- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008




Measuring Progress in the Struggle Against Violent Jihadism” this progress unfortunately mostly consisted of harvesting the low-hanging fruit - our victories were against the easy targets. The challenges of the next 18 months will be much more difficult.

Iraq was a major arena of progress. The routing of al Qaeda in Iraq was a significant victory. But let’s not fool ourselves. Al Qaeda in Iraq was never much of a strategic threat — it lacked indigenous support, was led by a psychopath with no strategic sense, and relied heavily on importing outside suicide bombers. Though many feared that al Qaeda might one day dominate Iraq, it was always more likely that it would be defeated. The Sunni “Awakening” — the rejection of radical jihadist by Sunni elites in western Iraq — merely pre-empted al Qaeda’s collapse once the U.S. withdrew or its obliteration by the Shi’ite-led central government.

Another area of progress was in Southeast Asia, where both the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines and Jamaah Islamiah (JI) based largely in Indonesia, were significantly weakened. Both these groups were highly vulnerable. ASG was a small, thuggish organization, with a highly personalized leadership structure and an often greater commitment to criminality than to jihad. JI also was highly personalized and its extremism was out of touch with mainstream opinion in relatively moderate Indonesia. Both the Philippines and Indonesia (especially after the Bali bombings) were strongly committed to counter-terror activities and cooperation with the United States. As a result, vulnerable, highly personalized movements and effective partners were the basis for our successes in this arena.

But now comes the hard part. The progress in Iraq and Southeast Asia has been offset by the failures in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and East Africa. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurgent. An indigenous movement with funding from drugs and the perceived legitimacy of fighting against foreign occupation, the Taliban is much less vulnerable than groups like Iraq’s al Qaeda or ASG. The Afghan government’s lack of capacity makes the fight even harder.

In East Africa, Somalia saw the largest increase in Islamist violence of any country in the world over the past year. The Islamist groups, which are also indigenous, claim to be resisting foreign (in this case Ethiopian) occupation, and are operating in a country that lacks any functioning central authority.

Pakistan may be the worst case, however. Al Qaeda remains entrenched along the border with Afghanistan. There seems to be compelling evidence that not only is the Pakistani government unwilling to root out al Qaeda, some elements of the Pakistani government, notably Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) may be actively in league with jihadist terrorists. Pakistan’s government, furthermore, is weak, and crippled by factional divisions and with the resignation of Pervez Musharraf, it is not clear where the military’s loyalty lies. A saving grace for the United States is that many Pakistanis are virulently opposed to the presence of Arab jihadists on Pakistani soil; unfortunately, they are equally virulently opposed to the presence of American forces to eject the foreign fighters.

The real problem for the United States comes not just from the increasing difficulty of the challenge, but the increasing delusion that we have discovered a strategic concept for victory in the concept of “the surge” and a renewed focus on counter-insurgency warfare. The challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not just greater than that in Iraq or the Philippines, it is fundamentally different. It is likely that success in South Asia will require a fundamentally different approach, including a larger role for the international community and non-military elements of statecraft. We need better tools to pressure the Pakistani government to live up to its obligations to control its territory, and ultimately there will need to be a political process in Afghanistan that somehow blunts the momentum of the Taliban. This region needs not just more attention, but more strategic thinking unencumbered by the desire to replicate the past.

Bernard I. Finel, an author, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.

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