- Joshua Foustfellow at the American Security Project and a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency. He is author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net.
In addition to Afghanistan, the United States is fighting al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula. We discuss the impact of Osama bin Laden’s death on al-Qaeda across the globe with Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. “From an operational standpoint, Osama bin Laden doesn’t maintain very tight operational control over the different al-Qaeda franchises that are out there, including in Yemen, including in Somalia, and other places as well. So, this is mostly a symbolic victory,” says Foust. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Osama bin Laden is dead. He was killed, shot in the head, not exactly clear the exact circumstances of his death, Special Ops forces used. He was buried at sea. DNA samples were taken to prove he is Osama bin Laden. This is what we’re hearing from the government.
Our guests, Jeremy Scahill, award-winning journalist, along with Allan Nairn, here in New York. We’re trying still to reach Robert Fisk. We have Tariq Ali in London. And we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by two guests. The first is Joshua Foust, fellow at the American Security Project, former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency. He’s author of the book Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net.
Your response to the news last night and what you’ve heard in this broadcast, Joshua?
JOSHUA FOUST: Well, I was happy and pretty relieved to hear the news, first of all. The war in Afghanistan, and in particular the struggle against Osama bin Laden, has occupied a rather substantial portion of my adult life. And so, it’s interesting to see it reach such a momentous turning point and to turn into something else. I think it will be up in the air to see what it is.
I’m a little disappointed, though, to see as much scolding of these celebrations as I’ve heard so far today. I mean, it’s not unfair to celebrate the end of an era in the war on terror. And there’s a real opportunity here, despite all of the complaints about the presidency and about how the war on terror has been fought, to use the death of Osama bin Laden to go about bringing other changes to how the war is being fought, in particular, to saying, now we have struck a decisive blow against al-Qaeda. Even if that might not actually be true inside Pakistan, the symbolism of it is important, to say that we have now done this, we have now gotten rid of al-Qaeda’s leader. And that can be an entrée for accelerating the drawdown of U.S. troops inside Afghanistan. So there could probably be some substantial good that comes from this whole thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Joshua, you’re a Yemen expert. Can you talk about AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, and what this means for them?
JOSHUA FOUST: Yeah, it probably doesn’t mean anything for them. And this is part of the trick about not celebrating too much that bin Laden is gone. From an operational standpoint, Osama bin Laden doesn’t maintain very tight operational control over the different al-Qaeda franchises that are out there, including in Yemen, including in Somalia, and other places as well. So, this is mostly a symbolic victory that we’re talking about. When we think about the threat that AQAP poses, and when we look at other major figures within the global jihadi movement, people like Anwar al-Awlaki, or even Ayman al-Zawahiri inside Pakistan, this isn’t going to have an enormous effect on what they’re able to do.
What it will probably accomplish is at least pause operations for some period of time, and it will also have a substantial demoralizing effect. Most jihadis that you talk to seem to draw — or I shouldn’t say “talk to,” that you listen to — seem to draw inspiration from the ability of Osama bin Laden to evade U.S. capture or kill for the last decade. And now that that’s ended, now that you can no longer reach out to Osama bin Laden as the mystical terror leader that is somehow able to escape the world’s superpower, I mean, that’s actually an important rhetorical plank to take away from the movement.
AMY GOODMAN: The Independent of London is saying that al-Qaeda will undoubtedly retaliate. Do you feel like that’s true, Joshua Foust?
JOSHUA FOUST: I’m not sure we’ll be able to say. And it’s a weird thing. I know that every single diplomatic post and military base has gone on increased alert in the wake of this, just to make sure that nothing like that can happen. But at the same time, I mean, without being fear-mongering about it, al-Qaeda and different al-Qaeda branches are planning operations all the time. I don’t think it will be terribly easy to tell the difference between a simple retaliatory strike, whatever form that might take — honestly, I don’t know what form that might take — and something that they have been planning all along and the timing just happens to coincide.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Matthew Hoh into this discussion, former Marine Corps captain in Iraq, former State Department official in Afghanistan, the highest-level diplomatic official to quit over the war in Afghanistan. Matthew Hoh, your response to the news last night and what you think this means? You quit over the continued war. Do you think this could mean the end of war?
MATTHEW HOH: Good morning, Amy, and thank you for having me on.
I want to echo Josh just then, because I think his comments were spot on, and I want to refer back to Jeremy’s earlier comments about this is not just good news, but this is also a very good time for somber reflection.
What I think this means for the United States is, this gives closure on 9/11. Ten years after that horrible event, we finally have some degree of closure. We’ve the bogeyman, if you will, who caused all this. So, I think this gives the American public closure on 9/11. And what that — what I hope that translates into is provides some backbone for members of Congress who do not want to engage on the war in Afghanistan. I think everybody should be asking themselves today in the United States, if Osama bin Laden was hiding in an upscale villa an hour or two drive north, northeast of Islamabad, then why did we put 50,000 troops in Afghanistan over the last two years? I think we have to have a real serious conversation on where our war on terror has taken this country, and I think we need to reflect on the real threat. As Josh just stated, Osama bin Laden was more of a figurehead or a spiritual leader than any kind of operational leader. And if we have — so we need to understand al-Qaeda as they exist, as some form of a syndicate that operates through individuals and small cells worldwide that won’t be affected by putting hundreds of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan, but is affected by good intelligence work, good police work, and good work by our Special Operations forces in conjunction with foreign governments. So I think this is a very good time for some real somber and rational reflection on the last 10 years.
