August 2010

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Peace, Quiet, Al Qaeda

by Jonathan Wallace

On September 11,2001, I was underneath the World Trade towers as the second plane hit. When we began bombing Afghanistan, then invaded, I was in favor, though not of the later, more dubious incursion into Iraq. When I read that a Predator drone missile has killed a man responsible for sending suicide bombers against civilians or our troops, I approve. I have waited nine years for the report that bin Laden has been captured or killed.

I am not against all wars, just senseless ones. Men hijacked planes and flew them into buildings in my country, killing thousands of people who went to work that morning unaware it was the last day of their lives. Whatever mistakes we have made and even crimes we have committed, we have the right to push back, protect our living space and our people while we sort it out. No-one, not even the Germans in World War II, has a moral obligation to allow themselves to be tormented and killed.

Also, the ideology which sent the bombers is an evil one, and that is a word I do not use easily. But it applies to a way of thinking which believes, in perfect self deception, that we have a right to lie, cheat, steal, and murder children, for God.

I have stated the obvious in the proceeding three paragraphs to set a background for the rest of this essay. As this war stretches on, with no end in sight and with substantial historical precedent, largely ignored by the people in charge, which suggests it can't be won, I want to discuss the circumstances under which peace could be achieved short of total victory. Alternately, if we can't achieve something as definitive, human and artificial as a negotiated peace, are there circumstances under which we could achieve quiet? By this I mean a state of quarantine or isolation from the enemy not dependent on treaty or interaction. For most of this essay, I will for convenience use the word "peace", distinguishing the two concepts as needed.

This essay represents a thought experiment, not a plea for capitulation. It is the fruit of the first time I have even let my mind range on the question of whether there is any deal, or disposition, possible under which we would be safe from our enemies.

It is hard even to consider this because of the memory of Neville Chamberlain, who found himself on the wrong side of history when he came back from Munich with an agreement with Hitler which he characterized as (universally misquoted) "peace for our time". Hitler occupied the Sudetenland the very next day.

However, whenever we commit to war, should not there first be a thought process (continuously re-evaluated as the war continues) about the possibilities and potential costs of peace? Even if this takes place in the most secret conference room in the White House, never to be disclosed, I would hope such analyses take place before a single American life is committed to be lost.

Any discussion of peace in the current World War (for such it is) must take into account the unique nature of the adversary.

Hitler represented the epitome of evil pre-bin Laden, the man who thought that the designated adversary was not human and therefore owed no obligation of respect or truth. Nazis lied, stole, tortured and murdered consistently with their ideology, as do Al Qaeda's followers. However, one gross difference was that Nazism in the end, was a cult of Hitler's personality, not truly of ideology. When Hitler killed himself, Nazism dissolved entirely, and Germany easily reverted to being a liberal democracy, with many ex-Nazis living quietly and peacefully in the successor state. This happened despite the fact that Nazism (with its superiority and sense of racial mission and entitlement) is a relatively "sticky" ideology, and has inspired flashes of sympathy, especially among the young, disconnected and angry, ever since.

Al Qaeda has proven certainly not to be a cult of Osama bin Laden's personality. It is far "stickier", more viral, than Nazism. It is decentralized, and propagated through preaching and web communications; some of its followers appear truly self-appointed, Al Qaeda more because they say they are than because of any contact with a centralized command.

Any analysis of peace with Hitler was highly contingent upon his personality, and the question of whether he could be trusted to keep any promises. Al Qaeda for our purposes is better analyzed as a virus than a human movement. If we wished to make peace, who would we make it with?

I arrive rather quickly at a conclusion that a negotiated peace is not available in the current world war because there is no-one to conclude it with. As far as Al Qaeda is concerned, there is no "there there", just a bewildering collection of hundreds of groups with overlapping but not precisely aligned interests. There is no one Al Qaeda; there is Al Qaeda in Mesopotomia, the Shabab,etc. There is not even one Taliban, but a Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, each of which subdivides into interest groups. Behind some of them is the Pakistani ISI, and the Kashmiri groups working in Afghanistan as a new fertile field and so on. Then there are the truly self appointed, like the Fort Hood shooter or the attempted Times Square bomber, who become discontented and murderous and then may reach out to an existing group for support.

