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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Petraeus Wants to Arm al-Qaeda

(This will be the last column until Sept. 8th, as the Wrongologist goes to work preparing the fields of Wrong for fall. Happy Labor Day!)

General David Petraeus, possible VP candidate on the Moar War ticket, wrote an article in which his bright idea is to arm al-Qaeda in Syria in order to fight ISIS. The Daily Beast reports that Petraeus has been quietly urging US officials to consider using so-called “moderate” members of the al-Nusra Front, a spin-off of al-Qaeda, to fight ISIS in Syria.

Sound familiar? Every neocon has preached this idea since 2011.

The idea stems from Petraeus’ experience in Iraq in 2007, when as part of a broader strategy to defeat an Islamist insurgency, the US persuaded Sunni militias to stop fighting with al Qaeda and to work with the American military. That led to the fiction called the surge, which was compounded by the fiction that says the surge “worked”. But as Emptywheel says: (parenthesis and brackets by the Wrongologist)

Al-Qaeda in Iraq was later reborn as ISIS, [which] has become the sworn enemy of its parent organization. Now, Petraeus is returning to his old play, advocating a strategy of co-opting rank-and-file members of al Nusra, (a spin-off of al-Qaeda) particularly those who don’t necessarily share all of core al Qaeda’s Islamist philosophy.

The concept of arming al-Nusra, which purports to be opposed [in some cases] to our latest enemy ISIS, which itself emerged out of a prior enemy (al-Qaeda in Iraq), ensures we will have an environment of continual enemies, and thus, continual warfare. The “arm one of our enemies to fight another of our enemies” is a bad strategy that keeps getting trotted out, usually by neocons, even though it inevitably leads to more enemies to fight down the line.

Perhaps you remember the Taliban? In an article called “McJihad: Islam in the US Global Order”, Timothy Mitchell reports the following: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

On 3 February 1997, a delegation of the Taliban government of Afghanistan visited Washington, D.C. Ten days earlier Taliban forces had won control of the countryside around Kabul, and with the south and east of the country already in their hands they were now making preparations to conquer the north. In Washington the Taliban delegation met with State Department officials and discussed the plans of the California oil company Unocal to build a pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan. A senior U.S. diplomat explained his government’s thinking: “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis did. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.

The enemy of my enemy strategy didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. The US has always found radical, conservative Islamism preferable to nationalist or communist currents in the Middle East. It has been in bed with Salafi-Wahhabism since the Saudis founded their theocratic, reactionary state. In fact as Tom Friedman said yesterday, current day Wahhabism cannot be understood outside the dynamics of petroleum-based geo-politics.

Perhaps the headline about Gen. Petraeus’s idea should be:

David Petraeus, after overseeing a series of failed training efforts and covert efforts that led to increased radicalization, wants America to try again.

It is one thing to work clandestinely with a few bad guys, and it’s a completely different thing to do so publicly, as Petraeus would like. The Obama administration’s legal backing for fighting ISIS is based on the 2003 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) which holds:

[t]hat the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

The Department of Defense’s term of art is usually “Al-Qaeda and associated forces” or “affiliated forces” when it describes those defined in the AUMF. How then can we legally claim to fight ISIS under the AUMF when an ally in that fight is the only enemy cited in the AUMF?

And what would be DC’s plan if al-Qaeda actually won?

When ex-generals need to be consulted about foreign policy, our foreign policy has failed.

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