Apr 28th 2010

Al-Qaeda on the Ropes?

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

Strikes against al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's FATA and in Iraq are said to have damaged severely its leadership ranks. There is talk in Washington of this being a turning-point in the campaign to cripple the organization. Caution about reaching premature conclusions is in order, though. An overall assessment of the state of al-Qaeda in the light of recent events is a low confidence exercise. For a number of reasons. Here's why.

One, it is unclear exactly who or what we mean by al-Qaeda. It is not a unitary organization with a definite structure, lines of authority and accountability. Using a proper noun, our minds instinctively conjure the image of an entity of well defined contours and dimension - say, Goldman Sachs. The phenomenon we call al-Qaeda is amorphous, diffuse and in a continual state of flux. This is especially true after 9/11 and during its years of duress. The exact links between al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and "headquarters" in AfPak are obscure even to official Washington.

Two, therefore, there is no way to measure the degree of operational degradation for the omnibus movement caused by the loss of certain personnel. The record suggests that we tend to overestimate that effect. In Iraq, over the years, reports of leaders eliminated total several dozen. Yet there seems little correlation with AQM's ability to wreak havoc.

Three, there are a couple of reasons for these oddities that we prudently should keep in mind. We tend to confuse a terrorist network with an insurgency movement fueled by a nationalist agenda. "Al-Qaeda" is not the counterpart to the numerous nationalist movements we have known. It is not geo-politically focused on a specific plot of ground; its aims are changeable; and it can regenerate itself far better and faster than can nationalist guerrillas. For the latter depend on wide popular support and the motivation provided by one inspirational leader who is alive and active. The momentum factor is relatively less crucial for "al-Qaeda."

Four, Al-Qaeda in AfPak, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, al-Qaeda in Arabia, al-Qaeda in East Africa are all linked in various ways with other outfits -- above all, the Taliban in the first instance. Hence, each al-Qaeda unit's capability, tactics and orientation are partially a function of those shifting ties and the fortunes of their associates. Those associates, in turn, are even more diffuse than is the local al-Qaeda itself. Moreover, in AfPak, al-Qaeda's capability/viability is greatly affected by the intra-governmental politics of Pakistan. Given the prominent role of the ISI, and its alumni association, there is no way to disentangle the three intersecting groups. The simple fact that the Pakistani military have nabbed some Taliban leaders does not mean that they are out of the game. They may well be held in reserve by the Pakistanis for the next phase of the game.

Five, the game in AfPak is 5 player chess; not "cowboys & Indians" as we instinctively view it.

What does all this mean?

  1. Al-Qaeda is a phenomenon that defies scorecard evaluations.
  2. Consequently, you never know how close you are to reaching an objective.
  3. Most important, clarity of goal is imperative. Is it complete elimination of "al-Qaeda" in its entirety? Killing Osama and the remnants of the old leadership? Or, lowering the danger (to us? To our friends?) below a certain level?
  4. Washington's evident failure to make a determination of this kind leaves our policy open-ended and spastic. The Holbrooke/Gates line that "We'll know success when we see it" is a cop-out designed to mask confused thinking as to ends, costs, time-frames, tolerances and, therefore, what is a sensible strategy.
  5. We thus lack benchmarks for judging critical issues such as whether to treat with the Taliban on what basis for what purpose; what constitutes a tolerable state of affairs inside Pakistan; and the linkages between military operations and political operations in a multitude of forms.


In this context, there is reason to fear that self-serving domestic political considerations will be most influential in making these judgments -- implicitly rather for explicit reasons. The fog enveloping the "War on Terror" is useful concealment for all kinds of machinations.

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