The Dogs of Afghanistan: Obama vs Osama
by Shaun Appleby, Sun Jun 07, 2009 at 12:36:42 AM EDT
It's ironic that at the time when the framing 'war on terror' has receded from US public discourse the most telling blows are finally being struck. The conflict with al-Qaeda was always a war of ideas punctuated by horrible and unexpected violence for no other purpose than to provide tangible evidence of 'legitimacy' for the enemies of the 'Great Satan' who presumed to lead oppressed and potentially militant Muslims across the world. Our strategy of fighting this 'war' by suspending civil liberties, promoting fear at home and apprehension overseas while unilaterally projecting US military power in the Middle East and South Asia always seemed as likely to play into the hands of the self-appointed enemies of the US as not.
It almost seemed calculated that Bin Laden struck the US when our leadership was predictably willing to frame the conflict in the convenient medieval narrative of 'crusade.' But things are different now, we finally understand the field on which this battle will be won:
"Barack Obama is not just trying to reach out to Muslims for the sake of it," says Mr. Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College and an authority on modern jihad. "He's trying to hammer a deadly nail in Osama bin Laden's message." What President Obama understood more than his predecessors, Mr. Gerges says, is that it is not a war that can be won militarily, but only ideologically.
Jarret Brachman, a former West Point terrorism expert and author of a recent book, "Global Jihadism," said the speech "was the most important strategic step we've taken in this war."
"That's why Al Qaeda is so nervous," he said.
Rod Nordland - Forceful Words and Fateful Realities NYT 06 Jun 09
Woven within Obama's address to the Muslim world from Cairo was a carefully crafted refutation of the al-Qaeda argument, point by point, presented in the form of classical Islamic scholarly discourse, complete with quotations from the Qur'an:
Senior administration officials say the speech was carefully crafted to rob the Al Qaeda leader and his terrorist network of some of its chief recruiting totems, including fears the United States plans a permanent presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
White House officials say that the tide may be turning on the world's most wanted man. "For the first time, they're beginning to lose the propaganda war," said a top aide traveling with Obama during his six-day mission to Europe and the Middle East.
The week of high drama featured a showdown of sorts between the two leaders -- Obama vs. Osama -- with Obama's soaring speech and a bin Laden audiotape providing a powerful point-counterpoint as each sought to make his case to the Muslim world.
Mike Allen - Barack Obama takes aim at Osama bin Laden Politico 6 Jun 09
In January Bin Laden threatened to open 'new fronts' against the US and it's allies. On the eve of Obama's speech his scratchy audio-taped prebuttal was more tactical, and clearly concerned with his own backyard:
In a tape broadcast by Al Jazeera shortly after Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, bin Laden said the president had inflamed hatred toward the US by ordering Pakistan to crack down on fighters in the Swat Valley.
He said: "Obama and his administration have sowed new seeds of hatred against America.
"He has followed the steps of his predecessor in antagonising Muslims ... and laying the foundation for long wars."
Bin Laden attacks Obama policies Al Jazeera 3 Jun 09
It is indicative that this message was focused on the Pakistani offensive in Swat, the frontline evidence of the turning tide of Muslim sympathies and aspirations. The Taliban, having alienated public opinion in Pakistan, have increased popular support for the newly-minted civilian government's leadership and a determined military effort against this militant Islamist threat, including seeking and confronting the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, in their homelands. Ideological rhetoric is always most effective when the winds of change are blowing in your favour, and they are blowing fair for us right now.
And Bin Laden's operational mastermind, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, issued a similarly pugnacious polemic:
Mr. Obama's speech referenced the future, quoted from the three major monotheistic religions, and talked about a new beginning, all delivered with his customary calm. The two voices of Al Qaeda were strident, almost violently so, in their discourse.
"Be aware that the dogs of Afghanistan have found the flesh of your soldiers to be delicious, so send thousands after thousands to them," Mr. Zawahiri taunted Mr. Obama, according to a transcript of his audio message distributed by SITE, which monitors and translates jihadi Web sites. "America has put on a new face but its heart is full of hate."
The contrast with Mr. Obama's central message is luminous.
Rod Nordland - Forceful Words and Fateful Realities NYT 06 Jun 09
If that sounds reminiscent of the fatalistic and meaningless rhetoric issuing from Berlin in the twilight of the Third Reich, let the historic parallel sink in. For once in the eight-year long conflict we've prosecuted against al-Qaeda and their violent narratives, things seem to be breaking strongly our way. There is every indication, for example, that after a brief period to allow for the secure return of IDP's to Swat the Pakistani government will direct a major military operation in the al-Qaeda homelands of North and South Waziristan:
TANK: The government is mulling over a plan to establish camps for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the wake of looming military operation against militants in troubled spots of the North and South Waziristan agencies, while the media reports about possible army offensive have scared the local residents.
Sources told `The News' Thursday the unusual movement of army and paramilitary troops in the militancy-infested areas of the both agencies strengthened the tribesmen's view about the possible military assault on militants.
