Before we fall into a consensus that terrorism remains at (or very near) the top of the heap, permit me to play contrarian among these terrorism experts.

Matt advises we face a “three-fold threat”, namely: 1) core al-Q, 2) ‘franchise’ players like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and 3) a motley gaggle of some 300 groups (most of them Sunni, reportedly) that have “less direct ties to al-Qaeda”, per Matt.Let us take each in turn, if very briefly. Core Al Qaeda now sequestered in Pakistan, in the main, hasn’t even been able to overturn the Pakistani Government, let alone materially threaten ours, at least not since the traumatic events of 9/11, getting on a decade ago. They threaten important cities like Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province, a shocking and worrisome fact, but not yet the central government in Islamabad, despite high profile assassinations like Benazir Bhutto’s.

Regional al Qaeda affiliates of late, I’d argue particularly in the Maghreb, are gaining steam. A recent prominent attack on U.N. interests in Algiers is of concern, but again, I fail to see how these groups present a vital threat to these United States. An important one, yes (certainly in the context that they also happen to present a more direct threat to close European allies like Spain and Italy, say), but the primary one? I don’t think so.

Then we turn to Matt’s listing of some 300 terror groups we need be concerned about! But a brief perusal of Matt’s linked National Counterterrorism Center document shows many of the incidents occurring in such forlorn spots as Chad, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and dozens of course, in Iraq (there were far fewer there, indeed none, before our invasion, it bears noting, if it’s become tiresome to do so). Again, I query, is this the maximal primary U.S. foreign policy threat we will be confronting going forward?

Matt, to his credit (after an obligatory reference to the Iranian threat, itself overblown, as General Abizaid and other have noted even a nuclear Iran could very likely be contained–and this without necessarily setting off an arms race with Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others going nuclear) does mention sky-rocketing energy prices (despite recent down moves in oil it remains exorbitant), as well as the “not-unrelated issues” of the U.S. economy.

Forgive me for saying it, but the capsizing depression in the U.S. housing market, highly worrisome food and energy inflation, massive credit crisis to which bulge brackets banks have been brutally buffeted since July ’07, and generally dismal economic milieu (which I believe very likely to get worse, with more regional banks very likely failing shortly) I would suspect is rather unrelated to al-Qaeda and terrorism, with few exceptions like Nigerian militants on occasion impacting oil prices after successful attacks, or the “geopolitical risk premium” as tensions with Iran wax and wane impacting oil prices as well. I take the time to differentiate our economic turmoil from the terror threat as too often terrorism has served as an all-purpose boogey-man these past years, and I think this thinking deeply flawed with unfavorable ramifications for our policy-making process.

Eric in turn, while mostly agreeing with Matt that terrorism must be a “high priority” (re: which I don’t necessarily disagree, but we must be less skittish to name others too) wisely suggests sucking out some of the excess from the anti-terror mantle brandished about with crusader-like zeal by too many in the Beltway. In this I couldn’t agree more with his “1” through “5” below.

And yet, nowhere in this discussion do we mention our tottering relations with great powers like Russia, where our policy has veered into incoherence as Putin has effectively reversed democratization there in favor of some variant of state-oligarch-driven capitalist autocracy, as we dilly-dally over missile defense systems on their western borders that are, all told, likely not even necessary, but certainly hugely concerning to the Russians. Nowhere in this discussion do we broach the massive challenges posed by a rising China, whether integrating them better into the international economic system, digesting the implications of the largest rural migration into cities I think in history, the environmental challenges China presents to itself, the region and indeed the world, or even, the fact that new political and economic architecture is being cobbled together in the Pacific Rim, too often with not enough U.S. involvement (despite Chris Hill’s laudable efforts on North Korea, of which the boos and hisses only crescendoed the closer he came to success, discrediting the arrayed neoconservative nomenklatura disgruntled that diplomats dare deign do their jobs).

Nowhere either is there talk of the future of our relationship with India, where even at this late hour it is far from certain, indeed likelier not, that an agreement on the nuclear issue between Delhi and Washington will be agreed. Nowhere either do we highlight the critical imperative of resuscitating the scandalously moribund Arab-Israeli peace process, which despite the cheap theater of Annapolis, seems to have been sub-contracted out of late–via a combination of gross amateurism and neglect–to countries like France, Turkey and, say, Qatar. Nor even do we mention but perhaps in passing the pressing need for a Manhattan Project on energy, for greater movement on climate change, for our neglected relations with Central and Sough America (notably that rising BRIC Brazil), or the devastation being wrought through Africa via ongoing chronic conflicts and disease. I could go on, but these challenges matter too, do the not?

