Al Qaeda in the AfPak strategy

The heavy focus on al Qaeda in the new AfPak strategy could complicate America’s broader strategy of strategic public engagement with the Muslim world. The politics of the focus make perfect domestic sense, as Obama — quite effectively, in a disappointingly Bush-like way — tried to recapture the mantle of the “good war” and to ...

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In this file photograph taken on July 2, 2009 US Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. US President Barack Obama on December 1, 2009 makes a globally awaited address on his new Afghan war plan and big troop surge strategy, shouldering the most perilous burden yet of a presidency defined by crises. In the televised address at 8:00 pm (0100 GMT December 2, 2009), Obama was expected to announce deployments of up to 35,000 more troops to battle the resurgent Taliban, Al-Qaeda and to secure Afghan cities, along with a civilian aid surge. AFP PHOTO/ Manpreet ROMANA/FILES (Photo credit should read MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images)

The heavy focus on al Qaeda in the new AfPak strategy could complicate America's broader strategy of strategic public engagement with the Muslim world. The politics of the focus make perfect domestic sense, as Obama -- quite effectively, in a disappointingly Bush-like way -- tried to recapture the mantle of the "good war" and to focus American public attention on 9/11. And to the extent that this represents a limiting of American objectives, then I'm all for it. But the heavy focus on al Qaeda risks rescuing it from the position of marginality in Arab and Muslim politics to which it has largely been relegated over the last year --- and could end up strengthening the strategic threat of violent extremism even if it weakens al Qaeda Central.

I am not talking here about the much-discussed point that al Qaeda does not seem to actually be present in any significant way in Afghanistan. The argument here rests on claims that the goal is to prevent al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan and that al Qaeda is so deeply interwoven with the various Talibans as to make the distinction meaningless. Both arguments are problematic -– but since both have been discussed elsewhere at some length, I won't dwell on them.

The heavy focus on al Qaeda in the new AfPak strategy could complicate America’s broader strategy of strategic public engagement with the Muslim world. The politics of the focus make perfect domestic sense, as Obama — quite effectively, in a disappointingly Bush-like way — tried to recapture the mantle of the “good war” and to focus American public attention on 9/11. And to the extent that this represents a limiting of American objectives, then I’m all for it. But the heavy focus on al Qaeda risks rescuing it from the position of marginality in Arab and Muslim politics to which it has largely been relegated over the last year — and could end up strengthening the strategic threat of violent extremism even if it weakens al Qaeda Central.

I am not talking here about the much-discussed point that al Qaeda does not seem to actually be present in any significant way in Afghanistan. The argument here rests on claims that the goal is to prevent al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan and that al Qaeda is so deeply interwoven with the various Talibans as to make the distinction meaningless. Both arguments are problematic -– but since both have been discussed elsewhere at some length, I won’t dwell on them.

I am more concerned with an issue more in the areas where I focus: the relationship between al Qaeda Central and the broader network of affiliated movements (AQAM, in the lingo) and like-minded individuals (which me might call AQN, the al Qaeda Network). A key part of the Obama administration’s strategy has been a very successful reorientation of America’s relationship with the Muslim world, downplaying al Qaeda and refusing to allow that extremist fringe to hijack or monopolize those vital relationships. But the new focus on al Qaeda in the AfPak strategy threatens to reverse that vital achievement … and even to revive al Qaeda’s flagging fortunes in the wider Muslim world.

In part, this refects a debate which has been raging for years over the importance of AQC to the wider network of salafi-jihadist groups and individuals. The Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy seems to have taken one side in that debate –- but whether that is because it is correct, or because it is useful to justify an Afghan military strategy chosen for other reasons, is hugely important.

For Bruce Hoffmann and other “Centralists,” al Qaeda Central continues to play an extremely important role in guiding, shaping, arming, and directing the seemingly inchoate network of jihadists. They point to evidence of contacts between the perpetrators of well-known cases and AQC affiliated people in Pakistan or elsewhere. They point to the deluge of AQ propaganda still pouring out of al-Sahab and other jihadist media outlets. On the other side, Marc Sageman and other “bunch of guys” analysts see the threat as primarily one of a very loosely affiliated network of like-minded individuals and organizations who neither need nor want direction from AQC. If AQC was needed as a spark to light the fire, it is no longer needed to keep the fires burning or new fires from breaking out when local conditions come together.

In reality both approaches likely have some degree of merit. AQC does still exist, does put out its propaganda, does try to shape and guide the jihad. But individuals and local organizations carry out their own analysis and planning, explode into action for their own private reasons, seek out and network with other like-minded people without being told to do so. A healthy strategy pays attention to both dimensions.

Clearly, the Obama administration does not intend to ignore the other areas of concern -– countering violent extremism across the spectrum and around the world. But the AfPak strategy puts a tremendous amount of resources into one side of the equation -– al Qaeda Central. This could only be justified if it were the case that AQC is in fact vitally important to the survival and efficacy of the broader jihadist challenge (AQAM and/or the AQN). The case here remains fairly weak, though. Even granted that they try to make a difference, it seems likely that were bin Laden and Zawahiri to be killed or brought to justice -– inshallah –- it is unlikely that this would materially affect the ideologically motivated actions of the pockets of salafi-jihadist mobilization around the world.

And all other things are not equal. The AfPak escalation may well increase the pressure on AQC –- especially if the Pakistanis can be brought more fully on board. But at the same time, it may well galvanize and strengthen the affiliated movements and like-minded individuals around the world. Affiliated movements may benefit from personnel or resources leaving the Afghan theater or Pakistani safe havens, and strengthen the capabilities of insurgencies in Yemen, North Africa, Somalia, Iraq or elsewhere.

And to the extent that the escalation angers Arab and Muslim public opinion, it could create a point of entry into mainstream attitudes which al Qaeda has largely lacked in recent years. It could reinforce the growing notion that Obama is no different from Bush, that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, that moderation does not pay. This would resonate dangerously with the breakdown of Obama’s efforts to push Israel towards a settlement freeze (especially if the Israeli-Palestinian front collapses into violence comparable to the 2000 al-Aqsa Intifada) or if tensions with Iran spike into military confrontation.

It is therefore absolutely vital that the Obama administration coordinate its AfPak strategy with its wider Middle East foreign policy and with its efforts at strategic public engagement with Arab and Muslim audiences. It needs to be sharply attuned to signs suggesting that its escalation in Afghanistan is restoring the ability of al Qaeda to appeal to the generalized “resistance” discourse which retains great sway with Arab public opinion. If it doesn’t do that, then even a successful campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan against AQC may end up actually strengthening the wider challenge of violent extremism which it is ostensibly meant to defeat.

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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