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The SWISH Report (13.2)

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A report from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the International Security Unit of the Obama Transition Team, Washington DC, on the condition and future of the war on terror.

Part 2 [The first part of the SWISH report to the ISU of the OTT was published on 8 December 2008]


In the first part of this report we discussed the policies of your predecessor's administration in relation to their response to the 9/11 attacks.  We reported that in almost every respect the response was misguided and counterproductive (see "The SWISH Report (13) - part one", 8 December 2008). 

As a result, the standing of the United States across the middle east and southwest Asia is much diminished and its military forces are mired in a dangerous and long-term conflict in Afghanistan that is exacerbated by major problems in Pakistan. We do not believe that victory has been achieved (or will soon be achieved) in Iraq; and we hold that the al-Qaida movement has been dispersed into a loose network that is and will remain extremely difficult to counter.    

We must also report that the (so far) five-year war in Iraq has resulted in a new generation of jihadist paramilitaries who have combat experience in an urban environment against the world's best-equipped armed forces. From the perspective of the al-Qaida movement this has been a spectacular outcome. 

In addition, the fact that your country has sought advice, training and equipment from Israel to aid it in the protracted war in Iraq - thus strengthening the already close links between the two states - is of significance in our report. For this development has aided jihadist propagandists in their determined efforts to develop a narrative of Islam under attack from the "crusader/Zionist" coalition - what they readily see and enthusiastically portray as an axis of evil.

Al-Qaida's aims

In light of these outcomes, we now have the difficult task of suggesting practical options to you. But we should first repeat our assessment of the nature of the al-Qaida movement, since this remains the main focus of the war you will inherit. 

Al-Qaida is best seen as an unusual transnational revolutionary movement with a series of short-term aims and one overarching final goal.  

The short-term aims are measured in decades rather than years. They include:

* the eviction of "crusader" forces from the Kingdom of the Two Holy Places and from all Islamic lands

* the termination of the elitist, unjust and pro-western House of Saud, and its replacement with an acceptable Islamist form of governance

* the elimination of other unacceptable regimes in the region, including those in Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

* the end of the Zionist project

* support for Islamist separatists in regions such as Chechnya and southern Thailand

* the humbling and diminishing of the power of the United States (the "far enemy").

The long-term aim is the progressive establishment of an Islamist caliphate, initially in the middle east but ultimately expanding far more widely. This may take a century or more, so that both the short and long-term aims are expressed in timescales that do not relate to your own political system. 

We should add that since this is a revolutionary movement based on a religious belief, there is an important eschatological aspect. The movement's leadership does not expect to see its goals achieved in its own lifetime. The movement is in this perspective viewed as merely the contemporary aspect of a much greater historical process. 

The al-Qaida movement is now greatly dispersed and has many connections with related movements across west Asia and south Asia, the middle east, north Africa, and elsewhere. These include radical Islamist groups in Algeria, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, as well as numerous paramilitary militias in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

One of the most ominous developments from your perspective is that many jihadist paramilitaries that are only loosely connected with the al-Qaida movement increasingly see themselves as part of the global struggle rather than just engaged in a local or regional conflict.  The conduct of your predecessor's administration has done much to enhance this. 

At the same time, as you decide your strategy in these circumstances you have three significant advantages:

* yours is a new administration, with a president who is more innately internationalist in personal experience than any United States president in recent history. Many of America's supporters and sympathisers, dismayed by the conduct of the George W Bush administration, are desperate to see the country and its leadership become more engaged in and collaborative with the world. You therefore begin with much goodwill

* your country is in such obvious economic disarray that the electorate will accept radical ideas that stretch beyond the domestic economy; these include major changes in military strategy, not least because of the unpopularity of the Iraq war

* Most of the success of the al-Qaida movement since 2001 is owed to the mistaken policies of the Bush administration rather than to any innately intelligent leadership of its own

You therefore hold considerable assets at the outset of your term of office. But - as the first part of this report concluded - these will only work for you if they are accompanied by "a far more radical appraisal of new policies than you currently envisage"; and the adoption of new approaches which in turn "you will find...hard to implement".

