Taking Our Eye Off the Jihadist Ball

by Bruce Thornton

Frontpage Magazine

Cross-posted at Victor Hanson Private Papers

Given our economic doldrums and the still metastasizing debt, the legislation raising the debt ceiling won’t keep the economy from dominating the nation’s attention until next year’s election. This means foreign affairs will continue to be an afterthought, at a time when dangerous developments in the Middle East and the war against jihad are happening every day.

Jihad Boy
Jihad Boy

Start with Iraq and Afghanistan. The progress made in those conflicts over the last decade remains fragile. Terrorist violence continues in both states: the most recent attacks include seven Taliban suicide bombers killing 21 civilians in relatively stable Kabul, a day after the assassination of the mayor of Kandahar, itself merely the latest in a series of murders of government officials and tribal leaders. In Iraq on the same day, explosions killed 12 soldiers in Tikrit, the site of 3 earlier assaults that left over 150 dead.

This June was the deadliest month for American soldiers in two years, some of the attacks perpetrated by Shia militias trained by Iran, whose influence in Iraq is increasing. Though much reduced from previous years, this level of violence – created in part by still unresolved sectarian, tribal, and ethnic conflicts, as well as governmental dysfunction and corruption – bodes ill for the stability of both countries once US forces leave, their departure creating space within the disorder for the rebuilding of jihadist organizational infrastructure. This “pull-out fever” afflicting American citizens and politicians alike runs the risk of repeating the debacle of Vietnam, when a costly victory won on the battlefield was squandered by domestic politics and a collective failure of nerve.

Speaking of al Qaeda, the death of bin Laden and the degradation of its leadership by drone attacks in Pakistan have not put that lodestar of jihadist terror “on the run,” nor do they mean we can anytime soon “cripple al Qaeda as a threat to this country,” as newly minted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has asserted. According to Michael Leiter, who recently stepped down as head of the National Counterterrorism Center, “the core organization is still there and could launch some attacks,” and “Pakistan remains a huge problem.”

Pakistan is still a duplicitous and unreliable partner in destroying al Qaeda sanctuaries and rooting out jihadist networks, something that cannot be achieved just by drone attacks, which are hostage to Pakistani political disorder, sympathy for the jihadists, and factional interests. Moreover, the center of al Qaeda gravity has shifted to Yemen, which is disintegrating from a civil war pitting the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh against various tribal militias and jihadist militants, including al Qaeda fighters who are gaining experience and weapons in this war.

Yemen is also the hideout of one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous leaders, the American-born, tech-savvy Anwar al-Awlaki, the inspiration and mentor for the Fort Hood murderer Nadal Malik Hasan, the Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Times Square bomber Faisal Shazad. Though the latter two attacks failed, we should not rely on the incompetence of al Qaeda’s recruits to keep us safe forever, particularly if Yemen becomes for al Qaeda what Afghanistan was in the 1990s.

Then there is the so-called “Arab Spring,” a wish-fulfilling false analogy with 1989 that blinds many to the dangers of the ongoing revolts against various despotic regimes in the Middle East. In Egypt, the tweeting and telegenic Westernized youth – who convinced many in the West that democracy was on the march in the Arab world – have been shoved aside by the more numerous Islamists, including the Muslim Brothers we keep hearing are pragmatic reformers. A few days ago Islamist demonstrators filled Tahrir Square in Cairo, chanting “Islamic, Islamic, neither secular nor liberal,” while a few dozen secular activists cowered in a tent until they were driven away.

One Islamist student made a simple point lost on many Western idealizers of democracy: “If democracy is the voice of the majority and we as Islamists are the majority, why do they want to impose on us the views of minorities — the liberals and the secularists?” Why indeed. Without the foundational ideals of individual human rights, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, and the primacy of law over religious or tribal loyalties, democracy is just machinery that can be used for all sorts of ends, including illiberal ones.