Jason Ditz reported today on the contradictory claims simultaneously coming from the government about al Qaeda’s strength or weakness now and going forward. Chris Preble has a related post up at Cato:
A front-page story in today’s Washington Post reports that al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self, and finds that there is even talk among senior defense and intelligence officials of the organization’s imminent demise.
[…] It is unfortunate that this story is filed in the “news” category. Al Qaeda has been on the ropes for some time. It is, at best, “a fragmented and unmanageable movement.“ But if senior officials are willing to speak so publicly about our recent gains, it may signal something significant.
As many have noted, one of AQ’s goals (and the goal of many other terrorist organizations) is to induce a counterproductive and self-injurious overreaction on the part of its target audience or government. The best approach, though it is difficult to achieve in practice, is to avoid terrorizing ourselves. If, many years from now, historians conclude that AQ was never as threatening as we made it out to be, they may deem the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on homeland security post-9/11, and the trillions more spent on wars that were once believed connected to the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT), to have been an enormous waste of resources. We will be seen as having played into Osama bin Laden’s “bleed and bankruptcy” strategy.
As for the contradiction in analysis vis-à-vis al Qaeda’s strength or weakness Preble speculates:
If Secretary of Defense Panetta is feeling confident, the folks in Foggy Bottom appear not to have received the memo. This policy disconnect–with some officials believing we are safer while others warn of impending danger–may be caused by bureaucratic inertia, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, or merely an elaborate scheme to deflect blame in the unlikely event that an attack occurs at some later date.
He is perhaps partially right. Bureaucratic inertia and the covering-your-ass game of politics may certainly be a part of why the State Department and various political figures inflate the threat level al Qaeda poses, despite intelligence officials’ estimation to the contrary. But I think there are more fundamental reasons. First of all, this terrorist threat remains a principal pretext for imperial foreign policy. Without it, difficulties arise in attempting to justify fantastical and unnecessary new military targets or invasive surveillance policies or even just the prolongation of our occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secondly, there is a constituency for threat inflation throughout the electorate. Influential and active political lobbies regard a focus on Islamic terrorism to be a prerequisite of any politician’s favorability. The rest of the public simply falls for a politics based on fear and paternalistic military hawkishness.
If the intelligence community is correct about the relatively weakened state of al Qaeda and affiliated groups, as I suspect they are, this truly a miracle and speaks primarily to what a weak organization they were from the beginning. Virtually every step of the way, Washington has chosen and pursued exactly the policies which would exacerbate anti-American sentiment and influence potential extremists to engage in retaliatory attacks. If the threat is now weak, imagine how nonexistent it would be if America stopped supporting the systematic oppression of Palestinians, pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan, closed Guantanamo and other torture prisons, stopped giving money, weapons, and diplomatic cover to the worst dictatorships of the Middle East, ended the drone program in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, ended harsh sanctions and aggressive threats towards Iran, stopped bombing Libya unnecessarily and illegally, and dismantled our elaborate military empire. That is the real policy of “disrupt, dismantle, and destroy.“