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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Failures of Imagination: Theirs and Ours

Americans certainly have a great deal to consider five years after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The networks will inevitably mine the seven days of 24-hour coverage of the attacks and their aftermath to air elaborately produced retrospectives of the event complete with ethereal violin soundtracks and heart-wrenching personal diaries of those who lost people in the attacks. However, very few writers have the ability to transcend the now-routine melodramatic templates those same networks apply to so many other situations ranging from some athlete overcoming some "struggle" for the sake of his sport to a teenager dying in a car accident on prom night.

Applying those formulas to those that experienced 9/11 doesn't cut it. Any anniversary piece is unlikely to convey the other-worldly horror experienced by those that lived through the experience first hand or lost loved ones in the attacks. As a result, those retrospectives seem destined to provide little comfort for those that suffered and even less insight for the rest of us to use in figuring out better ways of avoiding similar events in the future.

Since the visuals of the attacks themselves were (and still are) so overwhelming, the scale of the emotional shock doesn't seem to process. Probably the only feeling that did process at the time and still does now after watching video of the news from those days is the logical shock from the basic details of the attacks:

  • terrorists intentionally flew civilian jetliners into national landmarks

  • flight schools provided training to foreign nationals who paid cash and only wanted instruction on FLYING, but not TAKING OFF and LANDING

  • security regulations actually ALLOWED box cutter knives on planes


While overwhelmed with the emotional aspects of the day, these points kept sticking in the logical part of our collective brains and driving home one single conclusion. We were sucker-punched. How could we not see this coming?

Virtually everything about the events in the middle east and their effects on America seems to involve a series of "failures of imagination". Some of them by those we are fighting, some of them ours.

The Benefits of Islamic Government (NOT)

Would-be jihadists don't have to search long to get an idea of the type of economy and society they are likely to enjoy after a "successful" jihad. They only have to look at the quality of life and efficiency of government in Lebanon, the Palestinian territory and Afghanistan. In each of these countries, governments with militant Islamic factions had varying degrees of success in imposing basic security and stability for brief periods but none have succeeded in creating sustained economic growth and all demonstrated high degrees of corruption and cronyism.

The Taliban only achieved five years of "success" in imposing a circa-700 Islamic utopia in Afghanistan before being toppled and leaving the country in shambles. Now Afghanis are living in a chaotic shambles as the Taliban tries to regain control. In both the Palestinian territory and Lebanon, parties with active terrorist membership won parliamentary seats in democratic elections principally by focusing on providing social services at the local level and claiming to provide an alternative to the corrupt reputation of the ruling parties.

Think about THAT for a second. Muslims in these countries have to choose between corrupt parties who squander or steal desperately needed aid and internal revenue and parties filled with "suicide bombers you can trust." Quite a slogan there. That not only constitutes a failure of imagination on the part of the party members but of the people left continuing to choose between the two rather than forcing another alternative.

Choosing the Enemy for Jihad

The September 11, 2006 edition of The New Yorker has a well-written story by Lawrence Wright entitled "The Master Plan" about the tactical debates that have been taking place within Al Qaeda for years, even prior to September 11, 2001. The basic thesis of the story is that bin Laden's ambitions have crippled Al Qaeda's ability to achieve whatever religious or political goals it had. If you assume for a moment that Al Qaeda isn't 100 percent populated with completely irrational fanatics, their "logical" goals involved

  • toppling rulers corrupted by western oil money (the house of Saud in particular) and replacing them with theocratic Islamic governments

  • eliminating infidel western military forces from sacred holy lands


Al Qaeda quickly realized direct attacks on mid-east governments supported by an energy-dependent West was pretty much futile. They then decided to focus more of their energy on attacking American interests directly, starting with attacks in 1993 on American troops stationed in Somalia, then escalating to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, then the U.S.S. Cole, then 9/11.

The New Yorker piece cites correspondence from Abu Musab al-Suri ("Suri"), a top Al Qaeda strategist, that states in the mid-1990s, Al Qaeda itself feared it was nearing extinction due to increased cooperation of international police forces and successes in capturing terrorists or eliminating hiding locations. Relief came temporarily when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996 but dissent quickly returned when many within Al Qaeda worried bin Laden's overt attacks on America starting in 1998 would lead to the elimination of the Taliban and Al Qaeda's safe haven.

The article makes another interesting point as well. Iraq as a country or people within Iraq were unlikely to be willing partners with the leaders of Al Qaeda since most Iraqi Muslims are Shi'ite while Al Qaeda consists of Sunnis (most of the Wahhibi persuasion). According to the article, al-Zarqawi only plead allegiance to bin Laden in exchange for bin Laden's blessing of Zarqawi's plan to escalate attacks on Iraqi Shi'ites as an attempt to spook Iraqi Sunnis out of complacence in the larger jihad.

