Archive for the ‘Al Qaeda’ Category

Metrics for the Struggle Against Islamic Terrorism

February 2, 2010

The American Security Project, a Washington-based policy institute, issued an annual report in December of last year that assesses global efforts to combat Islamic terrorism; the report is titled Are We Winning?: Measuring Progress in the Struggle Against Al Qaeda and Associated Movements.   The authors, Bernard Finel and Christine Bartolf, use the following 10 metrics to judge success or failure based on changes from the previous year:

1. The number of terrorist incidents.

2. The state of the Al Qaeda leadership.

3. Terrorist financing.

4. The activities of Al Qaeda Associated Movements (AQAM)

5. The amount of ungoverned spaces in the world where terrorists can thrive.

6. International cooperation in fighting terrorism.

7. State sponsorship of terrorism.

8. Public attitudes in the Muslim world.

9. Public attitudes in the US.

10. Levels of economic prosperity and political freedom in the Muslim world.

The authors conclude that there has been progress in the following areas: diminishing the strength of Al Qaeda’s leadership, enhancing international cooperation against terrorism, dissuading states from sponsoring terrorism, and improving economic prosperity and political conditions in the Muslim world.

The report states that there have been setbacks in terms of the number of terrorist attacks and the abundance of territory in which terrorists can find safe haven.  It also says that progress has been mixed or uncertain when it comes to inhibiting the financing of terrorism, combating AQAM, changing public attitudes in the Muslim world, and American fears about the terrorist threat.

The authors’ key finding is that although the number of terrorist incidents has increased over the past year, Al Qaeda’s strength has diminished, in large part due to US drone strikes against Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan and an overall reduction in public support for Al Qaeda among Muslims.

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Build, Buy, Leave

January 29, 2010

Following the conclusion of the London conference on Afghanistan yesterday, it became clear that the West’s exit strategy for the war-torn country can be summed up in three words: Build, Buy, Leave.

Build–The US and its NATO allies are trying to recruit and train more Afghans security personnel.  The Western coalition wants to increase the size of the Afghan National Army (ANA) from approximately 100,000 troops to 178,000 by October 2011 while adding 14,000 patrol officers to the Afghan National Police (ANP), which currently has 95,000 patrolmen.  Plans call for the security forces to eventually total 400,000, comprised of 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police.

Buy–Britain and Japan have agreed to donate $500 million to help the Afghan government persuade Taliban fighters and their commanders to lay down their arms and engage in peaceful politics.  Officials believe that militants can be bought off with promises of money, protection,  jobs and political appointments.

Leave–America and its European partners have said that they will begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next year when security conditions are expected to improve.  Western leaders want to reduce casualties and costs at a time when the war is becoming increasingly unpopular at home.  They also fear that an extended foreign presence will alienate Afghans and make them turn against international forces.

The odds that the coalition’s exit strategy will work according to plan are low.  Nearly doubling the size of the Afghan army in less than two years may not be feasible because recruiting and training quality troops takes a lot of time, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that 90 percent of Afghans are illiterate, which means that training manuals cannot be widely used.  Most Western soldiers are engaged in combat or combat support duties, so there might not be enough military trainers to do the job.  The current police force is considered by many to be corrupt and ineffective, so augmenting the ANP might not make much of a difference in terms of improving security on the local level.

Buying off the Taliban probably will not be as easy as some policymakers think.  Although some lower echelon militants have left the battlefield after being offered incentives by the government, the latter has not lived up to its end of the bargain; safety and employment for former fighters remain elusive.  In addition, many Taliban, especially senior leaders, are ideological fanatics and ardent nationalists who are determined to drive foreign elements out of their country and re-establish an Islamic state, and they seem to believe that their ultimate victory is inevitable if they continue their attacks.

Pullout Western troops out of Afghanistan next year would likely create a security vacuum given the strenth of the insurgency and the high probability that the Afghan security forces will not be much stronger by then.  In that case, the US and NATO will have to choose between maintaining their current operational footprint or letting the situation on the ground deteriorate.  If they go with the second option they will have to scale back their objectives, which now include defeating the Taliban, facilitating economic development, increasing the capacity of the government to deliver basic services to its citizens and protecting human rights.

Making Peace With the Taliban

January 25, 2010

Western officials and Afghan President Hamid Karzai hope that a peace agreement can be reached with the Taliban as a way of ending the insurgency in his country.  The topic will almost certainly be discussed at an upcoming conference in London where world leaders will confer about the future of Afghanistan and the eventual withdrawal of foreign military forces from the war-ravaged nation.

Gen. David Patraeus, the head of Central Command, told reporters that “The concept of reconciliation, of talks between senior Afghan officials and senior Taliban or other insurgent leaders, perhaps involving some Pakistani officials as well, is another possibility” when it comes to counterinsurgency efforts.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, said “I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future and not the past” after he was asked if Taliban leaders should be allowed to serve in government posts.

