ENGAGING THE ISLAMIC COMMUNITY – IS OBAMA THE MAN TO CROSS THE FAULT LINE?
President Obama has declared an end to the “War on Terror.” That phrase has been expunged from the official rhetoric. Expunged too the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay and some smaller clandestine prisons elsewhere around the globe. No interrogation techniques will be tolerated that approach torture.
To the Muslim world generally he said in Istanbul last week: “America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot and will not be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world – including in our own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim majority country – I know because I am one of them”.
Whatever power there is in the spoken and written word, Obama’s presidency seeks to supercharge it.
My image of him is him hovering above a medieval painting of Dante’s Inferno. His political body is clawed at by rampant demons in a charnel house of intractable woes of no obvious resolution. That ultimately demonic act of 9/11 and the response to it has lifted the scab on every sorry problem from Palestine to Pakistan and washed like a tsunami to most corners of the globe. It has uncovered ancient disputes within Islamic communities and made them salient again. It has disturbed relatively settled power relationships and has raised the stakes on failed states status in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan from localised problems to the regional and global. They demand solutions, the contours of which are barely discernible, let alone achievable. They defy classic Western optimism about the linear trajectory of progress. Things going well are as likely to fall apart.
Another image is of a rational man stuck on a tar baby. His limbs are his nation, simply declaring them unstuck is not an option. There is no going home until a solvent is found for every piece of attached tar. Combat brigades are out of Iraq by end 2011 but as Australian counter insurgency expert David Kilcullen points out, the distinction between combat and non-combat soldiers in an area of insurgency is blurred at best.
After 2011 there will still be the best part of twice the number of American soldiers in Iraq as there are regulars in the Australian army, and there will be almost as many as are in the Australian army increasing the commitment in Afghanistan. To irreconcilable fundamentalist militants Obama’s inaugural message is, “We will defeat you.” He is clear-cut: defeat requires still a kinetic response. You will notice that every few weeks a story appears in the media of a drone attack on a target in Pakistan. That usually reflects American intelligence identifying a major Al Qaeda leader’s location. The only way to avoid the Americans is to stay off the air. That is possible for Bin Laden – it is not possible for his operational commanders.
Yet Obama’s approach is a step back from the kinetic. His is a firm statement that reliance on force to defeat ideas and politics can be futile and potentially self-defeating but, once engaged, escalation is inevitable. What he is trying to do is reduce the soldiers’ burden and bring in the diplomats, the ideologists (in this case religious ideologists), and those who can effect material change in the social and economic environment and, given this gathering, the social psychologists. Those who can identify and strip away fear, loathing, alienation, hopelessness, myopia, and provide understanding and direction. Those who can identify misdirection and also the enablers.
It has to be said his predecessor George W Bush recognised something was wrong. There was evidence before he left office of a change of direction and attitude. I saw one touching interview in which he revealed his wife Laura had suggested he drop the “bring it on” language of the old West. It was unlikely to bring the sympathetic but easily scandalised to his side. “War on Terror” language empowered criminals by assigning them warrior status. The vulcans in his administration were replaced by a Secretary of State who possibly voted for Obama and a Defence Secretary determined to render the American response more complex.
Bob Gates is Obama’s Defence Secretary now, but he was George Bush’s Secretary when he said “Broadly speaking, when it comes to American’s engagement with the rest of the world, you probably don’t hear this often from a Secretary of Defence, it is important that the military is – and is clearly seen to be – in a supporting role to civilian agencies.”
Obama’s initiatives – to the Muslim world, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for a two state solution in Palestine/Israel, for the elimination of nuclear weapons – caused me to go over all of my old speeches in the debates after 9/11, engagement in Afghanistan and around the Iraq war. There was a moment in time when the world sympathised with, and got in behind, the United States. Old Soviet Central Asia lined up to provide the US bases, encouraged by Russia and supported by China.
The UN backed action against the Taliban regime. The late Chairman Arafat was filmed donating blood for 9/11 victims. NATO states declared an attack had occurred on the US and mobilised for Afghanistan. We invoked ANZUS for the first and so far only time. Old adversaries were annoyed by Bush’s “those who are not with us are against us” rhetoric because they did not need cajoling and found it demeaning when they were changing their positions. Old friends wondered if the US had been knocked off balance. My American friends struck me at the time as winded. All wanted to help.
