A death blow or shot in the arm for al-Qaida?

By Simon Barrow
May 2, 2011

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call on the Taliban and al-Qaida to renounce violence in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden is a statement from the heart of a world power which feels a renewed sense of vigour in the light of what is being called a "policy success". But it does not strike one as arising from a very thoughtful, perceptive or accurate view of the world.

"We intend to go on killing for what we see as justice, and call on you to cease killing for what you see as justice" is not a particularly convincing message, nor one likely to elicit a positive response from people more usually characterised in American politics as straightforwardly "mad and bad". It's another case of "do as I say, not as I do", and it is grounded in the belief that "our" violence is moral, defensible and proportionate; something "they" see as a culpable delusion. And vice versa.

The central presumption of the Secretary of State's call is that a show of great US might will produce the fear necessary to turn the minds of enemies to conciliation. But what this leaves out of the calculation is that those using suicide bombs and small-scale terror attacks to advance their own causes are able to continue to operate in the shadows (it took ten years to "get" just one man), and are resourced by people far more willing to die for what they stand for than "we" are. These people believe in the rightness of their cause every bit as much at the US and its allies, and will see the killing of bin Laden and family members, as much as the killing of relatives of the (greatly detested) Colonel Gaddafi, as yet more evidence that the US employs the terror it denounces. The equations of hundreds of thousands dead in Afghanistan and Iraq will also be raised when 9/11 is discussed, and so the circular, numbing war of words, statistics and bombs is likely to continue.

That many close to Hillary Clinton are (in public, anyway) unable or unwilling to see any rationale or any logic in what their implacable enemies say is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I am wholly against the idea of a global enforced caliphate (a suffusing notion in al-Qaida networks), I am wholly opposed to the totalitarian and misogynist rule of Taliban leaders, and more. But I am also opposed to the reign of Western bombs and guns and the notion of killing people to make them good and democratic. I am not attempting to map any kind of moral equivalence in this mess of conflicts. But I am pointing out that a simplistic 'good' versus 'evil' depiction of the situation is unsustainable - and profoundly dangerous. Binary simplifications capture the public imagination and feed what they purport to combat.

A core tragedy of the conflicts embroiling the Middle East and South Asia is that, irrespective of other rights and wrongs (and there are many), everyone seems convinced that the others "only understand force" and that the burden of resuming politics rather than death-diplomacy is firmly on the far side of the fence. Which is why the cycles of violence go on and on. Negotiation is seen as weakness, yet real politik shows it to be inescapable as well as desirable, fraught with dangers and fragile.

At present, the predominant "line" coming out of the US right is that Osama bin Laden's death is a "major blow" to al-Qaida, "fatally weakening" its resolve and tipping it into "terminal decline". This is vastly simplistic, as Hillary Clinton's more measured general response indicated. As Independent journalist and long-term observer Robert Fisk, who met bin Laden on three occasions, told Al Jazeera earlier today (2 May 2011), al-Qaida was in many respects a spent force anyway - still operationally capable to a significant extent (and to deadly effect, regrettably), but politically confounded by the huge 'Arab awakening' and on the way down.

In these circumstances, what the US may have done is not so much administer a death blow to al-Qaida, as to temporarily resuscitate its dispersed body politic in the act of destroying an actual (but also deeply symbolic) body. There are huge fears in Pakistan and elsewhere of another wave of suicide attacks, for example. Many, many more lives are likely to be lost if that happens. Let's hope and pray it doesn't, but not delude ourselves if it does.

However the reality is that the vast majority of Arab people and the vast majority of Muslims do not support al-Qaida - though some may occasionally express sympathy for acts carried out in its name out of opposition to US policy on the disastrous "my enemies enemy is - if not my friend - at least someone with whom I may periodically identify" principle.

Meanwhile, a radical shift in Western policy is needed to isolate dictators (rather than arming them); to support autonomous movements (rather than sending warplanes in at the earliest opportunity); to enable regional and national initiatives for change (rather than constantly trying to instal 'global' solutions from outside); to push Israel towards a resolution of the cancerous sore of injustice faced by the Palestinians; and much more.

One thing that should not be done is to promote the idea that the death of bin Laden is a "policy success". Ten years of bloodshed, slaughter and instability in Afghanistan and Iraq, now spreading to Pakistan, is hardly a success. Genuinely strong leaders need to acknowledge this and move on as well as forward. Otherwise al-Qaida and their like will only be sustained for longer than the wider political climate and Arab realignments would allow. Which would be an irony to outstrip even Secretary of State Clinton's (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-13260274?).

Robert Fisk's thoughtful interview with Al Jazeera can be viewed here: http://blogs.aljazeera.net/live/asia/live-blog-osama-bin-laden-killed-us...


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.