There are four broad areas where we propose such changes: relations with Israel; Iraq and the Persian Gulf; Afghanistan-Pakistan; and the al-Qaida movement.

The Israel-Palestine factor

You have no alternative but to use your strongest endeavours to try to achieve a just and lasting settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. We do not claim that Palestinians support the al-Qaida movement, but the issue is a running sore in their territories and across the middle east in ways that are of immense and continuing advantage to radical Islamists - including al-Qaida. 

There are great problems too arising from the Israel/Palestine dispute in neighbouring Arab states. All too often, ruling elites have been willing to tolerate the continuation of the conflict - and unwilling to provide large-scale help over (for example) Palestinian refugees - on the unacknowledged grounds that the Palestinians' predicament diverts attention from their own domestic political and social failures. This situation in turn makes it even harder to address the problem that the Palestinian people themselves have so little benefited from wise and competent leadership of their own.  

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that you must face the fact that as long as the plight of the Palestinians is unresolved - especially in Gaza, but not only there - any progress in diminishing the threat from radical Islamists will be impossible. We recognise the difficulties that this requirement presents for you, but you asked us to be blunt and to provide a global (that is, non-western-centric) view. That, as we see it, is the reality. 

How you proceed on this issue from this point is up to you. We would, however, point to the Arab peace initiative as of potential value. We would also remind you that your own domestic electorate is steadily changing in its view of Israel, moving beyond the potent narrative of "David vs Goliath" that lasted from the state's founding in 1948 through to the six-day war of June 1967. The lifespan of this story - notwithstanding the growth of Christian Zionism among your evangelical churches - is passing. The majority of Americans were not even born in 1967; it might be useful if you began to register this. 

We do not expect rapid progress. But an unequivocal statement of the requirement for a viable Palestinian state with a shared capital, followed by sustained efforts to see that realised, will be welcomed across the region - including, we suspect, by very many Israelis.   Many of them have come to the understanding that it is no longer viable to see themselves as "a western state in the wrong place"; and that they cannot build walls high enough to allow them to pretend that the rest of the middle east does not exist.

Iraq and the Gulf

You have stated your intention to withdraw from United States forces from Iraq, but - even in the context of the agreement with the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki - few independent analysts believe that your country will do so fully in the next decade or more. Most American combat-troops may well leave in the possible event of improvements in internal security, but Iraq is just too important in terms of the region's energy security for you to give up all control. We anticipate that whatever you currently say, several large US bases and many thousands of troops will remain in the country. This would be a fundamental mistake, not least in providing a long-term focus for radical Islamists. 

We would thus advise you to be prepared to remove all your forces (except small-scale training-missions) within the life of your administration's first term of office - and to make your intentions in this respect clear from the outset. In this effort (and on their own account) you will need to be prepared to engage with all significant regional actors - including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran; you may be aided in this initiative if you recognise that none of Riyadh, Damascus and Tehran wants chaos or civil war on its doorstep. 

More generally, you should adopt a radical energy policy that as quickly as possible reduces your country's dependence on oil and gas (especially oil) imports. The issue of climate change may lie beyond the remit of this report, but you should know that we fully accept the most reliable current scientific assessments of the absolute seriousness of this issue. It is essential - we repeat, essential - that all the significant greenhouse-gas emitters reduce their carbon outputs to an extent far greater than any major government currently envisages. The requirement for sustainability is 60% cuts by 2018, and 80% cuts by the late 2020s. If your administration provides clear leadership-by-example in this area that set the pattern for ensuing decades, it would perform the most important global role possible - and increase both national and international security into the bargain.

In this respect, we fully support those policy analysts who are outlining programmes that respond simultaneously to your country's economic and environmental predicaments. For, to re-emphasise the point about security, a precious (though little recognised) side-benefit of a radical "green new deal" is that it would greatly reduce any perceived need to regard your control of the Persian Gulf region as a strategic imperative. In this change of focus, you would do to al-Qaida and other regional Islamists what Mikhail Gorbachev did to you in the late 1980s - remove the enemy from the scene.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan arena

The Afghanistan-Pakistan issue is the most difficult one on which we can advise you, and we fear you will be even less able to accept what we say here as in other areas. 