AMY GOODMAN: CIA Director Panetta says al-Qaeda will almost certainly attempt to avenge bin Laden’s death — CIA Director Panetta, who could soon become the secretary of defense — right? —- replacing Robert Gates. Talk about this -—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, the timing of this is interesting —
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill.
JEREMY SCAHILL: — because, you know, General David Petraeus is also set to take over the Central Intelligence Agency. And what we’ve seen with General Petraeus’s tenure as CENTCOM commander, U.S. Central Command, and then also as ISAF commander, is really an expansion of targeted killings operations. He brought back air strikes in Afghanistan after General Stanley McChrystal had really taken moves to tamp them down. But more importantly, General Petraeus signed this order in September of 2009 authorizing an expanded use of U.S. Special Operations forces in undeclared battlefields around the world. And Yemen was one of the great playgrounds of that war game.
And so, I think that I would echo what both Josh Foust and Matt Hoh said in terms of not losing vigilance, that this whole thing is going to continue to play out. There are going to continue to be people that want to do harm to Americans around the world, some of whom may identify themselves as al-Qaeda. We’ve played a significant role in inspiring a generation of terrorists to rise up, through our actions. But also, we need to be vigilant in checks and balances within the U.S. military. There’s a lot of lawlessness taking place — targeted killing operations in other countries, drone strikes in places. And, you know, when do people step back and look at the calculus of it? Are we creating new enemies by killing a handful of people in these operations where civilians are also killed? I mean, these are the kinds of questions, I think — we need to get past the moment and look at what does this say, going forward, about how we, as a country, the United States, want to conduct ourselves around the world, but also examining how our actions actually can harm us, come back to haunt us with blowback because of the terrorism that we inspire.
AMY GOODMAN: We do not have Robert Fisk on the line with us live from Beirut, but we do have a discussion with him back a few years ago. Robert Fisk interviewed Osama bin Laden three times. And I just wanted to go to a clip of that interview.
I was just — here we go. We’re just trying to bring it up. We’re seeing if it’s possible for us to play it. But Allan Nairn, your response to Jeremy Scahill?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, I think it’s — you know, it’s very likely that people will try to respond, some jihadists will try to strike back, kill Americans. And it’s also likely that American assassination operations will get new support. In Congress, within the bureaucracy, in American popular culture, you know, it will be another boost for the idea of the American commando, so there will be all sorts of forces pushing for more blood in both directions.
At the same time, if Obama and the other powers wanted to, they could use this as the pretext to get out of Afghanistan, to get out of Iraq. But even if they did that, even if the U.S. went back to the pre-9/11 state, that would still mean supporting dozens of regimes that kill civilians all over the world. What Obama should do is become an American Gorbachev or an American de Klerk, a leader who helps to dismantle a killer system that he is charged with running. But that can only happen if he’s under pressure to do it. And that effective pressure can only come from the American public.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Hoh, could you see yourself rejoining the diplomatic corps of the United States?
MATTHEW HOH: Well, I’m not sure if the offer is out there right now, but I appreciate your confidence in me, though, Amy.
I have to go into what Allan said. I have to agree with those sentiments, that we have to redo our foreign policy. Even if we were to end the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Libya, we would still have 800 bases around the world — that we know of. And we’d still spend near of a trillion dollars a year on defense, security, intelligence, nuclear weapons, etc. So I think we have to have a fundamental rethinking of our foreign policy, because, you know, you look back over these last few months, and you look at what happened in the Middle East, these historic changes, and the United States was left out of it. The United States did not take any part in it, with the exception of Libya. We just saw the Pakistani prime minister visit Afghanistan, meet with President Karzai, and say, “You should ditch the Americans because they are a waning power. They are a power who you cannot depend upon.” You just saw what happened in Palestine with Hamas and Fatah, basically saying, “We’re not going to wait for the Americans. We can’t trust the American process. We have to do this on our own.” You’ve seen statements from Brazil and Turkey, other nations around the world, where America is losing any semblance of leadership and any semblance of credibility. If you look at our last 10 years, our foreign policy has been schizophrenic, to say the least. So, we have to have a fundamental rethink of our foreign policy and how we conduct our operations around the world, not just militarily, but also diplomatically and economically.
AMY GOODMAN: Pakistani-born —
JOSHUA FOUST: If I can cut in here for a second about this?
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, go ahead. This is Joshua Foust.
JOSHUA FOUST: Yeah, I mean, we’re — this discussion is kind of setting up the President into a Catch-22, whereby, before Libya, before he got involved in Libya, there were cries that he wasn’t doing enough and wasn’t sending in troops and wasn’t intervening to stop massacres. But at the same time, we’re complaining that he’s also sending thousands of troops into Afghanistan, and potentially sending assassins into Pakistan and God knows where else. So, I mean, it’s important when we think about the strategic posture that this country is going to take, especially as it contemplates its role — and it is an inescapable role —- as the global leader in providing security. It’s tasked to do that. It’s the primary military contributor to NATO. It’s the largest contributor to the U.N. So, we need to keep this in mind when we complain about all these other things that are happening that they don’t happen in a vacuum, and they don’t simply happen because of bloodlust, which I heard alleged earlier. This is the response both to international and domestic outcry over either a lack of action, which was the case before Libya, when -—
AMY GOODMAN: Three seconds.
JOSHUA FOUST: — President Obama had taken the stance that he wasn’t going to intervene, because that was what Bush did. And there are pressures in play here.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, and we’ll go online after this. Thank you all for joining us.