By Clint Watts
Afghan and Arab fighters defeated the Soviet Union by pursuing a strategy that mobilized tribes to entangle a foreign occupier in a hostile land. In rugged terrain, Soviet conventional forces lost their initiative to a ruthless insurgency campaign. Through a decade of fighting, the Soviets ultimately died from a thousand cuts. They entered Afghanistan a world power and returned home demoralized by Muslim guerrillas, hastening the collapse of their regime.
In the 1990s, Osama Bin Laden decided to use a similar strategy against the United States. Spurned by his homeland of Saudi Arabia and vexed by the presence of infidels on holy soil, Bin Laden hoped to provoke the United States into a protracted entanglement in the Middle East. This entanglement, he thought, would increase al-Qa'ida's prestige and recruitment, unify all Muslims, and ultimately exhaust the United States and lead to its withdrawal from the region.
In Somalia, Bin Laden's first attempt to mobilize tribes on his own against the United States failed. While headquartered in Khartoum, Bin Laden deployed advisory teams to Somalia from 1992-1994. Through training, finance and religious indoctrination, al-Qa'ida's insurgency cadres attempted to align the Muslim tribes of Somalia in a common effort to repel Western aid and military intervention. Instead of waging jihad on Westerners, however, al-Qa'ida found itself engulfed in an entanglement of its own, squandering precious resources and trapped in a chaotic morass of state failure.
Al-Qa'ida's venture in Somalia failed for three reasons. First, al-Qa'ida did not understand the local tribal power structure. Bin Laden's cadres found themselves trapped in a web of overlapping alliances in which Somali clans and militias routinely switched sides and were far more interested in focusing on the 'near enemy' of a rival clan over the 'far enemy' of the west. For African Somalis, simply surviving in a failed state took primacy over an ideological battle between outside Arabs and unknown Westerners. Second, al-Qa'ida's brand of Salafi Islam clashed with the local variant of Sufi Islam. Somalis were uninterested in the oppressive Salafi preaching of Arab outsiders over the mystic Sufi strain of Islam worshipped in their society for centuries. Third, al-Qa'ida underestimated the costs of supporting an insurgency in interior Africa. Time and again, al-Qa'ida operatives failed to marshal sufficient resources—water, equipment, weapons—to maintain the loyalty of Somali tribes.
Al-Qa'ida has lost Iraq for the same reasons. First, Iraqi Sunni tribes have turned against the foreign fighters since their presence sustains the U.S. occupation. Second, Iraqi Sunnis were turned off by the restrictive practices of Salafi Islam which al-Qa'ida members implemented in areas they controlled. Third, with the shift in U.S. strategy, the increased intelligence and military action from Sunni tribal alliances, and the more stabilizing efforts of surrounding countries in the region, it has become logistically difficult for al-Qa'ida to maintain a fighting force in Iraq.
Recent U.S. success in defeating al-Qa'ida in Iraq has prompted policy makers and military planners to export this strategy to other theaters, specifically the tribal areas of Pakistan. However, the U.S. should ask itself three questions before continuing: Will the tribes of Pakistan's frontier provinces turn on al-Qa'ida? Probably not. Unlike Somalia and Iraq, al-Qa'ida has operated in the tribal regions of Pakistan for more than two decades and today it is part of the region's fabric, not an outsider. Will the ideology of al-Qa'ida clash with Pakistani tribes? In the past it may have, but today there is a greater overlap between the Deobandi strain of Islam that the Taliban follows and the Salafism of al-Qa'ida. Third, will financial and military inducements to Pakistani tribes translate into pressure on al-Qa'ida's logistics? Unlikely. The tribes in Waziristan have already withstood six years of pressure from Musharraf and al-Qa'ida has more than twenty years worth of supply networks in the region.
The U.S. is correct to seize upon any opportunity to dislodge al-Qa'ida from Pakistan's tribal regions, especially if it involves the use of surrogates. However, it should not use a blanket strategy of alliances with al-Qa'ida's hosts if the social, cultural and geographic conditions make its chances of success unlikely. If it does, U.S. forces might be the ones entangled, stretched logistically, and in conflict with the local ideology. As al-Qa'ida in Somalia and Iraq has learned, this is a bad place to be.
Clint Watts is a former US Army Infantry Officer, FBI Special Agent and Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He is Co-editor and Co-Author of Al-Qa'ida's (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa and Program Manager for the FBI-Combating Terrorism Center Education Initiative and Combating Terrorism Center Harmony Program which declassifies and publishes studies based on al-Qa'ida's internal documents captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.
SWJ Editors Links
Winning Ways - The Belmont Club