The Jihadist Pimpernel

3 05 2011

‘Osama bin-Laden and his protégés are the children of desperation: they come from countries where political struggle through peaceful means is futile.”

Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia

International Herald Tribune, 11 October 2001

As a self-confessed international relations & human security nerd (note nerd does not equal expert in ANY way), news of the extra-judicial killing of Osama bin-Laden is like a really good one night stand. It’s great, sexy, an intense bout of oxygen for my passions, listening to smart people talking about my world view. Like a great one-nighter, it won’t last, despite the smart people; we’ll go back to opinion polls and leadership challenges soon enough. So here are a few thoughts, probably incoherent and a cautionary tale for Fairfax as to why sub-editors are required – without them, newspapers will become foolish blogs like mine.

1/. Osama bin-Laden: ir/relevant?

Many of the counter-terrorism and Middle East experts I greatly respect have already put it out there: bin-Laden is irrelevant; his legacy is not outstanding. Despite its grim successes – embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the strike against the USS Cole and 9/11 – al-Qaeda has failed to achieve its stated aim, to inspire an Islamic caliphate, ridding the oppressed of dictators and false kings propped up by infidels. It is ordinary people demanding democracy who are achieving results, not those carrying bombs in their underpants. Alternately, bin-Laden undoubtedly kept al-Qaeda in the money, not only through his own wealth, but through his extensive contacts. He wasn’t entirely passed his use-by date to the organisation he founded; perhaps the organisation itself is struggling for relevance as Arabs rise up and demand 21st century freedoms, not a 7th century ideology.

2/. Kill bin?

As a Twitter friend of mine, @SenamBeheton wrote tonight:

Are people celebrating #OBL’s death or the end of his possibilities? Reaction if he was arrested not killed? Would have been the same.

It’s a worthy, skilfully put statement. Why kill bin-Laden?

Why do I, a believer in the imperfect, largely unwritten world of international law, not have a problem with his assassination. Is this why I fear NATO is overstepping the mark in bombing Muammar Qaddafi’s compound; yet have few – almost no – qualms about bin-Laden’s assassination? Both are violations of my interpretation of international law – UN resolution 1973 does not entail the extra-judicial killing of a man who, like it or not, remains a head of state. bin-Laden’s death surely violates Pakistan’s sovereignty – I cannot be convinced that anyone in Islamabad had prior knowledge of the kill squad – and is the unilateral action of the hegemonic power. So why am I uneasy about one, and not the other? I have thought about it since I saw President Obama’s carefully worded statement. Killing bin-Laden shuffles the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ leaderboard, but his strategic input to al-Qaeda’s activities after the Battle of Tora Bora is questionable – so was the kill team necessary? His value to the organisation on 30 April 2011 was as a figurehead for al-Qaeda franchises and bogeyman for the West, in particular Americans. This is why I understand President Obama giving the go ahead for his assassination. This is not an episode of “The West Wing’. Given he was first briefed on the potential operation last August, President Obama has had time to consider his options. I applaud him for using his intelligence agencies and military in an ‘old skool’ manner; after 9/11, the reputation and morale of the American intelligence community reached a nadir. The security apparatus of the US could not prevent such an attack. Despite the Revolution in Military Affairs, and his own use of drone aircraft to bomb suspected Taliban-held areas of Pakistan, the POTUS made sure it was he, as Commander-in-Chief watched as Navy SEALS, not an unmanned plane, killed bin-Laden. The photographs from the White House Situation Room do not reveal any sense of jubilation, but white-knuckles; fear for the safety of their own troops, especially after one of the helicopters stalled, and, I dare say, some horror at what those assembled were witnessing. Then, having ordered the kill and witnessed it, Obama wrote a speech, alerted the press corps and gave a compelling, sombre statement and delivered it down the barrel of a camera late on Sunday night. There was little hyperbole, no ‘Mission Accomplished’; yet I cannot condemn the crowds who gathered at Ground Zero and the White House. Sure, “USA, USA” is not the most intelligent chant, but I truly believe it was a cathartic expression, not a celebration. We experience security subjectively. Americans felt violated by 9/11, and they had a long-bearded Saudi jihadist to blame. I don’t remember Americans spontaneously greeting the capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – the tactical magician behind the attacks. Americans subjectively experienced terror at the hands of bin-Laden, & people are happy he is dead. Is it necessary for the US administration to release pictures of its dead prey? Difficult call. I was repulsed by the scratchy vision of Saddam Hussein’s execution, taken by a guard on a mobile phone, and yet I circulated a photograph allegedly showing the dead bin Laden on Twitter as soon as I saw it. The photograph was confirmed as a pitiful photoshop job. Embarrassing for me, more embarrassing for the three journalists whose hands it passed through before reaching me. Releasing the photos? Ghoulish? Will it put to rest the ‘deathers’ who don’t believe the President of the United States, or those who insist that he died years ago? I doubt it. There is no putting brains into statues. Release the photos? Will it spark anger, cause reprisal attacks? Probably. Yet the sight of the bloodied body of Ché Guevara, laid out for the world to see in Bolivia is not the Ché first year arts students venerate on their $2 t-shirts – the handsome young Ché of the Cuban revolution. bin Laden’s whippet features already appear on $2 t-shirts; I doubt they’ll be updated to feature his death mask. Is this a neat end to a shadow-caster? Definitely. I am not going to engage in what bin-Laden could have dumped on the US in a trial at The Hague. Buckets of shit that would make Julian Assange look like a flea in the ear of a dog; but Saddam Hussein’s trial didn’t afford the world a real look into the business he had done with the West. Would bin Laden’s have been any different? Does it help Obama politically? Absolutely. The carnival barkers, Palin, Bachmann and Trump look positively idiotic. Does it secure his re-election? Put it this way – his job approval ratings will go up for a month or so. Then, like us, Americans will go back to their real insecurities: unemployment and unending wars. Which brings me to … 

3/. The realpolitik: what now for the Middle East and Pakistan?