Our view, based on close and sustained expertise in this region, is that the occupation of any state in the middle east and western Asia by western military forces is unsustainable. The time has long passed for this to be a realistic, far less a defensible project - even if awareness of this fact has yet to penetrate (in the same way that it took as much as three further decades, if not longer, for some European colonial powers to realise that the colonial era had effectively ended in 1947). 

We believe that the more military forces are put into Afghanistan, the more the Taliban and other militias will grow in strength. Beyond that, we contend that Afghanistan will become a magnet for paramilitaries from across the region and beyond - bringing in experience, new tactics, techniques and armaments. Indeed, there are abundant signs that this is already happening,

As you increase your forces (and we expect that the process now under way could take United States/International Security Assistance Forces (Isaf) contingents to nearly 100,000 personnel by the end of 2009), the more western Pakistan will be seen as a protected base for paramilitary groups; this in turn expose your supply-routes to even greater attack, and further increase the pressure on you to intervene across the border. But to extend the war to Pakistan on a large-scale basis will be disastrous, risking wholesale destabilisation of the state. 

In short, you have to completely rethink your strategy in this region. We have to say that this is the one aspect of your stated international-security approach that causes us greatest concern. We do not think you should increase your military forces in Afghanistan; we do not see the conflict as amenable to a military solution; and we do believe that there has to be much wider engagement with more moderate militia elements than anything which has so far been proposed. 

In brief, you must appreciate that your current military posture is part of the problem, not the solution; and as that posture is strengthened, so the problem will get worse.

Al-Qaida's thinking 

The adequate resourcing of counter-terrorism activities presents us with no problem. But you do need to appreciate that the issues of torture, prisoner abuse, rendition and the camp at Guantánamo have all been of substantial benefit to the al-Qaida movement. We note that your new administration is likely to address these issues; and that this, in combination with what we expect to be a much more multilateral approach to international relations, will be bad news for the al-Qaida movement. 

We therefore suspect that the movement will attempt a 9/11-level attack, probably within the United States, at some point between now and mid-2010. If and when that happens, your country will require exceptional levels of political leadership if you are to avoid yet another misguided military response. 

With regard to the status of the movement as a whole, much will depend on whether you are able to accept our advice on the issues outlined above. If there is an evident move towards an Israel-Palestine settlement; if you withdraw from Iraq; if you downgrade the political necessity to maintain forces in the wider Persian Gulf region; and if you engage in serious negotiations in Afghanistan-Pakistan - then the al-Qaida movement will, in our view, be greatly diminished by around 2012-14. 

If, furthermore, you refrain from using such terms as "war on terror" and "long war against Islamofascism" and treat the al-Qaida movement as an aberrant transnational criminal entity which is in no way a reflection of true Islam then you will treat them for what they are. 

There are some areas in which you cannot play such a central role.  These include the need for scholars of Islam to be more effective in expounding counter-narratives to the al-Qaida worldview, and the need for greatly improved governance and socio-economic justice across the middle east. In relation to the latter, though, you might well find it appropriate to review your extraordinarily close relationships with a number of the more markedly elite regimes.


We are aware that our advice in three of the four major aspects covered in this report - Israel-Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan - is considerably more radical than anything you currently propose; but you have requested our advice and we have given it. We acknowledge that to accept it is much to ask of you, perhaps especially because it represents a very different outlook not just from the neo-conservative vision of a "new American century" but from some of the assertive realists that you have already invited into your administration.    

If you do prove able to take this advice, then we are confident that you will both make your country more secure and create a strong foundation from which to address formidable global problems of climate change and socio-economic division during your second term. Should you ask our advice on these latter issues at some future date, we will be honoured to respond. 

If however you do not take the advice in this current report, then we anticipate an exceptionally difficult period in office for what is likely to become a one-term presidency. In light of the promise you embody as you prepare to begin your period in office, that would be a double tragedy: for your country, and for the wider global community.


