“We can’t lose focus” after Bin Laden’s death, said the former Secretary of State, the woman who helped author the most costly loss of focus in the history of America’s fight against terrorism. Of course, Condi Rice had no earthly idea when she spouted her “mushroom cloud” warning years ago that Saddam Hussein had long given up his nuclear program, that his supposed link with Al Qaeda was a fabrication. But facts didn’t matter as much back in 2002, when fear-mongering was a powerful tool against a fearful America. Afghanistan was “pacified” but Bin Laden had slipped away at Tora Bora. America needed a new target. Preferably a nation-state that would showcase America’s superior conventional military strength. Something that had borders and didn’t move, like those pesky, shadowy jihadists who were the ones we were really after. And so, Iraq became the Bush administration’s Weapon of Mass Distraction from the real objectives of the “War on Terror”: killing and capturing terrorists. A trillion dollars and 5,000 American lives later, Condi Rice goes on ABC News to warn that we can’t lose focus.

Too late. Al Qaeda hasn’t been in Afghanistan in sufficient numbers in years. It’s common knowledge that the organization metastasized long ago into more potent franchises in Iraq, Yemen and North Africa. Even the top leadership of the Taliban are not in Afghanistan. The Quetta Shura and Mullah Omar- much like Osama Bin Laden until he was taken out unilaterally- operate under the protection of their government patrons, in Pakistan. Well then, you ask, why does the West still have 140,000 troops in Afghanistan propping up a Karzai government that is reviled by its own people at a time when corrupt strong men across the Muslim world are being toppled by popular revolutions? Hmmmm. Because we’ve already thrown so much blood and treasure at our Afghan investment already? Because if we withdraw now, the world will think we are weak and unable to finish the job? Because we don’t want Afghanistan to become a staging ground for terrorist attacks on our country again?

These questions and their very structure are more illuminating than the answers could ever be. The subject is always “us”, the object, “Afghanistan”, when it should be the other way around if we are looking for viable solutions for, namely, Afghanistan. Long ago, Afghanistan ceased being about Afghanistan and became more about America and our selfish insecurities as a nation. The longest war in our nation’s history remains unfocused, unsustainable, and detrimental to our nation’s standing and security in ways that are only now becoming visible. Only recently, American soldiers have admitted to forming kill teams that have murdered Afghan civilians, claiming body parts as take-home trophies. It’s tough to reconcile a COIN strategy which emphasizes winning local hearts and minds with testosterone-laden kids who just wanna “get some”, taking matters into their own hands when they can’t do what they were trained to do. Military and civilian agencies continue to coordinate poorly in an increasingly violent Afghan reconstruction environment and have entirely different plans and priorities for resources. Mass prison breaks and friendly fire attacks on NATO personnel occur with growing frequency. The annual cost of the Afghan security forces we are training and equipping dwarfs the entire Afghan national budget. What part of this is about building a nation that can sustain itself?

All this at a time when the arc of fundamental change in the Muslim world is shifting decisively West, towards the Arab heartland where Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology was born. This is where the fight against Islamic fundamentalism will be won, in the rejuvenated streets of Cairo, Tunis and Damascus. Unfortunately, that struggle for the most part is not kinetic warfare but the hard slog of compromise and negotiation between civil societies and political parties. Therefore, America isn’t interested. What’s profitable about civic development? What congressional district will it create jobs for? What Pentagon weapon system will it support? Mercy Corps doesn’t make campaign contributions.

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“La Ikhwan, La Salafia. A Sha’ab Bidu Huriyya.”

“No Muslim Brotherhood. No Salafists. The Youth want Freedom.”

The language above on the sign held up by a Syrian protester this week encapsulates all the promise, and anxiety, of this moment for Western policy makers watching the Arab revolutions unfold. What kind of freedom? Who will step into the vacuum? What will be their world view?

Stepping into this dangerous information void is a familiar narrative for those of us who have been watching the region for some time, finding its voice once again in the global media echo chamber. In the 80′s and 90′s it was a barely reported whisper in the secure, secular anterooms of power, yet it resonated with the right audience. Strongmen in immaculate Armani suits in Cairo and Damascus and Sana’a pulled aside envoys from Rome to Paris to Washington for a measured, and entirely calculated pronouncement: We have a problem. The mullahs have toppled the Shah. The fundamentalist wave is now sweeping thru our own countries. Look the other way while we deal with it…

And we did. The secular, benevolent dictator was much preferable to the bearded fundamentalist. Benevolent to our own interests, of course, not so much those of their own people. In Iraq, Saddam invaded Iran and brutally crushed Kurdish and Shi’ite dissent, all with Western weapons and financing. In Syria, the late Hafez Al-Assad reduced the city of Hama- the center of the Syrian Islamist movement- to rubble. In Egypt, pitched battles took place between Mubarak’s security forces and Islamic groups. And perhaps most damning, in hindsight, a moderate Islamic party won a free and fair election in Algeria, only to be brutally removed by a cabal of generals who tipped the country towards civil war, without so much as a peep from Western leaders.

