Al-Qaeda (etc.)

2008 09 16
Talking to the Taliban

Graeme Smith is a Canadian journalist currently stationed in Afghanistan who writes for the Globe and Mail. Yoon and I know his sister, Caitlin, a jazz musician now living in NYC. A few months ago, while he was taking a short break from Afghanistan, brother and sister showed up at one of Yoon’s gigs, and then the next evening we all went out for a beer. It was a very pleasant opportunity to pepper someone knowledgeable with questions about Afghanistan.

Anyway, I noticed the other day that Graeme Smith recently won an “Online Journalism Award” for a series on the Taliban, and I just now got around to watching it. I think it’s really very good – far more nuanced and interesting than your average reporting from a war zone. This is especially impressive considering that he’s working in a short-form format – a series of little clips between 4 and 7 minutes long. Anyway, the series is called Talking to the Taliban.

When I last spoke to Graeme I threatened to interview him for this blog. I may get around to that when his book comes out, if I can get my hands on a copy in a timely manner, and he’s still willing.

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2008 08 09
Recently read: “The Dark Side”

Jane Mayer. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

After the scandal of Abu Grieb, the Bush administration insisted that the torture and abuse of detainees had been the work of a few bad apples. But of course the abuse was only a manifestation of a much deeper rot, for which top officials bore primary responsibility. I’ve sometimes had the impression of similar excuse-making in the attitudes of even some of the fiercest critics of the Bush administration, in the claim that the Bush administration represents a radical and unprecedented break with the past. It strikes me as naive to depict the Bush administration as a few bad apples, in an otherwise upright tradition legal and ethical conduct. On the contrary, the Bush administration seems to me part of a larger moral and legal rot that is systemic, and has unfortunately deep roots in American political culture (alongside much more admirable tendencies and traditions).

Jane Meyer’s new book The Dark Side has helped me to reflect on, and to a certain extent, modify, these assumptions. Mayer is familiar with the Church Committee, and with past American abuses of power. She doesn’t base her argument for a significant break with the past on what the Bush administration has done so much as on the legal arguments that the administration has advanced, most often in secrecy, to defend and support its policies. Much of this is new, and its long-term consequences are likely to be wretched.

A great deal of the action in Mayer’s book is, for this reason, legal. The new legal doctrines advanced by David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel for the period covered by the book, and John Yoo, among others, were fiercely resisted by other lawyers in the administration. Meyer meticulously details the legal arguments and maneuvers used by various parties to this debate against the background of events in the so-called War on Terror.

Mayer book is, as far as I can tell, balanced, careful, and accurate, while rarely engaging in the pointless he-said/she-said style of reporting that so many journalists use to avoid the implications of their reporting. When an official lies, she points it out, clearly and unequivocally. A book like this is difficult to ignore, if you care at all about moral and legal issues surrounding torture and the Bush administration’s policies. If even a quarter of the book is accurate, the United States would only need to be a country serious about following its own laws for hundreds of people, from the President on down, to be put on trial for torture and other serious crimes.

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2006 08 11
Terrorism and responses to it

I’m going to do something completely different today and endorse this post by Matthew Yglesias. Yglesias points out that a) there are just so many different ways to carry out a terrorist attack, that we’re better off trying to catch people and then taking our chances letting people on planes with their water bottles and so on. b) Since a large part of the point of terrorist attacks is to induce panic and (energy-sapping) hypervigilance, we’re probably better off trying to, you know, avoid panicking and getting hypervigilant.

Yglesias points out how easy it is to carry out terrorist attacks on places other than airplanes. Again, I agree, and I confess that I’m a bit mystified that terrorist groups are apparently still wasting their time with planes. For my part, what I always expected was a car bomb or three in Manhattan. That would induce far more terror and chaos than an airplane bomb, and I find it nothing short of astonishing that no one has tried it yet. It’s certainly what I would plan if I were an evil terrorist type. There are only a few possible explanations for the fact that this hasn’t happened yet:

i) AQ masterminds are really stupid.

ii) AQ planners are caught up in the idea that the attack has to be really spectacular to be worth it. This is inhibiting them, since effective but more modest terrorist attacks are felt to be a threat to their brand of mega-terror. Graduate students struggling to complete a dissertation may recognize the perfectionism-leading-to-failure trap here.

iii) AQ lacks the capability to do such a thing.

iv) The U.S. government has been marvelously effective at stopping all such attacks behind the scenes, but has been too modest to say anything about it.

v) Actually, an attack exactly as I described it is about to happen, and this suspiciously prescient blog post will be used against me later in a court of law.