Looming operation in Waziristan The News (Pakistan) 16 May 09
This would be a significant move. The Pakistan Army has attempted operations in Waziristan before but lack of public support and low troop morale with indifferent leadership led to a half-hearted effort and an embarrassing defeat. Now it is different, the military are backed by the government and the government has support within it's coalition and increasingly among the people:
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: A year ago, the Pakistani public was deeply divided over what to do about its spreading insurgency. Some saw the Taliban militants as fellow Muslims and native sons who simply wanted Islamic law, and many opposed direct military action against them.
But history moves quickly in Pakistan, and after months of televised Taliban cruelties, broken promises and suicide attacks, there is a spreading sense -- apparent in the news media, among politicians and the public -- that many Pakistanis are finally turning against the Taliban.
The shift is still tentative and difficult to quantify. But it seems especially profound among the millions of Pakistanis directly threatened by the Taliban advance from the tribal areas into more settled parts of Pakistan, like the Swat Valley. Their anger at the Taliban now outweighs even their frustration with the military campaign that has crushed their houses and killed their relatives.
"It's the Taliban that's responsible for our misery," said Fakir Muhammed, a refugee from Swat, who, like many who had experienced Taliban rule firsthand, welcomed the military campaign to push the insurgents out.
The growing support for the fight against the Taliban could be an important turning point for Pakistan, whose divisions about its Islamic militancy seemed at times to imperil the state itself.
Sabrina Tavernise - Taliban Stir Rising Anger of Pakistanis NYT 4 Jun 2009
A push into Waziristan could have important effects elsewhere. The problems with our counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan are legion and there are clearly enormous political challenges to be met, but strategically there has always been the tyranny of geography and the inability to come to grips with the Taliban insurgency across international borders:
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- President Obama is pouring more than 20,000 new troops into Afghanistan this year for a fighting season that the United States military has called a make-or-break test of the allied campaign in Afghanistan.
But if Taliban strategists have their way, those forces will face a stiff challenge, not least because of one distinct Taliban advantage: the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan barely exists for the Taliban, who are counting on the fact that American forces cannot reach them in their sanctuaries in Pakistan.
One Pakistani logistics tactician for the Taliban, a 28-year-old from the country's tribal areas, in interviews with The New York Times, described a Taliban strategy that relied on free movement over the border and in and around Pakistan, ready recruitment of Pakistani men and sustained cooperation of sympathetic Afghan villagers.
His account provided a keyhole view of the opponent the Americans and their NATO allies are up against, as well as the workings and ambitions of the Taliban as they prepared to meet the influx of American troops.
It also illustrated how the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group of many brands of jihadist fighters backed by Al Qaeda, are spearheading wars on both sides of the border in what for them is a seamless conflict.
JaneE Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah - Porous Pakistani Border Could Hinder U.S. NYT 4 May 09
But that was a month ago, before the Taliban were winkled out of Swat or faced another large military operation by Pakistan against their bases in Waziristan. With the possibility of denial of the border regions of Pakistan to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as the planned reinforcement of the US military presence in Afghanistan, new opportunities emerge. And the August elections are shaping up as a time of increased activity on both sides:
The American-led military coalition is determined to ensure the election proceeds as safely and democratically as possible, while the Taliban are equally committed to sabotaging it.
Afghan and NATO forces have doubled the number of military operations in the past 10 days compared with this time last year, part of a new campaign to win over Taliban-controlled areas in the south before the elections.
About 3,500 American troops have recently been deployed to rural parts of Kandahar Province, and 10,000 Marines are expected to assume posts in rural Helmand Province over the next six weeks. The Afghan National Army will contribute an additional 5,000 troops in the south.
"We're now going to establish a permanent presence where we haven't had a presence in the past," said Col. Greg Julian, the spokesman for American forces here. "It does no good to clear an area. Insurgents come right back. And the last seven years has been an economy of force mission, and we haven't had the strength to hold these areas."
Adam B Ellick - U.S. and Taliban to Redouble Afghan Efforts NYT 1 Jun 09
If the Pakistani government continues to enjoy popular support for the eradication of the Taliban militancy from the NWFP and FATA the timing could coincide perfectly with the deployment of additional US forces in the south of Afghanistan, raising the possibility of a strategic 'hammer and anvil' effect on the previously secure Taliban and al-Qaeda safe areas on both sides of the border. Bin Laden's and Zawahiri's recent comments tend to confirm that they are thinking defensively which in the long-term should help prevent other mischief elsewhere.
On the other hand, as has been clearly demonstrated in Pakistan in recent weeks, the likelihood of suicide bombings and other civilian attacks increases as these insurgencies are denied political and territorial gains and we may be about to enter a period where the risk of terrorism, even in the West, is temporarily heightened in response.
Whatever the outcome it is clear that we are now directing this conflict at the heartland of our self-appointed enemies, ideologically, diplomatically and militarily. Better late than never and an indication that our current leadership is prosecuting this conflict with a clearly defined mission and the balanced application of reason and force. To those who have wondered aloud why we should continue to aid Pakistan or escalate our commitment to Afghanistan it could be argued that at this moment in time we just might be poised to 'win' some decisive turning points in these elusive conflicts.