All of this, years before Al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden were even a coherent operational entity. All of this, and our leaders still scratch their heads and wonder out loud why political Islam has turned dangerously radical.

What has changed today? In Libya, the Qaddafi family mafia screams of Al Qaeda rebels and Islamist conspiracies. In Syria, the younger Assad talks of armed gangs with sinister Islamic credentials. In Egypt, military rulers continue to play the heart-strings of Western Islamophobia, hinting of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in upcoming elections. Yemen’s President Saleh long ago mastered the art of the American shake down: extracting millions in U.S. aid by playing up the threat of exploding underwear bombers and then using those resources to crush any dissent to his rule. Let’s not limit ourselves to the Arab world. The corrupt autocrats of Pakistan and Afghanistan have extracted billions in American treasure while doing little to combat (and much to proliferate) the fundamentalist forces in their own countries. Why would they when extremist Islam is a source of so much badly needed foreign exchange? The Islamophobia con game has not been limited even to sitting rulers. In the runup to the 2003 Iraq invasion, Iraqi exile groups were persistent in their arguments that Saddam was conspiring with Al Qaeda, and their persistence paid off by pushing America to war, despite a shred of real evidence to substantiate their claims.

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“Barack Obama has now fired more cruise missiles than all other Nobel Peace Prize winners combined.”

It’s good for a laugh. A cheap laugh. The blogger who wrote this clearly doesn’t have any appreciation for the reality that confronts American presidents on a daily basis. No doubt he or she also did not have any family in Benghazi last week, when a desert breeze stood between Qaddafi’s tank columns and the certain massacre of the city’s population. Can anyone- Arab, European, American- honestly compare our intervention in Libya in 2011 to Iraq in 2003 or Afghanistan in 2001? Really? Have we become that morally unhinged? Iraq and Afghanistan were all about an insecure, fearful United States lashing out at nations because it didn’t have the means to locate and punish the trans-national movement responsible for 9/11. Libya is about a coalition of mainly Western powers reluctantly resorting to force to protect ordinary people from their own self-appointed leader. Do NATO countries have their own, selfish reasons for bombing Libya? Of course. No nation in the history of nations acts out of pure altruism. France and Italy are concerned about North African refugees overwhelming their shores. Britain and America worry about Al Qaeda stepping into a vacuum. Everyone worries about the free flow of oil and upward pressure on its price. Interestingly, all these risks have the potential to grow exponentially if you go down the path of using force. So, are we really being selfish and sinister by bombing Libya, protecting only our own interests, or are we, instead, ignoring them for a greater cause? Hmmm. It’s infinitely more complex and larger than this question alone.

There is something bigger here. Say whatever you want about mission creep in Libya, international spinelessness in Bahrain, or heavy-handed government brutality in Syria, the paradigm has forever changed, and unambiguously for the better. Since the 9/11 attacks, conflict between the “West” and the “Muslim world” had been framed, indeed defined, by two primary actors- one state and one non-state. On one side, Western governments and their partner regimes (Israel and our Muslim allies) declared their war on terror. They faced off largely against trans-national groups- Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hizbullah, Hamas- entities who by their very nature and ideology challenged the notion of the modern nation-state itself. Conspicuously absent on either side of the battle lines was the most important actor of all: Muslim civil society, the entity who alone has the power to reinvigorate stagnating communities and provide a viable long-term solution to violent extremism.

No longer. The Arab Street has emerged. Unruly, leaderless, fickle- and yet, it has forced both sides to contend with it and can no longer be discounted derisively as “not ready for democracy” or “too chaotic and unknowable to be trusted”. Both primary actors in the conflict have had to reconfigure their strategies to account for this new and potentially pivotal player, and the upshot so far is encouraging. Western governments have for the most part aligned their policies more with the aspirations of the Street while trans-national actors seem too dumbfounded even to react.

Indeed, the hidden story in all of this, the elephant in the room that no one has talked about seriously: where is Al Qaeda? Why the strange silence during the region’s most volatile hour in decades? Numerous self-styled experts have claimed that instability and chaos were this organization’s preferred milieu, creating the space for its operatives to challenge the legitimacy of national governments. What better opportunity than the upheavals in places like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, where secular strongmen tied to American patronage have come under immense pressure. Is it perhaps because Al Qaeda has nothing to say to the largely young, secular groups and moderate Islamists who have tipped the scales of the system? What would they offer them? Brutal caliphates like those that are going swimmingly well in Saudi Arabia and Iran? Perhaps more important, these popular awakenings have relegated a key plank in the Al Qaeda public relations machine to history’s dustbin: the string of corrupt secular regimes controled by Western puppetmasters and dismissive of their own people. The edifice of this once potent recruiting tool is now crumbling, and Al Qaeda does not know what to do.