I’ve got my money on iii. In the meantime, I’ve just decided that it’s better to accept a certain amount of risk in life. Of course I want the authorities to spend a lot of energy trying to stop attacks, and to generally pursue policies that minimize the risk, all other things considered. But, just as I’m willing to leave my apartment once in a while in spite of the elevated risk to my person (I could be hit by a car! I could get a sunburn! I might get mugged!), I would rather live a more normal life at slightly higher risk, than a marginally safer (if that), but paranoid and highly inconvenienced existence.

The same line of reasoning is part of my position against torture, and other immoral counterterrorist measures. I don’t think torture is effective, but even if it were effective, I would rather accept a slightly higher risk of dying in a terrorist attack than allowing the torture of people who might well be innocent – which is what, in practice, allowing a policy, or quasi-policy, of torture inevitably leads to. I suspect that people who disagree with me about this are cowards.

Howls of outrage (6)

2005 08 14
What al-Qaida Really Wants

Fouad Hussein reports.

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2004 10 30
bin Laden

As I said, I thought he was dead. Looks like I wasn’t the only one.

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2004 10 30
Silly Matthew Yglesias

Silly Matthew Yglesias thinks that the fact that OBL is still around to taunt Bush is a sign of weakness:

The most interesting thing about the Osama tape is the reference to My Pet Goat. That business was, even when Michael Moore did it, closer to being a joke than a serious argument. So now Osama’s cracking jokes at our expense. He’s not afraid, he’s not injured, he’s not on the run, he doesn’t worry that the courier that delivers his videotapes might betray him, or that the local government wherever he is is going to find him. He’s sitting — wounds healed, shura council reconstituted, ideological network growing — and he’s laughing at us.

Capturing OBL is not the be-all and end-all of the war on terrorism, but if you want to know what kind of weakness invites the wolves in for supper, then you saw it right there on video. A man plots and organizes the slaughter of thousands of Americans and three years later there he is, distributing his latest threats and boasts over a global satellite network. Laughing at us. At all of us. And all because the president couldn’t be bothered to nab him.

But we know that what Yglesias says is false because Republicans are almost by definition stronger on national defense. At least, that’s how they’ve defined themselves, and if there were anything objectionable in that I’m pretty sure the media would have called them on it by now.

Once we think about things this way, we can help ourselves to a theory with an incredible amount of explanatory power: It helps us understand why J.F.K. cravenly backed down over the Cuban missile crisis (after coming to power by foolishly assuring everyone that there was no gap in Soviet and American military capabilities); it explains why Johnson deescalated the conflict in Vietnam; why Reagan stood firm after the attacks in Lebanon; and so on and so forth. Finally, this powerful theory explains why Bush is not weak, even though if bin Laden were now taunting President Gore on a video a few days before the election, no one would be able to stop making comparisons to Jimmy Carter. And no one – absolutely no one – would imagine that he had any hope of reelection. Rightly so, too. Gore’s a democrat, and we know what they’re like: they’re weak.

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2004 10 29
It’s On

AP:Kerry Pledges to ‘Destroy’ Bin Laden.


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2004 10 29
Bin Laden returns

Coulda sworn the guy was dead. Guess not. What I would like to know is whether anything in the tape dates it properly. If I was in AQ, I would have prerecorded a bunch of such messages just in case bin Laden died, on the off chance they’d come in handy.

Howls of outrage (5)

2004 10 19
Tora Bora

Did bin Laden get off easy at Tora Bora? Impartial observer Tommy Franks says no. But as I’ve pointed out before, bin Laden himself told a different tale.

Would I take the word of a mass-murdering jihadist? Hell no! But had bin Laden lived to tell such a tale of escape and derring-do at the hands of a Gore-led military force, make no mistake: The national press corp would have encased Gore’s feet in cement and sunk him to the bottom of the Potomac.

Howls of outrage (3)

2004 09 22
Ansar al-Islam

Posted by in: Al-Qaeda (etc.)

It seems that Ansar al-Islam has an unorthodox media relations strategy.

Via Needlenose

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2004 09 20
Lieven on Islam in Chechnya

I recently finished reading A. Lieven’s Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. This passage, on p. 357, seems worth mentioning:

For its part, the Russian exaggeration of the political role of religion in contemporary Chechnya is an effort to brand the Chechen separatists as ‘Muslim fundamentalists’. The intention (very close to the propaganda of the French against the FLN during the Algerian War) has generally been threefold: to appeal to Western audiences with the line that the war has been a sort of Western crusade against a common Islamic enemy; to argue that the Chechens are too ‘primitive’ to have developed a modern nationalism and sense of national identity; and to suggest that as simple, primitive people, they have been misled by religious propaganda into acting contrary to their own best interests.

