deep-rooted hatred of Shiites. For Zawahiri and bin Laden, though, such internecine fighting was counterproductive and disruptive to the overall mission.

Zarqawi's replacement, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, on the other hand, has a close relationship with Zawahiri and is more prone to adhering to al-Qaeda's overall ethos - and thus less likely to alienate large swathes of fellow Sunni insurgents and potential Shiite allies in the hoped for mobilization of all Muslims. That is why I suggested that taking out Zarqawi (while an absolutely necessary action that I would never counsel against), might actually result in our confronting a far more formidable foe in Iraq.

As in Iraq, al-Qaeda's strategy has worked in many respects, but it hasn't been an unambiguous success. Despite the mandate to target the "far enemy" (America), certain elements and loose affiliates persist in striking nearer to home (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, Indonesia, etc.). Although it may seem obvious to point out: it's hard to control decentralized groups of radicals. Also, despite al-Qaeda's "better" intentions, attacking Americans on US soil is not exactly easy to pull off - or at least not on a scale worthy of a follow up to 9/11. And regardless of the locations of the attacks mentioned above, many Muslims were outraged and turned off by al-Qaeda's brutality before 9/11 and since. Billmon again:
Like most extreme reactionary movements, Al Qaeda has no meaningful economic or political program (Land to the Tillers, All Power to the Soviets) to offer the Islamic masses. It's call for the strictest possible interpretation of Shari'a law is divisive and repels rather than attracts international sympathy. But what it does have going for it are wide and deep fears of cultural penetration and Western domination, and the ancient religious duty of all Muslims to defend Islam and the community of believers.
As pointed out in the second part of this paragraph, in far too many ways the Bush administration has been playing into bin Laden's hands - so as to minimize the impact of al-Qaeda's mistakes and the flaws in their overall message/methodology. By invading Iraq while Afghanistan was still smoldering, engaging in morally dubious policies of torture, rendition and unlimited detention, and hyping up the clash of civilizations rhetoric, the Bush administration is accentuating al-Qaeda's appeal and de-emphasizing its weaknesses.

It is not mere serendipity for Republicans that bin Laden and Zawahiri show a remarkably consistent penchant for releasing inflammatory audio, video and written messages during election seasons. Zawahiri and bin Laden are well aware of the domestic political dynamic, and how fears of terrorism - once stoked or primed - favor the GOP. There is an unsettling symbiosis, and the CIA came to this conclusion years ago.

This is part of the reason I have been so mindful of the use of the term "Islamofascism" (here, here, and here) and other such clash of civilizations type rhetoric. This overheated language is ripped right from bin Laden's script. Billmon again:
[The Bush administration is] conjuring up the spectre of a vast, monolithic and powerful Islamic fundamentalist movement, implacably hostile to the West. They're implicitly and even explicitly defining all who oppose their maximum program for a "new" Middle East as extremists -- the enemies of civilization.

They should be more careful what they wish for, because they might actually get it. This latest turn towards fear-mongering rhetoric is practically an open invitation to any Sunni Muslim who supports "traditional values" to line up with Al Qaeda. The Cheneyites are going to great lengths to alienate people who might otherwise find the jihadist ideology too radical and too destructive.
Not just Sunni Muslims, but Shiites as well. This echoes a concern I pointed out in the comments to this post about the use of the term "Islamofascism":

It tends to create a clash of civilization type of dynamic, and taint an entire religion. It instills the impression that we in the West paint Muslims with a broad brush - and an unflattering one at that (everyone from Saddam, to Arafat, to bin Laden, to Nasrallah, to Ahmadinejad are the same in our eyes).

Taking the time to distinguish between these groups that have, in actuality, significantly different goals, and labeling them accurately based on those positions, just seems smarter to me.