We are a great power (yes, still), and there are more than Sunni terror groups to be concerned about on the world stage. Our national psyche was profoundly wounded after 9/11, and understandably so, but I fear we have stumbled into an age of gross paranoia and incompetence, myopically focused on one single threat we deem the existential one of the age, while around us critical relationships/issues flounder because of abject neglect. This is a sad testament I believe to a foreign policy elite that has lost its moorings, and is in critical need of fresh thinking. Perhaps hope beckons with a new Administration incoming, though I’ve learned these past years to restrain my optimism.

Anyway, excuse the quasi-rant, as well as the length of this missive, and consider this a provocation to our group about question prompt 3, keeping in mind I certainly don’t believe terrorism to be an un-important issue, it is very important indeed and requires continued maximal vigilance and sustained attention, but am flagging for discussion whether it is really the defining challenge of the 21st Century, say, which we seem to hear too often in think-tank conclaves, or on the campaign trail.

With all due respect (and I sincerely mean this, not meant just as the requisite boiler-plate), I find Peter a tad too cock-sure in how he portrays more boots on the grounds as a total no-brainer (“well, do the math”). I understand the importance of boots on the ground for stability operations, indeed in the pages of my blog urged for supplementing our forces in Iraq back in the day, before the decision was belatedly made on the surge (once finally implemented after the myriad criminal ineptitudes of the Rumsfeld era, I disagreed with the wisdom incidentally, as it was not accompanied by a serious regional diplomatic strategy, so that we were merely forging tactical, localized security improvements but missing the wider strategic lens the situation demanded, and indeed still does today).

With all due respect (and I sincerely mean this, not meant just as the requisite boiler-plate), I find Peter a tad too cock-sure in how he portrays more boots on the grounds as a total no-brainer (“well, do the math”). I understand the importance of boots on the ground for stability operations, indeed in the pages of my blog urged for supplementing our forces in Iraq back in the day, before the decision was belatedly made on the surge (once finally implemented after the myriad criminal ineptitudes of the Rumsfeld era, I disagreed with the wisdom incidentally, as it was not accompanied by a serious regional diplomatic strategy, so that we were merely forging tactical, localized security improvements but missing the wider strategic lens the situation demanded, and indeed still does today).

This is something of my issue with Peter’s note too. Yes more troops=more stability (at least in the short term), but to what end? Peter says he “can’t get into that strategy as that is a much longer answer unsuitable for a post”, and perhaps so, but if we are involved in nation-building efforts in Afghanistan via ‘clear, hold, build’ in the wilds of Helmand Province, supposedly to align Pashtun tribes (say the large Alizai Tribe) with the Karzai Government–it behooves us to at least define better for what long-term objective we are doing so?

Forgive me if this is mawkish, but let’s make this more basic, if a tinge emotive: what do you tell the mother of a fallen Marine her son died for in Afghanistan, now well half a decade plus since UBL has fled the scene? To stress, the leaders of 9/11 are no longer there, after all, and peasants in southeastern Afghanistan who prefer neo-Talibs to Karzai won’t be the ring-masters of the proverbial “next 9/11”, I don’t think (for reasons I alluded to in an earlier exchange).

There have and will always be groupings in Afghanistan (and across the frontier in Pakistan) that are sympathetic to Islamist tenets–even some more ‘purist’ and ‘backwards’ than that of the central government’s ‘approved’ degree of requisite Islamic conviction/decorum, alas–and no amount of our young Captains trying to tee up assorted Jirgas will change this, I’m afraid. Nor can we transform Afghanistan into a Euro-style democracy with autobahns connecting Kandahar to Jalalabad, and looping back West to Herat. (Sadly, our own infrastructure, as Felix Rohatyn and others don’t tire of reminding us of late in the pages of the FT, is crumbling, and quite badly).

Combine this with what I indeed referred to as Afghan’s ‘historic aversion to interlopers’ (and I’ve found in life not to always put too much stock in polling data, so am less enthused seemingly than Peter about those results he quotes below, not least given the apparent trend-line), I’m simply not persuaded we might not feel ourselves increasingly adrift strategically in Afghanistan in the coming years–surge or no surge. This is particularly true as, scratch a mid-level European NATO planner, I suspect, and they probably can’t help wondering how an alliance meant to defend Western Europe from the predatory inclinations of the Soviet Union has transmogrified into an alliance requesting that young Germans and Danes and Spaniards engage in nation-building efforts half-a-world away from the post-historical pleasures of a good meal in Brussels.

After all, if we are there to prevent a “safe haven” by this logic we fall in to Fred Kagan and ilk la-la land and should be militarily nation-building across the border in Pakistan too. Again, horrific plots are more likely to be getting planned in the Parisian banlieu or slums of Hamburg than tiny villages in Helmand, I’d think, save those HVT’s still hiding in the region, whom we should of course be going after with all the mechanisms our national power–albeit mostly non-military save special mission ops to apprehend them, I’d think, rather than tens of thousands of men involved in a counter-insurgency that I believe does not necessarily, to this day, have the benefit of enjoying a coherent strategic overlay convincingly explicating why they are there and to what concrete ends.

