Little al-Qaedas Loom Large

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from TIME Magazine,

The terrorist group’s franchise operations are a threat. Here’s how to deal with them.

Al-Qaeda Central, the organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is battered and broke. But the idea of al-Qaeda remains vibrant in other places–notably places where the government is extremely weak and cannot actually control territory. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are not flourishing in hotbeds of Islamic radicalism like Saudi Arabia. They thrive instead in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and northern Nigeria. Some of these groups have real ties to al-Qaeda and share its goals. Others, like the ones in Africa, look like local warlords using the label to burnish their brand.

So what kind of strategy should the U.S. pursue against these small groups in weak states? There are three possible paths.

The first would be a full-bore counterinsurgency strategy, the kind that General David Petraeus executed in Iraq and (to a lesser degree) in Afghanistan. But does anyone think that sending thousands of U.S. troops into these countries is a smart idea? Does anyone think keeping more troops in Afghanistan would make terrorists in Mali tremble?

The second strategy would be counterterrorism–using drones, missiles, Special Forces and other kinetic tools to disrupt al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. By anyone’s measure, the Obama Administration has been aggressive on this front.

The third possible approach to the new threat of terrorism is to try to get local governments to fight the terrorists. But the places where al-Qaeda affiliates have sprung up–like Somalia and Yemen–are, almost by definition, ungovernable. At the moment, only the U.S. has the technology, missiles and troops to disrupt terrorist plots being hatched in those countries. Yet the best policy in the long run would be to shift the struggle over to locals, who can most effectively win a long war against militants in territory they know better than any outsiders. It also shifts the struggle over to Muslims, who can most effectively battle al-Qaeda in the realm of ideas. The U.S. can help by building up the legitimacy and capacity of these governments in various ways, encouraging reform and providing aid and technical know-how. Of course, this is the softest of the three strategies and would probably draw the most fire from Obama’s critics were he to pursue it more fully.

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