Usama and Obama

Unlike the portable sign outside a Georgia church featured recently on CNN, this is not a column drawing invidious comparisons between the terrorist leader and the president-elect. Rather, the title is intended as a “grabber” to draw attention to the fact that dealing with Al Qaeda will be a major priority for and potential thorn in the side of the 44th president of the United States. Indeed, incoming President Obama has acknowledged the problem and embraced capturing or killing Usama bin Laden as one of the top priorities of his foreign policy. Were it that easy!

The embrace of pursuing bin Laden had at least two functions in the campaign, both serving to draw a contrast between the apparently feckless pursuit of the terrorist leader by the Bush administration. One point was to accentuate Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War, which, among other things, he depicted as a misguided diversion from the chase for Al Qaeda, captured in his phrase that the United States had taken its “eye off the ball” by attacking Iraq and diverting resources away from catching Al Qaeda. To complete that argument, the new administration says that it will reassign some of the military forces wirhdrawn from Iraq to pursue Al Qaeda. Second, this tough-sounding position was intended to deflect some of the predictable criticism any Democratic candidate receives as being “soft” on national security by arguing that Obama would be tougher, smarter, and more effective than Bush in the war on terror.

The problem with this position is that it makes a promise on which some will expect the new president to deliver, and that will be far easier said than done. At one level, that conclusion is obvious: if expunging Al Qaeda was easy, it would already have been accomplished. That it has not suggests the problem is formidable, possibly for reasons the Obama administration will discover are difficult to overcome.

Obama’s not surprising inclination is that we can succeed if we do more–get our eye back on the ball, as it were. Whether that approach will produce the hoped-for result depends on whether the problem was lack of adequate effort rather than the nature and direction of the effort. The initial tactic in the new emphasis is supposed to be the dedication of additional resources to Afghanistan. The applicability of this response to snuffing out Al Qaeda is at best indirect: presumably it will aid in the containment or defeat of the Taliban insurgency against the American-supported government of Hamid Karzai, and since the Taliban are providing the host conditions on which Al Qaeda exists, weakening the Taliban also makes the pursuit of Al Qaeda easier.

Or maybe not. Al Qaeda is, after all, located in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Assuming American and NATO forces are indeed capable of bringing about the victory of the Karzai government over the Taliban (a questionable assumption), how will that lead to capturing or killing bin Laden? Their defeat might drive the Pashtun Taliban back into the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan (where they went to regroup after their defeat in 2001), but will that turn the Taliban against Al Qaeda? If it did, the Pashtuns might be more willing to cast out bin Laden and his cohorts. On the other hand, American military action in Afghanistan may be viewed as simply anti-Pashtun, which is hardly what we want. Moreover, successful banishment of the Taliban could create two undesirable effects exacerbating the problem of capturing bin Laden. First, it could drive more Pashtuns into the arms of the Taliban (air raids on villages that kill innocent Pashtun civilians have this effect), thereby increasing rather than diminishing that threat. Second, the result could be to make the Taliban threat in Pakistan worse. Since the Pakistanis played a role in creating and sustaining the Taliban, this may be a fate they deserve, but it is not a problem with which the weak (but nuclear-armed) Pakistani government can grapple successfully. Increasing the military temp in Afghanistan, in other words, may make regional matters worse, without yielding bin Laden.

Instead of doing more, maybe we should be doing something different–and smarter. General David Petraeus has suggested a kind of divide-and-conquer strategy among the Pashtuns (discussed in an earlier posting). The idea is to split the non-Taliban Pashtuns from the pro-Taliban Pashtuns and to nurture their support. If successful, such a strategy would cut off the Taliban recruiting base and possibly force them to negotiate a peace with the Karzai government. The Afghan government, of course, would have to cooperate in this, particularly by increasing Pashtun presence in the armed forces and defense ministry. Wooing the Pashtuns would be easier if military pressure in the Pashtun regions was decreased crather than increased (the opposite of current proposals).

Courting the Pashtuns may also be the key to getting bin Laden in Pakistan. The key problem there has always been obtaining accurate, actionable intelligence about his location, and the problem has been local–which means Pashtun–unwillingness to turn on their guests. The successful courtship of the Pashtuns might change that. The Zawahiri rant of earlier this week suggests the weakness of Al Qaeda in a world where the Muslims do not harbor a universal hatred of the U.S. president. Driving a wedge between Al Qaeda and its Pashtun hosts could be just what is needed to expose the terrorists. It may be a smarter policy than simply “pumping up the volume” of military action.

What is suggested here is not more than a possible alternative to the present–and projected–course, It is not a magic bullet, but doing more of the same isn’t either.

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