All this said, Peter does mention more special forces below as key “to build up the size of the Afghan army and police”. As someone who worked on the “training and equipping” (“T&E”) of Bosnian Federation forces, I’m all in favor of a major T&E program for the Afghan security forces. But this is very different than nation-building and winning hearts and minds in remote hamlets bordering Pakistan, so we should perhaps clarify what we mean to be doing as part of the Afghan mission better, I’d say.

I agree with almost everything Peter writes below (particularly his “second” mistake, the clever subtlety he flags in his “third mistake”, and then too his last paragraph-to which I’d add the need to effectively engage with Syria too).

A small quibble however.

I’m not sure that Zbigniew Brzezinski’s statement that “We are running the risk of repeating the mistake the Soviet Union made…Our strategy is getting in deeper and deeper” means he (or I) are grotesquely misreading history. No one is saying we are employing a brutish, ham-handed Soviet approach to the Afghan campaign. The question is still legitimate (no one in this conversation seems to want to take it on, and so we risk missing the forest for the trees on the ‘military’ prong of the second prompt) whether multi-year (or even possibly decades long) nation building efforts in each of Iraq or Afghanistan are ultimately beneficial to the U.S. national interest, or the Global War On Terrorism (an increasingly silly phrase, in my view), or whatever supposed strategic objective we are pursuing in the region. I think this is what Brzezinski is really probing around, keeping in mind too Afghan’s historic aversion to foreign interlopers and their perhaps less than universal alacrity to comply w/the democratic diktats emitting from the soi disant wholly enlightened Karzai government.

I’ve beaten the horse dead already, so won’t go on, save to say I have spotted Peter of late on CNN agreeing with the consensus view more troops are needed in Afghanistan, although he says they must be the “right”” kind of troops. While I certainly agree with him that National Guardsman from Alabama don’t fit the bill, we alas don’t really have a teeming Colonial Corps deeply schooled in the ways of the Pashtun at the ready, and I’d like to suggest that before we as a nation (and indeed NATO Alliance, or which many of the members are already highly skeptical of this mission) sign off on deepening our presence in Afghanistan–even with the best of whatever counter-insurgency specialists we have avail–we should at least accompany this clarion call with a mission statement to warrant same. Ideally, a highly convincing one, of which I’ve not yet seen or heard, though others may disagree.

Peter allows that “our policies in Afghanistan are failing and require a complete rethink”. Perhaps if his schedule permits he can share with us more about how and why in this forum so that we might fall into informed discussion regarding better going forward options. Given he’s spent much time in theater it would doubtless be a highly valuable contribution to our discussions.

In Stephanie’s answer to the second prompt, she writes: “It is time to put the myth of the pre-9/11 mindset to rest” with which I think I mostly concur–save with some reservations about the level of attention both the Clinton and early Bush Administration paid to the growing al-Qaeda threat, but she then nonetheless writes: “For other segments, namely the vanguard in Afghanistan/Pakistan, the military has and will continue to play a leading role in containing and reducing the jihadist threat”.

I was curious who the “vanguard” is? Are we speaking of UBL and Zawahiri? If so, why would the military necessarily be best positioned to deal with them? I suspect many of the most precious high-value targets (think [9-11 mastermind] Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was apprehended in Rawalpindi by the [Pakistani Intelligence Service], I believe with some CIA involvement) could well be hiding in major cities like Karachi or Peshawar (perhaps in even more fantastical disguises than Radovan Karadzic’s!), rather than the badlands of South Waziristan. And even if there, wouldn’t highly focused counter-intelligence efforts–backed up by discrete military action as/if necessary–be the best way to locate and capture these terrorists?
How do our noble Marines expending blood and treasure on ‘clear hold build’ in eastern Afghanistan advance the ball on this front, rather than ‘over the horizon’ forces poised to strike/apprehend select High Value Targets’s, intelligence assets (both foreign and local) at the ready through the region, as aided by diplomatic efforts (to include ‘triangulation’ among India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, assorted financial assistance/pressure, police training initiatives etc). Or, stated differently, why is a militarily intensive & likely decades long nation-building effort with tens of thousands of American forces apparently a ‘no-brainer’ now across both major U.S. political parties when it comes to Afghanistan, particularly if much of the “vanguard” has decamped to Pakistan? (It seems Obama and McCain are only arguing about numbers and where the troops will come from, with both in favor of a “surge” in Afghanistan.) Is the seemingly perennial effort of weaning away Pashtun tribes from Taliban influences a vital national security interest of ours, do we think? If so, why? As Zbigniew Brzezinski recently put it: “We are running the risk of repeating the mistake the Soviet Union made…Our strategy is getting in deeper and deeper.” I suspect others like Chuck Hagel and Sam Nunn might well agree.