This has all fallen apart and Obama’s best efforts have not yet put it back in place. NATO’s response on Afghanistan, with minor adjustments, has been to continue previously announced intentions to retreat. Central Asia has slipped back into the Russian embrace. Israel’s new foreign minister wants to step back from the small steps forward on Palestinian negotiations his predecessors took for George Bush. It is not clear that Pakistan is willing and/or capable to take the steps necessary to deprive Al Qaeda and the Taliban of their post-Afghanistan-collapse safe haven in Pakistan’s west. Iran’s response has been in keeping with their new found arrogance, though with a crack of light last week at their nuclear celebrations.
What went wrong? Well many things, but they revolved around Iraq. I was at a conference on pre-emptive war in Gotemba, Japan last year when a well-connected American academic asked me, “Why did we go into Iraq?” I thought it was a rhetorical question to be followed by an answer but it was not. He had had a fair bit to do with the Administration at the time but he was unclear. In retrospect his answer was 9/11. It unbalanced, in his view, US policy analysis. It drew a blind over proper reflection. It seemed an easy way to demonstrate resolve – an indication to the Muslim world that entertaining extremist philosophy and movements would provoke an overwhelming kinetic response.
The Taliban government had committed an act of war against the United States that justified a kinetic response. The lack of reflection, however, encouraged an ill-thought out dénouement of the initial Afghanistan initiative. Rapid movement to Iraq inhibited the serious thought that had to be given to nation-building in Afghanistan or the implications of the action in Pakistan which had spent nearly two decades nurturing the outcome that was the Taliban government. Virtually all Special Forces and equipment vital for action on the Pakistan border were withdrawn within months for Iraq preparations. Political outcomes were dominated by the encouragement given to war lords to return and the European component of the NATO response forbidden to move much outside Kabul’s environment.
So deeply despised by the Bush Administration was the Bill Clinton European nation-building model that a writer in the authoritative journal of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Survival, could state:
“In Afghanistan, this low profile small-footprint philosophy was applied with considerable rigour, making this mission the least resourced American led national building operation in modern history. On a per capita basis, Bosnia for instance, had received 50 times more international military manpower and 16 times more economic assistance than did Afghanistan over the first couple of years of its reconstruction. In Afghanistan the Administration refused to use American troops for peacekeeping and refused the deployment of international forces outside the capital for the same purpose. Security was to remain a responsibility of the Afghans, despite the fact that their country had neither an army nor a police force. Not surprisingly, Afghanistan became more, not less dependent on external assistance as the years went by.”
Despite the ability of Al Qaeda to reconstitute itself in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas and the Al Qaeda/Taliban capacity to challenge the Pakistan military and government across the country, things have not necessarily gone their way. Their initial intention was to provoke massive attacks in the West and against Western institutions in the Muslim world. Their desire was to produce popular uprisings in the Western leaning, (in their terms), apostate regimes, in the Muslim world. Something of their arrogance could be seen in the comments of Al Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith when he suggested there could be no truce until the group had killed four million Americans, whereupon other Americans could convert to Islam and the war then cease.
Nothing like what they foreshadowed has transpired. The attacks have come, as Australians had come to know, in Bali, but intelligence and law enforcement efforts in the West have prevented so far anything remotely approaching 9/11 to occur. Regimes in Muslim countries have responded with increasing cleverness. In Saudi Arabia a strong Al Qaeda movement with tentacles in Saudi security services has been almost wiped out. In varying degrees the Saudi experience has been repeated in a number of other Muslim countries.
In Iraq, Al Qaeda overreached itself. Without a political strategy beyond humiliation, murder and intimidation of opponents and populations, they played into the hands of their increasingly wise American opponents. In an extraordinary about face on strategy under General Petraeus, the United States shifted from kinetic mode to counter insurgency mode in Iraq. The US became available for a deal with threatened local populations. Empowered, these Iraqi forces turned the tables on their tormentors. There is a substantial contrast between the political capabilities of Al Qaeda and the capabilities of the Iranian backed Hezbollah. Hezbollah has always begun with a strong social campaign to build itself a political base. Al Qaeda in Iraq neglected any such activity, but simply demanded loyalty and mocked time honoured social and tribal structures.
