By Barry Rubin
Leon Panetta, leaving the CIA directorship post to become secretary of defense, and General David Petraeus, leaving the job of commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to become CIA chief, have just come close to declaring victory in the war against terrorism, though that’s a phrase the Obama Administration refuses to use.
Good news, says Panetta. Once the United States knocks off about 20 al-Qaida leaders currently in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa, that organization will be out of commission. And while the Taliban cannot be quickly wiped out, says Petraeus, it can be “neutralized” so that it won’t cause much trouble in future.
Oh, and Panetta said that the U.S. goal is to force the Taliban to negotiate a deal to allow for national conciliation in Afghanistan. Here’s my proposed headline: Obama Administration Says: Make Deal with September 11 Accomplices. How’s that sound? That’s what’s really going on, a deal with the terrorists and not their defeat.
Uh-oh. Let’s assume that they are correct. So the forces that carried out the September 11 attack will not matter any more. So the Obama administration won’t have to worry about Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim Brotherhood– which it seems to think are now moderate, democratic-oriented groups. Nor will it have to be much concerned about all those other revolutionary Islamist organizations out there. Perhaps it can then focus on what seems to be the White House’s main priority, the “War on Islamophobia.”
Presumably, without those defeated threats, Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Iran, and Syria won’t be a problem for U.S. interests and security. Iraq and Afghanistan will be stable and friendly polities.
One can only think of the lines from the satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer:
“Once all the Germans/were warlike and mean/but that couldn’t happen again!/We taught them a lesson in 1918/and they have hardly bothered us since then!”
In other words, the Obama Administration will lull itself even more into a false sense of security as the revolutionary Islamists advance in their effort to overthrow all the region’s regimes, take over the Middle East, and expel Western influence.
But let’s not assume they are correct on the specifics. The most basic principle of counter-terrorism is that just because the leaders are killed (and despite efforts to assuage grievances) broad-based terrorists groups don’t disappear. Obviously, the administration wants to play off its successful killing of Osama bin Ladin to imply that a few more such operations will do the trick. But al-Qaida is a very decentralized group.
Local affiliates continue to exist especially in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Algeria. They aren’t going away so easily. I’ll bet that parallel, albeit non-member groups, will soon appear in Egypt and elsewhere. Preventing terrorist bombers from blowing up U.S. airliners and embassies is a worthwhile task, but that’s not the same thing as stopping terrorist groups–even if they momentarily aren’t using violence–from seizing control of countries and then using violence to intimidate opponents and launch attacks on neighbors.
The fact that Petraeus has become a national hero because of being right on Iraq should not obscure the fact that he was wrong on Afghanistan. Petraeus has long believed that the United States could defeat the Taliban, use civic projects to win Afghan hearts and minds, and to build Afghanistan into a stable democratic polity. The idea that the United States can depend on the Afghan government and military to hold off radical Islamists isn’t going to work. Afghanistan isn’t Iraq.
As for the Taliban it isn’t going to be “neutralized” in any real sense. It might just lay low and let the U.S. forces leave the country, then go into action again. Indeed, it has been revealed that the secret negotiations between the U.S. government and the Taliban seek to obtain precisely that outcome. Does anyone seriously believe–other than the Obama Administration–that the Taliban is going to live up to its commitments? Can one imagine “conciliation” in Afghanistan?
I want to be clear that I do not favor a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. But a withdrawal must be accompanied by ensuring that local anti-Taliban forces keep up that battle in their own self-interest. Pressing them to make a deal with the Taliban, which can then use any such gains in trying to seize state power, is the worst possible policy. Remember that the United States is withdrawing from Iraq with a strategy of helping the Iraqi government defeat the al-Qaida allied terrorists there, not making a deal with the insurgents.
The underlying problem is that Panetta and Patraeus are articulating two of the many myths held by the Obama Administration: that revolutionary Islamist groups aren’t a threat unless they are trying to blow up American skyscrapers and that they can be moderated by killing a few terrorist leaders or making a deal with them.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org. His articles published originally in places other than PajamasMedia can be found at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com