al-Qa'ida prefers U.S. to stick around
* Leah Farrall
* From: The Australian
* November 12, 2009 12:00AM
THE Obama administration will shortly unveil its new strategy for the Afghan conflict.
A key objective is the denial of al-Qa'ida access to sanctuary in Afghanistan -- a goal the Bush administration also shared. There has been vigorous debate within the US political establishment about what strategy will best achieve this goal. Counter-insurgency proponents argue for increased troop levels while others believe it can be achieved by a targeted counter-terrorism campaign with a lighter force footprint.
Both of these approaches rest on the longstanding premise that al-Qa'ida wants another safe haven in Afghanistan. However, this premise is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of its strategic intentions. Afghanistan's value to al-Qa'ida is as a location for jihad, not a sanctuary.
While calling for jihad to liberate occupied Muslim lands is a potent radicalisation tool, it only yields substantive benefits when there is such a conflict at hand. Before September 11, 2001, most volunteers at al-Qa'ida's camps in Afghanistan wanted training for armed jihad. Al-Qa'ida had problems with attrition of its members and trainees who left its camps to seek armed jihad elsewhere, usually in Chechnya.
This was one of the driving reasons behind Osama bin Laden's decision to attack the US with the specific aim of inciting it to invade Afghanistan. For bin Laden, this created a new, exploitable jihad. Since the US invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, al-Qa'ida has become the pre-eminent group fighting a self-declared jihad against an occupying force. These invasions allowed al-Qa'ida to exploit allegations that the US was intent on occupying Muslim lands.
A withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan would undoubtedly hand al-Qa'ida and the Taliban a propaganda victory. However, a victory would deny al-Qa'ida its most potent source of power, influence, funding and recruits -- the armed jihad.
Without a jihad to fight, al-Qa'ida would be left with only its franchises -- all of which are involved in deeply unpopular confrontations with government regimes in the Islamic world. Their indiscriminate acts of violence as well as hostility towards other Muslims not sharing their views have badly damaged al-Qa'ida's brand. This has driven al-Qa'ida to refocus on Afghanistan because jihad against an occupying force attracts a level of support and legitimacy that attacking Muslim governments does not. It provides additional justification for al-Qa'ida and those supporting it to continue striking US targets.
A reorientation of US strategy away from counterinsurgency or a full or partial withdrawal of US troops is therefore not in al-Qa'ida's strategic interest. To keep the US engaged in Afghanistan, it will use a strategy it knows will work: terrorist attacks against the homeland. The recently uncovered al-Qa'ida plot in New York City (where the city's subway system was reportedly the target) suggests it may have already adopted this strategy. More plots and attacks are likely to follow.
Al-Qa'ida has an effective safe haven in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas from which to continue orchestrating attacks against the US. Although al-Qa'ida has suffered significant disruptions to its plots, these have not been caused by drone attacks in Pakistan. Rather they have come from law enforcement and intelligence action, usually in the countries it seeks to attack.
Drone attacks have inconvenienced al-Qa'ida, but it has lost little more than a handful of its core members. Al-Qa'ida's organisational structure, a devolved network hierarchy, means that it has been able to absorb any losses and continue with only a minimal slowing of its operational tempo. Al-Qa'ida is also not short of trainees. An estimated 100-150 Westerners are believed to have undertaken training with the organisation in the past year. It is well placed to continue plotting attacks against the West, which it is likely to have prioritised.
Al-Qa'ida also has another reason for attacking the US in order to keep it engaged in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban is moving away from al-Qa'ida and redefining itself as a national liberation movement. For al-Qa'ida, Taliban statements condemning colonialism and inviting good relations with its neighbours put a question mark over their relationship. The solution is the same: to attack the US, forcing a surge in American troop numbers.
This would tie the Afghan Taliban's hands. Taliban leader Mullah Omar's legitimacy would be jeopardised were he to publicly disassociate from al-Qa'ida and guarantee he would not again provide it sanctuary. His refusal to do so would then feed the justification for a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, ensuring the US remains engaged in the conflict.
Al-Qa'ida will continue to try to goad the US into staying involved in the conflict because the sustenance and empowerment the conflict gives al-Qa'ida far outweighs the benefits of a safe haven in Afghanistan. Until this is recognised, the strategies the US employs to protect itself from further attacks are likely to inspire more of them and, more importantly, sustain al-Qa'ida.
Leah Farrall was a senior counter-terrorism intelligence analyst with the Australian Federal Police from 2002 to 2008. She investigated the second Bali bombing and was the AFP's al-Qa'ida expert