Too often over the past seven years, it has been easy to forget this initial analysis [about Al Qaeda being less of a single operation than a global movement spawning that farms training and inspiration out to local imitators]. After all, most of our major military efforts since 2001 have, at least early on, involved rather more concrete enemies, whom we have fought in specific places, using traditional means. The initial assault on Afghanistan was, in fact, a proxy war, not a postmodern, post-globalization game of tricks and mirrors. The same was true in Iraq: We overthrew a dictator, toppled his statues and set up an occupation regime.
Only later, in both places, did we find ourselves contending with groups invariably described as "shadowy," with enemies who melted in and out of the civilian population, with terrorist cells that might be connected to al-Qaeda, to Pakistan, to Iran -- or might not be. It took some time before we understood that our opponents in Iraq were not merely disgruntled Baathists but in fact encompassed a range of both Sunni and Shiite groups with different agendas.
Only now, for that matter, do we comprehend the degree to which the very word "Taliban" is misleading: Though the term implies a definite group with clear goals, American commanders in Afghanistan understand very well that what they call the "Taliban" is an amalgamation of insurgents, some of whom fight for tribal interests, others for money and only some for a clear-cut ideological cause.
Perhaps the Mumbai gunmen will, like some of those in the Afghan Taliban, also turn out to be members of a homegrown, locally based, ad hoc organization with its own eccentric goals and training methods. Or perhaps they will turn out to belong to a definite group with a clear ideology, which would, of course, be easier all around. Surely the point, though, is that we should be well-prepared to deal with either -- and wary of mistaking one for the other.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Anne Applebaum's analysis of the attacks in India is Smart (with a capital S):