Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Outbidding in Waziristan

Guest post by Peter Henne

Peter S. Henne is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. This is his seventh guest post at The Reaction.

He has previously blogged about Sri Lanka, the Afghan War, the Left and religion, Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize, Marc Thiessen, and Iraqi identity politics.


As the investigation into the failed car bomb in Times Square continues, one of the key points of uncertainty involves the suspect's -- Faisal Shahzad -- international connections. Specifically, was he supported by militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region (Af-Pak)? Understanding this aspect of the failed attack would shed light on both the current terrorist threat, and the state of Af-Pak militants. Are groups in the region -- like the Pakistani Taliban -- focused on attacking the United States, or are they motivated primarily by ethnic and material concerns? If the Pakistani Taliban was behind the attack, does this mean Islamic militants do constitute a global threat, rather than a multitude of local conflicts?

The answer to these questions likely lies in the very complexity that spawned them. The "global jihad" is actually a jumble of competing ideologies, motivations, and goals, and the United States has been attempting to exploit the diversity among militants in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, this attempted bombing shows a significant number of militants still aspire to strike the United States, and this may be the result of the very divisions the United States has been attempting to create.

The Bush Administration initially approached the "Global War on Terror" as one against a monolithic terrorist threat. This conflation of all violent Islamic movements into a monolithic enemy proved to be inaccurate, as there were numerous divisions -- and even clashes -- within apparently unified groups. An example of this is the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, whose brutal tactics shocked even Osama bin Ladin, leading him to withdraw support for that group and establish a rival organization. And some groups lumped in with al-Qaeda -- like Uighur militants in China -- are driven by separatist, not religious, motivations.

The counterterrorism community began to realize this as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on. U.S. efforts to control sectarian violence in Iraq were aided greatly by local Sunnis who turned against foreign Al Qaeda elements in the country, rejecting their savage tactics. And experts like David Kilcullen -- who worked with the U.S. military and has been influential in counterinsurgency policy circles -- began to emphasize the banal motivations often driving these conflicts.

U.S. policy in Af-Pak now seems to be focused on creating and exploiting divisions among militants. The military has reached out to tribal groups in an attempt to turn them against the Taliban. Also, there have been calls for negotiations with the Taliban, on the assumption that the group can function as a normal negotiating partner and the radical elements within the group will pose little threat outside of the region.

The Shahzad case may indicate a disheartening side to these trends. Shahzad seems to have received training in bomb-making in Pakistan, and it is becoming increasingly likely he was connected to the Pakistani Taliban. Elements of the Pakistani Taliban may have organized this attack, or provided support to Shahzad to conduct it as a freelance operative. This suggests that even if the majority of combatants are focused on local issues, a small group of individuals can still wreak havoc and are unlikely to be swayed by concessions aimed at their more locally-minded compatriots.

But it is also possible the attempted attack was connected to the increasing fractiousness of Af-Pak militants. As intra-group rivalries among militants increase, these rivalries tend to spill over into greater violence as each side attempts to show their devotion to the cause, a phenomenon known as outbidding. When this competition is paired with an ideology that is both radical and global in scope, the outbidding can take the form of attacks on the United States.

In this case, hard-liners may have supported the attack to increase their profile, and win out in intra-group struggles for dominance. This may explain the attempts on the part of the Pakistani Taliban to distance itself from Shahzad, while also praising the attack. While divisions among militants are good, the combination of these divisions with a radical ideology could lead to outbidding-driven attacks on U.S. interests. As pressure increases, hard-liners will become more inclined to support such attacks to protect what they see as the group's mission, and discredit more moderate elements.

If this incident did occur through decentralized terrorist networks focused on U.S. attacks, and was disconnected from militant groups driven by local concerns, there is little we can do to stop such attacks besides maintaining constant vigilance, a rather pessimistic takeaway. If, instead, it arose through outbidding among militant groups in Af-Pak, the implications are different. The threat of such attacks will persist, and may increase, as pressure grows on groups like the Taliban. But we can take solace in the possibility that attacks like this are a sign of desperation -- with counterinsurgency operations straining the militants and intra-group rivalries threatening to tear them apart -- not renewed vigor.

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  • "attacks like this are a sign of desperation"

    You make a good case for that and the incompetent, bungling, amateurish nature of some of these attacks strengthens it, I think.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 10:34 AM  

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