The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor -trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. -- Carl von Clausewitz
Far beyond the question of al Qaeda participation in the September 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and others, David Kirkpatrick’s notorious New York Times article—claiming no international terror group had a role in the assault—is evidence that, 12 years after 9/11, we still don’t understand the enemy. More fatally, even after seven decades of direct engagement and involvement in the greater Middle East, we do not understand the nature of the war.
The al Qaeda war—whether George Bush’s “global war on terror” or Barack Obama’s “overseas contingency operations”—is best understood as a component campaign in a larger contest for power across the Muslim world. The al Qaeda network is a unique and uniquely lethal participant in this contest, but most of the other local contestants, that is, the states of the region, are just as important to the outcome. Al Qaeda may be, for the moment, a “non-state” actor (though the “emirate” in western Iraq and eastern Syria walks and quacks like a state), but looking at al Qaeda in isolation distorts our view. An even bigger failure has been an inability to establish our enduring interests and a definition of victory. Thus, President Obama is attempting to turn the Middle East war into something alien to its nature: a war from which the United States can easily withdraw.
Al Qaeda’s War
In this contest for power, al Qaeda has a much stronger hand than it did in the 1990s. From a small band of terrorists with a grandiose vision, al Qaeda has morphed into a flexible and hierarchical network of militant groups operating throughout the greater Middle East. A list of the countries and areas afflicted with al Qaeda-linked violence—either serious terrorism or insurgency—is dismaying: Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, the Caucasus, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Burma have all suffered thousands of casualties because of militants tied to al Qaeda. The expansion of al Qaeda-linked insurgencies has been especially alarming: In January 2011 there were just three; today there are nine, and the capabilities of the militants fighting in them are rapidly growing. A revitalized Al Qaeda in Iraq, for instance, has taken over several cities in Anbar, Fallujah most prominently, and has been able so far to repel regular forces sent to retake these areas.
It’s tempting to compare this network with the jihadist groups that carried out violent attacks or started insurgencies during the 1980s and 1990s—groups like Gama’a Islamiyya in Egypt or the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria—but this analogy would be misleading. Unlike the earlier local insurgencies, the al Qaeda network has a global vision and objectives that ignore borders and boundaries. Gama’a Islamiyya never carried out attacks in neighboring countries, and it didn’t train fighters for battlefields around the world. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Shabaab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the others have no such self-imposed limitations. The al Qaeda-linked insurgencies are also following identical political game plans wherever they take territory. In Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Northern Pakistan, and Northern Mali they have set up shadow governments that impose the same distinctive version of sharia using the same organizational structures—a feat that none of the insurgencies in the 1990s could match. The linkages and support between groups within the network are also unprecedented, with fighters and money flowing as needed between regions.
The network links help make the local affiliates much more resilient. It’s notable—and especially troubling—that where al Qaeda-linked groups have set up shadow governments, the official local governments can’t get rid of them without outside help. But for assistance from Ethiopia, Kenya, and an African Union force, Shabaab would still run most of Somalia. It took intervention by the French military to eject Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Din from Northern Mali. Local tribes in Yemen could not stop Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), nor would al Qaeda have been forced from Iraq in 2007-09 but for the American “surge.” The examples of Iraq and Yemen are also cautionary tales: In both cases the al Qaeda-linked groups survived the intervention and rebuilt once outside forces withdrew.