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Ibn Khaldun, the great 14th century North African polymath, was the first to give the Arabs a sense of their own history. Before there were universities, before there was even a discipline called the social sciences, Ibn Khaldun plied the Mediterranean world, a resident scholar to kings and sultans from Castile to Cairo, writing his treatises on logic, history, philosophy, sociology. He lived in a time of tremendous upheaval in the Muslim world, with Black Death, Mongol invasions and Christian crusaders wreaking apocalyptic havoc on rulers and ruled alike. In the work he is most known for, the Muqaddimah, the Tunisian-born scholar illuminated mankind’s generational cycles that throughout time repeatedly led to the rise and fall of dynasties. It went something like this according to Ibn Khaldun: a nomadic people with a great deal of social cohesion and group solidarity (the closest translation for the Arabic term- ‘asabiyyah- that he made famous), coalesce around a charismatic leader and overthrow a decaying urban elite. As the new rulers, the nomads must leave their old rustic lifestyle behind and settle in the cities. Over time they grow soft (or more refined, from their point of view), succumbing to decadence and luxury, losing the cohesion and ruggedness that once made them strong. Inevitably, they themselves are defeated by a new set of nomads, and the cycle repeats itself.

Seven centuries later, as we watch historic popular revolutions unfold across the Middle East in the age of Al Jazeera and Facebook, Ibn Khaldun’s words are still prescient. The embattled autocrats of the Arab establishment were once themselves the demi-gods at the center of the Muqaddimah’s narrative. Humble, austere beginnings overwhelmingly characterized these Arab men who came of age in the heady days of Arab nationalism in the 60s and 70s. Nasser, Ghadafi, Sadat, Mubarak, Ben Ali- in their youth, they were not of the city, but rather nomads and peasants in uniforms- and this was indeed their greatest strength. A toughened exterior, a popular magnetism, a sense of shared hardship with the most deprived of their peoples, these men were the tribal chieftains of their time. Over time, however, they became transformed by the city, succumbing to its temptations, growing feeble within the system they had established. Their connection with their own people was lost even as they clung to power and privilege.

Meanwhile, as yesterday’s populist heroes lost their gravitas, a different tribe came into its own in the new millennium. Yet this tribe had never been seen before in the Middle East, the land of tribes. Armed with the power of communication technologies, 21st century mobility, and exploding demography, it crossed borders and invaded the sacred space of home and mosque. How else can one explain a migrating popular revolt that leapfrogs between cities separated by deserts and seas- a movable feast with no organized leadership and no concrete agenda other than change? While many disparate groups have now joined the fray in multiple countries, there is no doubt that the nucleus across this movement does not share a political platform or an ideology, but rather a group solidarity that unites them and provides the primal energy for the overall effort. They are integrated- like the “free officers” their parents once adored- by a shared experience. Urban malaise. Political disenfranchisement. Youthful idealism. A yearning to be as respected and prosperous as their counterparts in other parts of the world.

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A central objective of U.S. strategy in fragile states like Iraq and Afghanistan is to create an environment conducive to internal groups playing nice, settling their differences through political dialogue and compromise rather than violence and insurgency. Therefore, it was with more than a tinge of irony that the world watched one of America’s arch villains, the firebrand cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, return triumphantly thru politics, not violence, to Iraq from exile in Iran last week. America and its Shi’ite ally Prime Minister Maliki had temporarily silenced Sadr through tactical military force and intimidation by routing his Mahdi army on the streets of Basra and Baghdad years ago, only to now see him return through the ballot box as coalition king maker after the recent parliamentary elections. It seems the mullahs have a thing or two to teach us about playing nice and winning thru party politics.

Our goals in the broader war on extremism are laudable- to work with our local partners and create stable, tolerant societies that aren’t breeding grounds for jihadists. Unfortunately, these goals are also flawed and have rarely been questioned seriously by our leadership after nearly a decade of war and thousands of American body bags. Afghanistan is arguably worse off than it was in 2001 shortly after the invasion, with large percentages of the population having little faith in the Karzai government’s ability to improve their lives. Iraq hovers in a still fragile bubble reminiscent of Lebanon in the years before civil war, with different factions jockeying for leverage all under the watchful eye of a shadowy Iran with increasing influence in the country.

American taxpayers have funded billions in state-of-the-art infrastructure in both countries- schools, hospitals, drainage systems, power plants, even water parks. It’s great to have tangible brick and mortar facilities that enrich the bottom-line of government contractors in corporate America and allow visiting congressmen and aid executives to crow about progress. But if local governments don’t have the capacity, personnel, training, or funds to run these facilities, they mean little for the welfare of a country.

