Abu Muqawama has a great piece in the New Republic today. Given his very kind words for Will and myself, I am biased, but the article makes an extremely important point about the importance of virtual safe havens. Although I just posted and don’t really have the time to blog, I felt compelled to add a few thoughts.
There are at least two more reasons why there ought to be a virtual dimension to the new AfPak strategy. First, the Pashto and Urdu-language part of the jihadi cyberspace is growing rapidly, and very few people are keeping track of it. Those who do rarely know the Arabic sites and vice-versa. No analyst I know has enough Arabic and Pashto to connect the dots (except Mustafa Abu al-Yazid).
Second, the Internet infrastructure in Afghanistan and Pakistan is relatively poorly developed compared to the Arab world. This is very worrying, because it means that there is a huge untapped propaganda resource which will be exploited as the local infrastructure inevitably develops. This is unlike in much of the Arab world, where the Internet’s potential has been largely taken out by the local jihadi groups. We are seeing the signs of this trend in the spread, on the ground, of semi-virtual propaganda such as DVDs etc – see this brilliant ICG report for details.
Having said this, in the overall “war of ideas” we must realise the limits of the Internet and other media, because at the end of the day they are just that: media. In the debate about Abu Muqawama’s article, “MK” is spot on when he asks: “What exactly are we going to use for the substance of our digital message if we don’t actually try to deal with some of the real-world problems that render the jihadist narrative plausible or appealing?”
I couldn’t agree more. For several years people in Washington have been discussing public diplomacy in the misguided belief that it is somehow enough to tinker with the form and distribution techniques of “our message” to win the war of ideas. The elephant in the room (or in the Beltway) is that the war of ideas has to be waged on substance.
It is very simple: 1) Say and do things on Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir that make Muslims feel less geopolitically deprived and humiliated. 2) Be nice to the locals in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and broadcast your good deeds, 3) Point out where the jihadis are wrong on substance, and 4) Let mainstream Muslim clerics take care of the theology.
In the meantime we can and should do things to limit the Internet’s effectiveness as a propaganda tool, but at the end of the day the Internet is just the messenger.
Update 2: Tim reposted an extremely interesting DoD-sponsored study of safe havens relevant to the discussion. I should of course also mention Mike Innes’ book on safe havens – the only one on the subject as far as I know. His take on Abu Muqawama’s article is here (sorry for the delay).