Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Leading the Horse to Water

Tim Blair has an insider's account of the Al Qaeda attack on expatriate workers living in and around the Oasis apartments in Khobar on May 29. It provides more detail than the press accounts, principally regarding the composition of the attack teams against a variety of targets.

  • Two teams against the Oasis 3 compound
  • One team against the Petroleum Center
  • One team against the APICORP building
  • One team lying in ambush two kilometers from the Oasis to take the Saudi helicopter assault under fire

The account mentions logistical support by a British team and the injury of two Americans, probably advisers, who were with the heliborne assault. There were 22 civilians killed in the attack, mostly non-Western contract workers. Some fought. Two Filipino cooks died while resisting. But although some ordinary Saudis heroically attempted to bring the attackers to bay (one man rammed a terrorist getaway car and was shot for his efforts) the consensus is that the Saudi security forces let some of the bad guys get away. The Saudi security forces displayed a curiously split personality.

"On the positive side they have effectivley taken out 17 terrorists and with the prisoners I would expect they will find and arrest a lot more.( The geneaver convention dont apply here so these boys are going to wish they'ed been killed) ... Three others escaped. It is unclear how they managed this with the whole building surrounded with Special Forces. The implication is that they had help. There is no doubt in my mind that the terrorists were allowed to 'escape' if not even escorted away from the facility. The lay out and position of the building is such that an escape attempt would be virtually impossible."

That duality is rendered more comprehensible by Michael Scott Doran's (hat tip: DL) article in Foreign Affairs. In his view, Saudi Arabia is in a virtual state of civil war, divided between two "kings". After reviewing the disturbingly similar attack on a Saudi residential compound in November, 2003 which killed 17 people, Doran says:

Among the four or five most powerful princes, two stand out: Crown Prince Abdullah and his half-brother Prince Nayef, the interior minister. Relations between these two leaders are visibly tense. In the United States, Abdullah cuts a higher profile. But at home in Saudi Arabia, Nayef, who controls the secret police, casts a longer and darker shadow. Ever since King Fahd's stroke in 1995, the question of succession has been hanging over the entire system, but neither prince has enough clout to capture the throne. Saudi Arabia is in the throes of a crisis. The economy cannot keep pace with population growth, the welfare state is rapidly deteriorating, and regional and sectarian resentments are rising to the fore. These problems have been exacerbated by an upsurge in radical Islamic activism. Many agree that the Saudi political system must somehow evolve, but a profound cultural schizophrenia prevents the elite from agreeing on the specifics of reform.

Saudi Arabia's two most powerful princes have taken opposing sides in this debate: Abdullah tilts toward the liberal reformers and seeks a rapprochement with the United States, whereas Nayef sides with the clerics and takes direction from an anti-American religious establishment that shares many goals with al Qaeda.

Those two opposing tendencies were in full view during the Oasis attack. In Doran's account, everyone in the Royal House wears shades of dark, but Nayef -- the interior minister in charge of a large part of the security apparatus -- the very agencies who would be expected to defend against the Al Qaeda, has the black sombrero. Nayef is underpinned by clerics who see an American-Shi'ite conspiracy to take over all of Islam.

Saudi hard-liners are now arguing that the Shi`ite minority in Saudi Arabia is conspiring with the United States in its war to destroy Islam. Thus al-Ayyiri, the al-Qaeda propagandist, argued that the Shi`ites have hatched a long-term plot to control the countries of the Persian Gulf. As part of this conspiracy, the Shi`ite minorities in Sunni countries are insinuating themselves into positions of responsibility so as to function as a fifth column for the enemies of true Islam. "The danger of the Shi`ite heretics to the region," he states, "is not less than the danger of the Jews and the Christians." ...

Rather than shutting such inflammatory voices down, Prince Nayef finds it convenient to keep them on the streets: al-Umar runs a mosque as a government employee and operates an attractive Web site. By giving clerics such as al-Umar privileged platforms from which to spread their doctrines, Nayef gets the best of both worlds. To foreign critics, he can distance himself from al-Umar's extremism, claiming that the cleric speaks only for himself; at home, meanwhile, he can reap the benefit of al-Umar's threats, which strike terror into Shi`ite hearts.

The beating heart of the Islamic terrorism is rooted in the inner struggles of a cabal whose medieval conceptions would do justice to the Name of the Rose. None of this would be a problem if America were determined to act like a traditional conquering power, flattening all before it. But for good or ill the US has committed itself to a strategy of acting in cooperation with Arab partners. For example, in Iraq, the USMC has entrusted the cleanup of the Sunni triangle to its local allies. But the Fallujah Brigade has so far not made good on its promise to crack down on Jihadis, many of whom in all probability receive sustenance from Saudi Arabia. Like the advisers in the Saudi helicopter assault, Americans can the lead the horse to water, but cannot compel it to drink. How much of this reflects strategic preference and how much is compelled by domestic American political opposition is hard to determine. Yet the balance between unilateral American action and reliance upon allies -- whether of the French, Pakistani, Saudi or Iraqi kind -- needs to be calibrated according to some metric. That can only happen if a series of clear strategic goals in the Global War on Terror is nationally articulated an accepted.

Offering up the objective of more United Nations legitimacy or adopting an "exit strategy" in Iraq, as the Democrats have done, does not amount to a strategy. But neither does the open-ended formula of bringing freedom to the Middle East constitute an actionable agenda. It may be a guide to action, but what is needed is a set of intermediate goalposts against which progress can be measured. Some of these might be:

  1. The desired end state in Saudi Arabia: whether or not this includes the survival of the House of Saud or its total overthrow;
  2. The fate of the regime in Damascus;
  3. Whether or not the United States is committed to overthrowing the Mullahs in Iran and the question of what is to replace them;
  4. How far America will tolerate inaction by Iraq security forces before acting unilaterally;
  5. The future of the America's alliance with France and Germany;
  6. The American commitment to the United Nations.

Each of these hard questions must be weighed according to its contribution to the final goal of breaking the back of international terrorism. Somewhere in that maze, if it exists, is a ladder to victory. Leading the horse to drink presumes that we know what purpose watering them serves; what paths we will travel. Answering these questions will be a heuristic process, one that moves towards progressively better solutions. Finding ourselves in the place we first began is equivalent to defeat. Whether we are further along in Saudi Arabia in May 2004 than on November 2003 is one of the indicators of whether we are winning or losing. But someone has to keep score.