For the group, and I guess somewhat related, I’m not sure others responded to the first prompt’s particular prong asking what people believe is the most “underestimated” contributor to terrorism. I hazarded it was the occupation of Muslim lands. Are there any other views, with thanks for your indulgence if the answers are obvious and/or the questions appear off-topic?

Regarding Matt Levitt’s point, perhaps I’m only emphasizing what he eloquently said on needing a “truly interagency strategy.” And his response had the added benefit of helping ensure we steer clear of any polemics by not falling into (the often so silly) politically charged debates about Democrats only wanting to treat terror as a law enforcement issue, with Republicans just cow-boying around solely with military/unilateralist/preemptive strategies. While these are mostly caricatures and straw-men, still, it’s worth highlighting that we’ve had nearly 200,000 service men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq day after day, for years now. That is the major use of our military today. Both are supposedly there to help us meet our objectives in the Global War On Terror. Are they, or are they instead perhaps ultimately going to make the problems even worse? Let us at least provide our men and women in uniform a succinct strategic objective for their massive labors and sacrifices? What is it?

I certainly believe there are links between poverty and terrorism, but particularly in terms of the West’s so-called Global War on Terror, I believe more important are other variables such as the ones mentioned in the prompt, e.g. perceived humiliation, grievances w/ U.S. foreign policy, radical ideology etc.

For instance, certain of the key 9/11 hijackers were reasonably middle (or lower-middle class) young adults residing in European cities. And while others on this E-mail chain far more knowledgeable than me might correct me, the 15 or so Saudi hijackers (of the 19 total) I don’t recall having had hugely impoverished backgrounds, though certainly they were not enjoying the fruits of the petro-dollar gusher as are their local elites.
Still, I’d think, these terrorists were not the hugely impoverished peasants inhabiting the border-lands of South Waziristan and Afghanistan, say. (Incidentally, to mount “A Team” style sophisticated attacks in the West, almost as a tactical ‘gating-item’, once must enjoy a modicum of education and ‘Westerness’ to evade heightened security measures, pointing to those most dangerous potential terrorists not necessarily being those mired in the worst of endemic 3rd world poverty).

Meantime, and putting aside the famous example of Mohammed Atta and Co., one might query too whether the Madrid train bombers (mostly young Moroccans) or the July 7th London attackers (mostly home-grown and by the accounts I’m familiar with not desperately poor either), were primarily driven to action by poverty. I suspect not, but for avoidance of doubt, please note this is not to argue a key part of our overall anti-terror strategy mustn’t include economic development initiatives in critical areas like the Maghreb, Pakistan, etc, as doubtless poverty alleviation (not least given the demographic boom through MENA and South Asia of younger citizens) will become an increasingly critical challenge for policy-makers in the coming years/decades. I view poverty therefore as a tremendously unhelpful variable in all of this, but not necessarily a primary cause.

Indeed, I’d argue in this Internet and global cable age where IDF airstrikes in, say, southern Lebanon inflame televised opinion in the Islamic World from Tangier to Jakarta, it is more foreign policy actions of various powers, particularly those stoking feelings of humiliation, that create the impetus for (mostly) young Muslim males to join the jihadi cause. This said, local autocracies frustrating freedom of expression are a major part of this toxic brew as well, of course.

Related, I believe there is a ‘hard-core’ of ideological true-believers for whom radical ideology–and radical ideology alone–provide the requisite motivational impulse towards terror (say restoration of the much discussed caliphate). But I believe there are a good number of ‘fence-sitters’, some perhaps even tempted towards the faux romance of terrorism by boredom and feelings of alienation while residing in the West, who end up pursuing violent tactics not as much because of ideology per se necessarily, but ‘hot topics’ like the foreign policy of the U.S., which in turn lead to occasional feelings of perceived humiliation, leading them towards acts of terrorist horror.

Last, I would say the most underestimated cause (per the question prompt) is very likely the occupation of Islamic lands by foreign powers. This has historically been a major cause of Palestinian terrorism (see, over the years, the PLO, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, DFLP etc), and see too Chechnya, Lebanon (Hezbollah notably), and more. This being said, the transnational al-Qaeda variety of terrorism has sought to conflate festering conflicts/occupation/humiliation–and then somewhat fuse same w/ ‘purist’ ideology–so as to thereby be immunized some to the ebbs and flows of localized disputes, the better so there appear to perennially be ‘near’ and ‘far’ enemies, the scope of the jihadist playing field is global, and progress in the Middle East peace process, say (were we ever to see any again), would not be a reason to lay down arms.

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