Key to the response in the Muslim world has been the effort to devise an ideological counter to Al Qaeda philosophy and a social initiative to deprive them of their base. Al Qaeda’s pitch is to the billion Sunni Muslims. As they have become constrained by attacks on their leadership they have stressed their ideological leadership as interpretive of jihad and segued off the notion they have been engaged in a war to enhance their warrior status. In 2001 Al Qaeda produced one propaganda video, last year they produced 97. The fight back by the Muslim elite has featured a mobilisation of religious leaders to undermine these claims. Al Qaeda are propagandists and trainers rather than HQ for the Caliphate.
In his book The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen draws attention to the term ‘Takfiri’. That is one who disobeys the Quranic injunction against compulsion in religion. In a vital development he considers largely unknown in the West, King Abdullah II of Jordan in 2005 organised a conference of 500 Islamic scholars and political leaders from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League to effectively identify the fundamentals of Al Qaeda ideology as a heresy. Terming them heretic and terrorist counters the notion that they are holy warriors.
There are now some 100,000 would be jihadists imprisoned around the globe. In the Muslim world they are accessed by religious scholars who seek to convert them from their path. Release will only follow conversion. Social work is increasingly done among their families in the hope that on their return they will step into an environment that counters their past commitment.
In our region the Indonesian government has made strenuous efforts along similar lines. Whereas most terrorists elsewhere have been detained under various counter insurgency legal mechanisms, in Indonesia their incarceration has been in large measure a product of trials. The judicial process has provided for the public a sustained exposure of the terrorists’ criminal methods and heresy which provides an added impetus to the public discrediting of what they stand for.
Despite these efforts Al Qaeda is reviving its Pakistani base. Its example finds fertile ground in the Middle East, North African and Asian Muslim
communities and amongst Muslim communities in the West.
The most potent potential for a mass casualty event lies in the detonation of a nuclear device. Though little talked about this is actively feared by Western intelligence agencies and discussed by Barak Obama in his speech last week on nuclear disarmament in Prague.
Graham Allison in his book on nuclear terrorism points out that in 2001 there was a significant false alarm when the CIA suspected a device had been smuggled into New York. He describes the effect of a ten kiloton, van transportable weapon in New York thus:
Within a third of a mile from the detonation every building would be destroyed. Out three quarters of a mile, buildings would be substantially destroyed. Out one and a half miles fires and radiation would ravage the area. In a normal workday more than half a million would be killed within the closest radius; hundreds of thousands of others would die from collapsing buildings and radiation in ensuing hours. Communications would be fried and recovery services would struggle for days to contain the fires. Needless to say medical services would be overwhelmed.
Though not a nuclear device, Chechen rebels left an unexploded radiological device in Moscow in 1995 to make their point.
Obama’s outreach to the Islamic world is not simply about containing or countering the influence of Al Qaeda. It is about trying to get to grips with the complex diplomacy across the belt of instability from Palestine to Pakistan. His approach to nuclear disarmament can be viewed in the same light. All these problems become most dangerous when they carry a nuclear component. Dealing with the possibility of state failure in Pakistan, the intensifying issue between Israel and Iran over Iran’s nuclear programme (let alone the consequences of that for weapons proliferation elsewhere in the Middle East) combined with known efforts of Al Qaeda to secure weapons all inform the urgency of his disarmament efforts.
Obama seeks to remove nuclear weapons as an acceptable indicator of national prestige. He is completely aware that revival of an effective non-proliferation regime cannot be done on the basis of nuclear haves and have nots. If the US does not want Iran to have weapons, in the long term neither can the US.
He has not much time. Israel has never before permitted a hostile neighbour to develop a capability as far as Iran has. The likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iranian facilities is high. The knock-on consequences for stability in the Persian Gulf region, through which pass 40% of the world’s oil supplies, are potentially severe. As is the prospect of further destabilisation among Iran’s neighbours. Apart from the previously described ‘crack of light’ in President Ahmadinejad’s comments last week, the Iranian response has not been encouraging.
Obama has taken on himself the toughest end of the US foreign policy task. It has not been made any easier by the focus he has to give the global financial crisis. Unlike Bush, who tended to put buffers between himself and US foreign policy problems and not engage at all on the Palestinian problem for the first six years of his Presidency, Obama from the outset has decided to spend his political capital immediately. He recognises that he carries little personal baggage as he approaches these complex issues and that minimises prejudices against him among those in the Muslim world who want solutions but despair of the US capacity to understand their predicament and stay the course.