The article also makes it clear that Al Qaeda's fantasy of replacing the corrupted mid east governments with some utopian Islamic Caliphate was (and still is) exactly that -- pure fantasy. The article cites information published under the name Abu Bakr Naji which might be a real person or a pseudonym for a collection of Al Qaeda writers. From the article:

Alone among Al Qaeda theorists, Jani briefly addresses whether jihadis are prepared to run a state should they succeed in toppling one. He quotes a colleague who posed the question "Assuming that we get rid of the apostate regimes today, who will take over the ministry of agriculture, trade, economics, etc.?" Beyond the simplistic notioin of imposing a caliphate and establishing the rule of Islamic law, the leaders of the organization appear never to have thought about the most basic facts of government. What kind of economic model would they follow? How would they cope with unemployment, so rampant in the Muslim world? Where to they stand on the environment? Health Care? The truth, as Naji essentially concedes, is that the radical Islamists have no interest in government; they are only interested in jihad.

The geniuses at the top of Al Qaeda have absolutely no clue about how to organize and operate even the basics of a government capable of meeting the needs of a country. Those details are left as an exercise for the diligent jihadist.

That failure of imagination is identical to that demonstrated by Yassir Arafat in rejecting the proposed peace deal with Israel in 2000. The strategies of Arafat and those of Al Qaeda are absolute proof that militant Islam has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to offer the people of the mid-east. A plan with no "after" horizon cannot possibly succeed.

Of course, a plan with no "after" plan can still fail and produce a great deal of harm…

America in Afghanistan

Virtually no one in 2001 nor anyone now argues about the justification for invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban government. Al Qaeda had openly operated training camps for terrorists within Afghanistan with the consent of the Taliban. Some of the key strategy meetings that led to the September 11 attacks were conducted in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was still present in Afghanistan after the attacks and the Taliban government refused to hand him over or assist in locating him.

The Taliban posed no material obstacle to the United States so the short term outcome of the war was never in doubt. However, Afghanistan is a poster child for virtually every problem that can produce terrorism and make it difficult to eradicate once terrorism takes root:

  1. Afghanistan has virtually no natural resources capable of generating material revenue to operate a government with traditional police forces, basic public services or social services.

  2. Most of the citizens of Afghanistan are poorly educated, making it difficult to jump start a "knowledge based economy" that isn't dependent on natural resources.

  3. The population of Afghanistan lacks any dominant cultural binding ties and instead is divided into many tribal factions with centuries-old memories and grievances.

  4. The terrain of the country is rugged and difficult to control with traditional military equipment and tactics.

  5. The country DOES have a climate that allows the production of poppy that produces enormous amounts of cash for an underground economy that destabilizes the regular economy and government.


Nature abhors a vacuum and a country lacking natural resources and wealth is normally of ZERO interest to industrial powers. As a result, the only forces that are likely to fill that vacuum are those willing to impose their own totalitarian regime (the Taliban) or those wanting to exploit the anarchy for other purposes (terrorists).

America quickly topped the Taliban and initially enjoyed a great deal of support from the majority of Afghan citizens who suffered tremendously under the Taliban. However, our failure to understand the relatively simple dynamics above and plan appropriately has jeopardized our progress. Afghanistan has suffered some of the most intense fighting in the past five years in just the past four weeks and the Taliban is back in control in many outlying areas of the country. Conditions in the two largest cities, Kabul and Khanduhar, are deteriorating rapidly.

America in Iraq

America's disastrous experience in Iraq is actually two examples in one of a failure of imagination on the part of the Bush Administration. At some level, it is hard to decide which of the failures is more troubling:


  • the failure of imagination that led the Bush Administration to decide on an attack on Iraq within TWO DAYS of 9/11/2001 as a productive means of battling Al Qaeda and terrorism when Iraq was not involved in 9/11 and Saddam did not support Al Qaeda militarily or financially

  • the failure of imagination in planning the war itself and the subsequent occupation with forces insufficient to control the ground, provide a stable government and police presence, and prevent jihadist and Sunni / Shi'ite sectarian terrorists from dominating entire regions of the country



Our failures in choosing to enter Iraq then choosing to short-staff the occupation have resulted in an extended war of occupation that has already cost America about $313 billion which is more than the roughly $200 billion in direct economic damages from the attacks on September 11, 2001. America's conduct of the Iraq war has actually strengthened support for Al Qaeda in many countries, something unthinkable on September 11, 2001.

In some sense, the parallels between Americans and citizens of the Middle East are startling. From both camps, the other side is viewed as a people who seem curiously unable to steer their governments away from flawed policies and thinking but themselves are not fundamentally bad people. If nothing else, all sides involved must continue to make an extra effort to look beyond the governments involved and understand what is really happening and what the real intents of the citizens are.

==========================

Two thousand, nine hundred and seventy three innocent people lost their lives in New York, Washington, DC and Shanksville on September 11, 2001. Nearly the entire world saw the magnitude of that crime and felt solidarity with us not as Americans but as citizens of a single world filled with an unlimited variety of extremists who now had a new example on which to pattern future atrocities.

We owe a moment of quiet reflection to the people who died and those they left behind. We owe a great deal of thanks to the thousands of people who helped as best they could in the aftermath. We also owe ourselves some serious think time to ensure we have a better understanding of the events that produced September 11, 2001 and the strategies we have adopted since then to prevent a recurrence.