A funny thing happens when you pool people together into one group and criticize them as such, even if they traditionally have animosities, inconsistencies and incongruities. They tend to begin to think like a group, defend the entire group and get overly defensive and siege-minded. Here, that dynamic could be exacerbated by the fact that the phrase can be seen by those not aligned with these groups as targeting them as well.
In the wake of the recent fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, there was considerable disagreement in Sunni extremist circles about how to treat Hezbollah's efforts since Hezbollah is a Shiite group and not necessarily working toward the goal of a Sunni Muslim caliphate (this reflecting the Zarqawi-like hostility to Shiites who are viewed as heretics). But instead of trying to use these in-built tensions to our advantage as a wedge, and instead of differentiating between groups with divergent goals in order to counter eash with tailored policies, we adopted the position that they are all a part of the same phenomenon, with the same goals: all "Islamofascists." Some within these groups - especially al-Qaeda's leadership - began to think like this as well.

And for what? What do we derive from such rhetoric other than a smug sense of superiority?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on who you would ask. While it has been terrible PR from a counterinsurgency perspective, there are certainly Western groups and individuals that are also pushing - as bin Laden is - for a clash of civilizations. The Western agitators call it "World War IV," and their incitements can be found on Fox News and the pages of the Weekly Standard, National Review, Washington Times, New Republic and elsewhere. For proponents of World War IV, there is much to gain from painting all such divergent Muslim groups with a common tag - the better to capitalize on the attacks of 9/11 and compel action against all disparate groups akin to the invasion of Afghanistan. They, like bin Laden, relish the idea of a religious clash of civilizations.

Within that context, we get the inexplicably wrong-headed words of the Pope - who seems to have cast his lot in with the World War IV advocates.
Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.
It's hard to argue that the Pope was not intentionally being inflammatory. This statement is really so far over the line that attempts to walk it back just won't do the trick - nor feeble defenses about it being just a quote (if I quote approvingly from the Elders of Zion, can I avoid being labeled an anti-Semite?). And the Pope's words have no doubt hurt us all - Muslims and non-Muslims alike. On the flip side, I'm sure bin Laden and Zawahiri are absolutely ecstatic. And so we get developments such as these described by Billmon:
What's alarming (or encouraging, from bin Ladin's point of view) is that the original covert war against a transnational terrorist group appears to have morphed into a connected set of traditional Third World insurgencies, in which Islamist guerrilla fighters have managed to find or create relatively secure bases -- the Taliban in Afghanistan's Orzugan and northern Helmand provinces, the core of the old Al Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas and, just perhaps, Al Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar Province.

Col. Pat Lang...calls these "redoubt areas" -- perhaps harking back to the so-called Iron Triangle, an expanse of rubber plantations northwest of Saigon that was one of the Viet Cong's favorite stomping grounds...

Such redoubts are essentially no go zones where the "legitimate" government has no presence and occupation troops rarely go (and then only in massive strength). This means they can be used as rear areas by the insurgents -- places to assemble units, rest and refit, build supply dumps, headquarters, hospitals, etc. Locals can be enlisted or dragooned into serving as porters, laborers, spies, etc. Redoubts are what southern Lebanon is to Hizbullah, and like southern Lebanon they may be honeycombed with tunnel complexes, command bunkers and underground ammo dumps and armories -- all the things a guerrilla army needs to survive a war with a vastly superior First World military.
Now think about it, would you rather try to foster the connectedness of these redoubts, or fragment, splinter and isolate their exploiters, and instead deal with them on an ad hoc basis? Is it in our interest to hype a clash of civilizations just like bin Laden? Do we want to have to tend to raging wild fires across a broad expanse, or manage a piecemeal process with more selectivity? Perhaps we may want to consider at least the possibility that if Osama wants an all out clash of civilizations, we may not. Maybe.

Of course, that would require that the Pope and President tuck away their feel-good catchphrases, slogans and historical analyses. It would require them to cease the deliberate campaign to agitate, provoke and exacerbate tensions and hostilities (I know, what an odd request to make of the Pontiff). Small price to pay though. Even if it upsets bin Laden and Zawahiri, and they decide to stop sending along campaign booster shots every October. Hey, you'll still have Rove.

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