Heard Robert Pape (author of Dying to Win) on the local Chicago Don and Roma AM talk radio this morning (Don’s conservative, Roma’s liberal; it’s a good little show), discussing his book. He made some interesting points
1) Suicide bombings have greatly increased since 1980, while other terrorism has greatly decreased
2) Suicide bombings are almost exclusively carried out against democracies
3) Suicide bombings are generally done when armed forces of a different religion occupy terrority the bombers greatly prize, or feel is theirs. He mentions Sikhs in India, the Tamil Tigers, and a couple others
Pape then goes on to make some recommendations based on this data
1) The US should focus on Al Qaeda, which he says we haven’t been doing for 3 years
2) The US should transition all security functions to Iraqis and leave Iraq within the next 12 months
Pape also notes that one reason America has not been hit is that Al Qaeda has made a strategic decision not to hit America in the short term, but to focus on America’s allies instead. This is detailed, Pape says, in a 42-page Al Qaeda strategy document discovered a few years ago. Very interesting stuff.
I agree completely with how he represents the data, and in a broad sense with his conclusions, but I think Pape makes a couple major errors in interpretation when he gives his recommendations. First, he treats these statistics like natural phenomena; a correlation in human-directed activity is not necessarily amenable to data-driven correction the way an increase in average rainfall might be expected affect crop growth. People think and make decisions; it’s not reasonable to suppose Al Qaeda will say “Aha! Troops of another religion are no longer occupying territory we prize. Based on the statistical analysis of suicide bombing behavior since 1980, we must stop attacking now.” Second, he’s working with a small sample size (there just aren’t that many terrorist groups, in terms of the numbers needed for statistical analysis). Any kind of prediction based on a small statistical sample is going to be very unreliable.
Beyond that, I think there’s a couple other things worth noting here.
First off, why does Al Qaeda believe they should avoid hitting America, at least in the short term? One suspects Bin Laden & Co. learned a bitter lesson from 2001 to 2003: attack America spectacularly, at home, and Americans will not respond by withdrawing as in Somalia or Lebanon but instead get very angry. When Americans get angry, governments will fall (particularly when a Republican is president), especially regimes that are supportive of terrorism. Bush launched a unilateral war in the “graveyard of superpowers” to remove the odious Al Qaeda host gov’t, and even with the craven press squeaking about an Afghanistan quagmire shortly before the Taliban fell, American public opinion promptly soared to 90% support of Bush’s policies. A couple years later, the terrorist-enabling Hussein regime was excised from Iraq. I hate how partisan this sounds, but I honestly think this is Osama’s rope-a-dope strategy: wait for a less muscular and unilateral (i.e. Democratic) regime to be elected here in the States before attacking us again (fwiw, I think he’s wrong; Hillary, the presumptive Dem 2008 nominee, will be much more aggressive than her husband was, perhaps even more aggressive and unilateral than Bush has been).
Second, the Iraq invasion was not a distraction from terrorism and Al Qaeda, as others have claimed and Pape seems to imply. In fact, liberating Iraq was a strategic stroke of military genius that fundamentally changed the nature of the war on terror, similar to Sherman’s March to the Sea or Patton’s charge to the German 3rd Army’s flanks. It removed the need for troops on Saudi soil, ended the perpetually festering sanctions regime that punished ordinary Iraqis and bred resentment of the U.S. among Muslims, created a democratic example in the middle of the Mideast, and forced Al Qaeda to try to fight a defensive war on Islamic turf, one it has very little hope of winning. And in the course of fighting that war they’ve not only been forced to murder Iraqi Muslims by the thousands, which has not gone unnoticed by other Muslims, but are also now seen as fighting against democracy. In the wake of that carnage and the spectacle of free Iraqis joyfully waving purple fingers on January 30th, Islam is increasingly drawn to democracy and less inclined to accept terrorism as a legitimate means of political expression. This trend does not bode well for Al Qaeda.