Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Why the U.S. Should Bomb Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Pakistan

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on October 3, 2009
If the United States is serious about terrorism, they should go after the main culprits

If the United States is serious about terrorism, they should go after the main culprits

The famous terrorist specialist, Bruce Hoffman, recently published an interesting article in this week’s National Interest arguing for a continued American presence in Afghanistan.  So his reasoning goes, many of the major operations formulated and perpetuated by the Al’Qaeda terrorist network- the July 7 2005 London-transport bombings and the failed 2004 plot against New York businesses- originated along the Afghan-Pakistani border.  Taking these plans into perspective, Mr. Hoffman shortly concludes that terrorists are heavily dependent on safe-havens for successful campaigns of violence, an advantage that allows them to easily move around without concerns of law-enforcement or military action.

Undoubtedly, Bruce Hoffman is one of the most respected experts on terrorism in the United States.  Colleagues of the political science community frequently cite his work to buttress their own arguments in top-tier academic journals, not to mention mainstream magazines such as Time and Newsweek.

With that being said, I cannot help but read between the lines of Mr. Hoffman’s rationale.  If he is indeed correct about the terrorist-safe haven connection, one has to wonder why the United States Government has been reluctant to expand counterterrorism operations in other parts of the world; some of which are more troubled and fragmented than Afghanistan is today.

Consider Somalia as an example.  The African country has been in a civil-war for the past seventeen-years, claiming the lives of ordinary civilians that are frequently caught in the battle-zone.  Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government- backed by the United States, the United Nations and some regional states- only controls a few blocks of the violent-ridden capital.  Islamist insurgents, most notably Al-Shabab, continue to execute horrendous acts of violence against pro-western officials, virtually ruining any chance for a unified Somali state.  Adding to this dismal situation is Al-Shabab’s considerable power in the southern portion of the country, only increasing the organization’s recruitment and morale.

The internal conflict within the Horn of Africa may not be so bad if Al’Qaeda militants were not exporting their religious ideology to the local population.  In fact, intelligence officials have proven that Al’Qaeda has been highly successful in converting former insurgents to would-be terrorists.  The fact that Somali fighters are strapping their chests with suicide-bombs is a graphic example.  Such a tactic was virtually unheard of in Somalia five years ago.

Of course, this may not be a problem if Al-Shabab was not aligned with the wider Al’Qaeda network.  Unfortunately, the United States Government confirms that this is not the case.  Somalia is now a new front in the War on Terrorism, thanks to a combination of American neglect and an obsession with the Afghan myth.

Sub-Sahara Africa has been a prime target for terrorist incidents over the past decade.  The 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania may not have occurred if Al’Qaeda was not able to move freely around Africa without the threats of governmental surveillance and subversion.  Unfortunately, it is precisely this lack of monitoring that quickly convinced the network to make an example of the African continent, improving their tactical and logistical capabilities.

Despite the consequences that have built up over the past several years, this policy is continuing to dominate White House discourse.  If freedom of mobility is what Mr. Hoffman is worried about, perhaps he should recommend an enhanced U.S. presence in places that really matter.

What about the relevance of Pakistan?  At this point, most Americans understand that Al’Qaeda is unusually strong in Pakistan’s tribal frontier, using the rough terrain as a base of operations against coalition troops in Afghanistan (as well as the Pakistani Government).  Bruce Hoffman says so himself, pinpointing the origins of many global attacks to Pakistan’s western border.

No one is disputing this fact.  We simply have no evidence to argue otherwise, especially when Al’Qaeda Central is continuing to thrive in the area, generating propaganda to proxy-cells in the Middle East and Western Europe.

This issue is not debatable.  What is debatable is Washington’s priorities, of which Afghanistan is still exclusively labeled as the major exporter of international terrorism.  This could not be more fabricated.  It is Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Sudan that are the main problems; nations that will only grow in significance for terrorist organizations if the U.S. continues on its present course of abandonment.

Al’Qaeda may return to Afghanistan once U.S. soldiers leave the battlefield, picking up where they left off before U.S. troops launched their eight-year war.  Contingent upon a failed Afghan Government and an inadequate police force, Osama bin-Laden may view Afghanistan as a ripe environment for his outfit, much like the 1990’s when the state was failing in profound ways (this is precisely why General Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy is the best option for the White House).

The fact of the manner is that Afghanistan is not a failed endeavor as long as the United States re-evaluates the war-effort.  It is in Africa, the Saudi Peninsula, and Pakistan where Al’Qaeda is at its peak.  Thus far, Washington has it backwards, largely ignoring these countries at the expense of counterterrorism in Afghanistan.  What needs to be done is the exact opposite: counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and effective counterterrorism elsewhere.

***Update as of October 5, 2009***  This past Sunday, General James Jones (National Security Advisor to the President) declared that Al’Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is severely “diminished.”  According to General Jones, the rank-and-file of Al’Qaeda throughout the country exceeds no more than 100 foot-soldiers.  If this is the case, the counterinsurgency strategy endorsed by General Stanley McChrystal just got another boost in credibility. This assessment is all the more reason to believe that Afghanistan is no longer the world’s leading safe-haven for terrorist activity.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-This blog was based on Bruce Hoffman’s article, “Why We Can’t Leave.”  It can be found in the National Interest at http://www.nationalinterest.org/PrinterFriendly.aspx?id=22224

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