While al-Qaeda has publicly declared its support for protestors in Tunisia & Libya, the only rebel or revolutionary force where there are ‘flickers’ of al-Qaeda is Libya, as acknowledged by Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander and Commander of EUCOMM in testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee in March (Reuters, The Telegraph, BBC). The President of Chad, Idriss Deby Itno, claims al-Qaeda has snatched SAMS (surface-to-air missiles) from the rebel zone. Of potentially greater import is the future role of Atiyyah Allah al-Libi, one of the few Libyans in al-Qaeda’s central leadership group. Could he drive a greater jihadist influence through the rebel hierarchy? Is that why Libya’s protestors were able to unsheath weapons and fight Qaddafi? I worry because of my perception of security. I fear that NATO has pursued an illogical strategy in Libya, and its only easy ‘out’ is to kill Qaddafi. Air strikes are not preventing the humanitarian outrages in Misurata and other towns. With every dragging day I am more convinced that the unspoken civil war which is being fought in the Maghreb will split and spread and Libya, torn in two, will not draw parallels with Vietnam, but Lebanon. There have already been incursions by Qaddafi forces into Tunisia. The President of Chad is right to fear weapons seeping from rebels and loyalists – his country has been involved in one of those ugly, unknown wars with Libya for decades. And Qaddafi – Qaddafi has been armed to the hilt since the arms embargo was lifted & he was rehabilitated by the Europeans. Arms in the hands of al-Qaeda and its pretenders in Libya means arms in Somalia, Yemen. Arms mean one thing: arma-fucking-geddon. And on that cheery note, we shift east, to Pakistan.

Many, and smarter minds than I have put the US / Pakistan problem down on paper with great eloquence. I will concentrate on what I see as the drivers of insecurity. In short, the gin joint is teetering on the edge of the clichéd ‘failed state’; unlike Somalia, no one can walk away. Unlike Afghanistan, we cannot pull the pin and hope for the best. Pakistan cannot topple over the edge. It dances around handbags with its nuclear-armed neighbour, India. It is terrorist central. It is fairly broken with corruption and human insecurity. It is not a failed state, but it is one ruled by networks of influence which have freed political actors from formal constraints of governance – the rules of representation, accountability and transparency. At the domestic level, informal networks coalesce around influential individuals, and may infiltrate every element of the political process, helping those in power to keep it by manipulating the national polity and cultivating a culture of cronyism, where network allies network receive government positions for personal reward. This solidifies a power base and may make the machinery of government inefficient and susceptible to corruption. Such networks flourish in states where power is not diffused, particularly if the judiciary is not independent and the rule of law breaks down. Influence can extend through families, clans or villages and across these boundaries, reaching out to other key ‘influencers’ and offering mutual benefit. This makes it difficult for opposition voices to be heard legitimately and competitors hungry for authority, particularly if it is accompanied by prestige and access to public wealth. Groups which may once have been confined to local rivalries will seize on a mood of disaffection and extend their networks in states struggling under the weight of government by favour. Hardened opposition networks of influence are less susceptible to dysfunction of that nature; it may prove more difficult to build connections on little more than promises, but success demands loyalty and discipline, norms which are diminished when a culture of entitlement becomes deeply entrenched. The delegitimization of social, political and military structures is a root cause of conflict. Conflict and fear. A University of Maryland report, Pakistani Public Opinion on the Swat Conflict, Afghanistan, and the US (1 July 2009) found the Pakistani public’s views of militant groups operating in Pakistan have become sharply more negative over the last year and a half; very large majorities now see them as a serious threat to the country’s future. A major shift has taken place in Pakistanis’ perceptions of religious militant groups in their country. In September 2007, only 34 percent thought the “activities of Islamist militants and local Taliban in FATA and settled areas” were a critical threat. In the current study this increased dramatically to 81 percent. In 2007, only 38 percent thought “the activities of religious militant groups in Pakistan” were a critical threat; in this study, 67 percent did. There has been a major shift in Pakistani opinion toward al-Qaeda – so far as it regards Pakistan itself. In late 2007, 41 per cent saw al-Qaeda’s activities as a critical threat to the vital interests of Pakistan in the next ten years; 21 percent called these activities an important, but not critical threat; and 14 percent said they were not a threat. In the current study, 82 percent called al-Qaeda’s activities a critical threat to Pakistan—a 41 percent increase. Twelve percent said al-Qaeda was an important, but not critical threat; only 2 percent said it was not a threat. If security is experienced subjectively, the Pakistani people are frayed and frightened. The US has little or no option but to keep the faith (at least in public) and perform a seismic shift against the multiple threats Pakistan faces from the extreme negligence of its government, its intelligence service and military. This is the great challenge facing this cool-headed President. Killing bin-Laden exposes the sores, and will prove to be pivotal in helping Pakistanis claw back their democracy; restore the apparatus of state. Maybe, bin-Laden’s death will bring an ‘Arab Spring’ to Islamabad and prevent non-state actors from pouncing on a state which is simply too big to fail.

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