What is the condition of al-Qaida, and what are its prospects in 2011 and beyond? The movement commissions the well-regarded SWISH management agency to deliver a further independent evaluation, to which openDemocracy has exclusive access. By Paul Rogers
A report from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell (SPC) on the progress of the campaign.
It is a year since you last contracted our consultancy to report on the progress of your movement. We confess to surprise that you should require our analysis once more, given the robust and uncomfortable conclusions that we have tended to draw in our work for you over the past three years in particular (see, for example, “The SWISH Report (10)” [29 February 2008]).
Yet as consultants we remain willing to offer our professional judgment (and that of our Washington associates) in order adequately to assess your current prospects. In doing so we will recall the main themes of our last assessment, in January 2010; consider three favourable trends and events that have marked the year since then; and restate, with respect, the fundamental difficulties that in our view your movement faces (see “The SWISH Report (16)” [21 January 2010]).
The report delivered to you in January emphasised just how much value the George W Bush administration had been to you. Its response to 9/11 was as you wished – highly militaristic and wide-ranging in scope. By the end of 2008, when the second term of the United States president ended, the “far enemy” was mired in a still-evolving war in Afghanistan; and even faced a predicament in the country similar to that of the Soviet Union during that superpower’s declining years.
Your movement had also gained a huge boost from the US’s occupation of Iraq and from the Bush administration’s continuing support for Israel. Indeed the US-Israel cooperation in the conduct of the war in Iraq enabled your public-relations arm to project a powerful narrative of a Crusader-Zionist plot aiming to control the heart of the Arab-Islamic world. This was further enhanced by the evident lack of any prospect for a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
A year ago, however, we reported as a source of great potential concern that the still relatively young Barack Obama administration might act more intelligently than its predecessor. Its intended military surge in Afghanistan was premised on an intention to negotiate an organised withdrawal from a position of strength rather than an expectation of clear military victory over the Taliban. Moreover, the Obama administration appeared strongly committed to a substantive Israel-Palestine peace process, which if sustained would be very bad for your movement.
In addition, we highlighted promising developments in Somalia and Yemen, while warning against any expectation that the United States would engage in major military operations in either country. We also concluded that the Pakistani army would be unwilling to undertake major combat against your Pakistani-Taliban allies, and that this would make it less likely that the state itself would come under threat.
The most uncomfortable aspect of our January 2010 analysis, from your perspective, was that the mode of Islamist governance to which you aspire is not viable. We therefore concluded:
“[You] cannot achieve your ultimate aim of a radical Caliphate founded on your particular understanding of Islam’s distant past, but…you will continue with the conflict even so. Your enemy, for now at least, will pursue its strategy in a manner which delivers real value to you. We suspect, though, that this enemy may be more intelligent than you believe. For you, hubris may turn out to be the greater threat.”
The 2010 retrospect
As we anticipated, the United States did not engage in Yemen on a large scale, although its actual military activities were rather more intense than generally reported. The expanding drone-attacks in northwest Pakistan have cost you significant elements of middle management, though there have been ready replacements available emerging from the ranks of younger yet experienced paramilitaries who are also frequently even more radical and determined than their predecessors.
In this context, we would argue that 2010 has seen three useful developments for you.
First, the dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal as the senior military commander in Afghanistan gives his replacement General David Petraeus what amounts to a free hand in the Afghan war. The virtually unsackable Petraeus (as the third US commander in Afghanistan in a year) has adopted a notably aggressive military posture, not least in terms of a major expansion in special-forces operations. This intensification of the war in Afghanistan, and its progressive extension into Pakistan, provoke enhanced resistance to foreign occupation and thus are generally positive for your movement.
Second, Barack Obama suffered a serious reversal in the mid-term elections of November 2010 and is a weakened president as a result. Any indication that he might be planning an early withdrawal from Afghanistan is therefore open to strenuous denunciation by his domestic political opponents. The unusual combination of a military leadership that cannot afford a defeat and a damaged administration that cannot be seen to be opting for retreat means that the war has years to run.
Third, the middle-east peace process is effectively dead, a development of inestimable value to you. Indeed this might well be followed in the coming months by an Israeli military strike on Iran. In itself this would be of little specific advantage to you, especially in the framework of your suspicion of the Shi’a who dominate Iran as apostates; but it would be favourable in overall terms as a further demonstration of the central Crusader-Zionist assault on Islam.
The mutating pattern
Your movement may have been weakened in terms of its central organisation as well as its apparent inability to mount major transnational actions – to the extent that your far enemy has come to view it a movement in decline. Against this, the fact that it was never a narrowly hierarchical entity is important.
What is particularly interesting to us as professional analysts is the manner in which your movement is currently evolving – as exemplified in the existence of significant numbers of planned and actual operations that have little connection with your organisation as a whole or its Strategic Planning Cell component. Those responsible are commonly radicalised and strongly motivated individuals who are acting on their own or in small groups; they often come from diaspora communities, whether in north America, Europe or the wider world.
There is a link here to the consistent failure of western analysts to register the extensive reporting in Arab-Islamic broadcasting outlets and across new media of the numerous civilian casualties resulting from the far enemy’s behaviour – in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Yemen and elsewhere. The failure extends to incomprehension of the cumulative impact of Israeli actions, including even to grasping how far the Operation Cast Lead assault in Gaza in 2008-09 could become vital in the radicalising process.
This combination of the movement’s inner character and the media-public impact of western policy means that in the coming years we expect to see many more attacks – notwithstanding that their often brutal nature can be counterproductive. Your movement will thus retain a decentred and dispersed vitality that arises primarily from the continuing effects of what your far enemy is doing.
Here, we must confess that in an important respect our expectation that the Obama administration would inaugurate an intelligent new approach to the United States’s predicament was misplaced. It now seems to us that the toxic legacy bequeathed to the current president by his predecessor was so severe that Obama had insufficient room to contemplate serious changes in approach before the mid-term elections – and has even less chance now. The implication is that in a very real sense, your far enemy will remain your best friend.
At the same time, we remain convinced that – even from your own eschatological perspective and over the century-long timespan within which you operate – you have no chance of achieving your own ideological-strategic aim of an Islamist caliphate, which in any case rests on a false representation of Islam. However, we do not expect you to change.
All this suggests to us that your movement and your far enemy have together set in motion a collision that has many years – at least another decade – to run.
We will be willing to oblige any request for further analysis, though the cast of this and the immediately preceding reports means that we do not anticipate that we will be hearing again from you. In the circumstances, payment in advance was much appreciated.