What do you call it when you follow the same strategy for twelve years not only without success, but with negative results? What if time shows that that strategy actually helps the enemy you seek to defeat?
Failing to Learn
America's global war of terror can this week be declared officially a failure, total and complete. After twelve years of invasions, drones, torture, spying and gulags, the U.S. closed its embassies and consulates across (only) the Muslim world. Not for a day, but in most cases heading toward a week, with terror warnings on file lasting through the month. The U.S. evacuated all non-essential diplomatic and military personnel from Yemen; dependents are already gone from most other MidEast posts. Only our fortress embassies in Kabul and Baghdad ironically were considered safe enough to reopen a day or two ago.
The cause of all this? Apparently a message from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to his second in command in Yemen telling him to "do something."
U.S. government sources (one hopes for a robust investigation) later revealed concerns over a vast al Qaeda plot to capture Yemen's oil supply infrastructure, taking over cities and ports, while simultaneously bombarding Western embassies with a string of suicide blasts. The BBC reported that all appeared to be part of a "complex and audacious" plot designed to enact revenge after a series of U.S. drone strikes.
"Senior U.S. officials" (one hopes for a robust investigation) also revealed al Qaeda in Yemen has devised a new kind of liquid explosive that can be embedded in clothing, and which is not detectable by current security measures. That is of course an odd thing to say, revealing to the enemy that we can't stop them -- "It's ingenious," one of the officials said. Those same government officials also revived the now-crusty fear meme of the "Frankenbombers," suicide bombers who carry explosives sewn into their body cavities.
Failure to Understand
All this might be read in one of three ways:
-- The simplest explanation is that the threat is indeed real. Twelve years of war has simply pushed the terror threat around, spilled mercury-like, from country to country. A Whack-a-Mole war.
-- U.S. officials, perhaps still reeling from Edward Snowden's NSA disclosures, chose to exaggerate a threat, in essence creating a strawman that could then be defeated. In favor of this argument are the many "leaks" noted above, essentially disclosing raw intel, specific conversations that would clearly reveal to the al Qaeda people concerned how and when they were monitored. Usually try to avoid that in the spy biz. The Frankenbomber stuff is pure 2001 scare tactic recycled. The idea that al Qaeda sought to seize infrastructure is a certain falsehood , as the whole point of guerrilla war is never to seize things, which would create a concentrated, open, stationary target that plays right into the Big Hardware advantage the U.S. holds. It does not make sense, and supports the idea that this is all made-up for some U.S. domestic purpose.
-- However, the third way of looking at this is that the U.S. has failed to walk away from the climate of fear and paranoia that has distorted foreign and domestic policy since 9/12, Chicken Littles if you will. What if the U.S. really believed that al Qaeda was planning to take over Yemen this week in spite of the odd inconsistencies? What if "chatter" was enough to provoke the last Superpower into a super-sized public cower?
Failure to Not Act
The why in this case may not matter, when the what is so controlling. As of this writing, no embassies have been attacked; the only killings in Yemen we know of are a string of U.S. drone strikes coupled with public plans to deploy (additional?) special forces on the ground. That sadly predictable resort to violence by the U.S. shows that we have fundamentally failed to understand that in a guerrilla war one cannot shoot one's way out. You win by offering a better idea to people than the other side, while at the same time luring the other side into acts of violence and political repression that make them lose the support of those same people. This is asymmetrical warfare 101 stuff.
So the U.S. embassy closures, the ramped up drone strikes, the threat of special forces, may be seen as failure in this light:
-- Al Qaeda blowing up an empty embassy would still make spectacular headlines and score their political points, the goal of terror. Even an empty embassy in smoldering ruins will drive home the weakness of the U.S. to defend itself, and provoke a significant and violent response that plays into al Qaeda's long-game goals. The closures accomplish little strategically, though of course may still be necessary to protect lives. Nobody wants to be the last man to die for a mistake, reminded now-Secretary of State John Kerry during the Vietnam War.
-- How long will the embassies remain shuttered this time? What about next week, next month, and so on? Media across the world are showing images of closed U.S facilities, a powerful propaganda image.
-- In the populations al Qaeda seeks to influence, claiming they "humbled and scared" the U.S. twelve years after 9/11 simply by ramping up their chatter seems an effective al Qaeda strategy. That the U.S. response is again to unleash violence in the Muslim world, especially significant this week as the Eid holidays begin, drives home al Qaeda's point that America is at war with Islam -- see, they may say, words alone are enough to unleash the beast against you.
Of Mice and Men: Historical Failure
My office is home to a few mice that have been here longer than I have. I feel they are cowards because they will not stand and fight, though I outweigh them by 200 pounds. They burrowed into my coworker's desk and ate his Twizzlers. My colleague set traps. He comes from Ohio, where he has a nice lake house free of mice. It is better to fight them here than at home he says, but fight we must. Some have argued we can't kill our way out of this dilemma. Leaving aside the issue of whether we should have moved uninvited into the mouse house in the first place, and leaving aside how the mice did not see themselves as liberated even after we got rid of the stray cats around here, they breed like rabbits. We can kill a few mice each day, but they just make more. We can't kill all of them. Right now it is technology versus ideology. I hope the mice never learn to build car bombs or we are real trouble. God is with the patient, says an Arab proverb. We have the watch, but they have the time, says an American joke.
Analogies only go so far of course. What is clear is that al Qaeda's strategy is as old as history, and the U.S. reaction both equally historic and predictable. As with the British thrashing about as their empire collapsed, the world's greatest military defeated by natives with old rifles, so now goes the U.S., by its own hand.