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I share Eugene Robinson’s well-articulated concern in his most recent Washington Post column. The numbers are stark: America’s share of total world defense spending is 46.5%. Second place goes to China at a meager 6.6%. In an age of withering economic hardship at home and growing deficits and debt, why do we continue to subsidize a global stability that many other nations quietly take advantage of, cutting deals for precious natural resources- in Iraq, in Afghanistan- while American soldiers die and extremists cite occupations to recruit for their attacks on American soil? Because, Eugene, as you well know, it’s a business. A profitable business with a powerful constituency of congressmen, corporations, and military brass who in the end don’t care as much about lives, treasure, and America’s global standing. Not when it comes to revenue, re-election, and the welfare of their own military families. This is why we continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, even though we know these two countries are largely responsible for the operational and ideological underpinnings of the jihadist movement that wants to destroy America. This is why we offer a Netanyahu government who we know has no intention of negotiating in good faith with its Palestinian counterparts the bribe of new fighter jets, even as our military leadership says our unconditional support for Israel leads directly to the loss of American lives.

Sadly, the prospect of someone else’s death cannot compete with the needs of the living. America’s defense spending is not a subsidy to the world as much as it’s a subsidy to the American economy and political system, much like other government programs such as unemployment insurance and Medicare that Mr. Robinson has advocated for in the past. The American enlisted soldier- largely low-income and with fewer educational and professional opportunities than higher income Americans- is the primary beneficiary, although, just like Medicare, corporations (insurance companies) and higher income individuals (doctors) also benefit. Pick a line item in the federal budget and it is easy to find a domestic constituency behind it with their hand out.

Of course, defense spending is different than any domestic program for many of the reasons Mr. Robinson articulates. Domestic programs usually don’t violently kill Americans and foreigners. They also don’t have such a direct, measurable effect on our international standing. In the foreign policy arena as with everything else, we must begin to learn how to do more with less. One obvious option is to convince other nations to do more so we can do less. So far, our record on this has been poor. Time after time- in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, to name only a few- our “partners” have gotten a free ride at our expense even while they undermine our goals to boot. There is no use hollering about their duplicity on opinion pages. Every nation has interests that are often at odds with ours even as we find ourselves on the same side of the battle. Pakistan has legitimate concerns about a larger, hostile India that will make it forever reluctant to entirely give up the extremist proxy groups like the Taliban and Lashkar i Taiba that it uses to prevent Indian encirclement. President Karzai has to think about the day when America will abandon its Afghan adventure, as it has done so precipitously in the past. Anti-American, pro-nationalist, pro-Pashtun statements keep local constituencies in his favor for when that day comes. Such are the complexities and paradoxes that make international relations a challenge. We are better off understanding them and working through them instead of against them.

A Muslim Responsibility

Muslim communities across America can only cringe once again at the latest spate of news: package bombs from Yemen bound for Chicago area synagogues; a plot to simultaneously bomb multiple subway stations in the DC metro area. In both cases, the main culprits are American citizens of Muslim faith and heritage: in Yemen, Anwar Al Awlaki, a wily American born cleric, has become the spiritual and operational leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and one of the most wanted terrorist operatives on the planet; and Farooque Ahmad, a 34 year-old naturalized American of Pakistani birth caught in an FBI sting operation in Virginia. Since last year over 60 Americans have been charged or convicted of terrorism, many of them born or converted Muslims with jihadist sympathies. What is going on?

The Ground Zero mosque episode, the Koran book burning, an embattled president in an election year who spent time as a boy in Indonesia and whose father happened to be Muslim. As if America Muslims needed another home-spun sound-byte to reduce their profile from bad to worse in the eyes of fellow Americans. As they have understandably done over the past decade, many American Muslims continue to keep their heads down, practice a quiet faith, pay their taxes, and avoid any overtly political act or public forum.

Is that the answer, though? Complacency and quietism? Should American Muslims remain silent for fear of retaliation or humiliation? Is it better just to not attract attention and quietly disavow the extremists who have perverted Islam for their own ends on the one side, avoiding the ignorant, xenophobic Americans (and Europeans) who blame Islam for all society’s ills on the other? Is that the extent of the Muslim responsibility when it comes to the future of their own faith and civilization? Keep your head down, grin and bear it?

Granted, there are other forces that have been at work here for decades that have little to do with religion and that most Americans are completely ignorant of when passing judgement on Islam and Muslims. A string of secular tyrants in the Middle East, supported with American treasure and arms, torturing and radicalizing their own countrymen and limiting space for moderate forms of political Islam in their own societies. An American funded jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan that, along with Saudi money and Pakistani organization, fueled the rise of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Unconditional American financing and support for an Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands that has gone beyond its 40th year, an occupation that plays into the hands of extremists bent on killing innocents at any cost.

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