Containing Al-Qaeda

I had a piece on the Guardian website this week about why al-Qaeda doesn’t care about killing Muslims. Patrick Porter, from Kings of War, who I mentioned in the article, responded to me:

I’ve been thinking about your critique of my post at KOW on AQ killing civilians. I think you and Devjil argue well but are wrong on the main point. AQ isn’t just a movement of despair and exisential rage, but a strategic idea. I appreciate your point that it doesn’t work as a right strategic ‘machine’, but its founders and core actually have pretty precise political goals.

He also sent me a copy of his long article, Long wars and long telegrams: containing Al-Qaeda, which should be read by all those who can afford to do so. He argues for a resurrection of Kennan’s ‘containment’ strategy on the basis that al-Qaeda will collapse of its own accord in the long-run, much as the Soviet Union did, and that the US should limit its actions to “more modest steps” – disrupting networks and finances (including targeted killings), isolating AQ by buying off potential supporters and draining the pool by emphasising America’s humanitarian role. By pestering it for long enough, AQ will become an increasingly secondary threat:

An Al-Qaeda at large, trying full-time to stay alive, pursued by an ever-growing set of enemies, even with the remote chance that it inflicts a terrible blow, is less dangerous than wars with Iran or Pakistan, an emptied treasury or a shredded constitution. Trading off time and conceding longevity to the enemy for the sake of lowering the war’s costs is worth it. This is because Al-Qaeda’s capacity to hurt America is less than America’s capacity to hurt itself.

If not completely eradicated, it will become a “‘manageable risk” in Porter’s view. I agree with all of this, especially the central thrust that occupation of countries is an enormously self-defeating method for fighting the war on terror.

What I think is missing from his policy implications is how to address the fact that the terrorist threat generates reactions out of all proportion to the danger it actually poses. A big advantage for AQ is that it need only do a very small amount to maintain its name and credibility. Even a failed attack by a man wearing a bomb as underpants sends the whole world – or at least, the media and the politicians – into a tailspin that gives AQ all the credibility it requires.

When he talks about redressing the issues that motivate support for AQ in the first place, Porter concentrates on Palestine, western support for autocratic regimes and occupation of Muslim lands. These are certainly central themes in AQ rhetoric, but I think the advantage of Devji’s view (see my Guardian article) is to see AQ as opposed to injustice in a more abstract sense, in which specific political goals are subsumed within a general malaise regarding the inequalities wrought by globalisation.  Solving a Palestine or stopping occupation or limiting our actions to mere containment, will not be enough to redress the far more fundamental injustices in the global system.

This not to say that AQ is simply about ‘existential rage’ – the argument is that the political goals set out by AQ’s leadership only have traction so far as they play on this more general feeling that the developed world has oppressed and plundered the rest. Individuals tend to be concerned by certain localised issues, but AQ’s role is to translate those individual concerns into a generalised language of globalised protest and provide a template for response. The goals it espouses, the religious mandate it claims – these are empty rhetoric designed for this purpose of general protest. Even if the individual leaders are not conscious of it – this is what they are effectively doing. This is clear from the sheer futility and hopelessness of their objectives and tactics.

The important point for me is that there are not very many people who will ever find that language of violent protest appealing. I therefore, from a different angle, agree with Porter’s recommendation of containment – not because I think AQ is failing in its stated goals to create a caliphate or overthrow the US, but because its language of violence will only ever find a very small audience and the west’s actions should be focused on keeping it small.

Considering just how few lives have actually been taken by AQ in the west in recent years, I would even argue that Porter’s vision of AQ becoming no more than “a manageable threat” is already here. The problem lies in convincing the media to stop treating its shoddy attempts at terrorism as a major threat to our civilisation. Unfortunately, that’s impossible since people love reading about terrorism and plenty of people love writing about it.

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One response to “Containing Al-Qaeda

  1. Hey Eric

    great thoughts. one big point: we are agreed that in many respects, AQ is now effectively defeated to the extent that it has become a manageable threat. And absolutely, more people need to realise this.

    On the containment front: my point in the article was in some ways to resist grand world-historical solutions. A more limited and drawn-out strategy of boxing AQ in while it destroys itself is quite different from the ‘solve Palestine/cure global injustice/redesign the middle east’ approach. A more modest approach seems even more apt given how much we have discovered the limits of our power lately.

    But I’ll put up more thoughts over at the Offshore B!

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