With groups constantly forming and reforming, there is no stable group of adversaries you could get to the table at a peace conference. The chances of peace with Al Qaeda are nonexistent considering it has not been possible to reach a permanent understanding with a stable, visible and old line entity like the PLO. Even relatively conservative groups like Al Fatah tend to have murderous offshoots they claim not to control, something which plays a significant role in delaying or denying a Middle East peace. Then there is the fact that the Al Qaeda and Taliban units all share a common ideology which says they owe the "infidel" no obligation of truth.

Peace with the adversary in the current World War is analogous to making peace with a virus. This is a dehumanizing metaphor, of the kind frequently used to justify killing--Nazi ideology described the Jews as a disease--and I do not use it lightly. I turn to it not as a justification for murder but because it is useful to analyze how you achieve protection and safety against an adversary who just keeps coming, infiltrating at any point of weakness or inattention.

The rest of this short essay is therefore about the concept described above as "quiet", analogized as a kind of "quarantine" against a virus.

There are those, principally on the left, who feel that 9/11 happened because we kicked a hornet's nest. If we didn't intervene, brutally and clumsily in the Middle East, terrorists would have left us alone. Perhaps if we withdrew from Afghanistan and Iraq, did not meddle in Israeli-Palestinian affairs either, they would ignore us.

This seems to me a highly uncertain, practically incalculable outcome. The Islamic fundamentalist philosophy and lifestyle detests everything we stand for: liberal democracy, secularism, capitalism, materialism, equality and freedom of women. It seems likely to me that some component of Al Qaeda or the Taliban, somewhere, will always think of taking a shot at us from time to time just on general principles. There is no circumstance under which we could rest, stop being vigilant, and think of Al Qaeda as a phenonenon half a world away which does not affect us, ever again.

Leftist concepts of guilt and retribution are no more useful in solving the problem than rightist concepts of American exceptionalism and self-righteousness have been.

If a virus we could not cure was ravaging Afghanistan, we might perform an act of triage by cutting off all contact with that part of the world, while seeking to create all possible barriers to the propagation of the virus on our shores. This is an attractive proposition, given the lack of goals or an exit strategy in Afghanistan today, the weakness of the government we are propping up and its desire to deal with the Taliban. However, this would mean giving Al Qaeda a country again. In viral terms, we are separating ourselves while allowing the virus to grow wildly elsewhere and become powerful--not the best way to eliminate it from the earth. The virus metaphor suggests that we may have to fight it there, in order not to fight it here later.

A final, and perhaps most rational, way to come at the problem is from the very utilitarian problem of war-fighting. Physically occupying Afghanistan, while trying to capture the hearts and kinds of its people, is not working. An alternative approach to occupying a land being contested by guerillas, is to let them have it, with all the problems of governing it. If they strike at you from it, attack them punishingly in return, from the air or with brief incursions which do not result in permament occupation. This is the Israeli approach to Gaza, which has its problems but is certainly superior to the previous military occupation.

How do we reconcile the contradictory conclusions to which the virus metaphor and the war-fighting analysis lead? First, a real world approach trumps a metaphor every time--metaphors are only tools which sometimes prove to be misleading, not useful. Second, the metaphor leads to a recommendation which may be correct but not attainable, in the sense that there is no succesful, sustainable way to fight the virus in Afghanistan. Certainly, our present day approach is not correct.

Would we do any worse with Al Qaeda if we got out of Afghanistan and invaded it for a week at a time, here and there, in response to provocations? I think we might save American lives, and not suffer more attempts at terrorism here than we do today. It is ironic and counterintuitive, but before we chased Mullah Omar out, there was a country we could hold physically responsible for Al Qaeda attacks. Today, there is none.