America’s Shadow War on Terror

Terrorists are fleeing to Africa and Asia. The United States should be careful about pursuing them.

The heavy military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is driving terrorists to seek shelter elsewhere. In almost a dozen “failed states” in Africa and Asia, they find conditions to meet their needs, granting different terrorist networks fresh safe havens from where to launch attacks against the United States and its allies which are left with the nigh impossible task of nation building in countries too safe for terrorists but too violent for civil society to take shape.

America’s “shadow war” on terror around the world would seem to contrast sharply the administration’s imminent retreat from Iraq and its scheduled departure from Afghanistan starting less than a year from now. No matter hopes of another “surge”, this time against the Taliban but executed by the very general, David Petraeus, who successfully subdued the insurgency in Iraq in 2007, the United States are preparing for defeat in Afghanistan as the notion of allowing the Taliban a foothold in the south and southwest of the country gains widespread acceptance.

Shifting the focus of the counterterrorism campaign to Central Asia, West Africa, Pakistan and Yemen does make sense though. While terrorist networks, Al Qaeda included, operate in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq, they don’t operate from it. The mountainous and porous border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan represents an excellent stronghold for the insurgents to organize and coordinate their efforts from instead. Similar conditions — a terrain that is difficult for traditional armed forces to penetrate and the near or total absence of government — prevail in parts of Algeria, the Sudan, Somalia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The New York Times reports:

In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.

The stealth war that began during the Bush Administration has expanded considerably under President Barack Obama, without explicit congressional approval; indeed, often without being publicly acknowledged.

In West Africa, the administration has found an unlikely ally. Long opposed to the American war effort in Iraq, Paris declared “war” on Al Qaeda after a French aid worker was murdered by the terrorist network’s North Africa branch in July. President Nicolas Sarkozy promised that the perpetrators would “not go unpunished,” his rhetoric being matched with an attack upon a terrorist base camp in Mauritania.

France has long been discreet about its counterterrorism efforts in the region, quietly cooperating with former colonies as Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger to curb the growth and evermore violent campaign waged by what is now known as the Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. Formerly dedicated to overthrowing the government of Algeria, this coalition of Salafist militants has, in recent years, killed dozens of Algerian and Mauritanian soldiers and police officers and abducted and murdered European tourists and humanitarian aid workers.

In Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan, landlocked between Afghanistan and China, the United States are intensifying intelligence gathering missions and building up a military presence. Besides Tajikistan, the Pentagon is participating in strategic construction projects in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Each of these states is struggling with ethnic division and a specter of foreign interference as both China and Russia have an interest in extending their influence in the region.

Pakistan and Yemen are each plagued with resistance movements that are able to operate almost autonomously in remote parts of the countries. Pakistan’s hopeless predicament is perpetuated as long as Islamabad can’t decide whether to continue to act as an American ally, attempting to crush the insurgency along its western frontier at the risk of civil war, or seek some sort of peace agreement with the Taliban and its affiliates, which would leave it badly compromised in the unlikely event that the United States manage to impose a central authority in Afghanistan, ruled from Kabul, possibly by Hamid Karzai.

In Yemen, the Americans have been carrying out missile and fighter strikes against suspected terrorists camps and strongholds as they have in Pakistan. According to the Times, American officials believe that they are benefiting from “the Yemeni government’s new resolve to fight Al Qaeda” but it is difficult to tell whether they realize that there are two different wars going on in the country: one against Al Qaeda in the central south, another against a Shiite uprising in the north. The Yemeni government, no matter its “resolve,” is using foreign funds to quell the northern rebellion while negotiating with Al Qaeda about a ceasefire, pretending the two conflicts are intertwined.

Pakistan, too, has been taking American dollars and spending them simultaneously on fighting some militants and funding others. Mauritania, in 2005, urged the West to supply it with military equipment in order to combat “the terrorist surge in the African Sahel.” Other governments in Central Asia and West Africa may soon come to realize the rewards to be reaped from being designated a battleground in the War on Terror. The United States, in the process, risk becoming party to local power struggles, forced to pick sides that could further undermine its standing with radical Islamists who quarrel with their secular though often oppressive national leaders.

The risks, according to the reporters of The New York Times, are great indeed. They include:

the potential for botched operations that fuel anti-American rage; a blurring of the lines between soldiers and spies that could put troops at risk of being denied Geneva Convention protections; a weakening of the congressional oversight system put in place to prevent abuses by America’s secret operatives; and a reliance on authoritarian foreign leaders and surrogates with sometimes murky loyalties.

America is no stranger to the latter and should avoid making that mistake yet again, in part because it is exactly what fuels anti-Americanism. Having the American military regarded by local populations as an instrument of their own authoritarian government plays right into the rhetoric of extremists who like to portray the United States as an imperialist power, determined to conquer and subjugate the Muslim world.

Surgical strikes against individuals and organizations that threaten the United States are perfectly justifiable and preferable to full-scale wars that cost America dearly and put entire peoples in harm’s way. But time and again it has proven a mistake to enlist foreign governments in that endeavor. Any state pursues its own interest. It would be unrealistic to demand of countries which harbor terrorist that they imperil their own security and social order because it might serve the United States.