The SWISH Report (16)

On the anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration as United States president, the al-Qaida movement invites the respected SWISH management consultancy to assess its prospects.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 January 2010

A report from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell (SPC) on the progress of the campaign.

The last report we presented to you was commissioned and prepared in the wake of President Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 (see “The SWISH Report (15)”, 11 June 2009). At the start of his second year in office, we are pleased to offer you a further analysis. As per as your instructions, we will once again be frank in our assessment of your movement’s prospects.

We will start by summarising the main points of our more recent work for you. For some time we have emphasised that the George W Bush administration was very good for you - much of the United States military activity could easily be represented by your associates as an assault on Islam, with the United States/Israeli links being particularly useful. Iraq, especially, could be represented as a “crusader/Zionist plot aimed at the heart of Islam”. We advised you that a John McCain administration would be greatly preferable to one led by Barack Obama (see “The SWISH Report (11)”, 11 September 2008); and we suggested that Obama’s election would present you with difficulties (see “The SWISH Report (12)” (6 November 2008). The impact of his Cairo speech confirmed this view.

We indicated that from your perspective there were promising developments in a range of locations: among them Somalia (where Washington might become more deeply involved in assaults on local enemies), Iraq (where a continuing war might interfere with planned US troop withdrawals), and Afghanistan (where the new administration showed signs of pursuing what it regarded as a “good war”). There was therefore still the prospect that your “far enemy” would become even more mired in intractable difficulties, with conflict in Afghanistan carrying the added potential for instability in Pakistan.

We also noted aspects of Israel’s behaviour that were of value to you. Among them was the Gaza assault of December 2008-January 2009. “Operation Cast Lead” was widely covered by the Arabic TV news channels and provided sustained and concentrated evidence of Arab suffering. This was highly useful to you, even if your movement receives little direct support from Palestinians.

We highlighted too the the risk for you that Iran might elect a moderate president, thus downgrading the perception in Israel of an existential threat and exposing Israel in turn to the risk that the Obama administration would exert serious pressure on it to compromise with the Palestinians. A settlement would, in our view, be very damaging to your movement. It was then a favourable outcome for you that Iran’s incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, did enough in June 2009 to ensure that he would stay in office.

We further reported - recalling your invitation to be unvarnished in our analysis - the problem that ensued when Islamist governance of the kind you espouse was implemented briefly in some parts of Pakistan: namely, that it had initially delivered stability but rapidly became unpopular. This had echoes of Afghanistan’s experience in the late 1990s, where the early welcome to and acceptance of the incoming Taliban did not last.

We therefore concluded by strongly doubting that your plans for a radical caliphate can be realised as long as you pursue your current approach to governance; and thus recommending that you review your ultimate aims in this area. This, in our view, remains your fundamental long-term predicament. You cannot achieve your aims in governance without a degree of moderation that we think, given your present culture and experience, you are unlikely to develop. Yet that does not mean that your enemy is winning.

A movement in decline?

Many western analysts have for some months taken the view that yours is a movement in decline. Your losses of middle-ranking leaders to drone attacks have been serious; the instability in Pakistan has little to do with the actions of your paramilitary cohorts; the Saudi crackdown on dissidents and the accompanying re-education programme has had some effect; and your movement has not staged any direct attacks on your “far enemy” or those associated with it for many months.

We acknowledge this view but think it is mistaken. You have indeed lost many key people, but they have been rapidly replaced by members of a younger generation. Moreover, whereas many of the older generation had experience against Soviet conscripts in 1980s Afghanistan the new generation has fought highly professional and exceptionally well-equipped American troops, as well as being more radical in outlook.

We would also point to the near-success of the Detroit attack on 25 December 2009; the destruction of key members of a CIA team in Khost province on 30 December; and, above all, the consolidation of your movement in Yemen, where the 3,000 Yemenis who have fought US troops in Iraq in recent years have brought you great benefits.

We would mention too the ongoing violence in Iraq, especially the manner in which your associates in that country have become adept at destroying government offices, despite the levels of security that such operations have to overcome.

The “far enemy” and your prospects

These elements of current experience largely counterbalance the claims that you are in retreat. At the same time, we judge that events may move against you in three respects. The first is that the Barack Obama administration has not yet expanded its military operations in Yemen, even though the Detroit attack was designed to do just that. John McCain would undoubtedly have “gone in big” but Obama has not done so, and is unlikely to greatly expand operations. For your movement this is a real setback.

The second trend is that the modification of the American troop presence in Iraq is not in your favour. In a rather clever move, the US army is establishing a series of support-brigades that are designed to aid the development of Iraqi national forces but also have immediate combat-potential. The number of troops in the country will, we expect, fall from around 120,000 to 50,000 during 2010; this smaller number will have relatively low visibility while being readily available should your associates maintain their activity. The artful part of the US plan is that it will appear that such activity is being controlled by government forces, thus reassuring most Iraqis in a manner that is thoroughly unhelpful to you.

The third circumstance relates to an environment that is more congenial to you, Afghanistan and Pakistan; but there are problems here as well. The Pakistani army’s activities will almost certainly not extend to taking full control of the border districts, so their effects will not incite the levels of violence that you would most wish to see across the country.

Again, the major expansion of foreign troops in Afghanistan is excellent news for you. But there are indications that these forces will make determined efforts to win over elements of the insurgency with bribes, roles in government and other inducements. As we have made clear in the past, the George W Bush administration was your greatest ally, but the new administration is far more intelligent.

Two elements, as yet existing in potential only, may influence the evolving situation. The first is whether Barack Obama has understood that the Afghanistan war is essentially unwinnable, and will require a degree of compromise that is much greater than currently contemplated. The second is that any appearance of serious compromise in the country might cause domestic opposition on a scale that would threaten Obama's re-election in 2012.

We conclude by drawing a lesson from the experience of recent years: that you cannot achieve your ultimate aim of a radical caliphate founded on your particular understanding of Islam’s distant past, but that you will continue with the conflict even so. Your enemy, for now at least, will pursue its strategy in a manner that 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.

We rather think that, given this conclusion, you may not require more work from us; but rest assured that we stand ready to provide further assessments should you so desire.


South Waziristan

21 January 2010



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