Why Al-Qaeda Is Losing
The conventional wisdom is that al-Qaeda is making a comeback from its rout in Afghanistan. Many point to its success in killing Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and to its support of Islamic insurgents there as evidence. Not so. Al-Qaeda is waning. Its decline has less to do with our success than with the institutional limitations of the al-Qaeda organization. Simply stated, to know al-Qaeda closely is not to love it.
Everyplace where al-Qaeda has gained some measure of control over a civilian population, it has quickly worn out its welcome. This happened in Kabul and in Anbar province in western Iraq. It may well happen in Pakistan as a reaction to the killing of Bhutto.
No one likes to be brutalized and dominated by foreigners. The weakness of al-Qaeda is that everywhere it goes its people are strangers. This is no way to build a worldwide caliphate.
We may not be loved in Iraq and Afghanistan, but compared with the deliberately brutal methods of bin Laden's associates we become a palatable alternative. This is particularly true because, like visiting grandchildren, we will eventually go home.
Bhutto once responded to a friend who was concerned about her safety by saying, "Muslims don't kill women." She was only partly right; real Muslims don't do that, but al-Qaeda does. Its members have killed more Muslim civilians than have misdirected coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The difference is that the Americans and their allies regret and investigate such incidents; al-Qaeda plans and celebrates them.
Why, then, are we supposedly losing the information war in the Muslim world, and why has there not been more of an outcry among Muslims over this slaughter of innocents? A big part of the reason is that we spend too much time wanting to be liked rather than turning Muslim anger on our enemies.
We preach some values that are viewed as alien and threatening to the traditional order of things. Our popular culture is seen as decadent at best and downright threatening at worst in traditional cultures. Our message isn't selling. We can't change what we are, nor would we want to. No matter how much the government may disapprove, the government's official propaganda will be overwhelmed by the deluge, both positive and negative, from the popular media. We need to accept this fact and move on, rather than waste more millions on strategic communications "charm campaigns."
What we can do is to expose our Islamic extremist enemies for what they are. The people of Afghanistan and Anbar found this out the hard way and threw the rascals out. But when al-Qaeda kills scores of innocents, we report it as a statistic without context. We may see weeping relatives and bloodstained bodies from a distance, on video or in photographs, but they are depersonalized, and people quickly become desensitized to anonymous images. Ironically, Stalin was right: One death is a tragedy; millions are a statistic. We need to help Muslims understand how these people really treat other Muslims.
The original Islamic movement spread its doctrine by a combination of military action and compassion. Charity was a key tenet. This is largely why Hamas and Hezbollah gain a degree of popular support in the areas they control. That ingredient is missing in the al-Qaeda/Taliban approach to the world. To them, winning hearts and minds means, "Agree with us or else." That is largely the reason that the U.S. government dropped its early "for us or against us" approach. It has taken us some time, but we seem to be recovering from that approach.
If I were directing the U.S. strategic information campaign, I would spend my dollars on collecting photos of the Muslim innocents al-Qaeda has killed and putting below them quotations from the Koran decrying such practices. These advertisements would appear in every newspaper and TV station in the Muslim world where I could buy print space or air time.
We may not be losing the war on terrorism, but we are not doing all that we can to win it.
Gary Anderson led a study of al-Qaeda from 2003 to 2005 for a Defense Department contractor. He lectures on "The Revolution in Military Affairs" at George Washington University.