From my own observations, I would say on the contrary that the Chechen struggle of the 1990s has been overwhelmingly a national or nationalist one. In so far as it has taken on a religious colouring, this was mainly because Islam is seen, even by irreligious Chechens, as an integral part of the national tradition and of the nation’s part struggles against Russian domination. As Soviet officers, neither General Dudayev nor Colonel Maskhadov can have previously been regularly practicing Muslims; and even Shamil Basayev, while always a convinced Muslim, did not give me the impression before the war of being a particularly strict one. Islam seems less of a motive force in itself than something which has been adopted both by the Dudayev regime and by individual Chechen fighters as a spiritual clothing for their national struggle.”

That’s from a book published in 1998, which focuses on the first Chechen conflict from 1994-6. A lot can change in the six or so years since it was published. Still, it is a reminder that people who imagine the bogeyman of Al Qaida popping up everywhere as the source of so much trouble in the world miss the fact that radical Islamic extremist groups typically insert themselves into conflicts with a long-prehistory, and causes which often have very little to do with radical Islam. Once they’ve inserted themselves, of course, then everyone is stuck with a big problem. But it’s no help to pretend that if it weren’t for those big, bad Muslim extremists then everything would be going just swimmingly in [fill in the country/region].

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2004 03 31
[International law]

Well, I’m shocked. It turns out that the U.S. is not, as a matter of international law, supposed to detain people in Guantanamo, at least in the way it has so far. This, according to a U.N. committee on human rights.

I know, I know. Doesn’t the U.N. have bigger – or, um, more offending – fish to fry? And what credibility can it possibly claim when Syria gets a spot on human rights committees? And so on and on.

But there’s a serious point here. There are occasional calls to reform the U.N. and give its human rights claims more teeth – the sort of thing that would put Syria and other countries on the hot seat. I’m all for that. Let’s not fool ourselves, though. The U.S. would also be reluctant to see genuine reforms, since genuine reforms would make criticisms like the one I mentioned above all the more difficult to brush off. I think the Bush admin’s treatment of the ICC gives a decent idea of how it would treat any really fair and open reform of international measures to promote human rights. That’s a pity, because for all its failures, the U.S. really is crucial to the development of the kinds of norms and practices that would benefit everyone in the long run. That’s sort of why I harp on this so much.

Mulling this over yesterday reminded me of a book I read a while ago, Richard Falk’s The Great Terror War. Falk wrote the book after 9/11. It’s a serious attempt to think through some of the difficulties raised by 9/11 and especially the implied threat in 9/11 of something far worse to come. If I remember correctly, one of Falk’s main points is that the threat of “mega-terrorism,” as he calls it, justifies some modification to existing international law. The solution here is not to just break international law, but to attempt to craft some principled and suitably restricted modifications to it.

Well, the devil is in the details, of course. But the basic point seems fine to me. The virtue of Falk’s approach is that he balances a willingness to recognize the difficulty of fighting “mega-terrorism” (the phrase just didn’t catch on) against the obvious worry that many countries, including the U.S., would abuse their new powers in the name of fighting terror.

It is my sad duty to report that the U.S. has done pretty much the reverse of what Falk recommends. The administration’s official position is that it is following international law in Guantanamo (because the captives don’t qualify as legitimate prisoner’s of war). If you think about it, this implies – rather perversely and contrary to what the admin actually believes – that existing international law crafted years ago under entirely different circumstances is perfectly suited to handling fresh challenges involved in fighting an international group of loosely organized terrorist cells.

On the other hand, the administration’s unofficial position is that it hardly matters if the detentions are illegal. The administraton demonstrates this contempt for the law every time it brushes off fundamental challenges to the detentions – as if it weren’t obvious that the Geneva Convention requires that the detainees be brought before a tribunal, at the very least, to determine their status. (I’ve read conflicting reports about conditions at the camps. I’m not sure what to believe, but the point is that the conditions are irrelevant – or rather, the fundamental objection is not to the conditions of detention, but rather to their legal justification. Another thing to note is that it was the military brass that pushed the hardest for the Geneva Convention, and many of the better features of Guantanamo are probably due to its intervention.)

The result of all this sqeamishness about international law has been deeply unsatisfying. In a situation where the administration might have been able to seize the momentum to refashion crucial legal tools necessary for fighting a long struggle against terrorist groups like AQ, it chose at once to deny the need for these crucial tools while at the time unnecessarily undermining the legitimacy of its own behaviour.

This isn’t a problem without consequences, either. The finer points of international law can make a huge difference in how well the U.S. is able to coordinate its counterterrrorism activities with other countries. To take one modest example which most Americans will likely never have heard about, there was an enormous fuss in Canada when Canadian troops in Afghanistan handed over suspected AQ members directly to U.S. troops. Why, you ask? Because doing so made Canadian troops complicit in a clear violation of the Geneva Convention – a rather bigger deal up North than it is here. The Canadian government no doubt took heed of the heat it took over this, as, I’m sure, did other governments. If you think that doesn’t make a difference, think again.

