Sunday, February 26, 2006

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Austin Bay is looking at captured al Qaeda documents; he's been doing so for, oh, a couple of weeks. I haven't posted on them so far because they frankly weren't very enlightening to me; they revealed a committed, ideology-based, well-organized, but misled cadre - nothing we didn't already know. The translated documents can be found here, on the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point website.

However, the post to which I linked in the first paragraph is interesting, because it points up two new, or newish, bits of information: first, that al Qaeda's private thoughts about Saudi Arabia are considerably different from its public pronouncements - more in a moment; and second, that al Qaeda considers (or did at the time this document was written, at any rate) the oil spot strategy, starting in Saudi Arabia, its best bet for global jihad. The second point is interesting mostly because of the irony: the oil spot strategy is what Krepinevich was talking about last year as our best chance of success (with a good bit of rueful head-shaking about how the Bush administration just didn't see it and was therefore failing miserably - a piece of typical realpolitik shortsightedness that failed to take into account that Iraq is the oil spot). So it's perhaps not surprising that al Qaeda, that bunch of ultra-realpolitniks in spite of their driving ideology, should adopt the same strategy.

More important is the disconnect between al Qaeda's public and private expressions about Saudi Arabia. From the synopsis of the al Qaeda document given by Austin Bay, at the same Austin Bay link as above:

The fight against the Americans (Jews and Crusaders) is characterized as a series of battles; the struggle with Saudi Arabia is a war. An oil spot strategy must be pursued against Saudi Arabia, with the goal of expanding the circle of jihad through successful operations that break down the fear barrier which keeps Mujahideen from fully engaging the Saudi state.

Note that this is a translation of al Qaeda's words, not Austin's. Contrast this statement with bin Laden's from 1996:

"The ordinary Saudi knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services…Our country has become a colony of America…Saudis know their real enemy is America" (UPI Intelligence Watch, March 21, 2005). it appeared here. Now, bin Laden, as a Saudi himself, obviously draws a distinction between his kind of Saudi and the House of Saud and its sympathizers - but examine this disparity in message through the prism of the recent attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra: al Qaeda in Iraq is part of the so-called "insurgency." Their goal in Iraq, however, is larger than an actual insurgency's goals, which would be to bring about the end of an American presence and to take on political power in Iraq. These insurgency goals are indeed what the Ba'athist insurgents in Iraq want, for obvious reasons: they were in the catbird seat under Saddam and want that seat back. The way for this now significantly minor (rather a non-sequitur of phrasing, but the synapses aren't clicking all that efficiently this evening) minority to achieve those goals is to foment a civil war and to be the last ones standing. That's the only way they can reclaim power, now that the Shi'ite majority has discovered its power and the Kurds have been able to enjoy theirs.

So why was the Golden Mosque bombed? It doesn't advance the aims of al Qaeda, which (according to this source, center on driving Americans out of all Muslim lands, particularly Saudi Arabia, and displacing Western-style democracies throughout the Middle East (with destroying Israel and reestablishing the caliphate in there for good measure). The way to drive Americans out of Iraq, much less the Islamic world, is not to create a need for more and longer-lasting American military presence with two years to go in Bush's term; the way to bring down the fledgling Iraqi democracy, much less to quell democratic movements elsewhere in the Middle East, is not to give a government only just vigorously drying behind its ears a chance to appear statesmanlike and to exert control while still well supported by the United States (better in both cases to wait until more American troops had been withdrawn, and Americans were accustomed to an ongoing orderly disengagement). al-Zarqawi is on record as wanting to see a bloody war between Shi'ites and Sunnis, and indeed al Qaeda under his leadership claims responsibility for the Golden Mosque bombing. But was it strategically supported? Or was he acting outside his role as leader of al Qaeda in Iraq? Or, was he taking an opportunity to claim credit for a devastating attack carried out by Sunni, perhaps Ba'athist, insurgents? Is bin Laden even now slapping his forehead and saying, "Why again did I let that numbskull pledge fealty to me"?

Heck, I don't know. What strikes me, though, is that there's less consensus in al Qaeda than they need in order to accomplish their goals. In Iraq they've miscalculated again and again, galvanizing the population against them so that every month brings more informants and fewer safe havens. In Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is actually a main stream of Islam rather than a narrow tributary, will al Qaeda be similarly fragmented in its approach? The attempted-but-failed attack by al Qaeda on a Saudi oil facility last week suggests that it may be so: if al Qaeda were to succeed in toppling the House of Saud by destroying the Saudi economy, the job of rebuilding what they had destroyed without help from the West could (it seems to me would) be more than they could handle.

Not that I want to give advice to the enemy. But as even Juan Cole says, "By siding with the narrowest sliver of Sunni extremists, he [bin Laden] denied himself any real impact." I can't resist the urge at this moment to point out that making Howard Dean chairman of the DNC was a similarly head-scratching move - but as I've tried to point out repeatedly in the past few weeks, that's neither here nor there; the Democratic Party either will or won't carry on in its current often inexplicable vein and neither outcome threatens real national unity, nor is the divide between Left and Right in this country so great that it can't be bridged when necessary - whereas bin Laden and the rest of al Qaeda are in a struggle for their own lives and, if they can survive, for any slightest whiff of political power. You'd think they would decide on a message that would further their struggle, rather than one that only chips away at (if not outright decimates) any coalition-building they've managed so far.

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