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     Sep 29, 2006
Dumbed-down intelligence
By Ehsan Ahrari

One of the key recommendations of the 9-11 Report after the attacks on the US in 2001 was that intelligence should be depoliticized. The ongoing controversy related to the leaked National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) reminds everyone that this has not been the case.

President George W Bush has accused his critics of playing politics by "selectively" leaking some of the findings of the NIE because they were "motivated in the run-up to the mid-term

elections in November". That is one reason he abruptly authorized his director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, to declassify and publicly issue portions of the report.

The NIE is a highly credible estimate, since its conclusions are developed on the basis of consensus among 16 US intelligence agencies. However, in the election season in the United States, no document, no action or governmental statement is free of politics.

Here is one conclusion of the NIE: "We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere. The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."

The trouble with that professional judgment is that it contradicts Bush's belief, which appears not to be based on fact. Making an appearance with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Bush said it was a mistake to think that the Iraq war had increased the terrorism threat.

The troubling part of the entire controversy involving the NIE is that its sobering observations are being submerged in the cacophony of partisan bickering that is steadily growing in Washington and in the country at large.

The NIE lists four factors that are popularizing the jihadist movement. The first one is corrupt Muslim regimes; second, "fear of Western domination" and related "humiliation and sense of powerlessness"; third, economic underdevelopment; and fourth, anti-American sentiments.

Even though the NIE does not say so, the most important variables are anti-Americanism and the fear of Western domination. The continuation of authoritarian regimes in the world of Islam is directly linked to Muslim backwardness. In that sense, both these factors contribute to Muslim anger and frustration.

The solution for these problems, according to the NIE, is "democratic reforms". Inside the US, no one would object to that recommendation. However, there is little doubt that those who authored the report were thinking of Western secular democracy when they jotted down that phrase. But that was not what resulted in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

In Iraq especially, there is an Islamist national-unity government. Democracy brought to office an Islamist party, Hamas, in Palestine. The clout of Hezbollah has immensely escalated since its war with Israel in July-August. In fact, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is publicly hinting about ousting the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, through legal means, of course.

Thus the US faces an awesome dilemma in the Middle East. It wishes to create a string of Jeffersonian democracies, while Muslims are determined to bring about Islamic democracy, which, in the US lexicon, is an oxymoron.

What Bush and other US leaders should have paid attention to was the following observation contained in the NIE: "The loss of key leaders, particularly Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi, in rapid succession, probably would cause the group to fracture into smaller groups. Although like-minded individuals would endeavor to carry on the mission, the loss of these key leaders would exacerbate strains and disagreements. We assess that the resulting splinter groups would, at least for a time, pose a less serious threat to US interests than does al-Qaeda."

It should be noted that Zarqawi was alive when this report was put together. But it was on the right track in observing that the loss of effectiveness for the jihadis emanating from the death or capture of any major leader would be temporary. The Bush administration has not paid any attention to the fact - or maybe it has failed to grasp this reality - that the Islamist or jihadist movement has long been a self-starter.

It needs an effective leader, certainly, but it is not paralyzed in the absence of one. That might have something to do with the Sunni frame of mind - since almost all jihadis are Sunni Muslims - as they are not totally committed to the personality of any one leader. That is not true for Shi'ite Islam, however, where the personality of a grand ayatollah becomes very important in terms of getting religious and political guidance.

Another important point that was raised in the NIE is the following: "Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion. If this trend continues, threats to US interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide."

The NIE is also right in observing, "The jihadists' greatest vulnerability is that their ultimate political solution - an ultra-conservative interpretation of sharia-based governance spanning the Muslim world - is unpopular with the vast majority of Muslims." It adds, "Exposing the religious and political straitjacket that is implied by the jihadists' propaganda would help to divide them from the audiences they seek to persuade."

But the NIE misses an important fact. The notion of a caliphate has been around for the past 1,400 years. However, in the contemporary era, no one outside the Salafi movement has paid much attention to the concept. Nevertheless, somehow, Bush and his team latched on to the idea and use it to explain to the American people the "real motive" of al-Qaeda.

The most important outcome of the publicity given to the NIE is not that it contains any earth-shattering information. Its significance stems from the fact that it has done a lot of damage by underscoring an already well-known fact: Iraq has become the "cause celebre" of global jihadis, which the US president refuses to acknowledge.

The entire brouhaha about the report thus now revolves around winning the hearts and minds of American voters for November's congressional elections. And Congress might be heading for its own "regime change", in that the Democrats could recapture both chambers from the Republicans. Such a development would make it even harder for Bush to justify staying in Iraq.

That is the essence of the controversy and high-visibility diplomatic maneuvering that Bush is conducting with visiting presidents Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. In the realm of US foreign policy, the appearance of "doing something" at times becomes more important than its outcome.

None of these activities is likely to save Iraq, however. A recent opinion poll of Iraqis indicates that an overwhelming number of them (with the exception of the Kurds) want US forces out of their country.

It is possible that Iraq has reached a point where the population is edging toward chancing life without occupying forces. As much as such a scenario would be unpalatable to Bush, the Iraqi people, in their collective judgment, might be seeing something that others can't: if Bush has learned the real lesson from the NIE, he will be thinking very hard about an exit strategy for Iraq.

Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at eahrari@cox.net or stratparadigms@yahoo.com. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.

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