Ah, lost opportunities and squandered good-will . . . We’re in the vicinity of the defining quality of the Bush administration.

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2004 03 04

This story is starting to get a lot of attention. The gist of it is that the Bush administration nixed three times – as if in a fairy tale or something – plans to take out Zarqawi when he was in Northern Iraq. This happened after September 11th, and when the admin had credible evidence that Zarqawi was plotting evil things for America. If true, the story is absolutely damning, for obvious reasons.

If true – but right now, I can’t really make any sense of it. Here’s the explanation for the admin’s failure to go after Zarqawi:

Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.

This makes no sense at all, since at the time the admin was bombing the crap out of Iraq in anticipation of the full-scale war. It was bombing its communication system, its anti-aircraft installations, its supply chains, and it was doing it with increasing vigour as the war drew nearer.

Given this, what harm would a little bombing of a terrorist camp do? It’s just very hard for me to believe that the admin would refrain from something like this because of what the neighbours might think.

I suppose it is just possible to argue that bombing the terrorist camps in Northern Iraq would undermine the case for war by demonstrating that the U.S. wouldn’t need to invade in order to deal with terrorist threats in Iraq. That’s the only explanation I can think of for holding off, and it’s pretty stupid.

Look, I’m happy to admit that the principle of charity doesn’t usually apply when you want to interpret the admin’s actions. I complain all the time on this site that the admin is stuffed with mouth-breathers. But the story as I understand it is just too wacky to believe – at least without strong confirmation. And remember that the admin has made some fairly serious enemies in the military. This might be a leak or a spin calculated to damage the admin.

For now, handle with caution.

UPDATE: OK, so I walked the dog, listened to a little music and mulled things over. And, yes, eventually it hit me that just a few posts ago I was dinging the Oxbloggers for being naive. Am I being naive here? Is it always a mistake to give the benefit of the doubt, no matter how small? Well, consider the best case against the admin here, put nicely by Josh Marshall:

Ansar was a Sunni Islamist terrorist group operating from Iraqi Kurdistan which had ties of some sort and degree with al Qaida. Zarqawi, a Jordanian national and accomplished terrorist bad guy, had set up shop with Ansar and he too was affiliated with al Qaida — though again the degree and closeness of the connection is a matter of some controversy . To add to the storyline, Zarqawi had apparently been to Baghdad for medical treatment.

So Zarqawi and Ansar were in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus they were ‘in Iraq’. And they were linked to al Qaida. So al Qaida was ‘in Iraq’. That was the argument.

Now, there was a pretty big problem with this argument. Namely, the US and the UK had made Iraqi Kurdistan into a virtual Anglo-American protectorate through its no-fly zones which kept not only Iraqi air power but basically all of Saddam’s forces out of the region. The Kurds themselves had already set up a de facto government, though the region where Ansar was operating from was one they didn’t control.

In other words, saying Ansar was operating out of Iraq was deeply misleading in anything other than a narrowly geographical sense since Ansar was operating from area we had taken from Saddam’s control. Saddam might as credibly — perhaps more credibly — have charged us with harboring Ansar as vice versa.


In any case, to review, using Ansar and Zarqawi as proof of a Saddam-al Qaida link had serious evidentiary and logical problems. But that didn’t stop the White House from making it a centerpiece of their argument — as Colin Powell did during his presentation at the UN.

In the immediate lead-up to the war there were various parts of the White House’s argument for war that were becoming weaker by the day. That, after all, was what was happening with the inspectors themselves who were, in the weeks and months just before the war, generating lots of new evidence that threw many of the earlier suspicions of WMD into real doubt — particularly on the nuclear front.

The reports we have now about the White House’s refusal to move against Zarqawi are still incomplete. And I think we’ve got to keep open the possibility that there were military or diplomatic restraints we were operating under that are not yet clear.

But if the reports bear out, the White House’s reasons for not moving against Zarqawi when we could have don’t seem to require much explanation. If we got rid of Zarqawi and Ansar the much-trumpeted Iraq-al Qaida, already so profoundly tenuous, would have collapsed altogether. To put it bluntly, we needed Zarqawi and Ansar.

That would mean it was a political decision — one intended to aid in convincing the American people of the necessity of war — for which we are now paying a grave price.

Yeah, yeah. Suppose so. Still, as long as the AQ-link was a load of crap and everyone paying attention knew that, why not bomb ‘em in Northern Iraq and then claim that you had to go in to finish the job? They didn’t need Zarqawi and Ansar to go to war with Iraq. They needed to scare people into thinking that Saddam Hussein was in bed with them, and it didn’t matter much whether the story was in the past tense or not.

As long as your pretext is absurd, you might as well eliminate your enemies while you’re at it, no?

Then again, I suppose nothing should suprise me.

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