Analysis: Al Qaeda is the tip of the jihadist spear

Posted on October 10, 2009. Filed under: Afganistan | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

By Thomas Joscelyn & Bill Roggio

 Today, in Washington, there is a debate over how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan. One school of thought that has reportedly gained prominence is based on the belief that America should focus its resources on counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, and especially Pakistan, instead of a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in Afghanistan. According to this line of thinking, the US should expand its campaign of airstrikes in northern and western Pakistan, while downgrading the contest for Afghanistan’s future.

This approach is driven in part by an assumption that al Qaeda is a narrow problem that can be neatly disentangled from all of the other geopolitical issues, including especially the rise of Islamic extremism, that plague Central and South Asia. If we focus our efforts on Osama bin Laden and his not-so-merry band of men, proponents of this approach argue, then we can adequately protect America’s interests while avoiding getting further enmeshed in a potentially disastrous Afghan conflict. The Taliban and their fellow insurgents, then, the argument goes, are not our principal concern and we should not be overly concerned if they regain power in their one-time Islamic Emirate.

General Stanley McChrystal and other top military officials do not believe the strategy outlined above is adequate. The McChrystal plan for Afghanistan calls for America to wage a counterinsurgency campaign similar to that which evolved in Iraq. Underlying the McChrystal plan is the belief that if the US and its coalition partners prevent the Taliban and its allies from returning to power in Afghanistan, then this will necessarily weaken al Qaeda’s allies and, in turn, al Qaeda itself. In the military’s view, al Qaeda is not a standalone problem but instead one head of several on a jihadist hydra.

In the piece below, we take a look at the insurgency in Afghanistan more closely – from al Qaeda’s perspective. We do not think that a shift to a predominately counterterrorism campaign utilizing airstrikes and the like is sufficient to beat back the threat to America’s interests. In fact, we argue that such thinking is rooted in a dangerous ignorance of al Qaeda and our terrorist enemies. Al Qaeda was never a self-contained problem that could be defeated by neutralizing select individuals – even though capturing or killing senior al Qaeda members surely does substantially weaken the network.

Instead, Osama bin Laden and his cohorts deliberately fashioned their organization to be the tip of a much longer jihadist spear.

This was true during the years of the Soviet Jihad, when al Qaeda established a vast rolodex of like-minded jihadist leaders who, despite what were sometimes deep differences of opinion over tactical issues, could nonetheless be called upon as allies. It was true in the pre-9/11 world, from the early 1990s through September 10, when al Qaeda forged relationships with allied terrorist organizations first in the Sudan, al Qaeda’s base from roughly 1991 until 1996, and then in Afghanistan.

And it is true in the post-9/11 world, where al Qaeda continues to leverage its decades-long relationships with jihadist allies around the globe and especially in the heart of Central and South Asia. Thus, we find that each of the three primary Afghan insurgent groups discussed in General McChrystal’s analysis – the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), the Haqqani Network (HQN), and the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) – is a core ally of al Qaeda with long-established personal ties between these groups’ senior leaders and al Qaeda’s senior leaders. Moreover, al Qaeda cooperates with each of these organizations in substantive ways in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If anything, General McChrystal’s analysis actually downplayed the interconnectivity between these organizations and al Qaeda.

Taking a broader view, General McChrystal’s team identified two foreign states that are especially problematic in Afghanistan: Pakistan and Iran. Al Qaeda’s relationships with these states, or core parts of them, give it strategic depth in the region.
In Pakistan, the current civilian government has no interest in seeing al Qaeda live on. And General Musharraf’s regime provided vital assistance in tracking down senior al Qaeda members. But there is a hardened core within Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment – in particular, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency – that is dedicated to jihad and sponsors al Qaeda’s allies, including each of the primary three insurgent groups in Afghanistan today. We should never forget that Mullah Omar,Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – the commanders of the Afghan insurgency – were all originally ISI proxies and, to some degree, remain so today. Parts of the ISI have also worked with al Qaeda proper for years as well.

Then, there is Iran, which has its own longstanding ties to al Qaeda’s senior leadership. In the pre-9/11 world, the Iranian regime cooperated with al Qaeda in a variety of ways. In the post-9/11 world, Iran has harbored senior al Qaeda terrorists and even armed and trained the Taliban – Iran’s one-time enemy.

What is the significance of all this? Simply put, a strategic defeat of the West in Afghanistan today is a victory for all of these forces. Even though they are not all equal partners in the Afghan insurgency, they all hold deeply anti-American, anti-Western views and are heavily invested in a Coalition defeat. Should the insurgency permanently capture large swaths of Afghanistan, then these views will be vindicated. America will be seen as the “weak horse,” in Osama bin Laden’s words, once again. That al Qaeda is not the prime mover in the Afghan insurgency does not mean that its interests in the outcome are small. A victory for any of the three chief insurgency groups, or all of them together, including their sponsors, is a victory for al Qaeda and will surely strengthen its hand. And, contrary to widespread reporting, al Qaeda does play a noteworthy role in the Afghan insurgency.

The Quetta Shura Taliban (QST) and al Qaeda

The Taliban’s leadership, including Mullah Omar, consistently refused to turn over Osama bin Laden prior to the September 11 attacks. And after al Qaeda’s most devastating attacks, Mullah Omar again refused to answer calls for bin Laden to be turned over – even under the threat of war. The 9/11 Commission detailed the repeated efforts of both the Clinton and Bush administrations to get the Taliban’s leader to give up his most notorious friend. Those efforts failed – every time.

In all likelihood, this will never change. Mullah Omar simply will not abandon his longtime ally. Mullah Omar is the “Leader of the Faithful” and al Qaeda has sworn allegiance to his Emirate. Osama bin Laden himself has sworn his personal fealty to Mullah Omar. For Omar to betray bin Laden and al Qaeda now would be a colossal blemish on the Taliban’s legitimacy in the broader jihadist community’s eyes. Indeed, al Qaeda leaders have long recognized that Mullah Omar is firmly behind them.
Abdullah Sa’id, an al Qaeda commander who leads its “Shadow Army,” has openly mocked the idea that Mullah Omar would betray al Qaeda now. “US and Western sources talk about their readiness to accept the Taliban in the Afghan future political structure should it leave the Al Qaeda,” he has said. But that is not reality, Sa’id explained:

Read the rest of this article at LongWarJournal.org

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