South Waziristan

14 December 2008

[The first part of the SWISH report to the International Security Unit of the Obama Transition Team was published on 8 December 2008]

This is the thirteenth report openDemocracy has published from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH). Nine have advised al-Qaida, two the British governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and one the United States state department.

"The SWISH Report" (14 July 2004) - to al-Qaida:

"The immediate therefore to aid, in any way within the framework of your core values, the survival of the Bush administration."

"The SWISH Report (2)" (13 January 2005) - to al-Qaida:

"You are... in the early stages of a decades-long confrontation, and early ‘success' should not in any way cause you to underestimate the problems that lie ahead."

"The SWISH Report (3)" (19 May 2005) - to the British government:

"We believe that disengagement from Iraq, more emphasis on post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan, and vigorous diplomacy in support of a two-state Israel/Palestine solution offer you the best short-term hope of avoiding further damage to your government's credibility in relation to the United States-led war on terror."

"The SWISH Report (4)" (1 September 2005) - to the United States state department:

"What we find quite extraordinary is the manner in which the full extent of your predicament in Iraq is still not appreciated by your political leadership."

"The SWISH Report (5)" (2 February 2006) - to al-Qaida:

"The greatest risk to your movement is that the opinions of some of the sharper analysts on both sides of the Atlantic begin to transcend those of the political and religious fundamentalists that currently dominate the scene. If that were to happen, then you could be in serious trouble within two or three years."

"The SWISH Report (6)" (7 September 2006) - to al-Qaida:

"(The) influence of your movement and your leader is considerable, but you are not in control of your own strategy; rather, you form just one part of a wider process that is as diffuse and unpredictable as it is potent. You could point to the United States failure to control its global war on terror and you would be correct to do so. You could then claim that it is your own movement that is setting the pace - but you would be wrong. The truly revealing development of recent months is that we have reached a point, five years after 9/11 where no one, but no one, is in control."

"The SWISH Report (7)" (7 December 2006) - to al-Qaida:

"In Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as across the wider middle east, it is the power and influence of the United States that is in crisis. Your movement may not be entirely coherent and the overall circumstances may be more complex than a few months ago, but it probably has greater potential for enhancement and further development than at any time in the past five years."

"The SWISH Report (8)" (16 May 2007) - to the British government:

"Radical changes in your policies in relation to Iraq and Israel are essential, together with a review of policy options for Afghanistan. More generally, you must start the process of reorientating political and security thinking towards the real long-term global challenges."

"The SWISH Report (9)" (29 November 2007) - to al-Qaida:

"Our broad conclusions are that your prospects are good. Developments in Iraq should not worry you; events in Afghanistan and Pakistan are markedly positive for you; and the work of your associates elsewhere, including north Africa, are a bonus.

We do have to confess to one concern that may surprise you...In a number of western countries the issue of global climate change is rising rapidly up the political agenda and one of the effects of this is to begin to make some analysts and opinion-formers question the western addiction to oil."

"The SWISH Report (10)" (29 February 2008) - to al-Qaida

"It is said that revolutions change merely the accents of the elites, and we fear that such would be the consequence of your movement coming to power. A lack of flexibility would lead to unbending pursuit of a false purity that would decay rapidly into a bitter autocracy, leading quite possibly to a counter-revolution.

If you really want to succeed then you have to engage in thinking that goes far beyond what appear to be the limits and flaws of your current analysis. We would be happy to assist, but we doubt that your leadership will be willing to allow us to do so. We therefore submit this as possibly our last report."

"The SWISH Report (11)" (11 September 2008) - to al-Qaida

"In any case, whatever his actual policies, we most certainly would expect under an Obama presidency a marked change in style towards a more listening, cooperative and multilaterally - engaged America. That must be of deep concern to you. A more ‘acceptable' America in global terms is the last thing you want"

"The SWISH Report (12)" (6 November 2008) - to al-Qaida

"If the far enemy began to lose interest in your core region, then your movement really would be in trouble. We will explore this further in a later report; but at this stage, we would suggest that this could emerge as the most potent threat to your movement."

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