Wednesday, November 19, 2008
You Do It to Yourself, You Do, and that's What Really Hurts
I am referring to the Bush Administration's intervention in Somalia in the name of the War on Terror. It has helped to destroy that wretched country's best chance of peace in a generation, left more than a million Somalis dead, homeless or starving, and achieved the precise opposite of its original goal. Far from stamping out an Islamic militancy that scarcely existed, the intervention has turned Somalia into a breeding ground for Islamic extremists and given al-Qaeda a valuable foothold in the Horn of Africa.
As the RAND Corporation, pointed out, the heavy-handed reliance on the US military in combatting terrorism is, generally speaking, a self-defeating endeavor. Lucky for us, al-Qaeda has some talented goal scorers as well. In pursuit of its agenda, al-Qaeda has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims, and these brutal tactics (that run afoul of Muslim theology) have alienated many potentially sympathizers throughout the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Zarqawi's bombing of the wedding party in Jordan was a particularly damaging event in terms of this element of the PR war.
In Iraq, too, those that claim al-Qaeda's mantle have employed excessively destructive and domineering tactics as well: deliberately targeting Muslims deemed takfir, while bullying tribal leadership whose roots stretch back centuries. The Awakenings strategy itself, which has done much to tamp down violence in Iraq (more than 30,000 extra troops brought in pursuant to The Surge), was made possible by the conflict between Sunni tribal/secular elements and the soi disant al-Qaeda in Iraq. As a result of many Sunnis' willingness to work with the US in an effort to rid themselves of al-Qaeda, AQI has little sanctuary in an increasingly hostile Iraq.
Which brings me to the subject of a recent post at Democracy Arsenal. In that piece, Ilan Goldenberg cites the three core vital interests for the US vis-a-vis the future Iraq. One of those is as follows:
No Al Qaeda Safe Havens: The U.S. has an enduring interest in preventing Iraq from resembling Afghanistan on September 10th, 2001.
This fear is overblown, however. For one, Iraq is a far less hospitable place for the emergence of such a safe haven: Iraqis themselves are, generally speaking, wary of foreign interference, Iraqis tend toward a more secular view of Islam that is incompatible with al-Qaeda's extreme Salafism/Takfirism, and the geography of Iraq (and lack of support from the locals) would leave al-Qaeda leaders exposed to attacks by US and Iraqi forces. As mentioned above, al-Qaeda's tactics and chauvanism have alreaday made enemies of most Sunni Iraqis, and so maintaining a presence will be exceedingly difficult. Further, AQI is able to draw recruits from neighboring countries because of the opportunity and, as some interpret it, obligation to combat a Western occupying army. Remove the US military from the equation, and AQI loses its most effective means of recruitment by far.
Finally, it is unlikely that Iraq will resemble Afghanistan on September 10th, 2001 due to the absence, in Iraq, of senior al-Qaeda leadership. In many respects, AQI is an indigenous group formed by some foreign elements like Zarqawi. But Zarqawi was not officially al-Qaeda when he began, and had a notoriously shaky relationship with bin Laden and Zawahiri. He was only assimilated into al-Qaeda after he cemented his leadership position in Iraq, swore an oath of fealty and was deemed to be a net plus to bin Laden and Zawahiri due to his popularity and prominence. But even then, serious tensions persisted between bin Laden/Zawahiri and Zarqawi as the former objected to the latter's targeting of Shiites (which they viewed as counterproductive to the cause of directing a united Muslim front against the US).
After Zarqawi was killed, and even during his reign, al-Qaeda has moved some more senior personnel to Iraq but still, it has not assembled a braintrust akin to 9/11-era Afghanistan, and due to the factors mentioned above it likely couldn't and wouldn't want to. We should be so lucky to have Zawahiri and (if he's still alive) bin Laden in the relative open of Iraq as opposed to the almost impenetrable Waziristan region.
But back to the subject of own goals. Today, Zawahiri released an audio tape in which he criticized President-elect Obama for, among other things, being a "house negro" (though the literal translation of the Arabic abeed al-beit is "house slave"). Compared to some of the other misteps mentioned above, this one is fairly minor, but still, the gratuitous injection of race into his critique of US policy will not serve al-Qaeda well in terms of PR. Consider: the world at large has reacted with a remarkable level of excitement at the election of Barack Obama, and the significance of his victory in terms of America's long history of racial discrimination is one of the more inspiring storylines. Yet, for no apparent reason, Zawahiri leads al-Qaeda directly into that headwind with a racial insult that serves little ideological purpose.
Now let's just hope our striker lining up to take a shot at Iran misses wide right.[UPDATE: What Ackerman said:
Who would have known that electing a black president also turns out to have an information-operations component as a bonus? We should want to publicize, far and wide, that Zawahiri is a racist. Drive this discrediting message into the heart of the Muslim world. I wonder what the tens of millions of African and African-American Muslims think about Zawahiri’s charming statement.Word.]
[UPDATE: What Ackerman said:
Who would have known that electing a black president also turns out to have an information-operations component as a bonus? We should want to publicize, far and wide, that Zawahiri is a racist. Drive this discrediting message into the heart of the Muslim world. I wonder what the tens of millions of African and African-American Muslims think about Zawahiri’s charming statement.
[UPDATE II: Ilan Goldenberg on some of the own-goal swapping of recent years:
First and foremost, Al Qaeda is an organization that thrives on propaganda. It paints the United States as an evil empire that oppresses its own minorities and has little regard for the rest of the world. Al Qaeda uses these types of narratives to raise funds and recruit. The Bush administration played right into this trap. Its "with us or against us" mentality and invasion of Iraq damaged America's image around the world and reinforced Al Qaeda's narrative.
But Al Qaeda's narrative is now under siege and it's clearly uncertain about how to react. The election of the first African American President, one with a Muslim father, flies in the face of this narrative. It shows America as an open and tolerant society - not the oppressive empire Al Qaeda would like to portray. In fact, the overwhelmingly positive international reaction to Obama's election is proof of the the threat Al Qaeda faces. [...]
Thus, it's not surprising that Zawahri has resorted to calling Obama a "house negro" to try and paint him as just another American President. But this is clearly more a defensive and weak message than effective propaganda that might actually work.
[UPDATE III: Spencer has more:
With an American president as loathed as George W. Bush around the world, it’s easy for Al Qaeda to portray the U.S. as venal and stupid and brutish as he’s proven. Obama complicates the narrative significantly: the very color of his skin, precisely what Al Qaeda mocks, symbolizes America’s willingness to change. That’s exactly what Al Qaeda fears most.
That’s why I kind of disagree with my friend Eric Martin of Obsidian Wings when he writes, “for no apparent reason, Zawahiri leads al-Qaeda directly into that headwind with a racial insult that serves little ideological purpose.” The racial epithet is a botched way of advancing a deep ideological necessity for Al Qaeda: to keep its narrative going, Zawahiri has to define Obama as not authentically American.
I think Spencer is absolutely right that I was too quick to reject the notion that there was a purpose. There clearly was, and I mostly agree with Ilan and Spencer on what it was that Zawahiri likely hoped to achieve. One caveat, however. Spencer writes that:
I think Zawahiri was less trying to portray Obama as "not authentically American" as he was trying to portray Obama as just another "typical" American leader, despite the color of his skin.
...to keep its narrative going, Zawahiri has to define Obama as not authentically American.
That's why he likened Obama to Condi and Powell. In other words, don't get fooled by his name, Islamic lineage and/or race - he's just a house negro who is going to maintain the same Imperial/Crusader policies as his traditionally white/anglo-saxon predecessors. On their behalf even.]