Belmont Club

Direct Action

A number of recent articles suggest that al-Qaeda is making a comeback across North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. “America’s strategy to counter AQAP has relied on direct action operations to manage the immediate threat and on Yemeni counter-terrorism efforts to reduce the group’s safe haven.” But political unrest has created opportunities for al-Qaeda to resist the dismantling of those safe havens, creating places into which neither America and its allies can peer. That in turn means drone strikes and special forces attacks may become progressively less effective.

Gen. Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, describes the importance of local “eyes” in the Wall Street Journal with regard to Afghanistan. The US needs the Afghans to snoop out the bad guys, but the Afghans also need the US to keep them alive.

Without the Afghans helping us in our mission, pretty soon we won’t know of anyone to target with drones, and our special operators will roam through hostile territory unequal to the inflow of terrorists. We need the Afghans’ help in this fight. They are giving a lot—and taking the casualties to prove it. But if we abandon them, they’ll stop.

The symbiotic relationship between an American presence and local allies is that each needs the other to survive.  When that ecosystem breaks down then the pathogens multiply. Noting that al-Qaeda has doubled in size in Iraq after the American withdrawal Keane derives this lesson:

Anyone wondering what Afghanistan will look like if we abandon the war or draw down troops too rapidly should look to Iraq, where a residual force would almost certainly have halted the current re-emergence of al Qaeda. Or to Syria, where more moderate forces are being increasingly overrun by hard-line Islamists. Or to Yemen, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has carved out territory and an operational headquarters to plan attacks against America. Or to Libya, where the facts about Benghazi are still trickling out, but where we know that an al Qaeda-affiliated group was behind the deadly attack.

Basically America is stuck protecting its “eyes”. In the last of three debates Mitt Romney displayed a remarkable understanding of the problem at the heart of President Obama’s policy of “leading from behind”. The idea that you could keep down the Jihad by hunting them down with drones hid the necessity to be engaged in protecting local intelligence assets. Ultimately there was no way you could do things for free; you could not simultaneously mollify the pacifist wing of the Democratic party by withdrawing everywhere; you could not do things exclusively by proxy and still keep al-Qaeda at bay. Step back and they would fill the void. Romney said:

“But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is certainly not on the run …

The key that we’re going to have to pursue is a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own. We don’t want another Iraq; we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us.”

While the Romney policy was at best only generally outlined in the debate it marks a significant departure from that of the Obama administration’s — and Bush’s. Romney appears to acknowledge after four years of denial that America is actually at war; that it is not a simplistic case of “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead”, and that if America wants to win the war it will have to make some serious investments and wise strategic decisions.

At the same time Romney appears to be averse to the large ground operations on the scale of Afghanistan and Iraq that characterized the response to the original 9/11. Romney is looking for a solution that will be cheaper than conventional operations yet not so cheap as to be as useless as the approach Obama is now pursuing.

It may take some time to find the formula. But the conflict against radical Islam is likely to be on the scale and order of duration as the Cold War. It will not end on Mitt Romney’s watch. But if it is to end at all then it must be based on a strategy that presidents from both parties can resolutely continue for fifty years or more.  During that period the US will try one solution after the other. What is important is a constancy of aim based on a sound start.

Does the administration have a current plan? If it does then it isn’t the one they have announced in the papers. The one with grand bargains, surgical strikes, big speeches and buttons and bows.  Benghazi hints there was something else. The administration’s strange attempts to ascribe the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi to a video scream out a reluctance to discuss certain other aspects of policy at a time when the President wants to look strong on national security. Reuters claims to have three emails internal to the State Department, some drafted during the actual attack, indicating the attack was being claimed by a militant group.

The first email, timed at 4:05 p.m. Washington time – or 10:05 p.m. Benghazi time, 20-30 minutes after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission allegedly began – carried the subject line “U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack” and the notation “SBU”, meaning “Sensitive But Unclassified.”

The text said the State Department’s regional security office had reported that the diplomatic mission in Benghazi was “under attack. Embassy in Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well.”

The message continued: “Ambassador Stevens, who is currently in Benghazi, and four … personnel are in the compound safe haven. The 17th of February militia is providing security support.”

A second email, headed “Update 1: U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi” and timed 4:54 p.m. Washington time, said that the Embassy in Tripoli had reported that “the firing at the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi had stopped and the compound had been cleared.” It said a “response team” was at the site attempting to locate missing personnel.

A third email, also marked SBU and sent at 6:07 p.m. Washington time, carried the subject line: “Update 2: Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibility for Benghazi Attack.”

Michael Totten says it “should put to rest once and for all how long it took for the White House and State Department to learn that the terrorist attack in the Libyan city of Benghazi last month was, in fact, a terrorist attack.” It probably does. But the emails themselves do nothing to explain the curious behavior of administration which is acting like it has something to hide. That behavior has fueled speculation. Events in Benghazi seem to threaten the narrative the administration wishes to advance even when that narrative itself is likely to be incomplete.

The Obama administration has shown a proclivity for negotiating with its enemies partly in the hopes that it can “take them over” from the inside and partly in the expectation that in so doing they can set one group against the other. Those who don’t think the US can negotiate with al-Qaeda like groups should recall that the administration has been pursuing negotiations with the Taliban for some time. Newsweek quotes Vice President Joe Biden’s ideas on the subject.

We’re engaged in a reconciliation process. Whether it will work or not is another question. But we are in a position where if Afghanistan ceased and desisted from being a haven for people who do damage and have as a target the United States of America and their allies, that’s good enough. That’s good enough. We’re not there yet.

Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests. If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us. So there’s a dual track here:

One, continue to keep the pressure on al Qaeda and continue to diminish them. Two, put the government in a position where they can be strong enough that they can negotiate with and not be overthrown by the Taliban. And at the same time try to get the Taliban to move in the direction to see to it that they, through reconciliation, commit not to be engaged with al Qaeda or any other organization that they would harbor to do damage to us and our allies.

It’s only natural to suppose this template, which Biden so clearly articulates, will carry over into North Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. Basically it is this: ‘Just stop attacking us and all these goodies — all these countries even — may be yours’. In that case “leading from behind” is a term of art for bribing and intriguing with the enemy. It is an attempt to suborn them in detail and set one against the other; the Velvet Glove which is the complement to the drone iron fist.

Romney understood where this policy led: to a Palestinian authority and Palestine on the scale of the Middle East,  buying off one set of thugs after the other, killing one set of miserable murderers after the next.  Maybe this is what we were never meant to see about Benghazi: the supreme cynicism of this most idealistic of administrations. The final months of Obama’s term are coming to an end on an unsolved mystery; or perhaps it was simply a problem whose solution they pretended to have yet which has baffled them till now.

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