But the prospects of a broad peace deal with the insurgents are slim for two main reasons.  One is that the insurgency is comprised of muliple factions with different aims and interests, including Mullah Omar’s Taliban, the Haqqani network and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG).  Mullah Omar and his comrades want to return to power in Kabul where they once governed before they were overthrown by the Northern Alliance with critical assistance from the US, whereas the Haqqani network is more like a criminal organization and HIG is a tool of warlord Gulbuddin Hekatyar.  All three factions have ties with Al Qaeda or have expressed support for the terrorist movement.  The situation is further complicated by the fact that various tribal leaders and other powerbrokers are connected with the insurgency out of loyalty, self-interest or fear, and it would be difficult for the central government to win their allegiance.

A second key reason that the outlook for a peace agreement is bleak is that the insurgents, many of whom are radical ideologues and hardcore nationalists, do not appear to be at all interested in laying down their arms.

Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said “We cannot say how soon we will achieve victory.  Our mission is sacred.  Victory and defeat are in the hands of God.  But Afghans will defeat this regime as they did that of the Russian-backed regime.”

Mr. Hekmatyar also claims that the US will suffer the same fate in Afghanistan as the Soviet Union, which withdrew in defeat after 10 years of fighting guerillas.

Even if some sort of tentative peace pact or ceasefire were reached, it would likely be fleeting and merely give the Taliban and other anti-government forces the opportunity to regroup and rearm before returning to battle.  Offers of reconciliation may ultimately succeed in luring some low level fighters away from the insurgency, but militant leaders and most of their followers will probably reject such overtures for ideological, political and financial reasons.  Therefore, Western policymakers and Afghan officials should not be too optimistic that extending olive branches will bring an end to the war anytime soon.

The Security Situation in Yemen

January 12, 2010

Earlier today, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Edmund Hull, the former US ambassador to Yemen, in which he seeks to counter four so-called  “myths” about the country where he served.  He says that the following are popular misconceptions about Yemen:

1. The Yemeni government’s control does not extend much beyond the capital, Sana.

2. Yemen is a Qaeda haven because it is the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden, who is supported by tribes in Hadhramaunt Province.

3.  Yemen is torn by Sunni-Shiite divisions, much like Iraq.

4. Yemeni tribes have an inherent affinity for Al Qaeda or terrorism.

Mr. Hull’s assertions do not paint a full picture of the situation.  Although it is true that the Yemeni government has some influence outside Sana, there are large areas of the country where the government is weak, including the northwest  region where an insurgency persists.  Al Qaeda thrives in such places where they are less vulnerable to attacks by security forces; Somalia and the tribal regions of Pakistan are similar regions where militants have a relatively safe haven.

Although Yemeni tribes might not have an “inherent affinity” for Islamic militant groups, they have sheltered Islamic extremists in the past.  Muhammad al-Hanq, who was recently captured after a gun battle, is a tribal leader in Yemen and the head of the Arhab cell of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Tribes and clans are loyal to members who join terrorist groups, and they are obligated by custom to protect those who seek their hospitality, including anti-American militants.  Consequently, the tribal nature of Yemen may pose a challenge to counterterrorism forces.

There are also significant religious divisions in Yemen, although they may be less serious there than they are in Iraq.  There is a secessionist movement in the south of the country, where residents are primarily Sunni Muslims, against the government in the north, where Shiite Muslims predominate (President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a Shiite).  Southerns believe that northerners have unfair economic priviliges, and religious differences might be perceived as one reason for the discrimination.  Al Qaeda is comprised of Sunni extremists, and they might be able to exploit the north-south conflict if it turns violent.

These facts probably will not matter much when it comes to America’s policy toward Yemen.  The US will almost certainly continue to provide the state with intelligence, financial aid and military assistance (such as training and weapons) while carrying out targeted attacks with drone aircraft and special operations teams.  The US will not have a large presence in Yemen nor will it engage in nation-building efforts like it has in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yemeni officials will have to deal with the political, cultural and socioeconomic facets of their country on their own when it comes to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies.

Overwhelmed By Drone Videos

January 11, 2010

In an article published today in the New York Times, Christopher Drew discusses America’s use of drone aircraft to gather intelligence data.  Last year, Predator and Reaper drones recorded 210,240 hours of video feed.  In the coming years, the number of drones in operation is expected to increase dramatically, as are the number of cameras mounted on each platform; as a result, the amount of video footage that intelligence analysts must sift through will skyrocket, which might make it more difficult for the Air Force and other organizations to exploit the information that they receive for operational and strategic purposes.  The military and the CIA have reportedly had success in using live video to combat terrorists and insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but intelligence agencies have done little in terms of analyzing prerecorded video for useful information, largely because there is so much of it and too few personnel to examine it.

Ironically, the US government must worry about having too much intelligence.  Those monitoring video footage could be overwhelmed by the inflow of data and miss critical feeds that they might have otherwise seen.  If analysts can only focus on a small percentage of what is gathered, they must ignore most of it, which means they have to figure out a way to select which data is most important before they can see it with their own eyes.  The NSA faces a similiar issue with regard to communications intercepts, and it has been widely reported that they use computers to scan conversations for keywords that might signify a threat.  Perhaps the intelligence community will be able to harness technology to mitigate the problem posed by the exponential rise in video recordings, but they will not be able to solve it.  Intelligence officials and procurement officers must weigh the pros and cons of having more intelligence data but less ability to examine the bulk of it before they develop and deploy more drones.