Though Palestine, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan demand and receive attention, Obama recognises Pakistan as a key. It is very close to a failed state with an unreliable military and a burgeoning militant fundamentalist movement across the country, not just in tribal areas. The aid programme he has announced goes to the heart of capacity building in areas where reasonable results may be rapidly obtained. His intention is to free that package from the usual looting by the military and political leadership. Depriving the militants of oxygen in the most populous areas may assist the thus empowered non-fundamentalist leadership in getting to grips with the base from which much of the training and ideological leadership of the assault on all of us emanates. Failure would produce a quick road to terrorist nuclear capabilities.
Obama needs to concentrate on capacity building in the populous Punjabi and Sindhi areas. These are least susceptible to the jihadist call. Strengthened, they would provide the government a secure base. Similar moves might help in northern Afghanistan. The Afghan government has manifestly failed to devote development resources in the northern areas where their support is strongest. Karzai, a Pushtun, has concentrated on playing Pushtun politics in the south. The different ethnic groups in the north constitute a majority of the Afghan population. If they don’t see benefit soon, they may well withdraw their support from the Kabul political process.
What can we do? Obviously the government is preparing itself for further assistance in Afghanistan despite little domestic appetite for it. In our immediate region Australia has for some time through a multitude of agreements and aid projects focussed on the full range of requirements from capacity building in intelligence and law enforcement to social programmes aimed at the terrorist recruiting base.
The Australian government has changed its nomenclature on the war in the same way as has Obama. It is clear from recent statements by the Attorney General that domestically the government is entering the social programmes that engage the type of skills redolent here. The job has been done in the defence, law enforcement and intelligence area. From 2001 to 2008 ASIO’s funding increased by 547%, ONA by 316%, AFP 229%, Defence intelligence 49%, Defence 20%. Now the focus is on community.
Unlike the position in many Muslim countries, Australia does not have a systematic programme of deradicalisation of convicted terrorists or in the communities from which they emanate. These involve mobilising Muslim clerics, scholars and social workers capable of interjecting a theological antidote into the minds of those engaged or who might be engaged with terrorist ideology. Courtesy of the work already referred to, there is a considerable amount of authoritative theology to hand.
That needs to be accompanied by attention to the social and physical milieu of recruitment communities. Last week the Attorney General, Robert McClelland, announced that he had initiated a task force to implement deradicalisation and rehabilitation programmes here. He said, “Experience from around the world indicates that enlisting and engaging families, communities and moderate religious leaders is crucial.”
Australians attended a recent conference in Singapore of security and intelligence specialists, psychologists, religious counsellors and social workers to examine the most effective programmes being adopted around the globe. One of the attendees, Victorian Corrective Services Deputy Commissioner Rod Wise, a member of the taskforce, told The Australian:
“We have now got a number of terrorists who have recently been convicted and sentenced. We have an obligation to put them back into the community when they are released in such a way that they engage in law abiding activities.”
These activities do not challenge our budgets. They do challenge our reflexes. They challenge our natural defensive response to threats which is to isolate and punish. That natural response is strengthened when the idea seems so alien and the enemy so self-righteous and implacable. To engage such individuals, their families and community with an open response beyond necessary punishment is not easy. It is, however, just what Al Qaeda does not want us to do.
Our initial response after 9/11 was to shut down Takfiri websites and propaganda outlets. A more sophisticated approach, however, now produces a treasure trove of intelligence both against actual attacks and in honing the sophistication of the antidote. It would be one of the great ironies of the Al Qaeda campaign if instead of producing a clash of civilisations they produced a unifying dialogue.
We are a long way from that point. In the focal areas of tribulation, most of the trajectories are poor. One is reminded of that chilling communiqué from a Roman battlefield, “the battle has been joined but the outcome is in doubt.” One wonders where we would have been if Obama’s presidency had begun to cover 9/11 2001.
Obama’s sombre mood at his inauguration was much commented on. His enjoining of his fellow citizens to “put aside childish things” suggested fundamental new approaches were needed. His approach thus far in this struggle has suggested a burnishing of American ‘soft power’, a reaching out to allies across the religious divide and a mobilising of more citizens than those engaged in the military struggle. Using those who devote themselves to understanding and building functional communities suggests he is framing the response correctly. If there is a chance to settle these issues his actions to date suggest he will take it.