Things are getting a wee bit less simple in the War On Terror. And that is not necessarily a good thing.
(Author’s note: this will not be a chronologically accurate accounting. I’m going to bounce around from topic to topic, and will not be following a strict timeline of events. Considering how many threads I’ll be touching on, it seems the best way to construct the narrative I’m working on. For example, I might cite several events in one nation, then talk about events in another nation that happened concurrently or even before the first nation. Anyone who says “you mentioned Y before X, when X happened first” will be either ignored or mocked.)
In the old days, when it started, dealing with terrorists was easy. They
were, essentially, criminal gangs with political motives and
aspirations. And that kept things nice and simple. They might share
goals with governments, and even draw support, but they were officially
independent and the governments maintained plausible deniability.
It was the 80s, I think, that the terrorists started smartening up. The
Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) started moving into politics.
The IRA had long maintained a polite fiction of having separate,
independent wings for its political and militant members, but it was a
Western, more “civilized” type of terrorist that actually showed some
consideration for innocents, but the PLO was the first to start trying
to cast itself as more respectable and mainstream.
That led to the birth of Hamas, which from the outset was officially
divided into what was to become the new paradigm of “militant” and
“political” wings. This was intended to allow governments to talk with
and negotiate with the terrorists — by giving them the fiction that the
folks they were talking with weren’t the “real” terrorists, but were
non-militants that could influence the scary ones.
And in Lebanon, they had a bunch of Shia Muslim terrorist groups
(heavily backed by Iran) that coalesced in the 1980s into Hezbollah, or
“Party Of Allah.” They continued as a while as strictly a terrorist
group intent on first removing Israel from Lebanon, and then Israel from
the face of the earth. (Israel had invaded and occupied much of Lebanon
after literally years of the PLO using southern Lebanon as a safe haven
and launching point for countless terrorist raids.) Eventually,
Hezbollah realized they would eventually be seen as a threat to the
Lebanese government, so they set up their own “political wing” to gather
public support and gain “legitimate” influence within the government.
And that succeeded even better than conducting terrorist attacks against
Israel — not that they ever gave that up fully. Their Southern Lebanon
actions were quite prolific — in 1996, they provoked Israel into a
massive retaliation; in 2000 they assassinated the Lebanese Army general
nominally in command of the region; and in 2006, they triggered
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the Afghans finally managed to drive out the
Soviets. In the struggle for supremacy afterwards, the winning faction
was the Taliban — which really wasn’t interested in carrying out what
is normally considered terrorism. Yeah, they were Islamist militants who
imposed a particularly brutal form of Sharia law on the Afghan people
(“brutal form of Sharia” is not redundant — although I once thought it
was, the Taliban proved me wrong), but they weren’t overly interested in
much outside their borders. But when Al Qaeda came calling, looking for
a place to hang their turbans (and willing to offer money and support
to the Taliban), they welcomed their Muslim brethren with open arms and
gave them shelter and a safe base to operate from. That was a unique
development — a not-quite-legitimate government (de facto but not de
jure — the UN never recognized the Taliban as the legitimate
government, bestowing that on the defeated Northern Alliance) in an
explicit alliance with a purely terrorist group.
But back to Palestine. The PLO started learning to play the diplomatic
game. They started making concessions, such as saying they would accept a
“two-state” solution with Israel, but with some interesting caveats —
such as not bothering to repeat that in Arabic to their supporters, and
insisting on concessions that would in all likelihood lead to the
destruction of Israel. This was seen as moderation (as in, “OK, we’ll
give up saying we’ll kill and eat you; we’ll just kill you”) and led to
political rewards — to the point where they (under the name “The
Palestinian Authority”) were recognized as the legitimate government of
the Palestinian people.
That ran acropper in the second election among the Palestinians, when the Palestinian electorate expressed their disgust with the corrupt Palestinian Authority and turned instead to the Islamist radicals of Hamas. That ended up with Hamas — still recognized as a terrorist organization, and rather proud of that status — as the duly elected, legitimate government of the Gaza Strip.
This led to a dilemma for Westerners. Pretty much agrees that you don’t deal with terrorists, but here the terrorists were also the legitimate government of a region (but not a state). Does an election widely seen as free and fair whitewash the history of the winning group? Does “elected fairly” trump “acknowledged terrorists?” Does pragmatism trump principle?
I say no. Terrorists that win elections are still terrorists. If an electorate chooses to ally themselves and choose terrorists as their duly elected leaders, then screw ’em. They chose to vote for terrorists; who are we to deprive them of the logical consequences of that decision?
Back to Afghanistan. (Dizzy yet? I am.) The Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance worked well for years, until Al Qaeda got a bit too ambitious and pulled off the greatest terrorist attack in history with 9/11. The Taliban then tried to cover for them, trying to play the international legalistic game with the US. They’d only surrender the Taliban if the US presented its evidence in an Afghani court, and the court ruled that the kafir US had indeed demonstrated that the noble Muslims of Al Qaeda had actually done what we said they did, then they’d cooperate. And remember — hardly no one in the world, including the US and the UN, recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government.
President Bush’s response? Roughly translated, “fuck that shit.” He got Congress to authorize the invasion of Afghanistan, and then did just that, driving both Al Qaeda and the Taliban out of power in record time, with minimal US casualties.
That was a good lesson for the rest of the Muslim world. America’s patience did have its limits, and the power of the US military was greater than ever before. To steal a metaphor from Tom Clancy, the US military was an incredibly ferocious dog held on a very short political leash. And 9/11 had shown that America was still willing and able to drop that leash and let that dog run free.
And then there was Iraq. Setting aside the arguments about the war there, it reinforced the Afghan lesson: the US once again invaded and toppled the existing government in record time, with minimal US casualties.
But once again we’re seeing evolution in action with the terrorists. They’re starting to see the limits in assimilating the legitimate governments. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is the deciding faction. They don’t have the most votes, but they can get them quite readily, thanks to having demonstrated time and time again that if you get in their way, they’ll kill you — preferably in very public and spectacular fashion. And they’ve hand-picked the next Prime Minister.
Here’s where they’er getting a bit clever. Instead of installing one of their own, they’ve chosen someone who has never been associated with them. This gives Najib Mikati a level of deniability when it comes to their actions, but he can never forget just who put him there — and who can remove him at will (either from office or from the face of the earth). By accepting their backing, he’s now owned by them.
And in Egypt, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood (which spawned Hamas and Al Qaeda, among other terrorist groups) is learning from that example. They aren’t openly involved in the current turmoil threatening the Mubarak regime, but they are quietly backing it — and they are the single most powerful opposition group. Should Mubarak fall, they will be best positioned to take advantage and take power — or, at least, a leading position — in the new regime.
And they are doing so by offering their support to Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (where he was such a colossal failure at containing nuclear proliferation that he won a Nobel Peace Prize, putting him in such distinguished company as Barack Obama, Yassir Arafat, the child-raping UN Peacekeepers, and Jimmy Carter). ElBaradei has absolutely no history of associations with the Muslim Brotherhood, but they intend to treat him like Hezbollah intends to use Mikati — a civilized, nominally-independent puppet whose strings they intend to pull.
From their perspective, it’s a good tactic. And it will be a difficult one to counter. At this point, I’m not certain how best to deal with it.
But the first step is recognizing it.