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October 21, 2008

Al-Qaeda in Iraq:
Another Case of Failed Interventionism?


by William S. Lind

I have suggested in previous columns that the al-Qaeda model of 4GW may be failing for inherent reasons, i.e., for reasons it cannot fix. "Tom Ricks's Inbox" in the Oct. 19 Washington Post offers some confirmation of that assessment. Ricks writes:

"Where did al-Qaeda in Iraq go wrong? In a paper prepared for the recent annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, the Australian political scientist Andrew Phillips argues persuasively that, by their nature, al-Qaeda affiliates tend to alienate their hosts…."

He then quotes Phillips at some length:

"In successive conflicts ranging from Bosnia to Chechnya to Kashmir, the jihad jet-set has rapidly worn out its welcome among local host populations as a result of its ideological inflexibility and high-handedness, as well as its readiness to resort to indiscriminate violence against locals at the first signs of challenge…. That this pattern has so frequently been repeated suggests that the underlying causes of al-Qaeda's defeat in Iraq may transcend the specific circumstances of that conflict. Baldly stated, the causes of al-Qaeda's defeat in Iraq can be located in its ideological DNA."

In my view, the "DNA" to which Phillips refers is the type of people drawn to al-Qaeda and other Fourth Generation entities modeled on al-Qaeda. They are mostly religious fanatics of the most extreme varieties, similar to the Levellers and Diggers of the English Civil War. Regardless of what their organization's leadership may enjoin, they will treat any locals they regard as religiously "lax" with severity. They cannot do otherwise without becoming "impure" themselves. It is useful to remind ourselves where the word "Puritan" comes from.

A failure of the al-Qaeda model, while welcome, does not imply any weakening of the impulse toward Fourth Generation war. On the contrary, it represents its evolution. 4GW is something new in the post-Westphalian world, and it is likely to go through many cycles of innovation, failure, learning, and adaptation as it evolves. I expect that evolution to play out over the course of the 21st century and beyond.

What does the prospective failure of the al-Qaeda model mean for other current models? The Taliban model would seem to share al-Qaeda's DNA. When they were in power in Afghanistan, the Taliban also imposed a Puritanism that overrode local cultural norms and thereby alienated much of the population. However, the Taliban also left power with several assets on its balance sheet, assets it continues to draw on. It represented Pashtun dominance of Afghanistan, something all Pashtun regard as natural and necessary (the Karzai regime's origins are Uzbek and Tajik). Like a state, it brought order. It reduced corruption, now out of control, to locally acceptable levels. And while actually a creation of Pakistan's ISI, the Taliban successfully presented themselves as something homegrown, which the Karzai government will never be able to do. In terms of the all-important quality of legitimacy, Robespierre always trumps Vichy.

Beyond Afghanistan, the Fourth Generation future belongs neither to al-Qaeda nor to the Taliban but to two more sophisticated models, Hezbollah and the Latin American drug gangs. Both can fight, but fighting is not primarily what they are about. Rather, both are about benefiting their members with money, services, community, identity, and, strange as it may sound, what passes locally for good government. Even the drug gangs' governance is often less corrupt than that of the local state.

Both of these 4GW models can fall into the fatal error of alienating the local population, but the tendency is not inherent. While Hezbollah is religiously defined, it seems to appeal well beyond the Puritans, which means it can give orders Puritans will not obey. The drug gangs' principal faith is in making money, and few faiths are more broadly latitudinarian.

Andrew Phillips adds to his analysis the prudent warning that "Al-Qaeda may have lost Iraq, but this is no way implies that America and its allies have won." In Iraq as elsewhere, the fading of the al-Qaeda model is being balanced not by the rise of a new state but by the adoption of other models of 4GW. So far, as best I can determine, no foreign intervention in a Fourth Generation conflict has succeeded is re-creating a real state (you can add Ethiopia in Somalia to the long list of failures).

Do intervening foreign forces, like al-Qaeda, have DNA that preordains failure? The answer, while not final, seems to be pointing toward the affirmative.


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  • William Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former Congressional Aide and the author
    of many books and articles on military strategy and war.

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