America Needs to Pick Its Fights Carefully


May 2, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on May 2, 2006.

WASHINGTON — If not handled carefully, the recently renamed “long war” on global terror could turn into an undifferentiated campaign against Muslim insurgencies, wherever they may emerge. This would be a great mistake. Just because Al Qaeda attaches itself to one Muslim cause or another should not necessarily make those insurgents America’s enemies.

Some Muslim causes may be just, and deserve American support. Others may involve issues of little or no inherent interest to the United States. America will need to pick its fights carefully if it is not to be drawn into opposing every group that Al Qaeda or its ilk chooses to support.

Most terrorism experts have concluded that since Al Qaeda’s expulsion from Afghanistan, it has transformed itself from a localized, centrally directed terrorist conspiracy into a globalized, decentralized terrorist insurgency. The difference here between simple terrorists and insurgents is that the former use violence to register grievances — often in the hope that it can lead to some type of change in the policies of their enemies — while the latter actually seek to overthrow and replace the governments they are attacking.

While not centrally controlled, the constituent elements of this new global insurgency are thought to share a common methodology (terrorism), a common inspiration (jihad or holy war), and a common objective (the unification of all Muslims under the religiously directed governance of a new Caliphate).

Impelled by a refined understanding of the enemy, the Bush administration has committed America to a war of indeterminate length against this global jihadist insurgency. The administration’s intent is not to engage American troops in every jihadist-supported contest around the world, but rather, in most cases, to help local governments to suppress such groups with American advice, equipment and intelligence.

But if not conducted carefully, the United States could quickly find itself siding against the Muslim cause in every contest that pits Muslim insurgents against Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish or Communist governments, simply because Al Qaeda has chosen to support the other side.

In conducting this global campaign, therefore, it will be important to make a sharp distinction between the “virtual” insurgency being mounted by Al Qaeda, its subsidiaries, allies and imitators, often via the Internet, and the actual insurgencies being conducted by various Muslim groups around the world, usually for reasons that have nothing to do with the restoration of a Caliphate.

These local rebellions often arise from the desire of ethnically, linguistically or religiously distinct populations to achieve some greater level of cultural autonomy or self-government. Jihadist groups attach themselves like parasites to such movements in an effort to increase their own otherwise very limited appeal, garner new recruits, and destabilize moderate or secular Muslim governments. Only rarely can jihadist elements gain control of such insurgencies.

In several instances the most effective way for the United States to marginalize jihadist influence has proved to be adopting the insurgent cause. It is a rare revolutionary who will not prefer American to Al Qaeda support if offered the choice.

In Bosnia, the United States supported the Muslim cause despite the fact that jihadist extremists were well established in the Bosnian ranks. In Kosovo, America supported the Muslim cause despite the fact that some Kosovars were employing terrorism to drive out the Serbs. In both cases American support helped moderate Muslim leaders prevail and marginalize extremist influence.

This was also the approach the United States twice employed in Afghanistan, first by supporting Muslim insurgents against the Soviet Union and then, 12 years later, by supporting many of those same Muslim insurgents against the Taliban.

America’s gravest mistake in Afghanistan was not that it supported religiously conservative Muslims, but rather that it cut off that support as soon the Soviet Union was defeated. Had the United States remained engaged through the 1990s, more moderate leadership would probably have prevailed, the Taliban would never have come to power, and Al Qaeda would never have been able to fasten itself to a compliant regime.

Rather than let Al Qaeda dictate America’s alignment in any dispute by virtue of its own, Washington needs to evaluate each actual insurgency on its own merits and on its relevance to American interests.

In some cases governments may not need U.S. support to prevail, in which case it may make sense not to take sides. In some cases governments may be employing abusive forms of repression with which the United States should be not be associated. And in some cases, the insurgents may have the more just cause, in which case the best means to marginalize jihadist influence may be to support that cause, as the United States did in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

James Dobbins is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.