Posts Tagged ‘Terrorism’

The Taliban Expands Its Reach Within Pakistan

April 24, 2009

During the past few days, several hundred Taliban insurgents have advanced from the Swat Valley into the Buner district of Pakistan, which is a mere 70 miles from Islamabad, the nation’s capital.  The militants have also appeared in neighboring Mansehra, where the Tarbela Dam, a critical source of electricity for central Pakistan, is located.  Some have moved into Shangla and towns near the borders between Buner and other provinces such as Mardan and Swabi. 


On Friday, Taliban leaders announced that Islamic courts will be established in Buner during the next three days.  The Taliban hope to ultimately establish Shariah law throughout Pakistan as they have already done in the tribal areas of the country.  Shariah is widely considered to be a harsh and oppressive social system.


American officials are gravely concerned about the deteriorating situation in Pakistan.  On Friday, Gen. David Patraeus, the top military commander in the region, told members of the House of Representatives that Islamic insurgents threaten “Pakistan’s very existence.”


Earlier this month, David Kilcullen, a top adviser to Gen. Patraeus, warned that “Within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state.”


On Friday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the situation in Pakistan is in “constant, steady decline” and “definitely worse than it was two weeks ago.”


US officials are pressuring Pakistani leaders to fight the Taliban more aggressively, but thus far they have been reluctant to do so.  The bulk of the army is stationed on the border between Pakistan and archrival India, and most of the military has only been trained for conventional warfare and has shown itself to be inept at counterinsurgency missions.  When the security forces have confronted the Taliban in the past their heavy-handed tactics have alienated the local population that they were trying to protect from the militants.  The civilian leadership is very weak and appears unable or unwilling to force the army to take on the insurgents.  The Pakistanis may not be willing to make a major effort to go after the Islamic extremists unless the capital is seriously threatened and they are compelled to take action.


Shutting Down Guantanamo

April 23, 2009

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to order the closing of the controversial US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by January of next year.  The prison and the harsh interrogation policies used against terrorist suspects, which many have described as torture, have elicited widespread criticism from the international community and many Americans.  US leaders realize the deleterious effect that the existence of the facility and the indefinite detentions of prisoners there have had on America’s image abroad.  But shutting down Guantanamo poses several problems for the Obama administration.


The US has essentially three options for dealing with the detainees.  One is to ship them back to their countries of origin.  However, many of those nations have refused to accept the men because they fear that they will cause violence and instability.  Some governments, such as that in Yemen, are weak and American officials are concerned that they will be unable to keep the suspected militants locked up or rehabilitate them; the escape of dozens of Al Qaeda members from a Yemeni prison last year validate these fears.  Releasing the prisoners also poses the risk that some of them will resume jihadist activities and threaten American lives and interests.


A second option is to try the suspects in civilian courts.  Doing so would require government prosecutors to compile enough evidence to convict the accused, which may be difficult given the nature of their capture and the higher standard that must be met in civilian courts vis-à-vis military tribunals.  Open trials could also reveal sources and methods used by US intelligence agencies and put informants in jeopardy.  In addition, many Americans do not want Al Qaeda members in their communities even if they are behind bars, a political issue that may dissuade elected officials from pursuing that course of action.


A third option is to keep Guantanamo open and detain the prisoners there until a better solution than the ones proposed is devised.  It appears unlikely that the Obama administration would be willing to consider a policy that would require it to reverse its position and thereby alienate the international community and a large segment of the American electorate.


There are no good options when it comes to the problem posed by the detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo.  The administration will therefore have to choose the least bad option, which may be to return some of the detainees to their home countries and try others in US courts.

Europeans Limit Commitment to Afghanistan

April 8, 2009

At a NATO summit meeting in Strasbourg, France on Saturday, European leaders limited their commitment to the war in Afghanistan by only offering to send an additional 5,000 troops there, 3,000 of which will merely be in country long enough to provide security for the August elections.  The Obama administration had been hoping for a larger, more long-term deployment of European soldiers as it increases American troop levels in Afghanistan from 38,000 to 68,000 this year.


President Obama, in accord with the conclusion of a recent American strategy review, stressed that the mission in Afghanistan was to “defeat Al Qaeda,” rather than more ambitious nation-building goals that some have advocated.  The main thrust of the new strategy, which European leaders support, is to enlarge and better-train Afghan security forces so that they can shoulder the burden of securing their country and thereby enable Western nations to withdraw.  This new, limited aim signifies that the Obama administration wants to pullout of Afghanistan as soon as an acceptable amount of stability is achieved.  European officials are in an even bigger hurry to extricate their troops.


A European diplomat at the summit, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “We are getting out.  It may take a couple of years, but we are all looking to get out.”


The quickly approaching end of NATO’s military commitment to Afghanistan brings into question what kind of role the alliance will play on the international stage.  At the beginning of the war, some in NATO saw the conflict as an opportunity to redefine the organization’s area of operations and demonstrate that the group could focus on missions outside of Europe.  But European plans to withdraw their soldiers from Afghanistan much sooner than the US reveals that nations within the alliance have different views of what serves their interests and the nature of the security threats they face.  Many Europeans do not consider Al Qaeda to be as much of a danger to them as Americans do, so their commitment to a global war against terrorism is likely to be more tepid than that of the US in the long term.  Consequently, NATO’s sphere of influence may soon be much smaller than anticipated a few years ago and perhaps confined to Europe where member states can focus on containing a resurgent Russia.

The Limits of Territorial Denial

March 30, 2009

During the last few years, Saudi Arabia has pursued what many believe to be a successful counterterrorism strategy.  After a series of attacks in the kingdom between 2003 and 2005, the government acknowledged that it had a domestic terrorism problem and began cracking down on militants.  Officers in the security apparatus who were sympathetic to Islamic extremists were purged.  More SWAT teams were created and put on 24 hour standby, and regular police personnel now receive one month of counterterrorism training each year.  Radical clerics were suppressed and 218 jihadists were sent to “rehabilitation camps” where officials tried to put an end to their violent tendencies (14 of them later continued their illicit activities).


All of the 85 people on the “most wanted” list of terrorist suspects are no longer in Saudi Arabia, which suggests that the anti-terrorism campaign has been very successfully.   However, many of the jihadists have simply moved to Yemen and Afghanistan from whence they continue to launch attacks against the Saudis as well as Afghans and Americans.  Those jihadists have declared their intention to overthrow the Saudi government.  Although the odds of that happening are low, the terrorists can still create instability in the strategically important oil kingdom.


The Saudi situation demonstrates that territorial denial, which can be beneficial to some extent, has its limits in terms of curbing terrorist threats.  This is especially relevant with regard to the US mission in Afghanistan, the goal of which is preventing Al Qaeda from regaining a sanctuary in Afghanistan according to the new strategy revealed last week by the Obama administration.  While preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist state is important, doing so will not solve the problem in Pakistan where Al Qaeda currently has a sanctuary that will probably not be eliminated anytime soon.  American and Pakistani officials recently acknowledged that elements in the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, have provided money, military supplies and strategic advice to Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents.  As long as the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to destroy America’s terrorist foes in Pakistan, US efforts to deny the militants a base in Afghanistan will only have a limited effect in terms of weakening Al Qaeda.