Foreign Policy Blogs

Contemptible Characters & Counterterrorism in Pakistan

How Can you Not Chuckle at This? - Libya's Dictator M. Gaddafi

A friend came over yesterday evening and we watched CNN coverage of Libya (more like CNN spotlight on “Crazy Gadaffi”). The ongoing commentary although humorous at times, spurred thoughts pertinent to combating terrorists in Pakistan. At one point Wolf Blitzer had the former House Intelligence Committee Chair in the Situation Room and commented:

Is Gadaffi on drugs, there’s always been something off with him. He must be on drugs”.

The Congressman responded You know, two out of three times I met him, he was rational and completely in his senses. That third time though you could tell something was off. (this is paraphrased)

Hilarious. Hilarious  because this comedy was not the least bit intentional, it was prime time news. CNN went hours today with repeated images of Gadaffi in overwhelmingly monotone attire: this dreadful toasted camel tone, from head to toe. My friend and I laughed at the video clips and talked about a recent article in Vanity Fair entitled “Dictator Chic” depicting what was clearly portrayed as catastrophic fashion choices over the years. We laughed at a notion of giving Gaddafi a makeover as a means of American Intervention, and as students of International Relations/Security Studies that was all the segue required to transform our down time into a serious debate on contemptible characters in international politics who manage to command the worlds attention for decades on end.

My friend (who is sure to be an expert on Iran who we’ll see on CNN one day) commented

It’s funny there are similar protests in Iran right now with crackdown on protestors but Ahmadinejad still publically calls for other dictators to hear peoples requests”.

I said, “Yeah, guess Gadaffi makes Ahmadinejad look reasonable”.

Yikes

We laughed, but got quiet for a second afterwards in serious thought.

She asked So…..Gadaffi, or bin Laden….whose more irrational?

I didn’t pause to reflect and immediately reacted “Bin Laden. He calls for establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Bin Laden is operating from a premise of ideology rather than rationality”

We looked at each other for a half a second, before I realized two things: One rationality and ideology need not be mutually exclusive in all situations, and secondly: if rationality in International Relations is understood (in a super simplistic nutshell) as a cost benefit analysis determinate of behavior, then my initial thought is incorrect.

I realized this and retracted, “Wait. Bin Laden has very real political objectives. He wants U.S. troops withdrawn from Saudi Arabia & and an overthrow of the current Saudi regime. And whether we find that objective absurd or not, they are, according to his calculations attainable political objectives that he thinks are worth the costs he invests in terrorism”.

She was of my initial mindset and countered “No. I think he initially started off that way but has since called for overthrow of all Arab regimes and is so angry at what the west has done in the Muslim World that he would not have Al Qaeda stop targeting America for all that its done over the years

I responded “So the four biggest grievances Bin Laden has regarding the West in the Muslim World are troops in Saudi and Afghanistan being the top two. Next on his list is our military presence in Palestine and Iraq. Let’s assume all four of these, which he finds are legitimate grievances, are miraculously altered in his favor, I don’t think he would then continue to attack American targets

She smiled, and said “Solving those four eh? Now that’s hopeful!

We laughed and I continued, Because if we can agree that Bin Laden sincerely believes both that these objectives are legitimate grievances and his tactics can be effective, then he’s acting rationallyAnd if those grievances get solved, why would he bear the costs of investing in terrorism afterwards? It requires, money, organization and is very high risk. He would have to begin from scratch in rallying a support base with new objectives. Because he would no longer have reason to wage what he thinks is “jihad” if there were nothing to gain from it”.

She stopped for a moment, then thought about it aloud “So, then Osama Bin Laden does act rationally

It was a disturbing sort of conclusion we both very hesitantly came to. Because it’s immediately easier to assume our enemy is an irrational mad man, (a la the images of Gadaffi on CNN) than understand, recognize and deal with the root causes of their actions. Which has led me to expand focus from solely military forms counterterrorism in my studies. When the crux of the issue is one of grievances over U.S. troop presence in the so-called “Muslim World”, an amplified U.S. presence in response is increasingly seen as counter productive. It’s among the main reasons our initial target of obliterating the Taliban in Afghanistan at the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom has shifted instead to finding ways of negotiating with the group.

Although the United States policy of non negotiation with terrorists on the grounds that concessions reinforce and empower terrorist activity is reasonable, an over reliance on military means simply has not been sufficiently effective into our 10th year of engagement in Afghanistan, and as a dire result, now in Pakistan.

Pakistan is a prime example of how negotiations in tandem with diplomacy supported by military coercion is key to combating terrorism today. Spillover of Al Qaeda and radical militarization of Taliban among other terrorist groups has proliferated in direct correlation with our military operation in Afghanistan since 2001. Bridget Nacos of Columbia University in her work“Counterterrorism Strategies: Do We need Bombs over Bridges” describes a main reason for this:

As the Iraq war demonstrated, massive military force can result in a recruiting bonanza for terrorists. And as ground and air operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban figures in Pakistan’s tribal region showed, such strikes can trigger further waves of Terrorist attacks

Where does that leave us? The aforementioned point of negotiations with the Taliban is a fair starting point. No matter how unpalatable and in stark counter to international norms on human rights the Taliban seem, they were not engaging directly in terrorist activity prior to Bush’s “War on Terror”. The Taliban’s objectives were intrastate, domestic ideological goals of imposing their radical, warped brand of Islam on Afghani’s. In fact, Fawaz Gerges, scholar and author of “The Far Enemy: Why Jihad went Global”  explains while allowing Al Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan, the Taliban was actually at odds with them over their ambitions to wage attacks against American targets, or the “far enemy” if you will.

So, negotiation with groups by attempting to understand their grievances rather than ideology is key. Negotiations attack the support base of terrorist groups, whereas military means have shown to radicalize them in recent years. Groups whose ideologies, and constructed identities are repellent to us, may still be brought back into the fold of non-violence and retreat back into not targeting the United States. This is important because these very groups have aligned with terrorist organizations and made the past few years for our troops the deadliest ever and with General Patreus predicting an even worse situation for 2011, new strategies are essential.

Understanding that terrorism carried out by Al Qaeda is not entirely irrational, but rather calculated, orchestrated and heavily invested in to achieve what they feel are legitimate political grievances is critical in counterterrorism, especially efforts aimed at the spillover and expansion of attackers. An accurate assessment of not only the enemy but also potential sympathizers and supporters in Afghanistan and Pakistan requires immediate and preventative measures. Nacos suggests robust diplomacy through traditional channels, and engaging media and general public. It’s a fair argument, and given the deteriorating situation, her recommendations are very worthy of consideration.

 

Author

Zainab Jeewanjee
Zainab Jeewanjee

Zainab Jeewanjee is a graduate of the Denver University's Korbel School of International Service, where she received a Masters of International Relations with a concentration in U.S. Foreign & Security Policy. Her area of focus is U.S. - Pakistan relations and she completed a senior thesis entitled U.S. Foreign Policy to Pakistan: History of of Bilateral Cooperation from Partition Through the Cold War as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University. Zainab is also sales director at Silicon Valley based Insure1234.com. Follow her on Twitter @Zainyjee

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