The foiling of the second attempt by Yemeni terrorists to blow their underwear and any airplane near them to smithereens has led to praise for an American government that motivated the plot in the first place. Ever since the barbaric attacks of 9/11, the American public, thirsting for revenge, has reflexively approved of any military adventure its government has undertaken to “fight terrorists.” That reaction was somewhat understandable in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but has unfortunately continued to the present day. Very few in America have ever asked the critical question of why al-Qaeda focuses its attacks the United States. This lack of introspection has always been dangerous.
The Bush administration proudly declared that the terrorists hated us for our freedoms—as if the members of al-Qaeda were envious of American political and economic freedoms or as if those freedoms exercised halfway around the world somehow adversely affected them. Osama bin Laden became so agitated with Bush’s claim that he issued a statement denying it and reiterating, for the umpteenth time, that he attacked the United States because it meddles in Islamic lands, especially with its military. Bush not only ignored bin Laden’s arguments but doubled down and invaded another Muslim country—Iraq—thus leading to a spike in retaliatory anti-U.S. terrorism.
The Obama administration, instead of fighting a broad “war on terror,” has wisely narrowed the objective to essentially a war against al-Qaeda and related groups. The cessation of the broader American bombast, which was widely perceived as a “war on Islam,” has combined with al-Qaeda’s indiscriminate killing of Muslims—who make up 85% of al-Qaeda’s victims—to take the fire out of the group as a model for the Arab and Muslim worlds.
However, the scope of the war needs to be reduced further. Battling any group that is “affiliated” with al-Qaeda or has it in its name is counterproductive. The United States should be trying to distinguish between radical Muslim groups and combating only those that attack the United States.
But then al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates out of Yemen and which U.S. officials maintain is now the most threatening al-Qaeda affiliate, would still qualify, right? The problem is that most Americans don’t look at the origins of attacks on the United States—for example, why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor? Most Americans are dumbfounded if that question is asked. The same is true of attacks by AQAP. The first bombing of a passenger airliner using skivvies was in December 2009. But Americans don’t focus on the fact that shortly before that attempted attack, the United States had stepped up military strikes in Yemen on the group. The first attempted BVD bombing was in reaction to that ratcheting-up of violence.
Similarly, the Pakistani Taliban wasn’t focused on attacking U.S. targets until it attempted to bomb Times Square in New York in May 2010. Again, most Americans didn’t realize that this attack was in retaliation for the rather indiscriminate drone war that the United States was, and still is, running in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Targets of the U.S. drone strikes include not only the main trunk of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, but the Pakistani Taliban, which is focused mainly on overthrowing the Pakistani government. Instead of discerning differences among Islamic militants and dividing the enemy, the still-too-wide American war is causing such groups to work together against a formidable enemy.
For practical reasons as well as constitutional ones, U.S military power, if it must be used, should be kept within the confines of the original post-9/11 congressional resolution authorizing it. The resolution only authorized the use of force against groups and countries that were involved in the 9/11 attacks. Therefore, the administration is stretching the limits of the resolution by attacking AQAP, the Pakistani Taliban, and the al-Shabab militant group in Somalia—none of which had anything to do with 9/11 or even existed then. The legal rationale for going after these groups is vague, but it seems to be that their leaders communicate sometimes with al-Qaeda central. But now David Petraeus, the CIA director, wants to widen the war in Yemen to include “suspicious behavior” at AQAP sites. If the United States feels that there is too much water under the bridge with AQAP, it needs to go back to Congress and ask for approval to strike there. The administration’s current war there is unconstitutional, illegal, and ill-advised.
At minimum, if force must be used, it should create the lightest footprint possible and not create more anti-U.S. terrorists than it kills, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, a former secretary of defense, who didn’t practice what he preached. The U.S. should work on distinguishing between Islamic militant groups that actually attack U.S. targets and those that merely affiliate with al-Qaeda but focus on local or regional concerns. After Osama bin Laden’s death, many al-Qaeda affiliates are concentrating on the latter. Thus, the criterion for any U.S. drone war should be striking only those militant groups that attack the United States. With the demise of the core of al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, few drone attacks should be needed at all—contrary to the widening of attacks by the drone-happy Obama administration.
As an experiment, the United States should de-escalate the conflict in Yemen. Likely, AQAP attempts to attack U.S. targets would diminish and eventually cease. That is what happened to attacks by Hezbollah after the United States withdrew from Lebanon in the 1980s. Terrorists do strike for reasons, and instead of adopting a reflexive “us versus them” attitude, Americans should begin to ask their government why the U.S. is being singled out for attack. The solution might be to remove the red flag from the bull by dramatically toning down unnecessary and counterproductive U.S. interventions abroad.