Framing the Threat

by Joshua Foust on 5/30/2009 · 1 comment

So Philip Smucker just conducted a “three-month investigation of al-Qaeda’s activities, from Nuristan in the north to Paktika in the southeast,” and based on this investigation concludes, “bin Laden’s terror network – working through Afghan and Pakistani partners – is present in almost every Afghan and Pakistani province along the fluid border areas between the two countries.”

Well, yes. But how is this new information? It’s not really, except at the margins. And that is where this gets interesting. Smucker includes troubling assertions in his report, like the widespread presence of “Chechens” amongst the fighters in Afghanistan. For years, since the start of the war, the existence of Chechens inside Afghanistan has been repeatedly asserted in the press but no one has ever presented proof of their existence. Indeed,that Smucker relies on an anonymous Afghan monitoring radio broadcasts to claim the presence of Chechens is telling: does that magical Afghan speak Chechen? Can he tell the difference between that and other Caucasian, slavic, or Central Asian languages?

Forgive the skepticism. Smucker’s Anonymous Afghan also mentions the well-known Afghan al-Qaeda figure, Maulvi Twaha. Well-known to that Afghan, perhaps, but I couldn’t find his name in any al-Qaeda literature. Who is that?

But it’s not just the Afghans:

“It sounds from radio chatter like they have more recruits coming in, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Chechen fighters,” said US Army Major Cory Schultz, 37, from the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Okay, so he’s in Paktika. I know and like Major Schultz, but again: how does he know? Does FOB Bermel just happen to have Turkic linguists and Chechen-fluent analysts to tell them what they’re listening to? For example, nearby Zabul province has a noticeable population of Uzbeks living near Qalat, the provincial capital: can their linguists tell the difference between Turkmen and Uzbek? I’ve never heard of Turkmen being in the southeast like that. That doesn’t mean it’s untrue—and I don’t think anyone is lying, let me emphasize that—but this kind of assertion is completely at odds with what we otherwise know of the area.

Then there is the description of al-Qaeda. Smucker presents it there as this renewed organization, secretly pulling the strings of everyone from the Haqqanis to Baitullah Mehsud… even while American intelligence officials brag about how much they’ve degraded al Qaeda’s effectiveness as an organization.

Again, none of this means anyone is wrong. Everything Smucker is reporting—mostly anonymously—could very well be true. But because it clashes with so much of what we know to to be true of the area (like, was his investigation independent, or sponsored by the Military? I don’t know of many white people being able to travel independently in places like Nuristan or Paktika without taking severe risks), and because it happens to slot in nicely with the military’s new line of an “insurgent syndicate” to frame the insurgent groups in the region as some sort of super-secret SPECTRE-type organization… well, I honestly wonder if he might be being fed a line about what’s going on.

Framing the threat we face in the area is vitally important. I can understand why some would want us to make this ultimately about al Qaeda—in many ways it is. But it is also about other things as well. Al Qaeda would never have been an issue if we hadn’t abandoned Afghanistan to its fate in 1989, nor would Pakistan be in the dire straits it is in now if we hadn’t pressured Pervez Musharraf to behave to violently against his own peoples’ wishes.

But trying to make the entire battle about a secret cabal of Al Qaeda puppetmasters behind the scenes of everything, unifying these formerly violently fractured movements, based only on anonymous interviews and hints and suggestions here and there… well, I need a bit more evidence before I can buy into it.

Previous appearances of Mr. Smucker:
Who cares about brown-skinned people?
The danger of American propagandists
The birth (and death) of a meme


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

David M June 1, 2009 at 9:08 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 06/01/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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