No part of the US National Intelligence Estimate – leaked or declassified – pretends that in five years of mighty effort, the United States and its Western allies have hit on a way to militarily vanquish al Qaeda or stamp out terrorism.
Still today, Western rhetoric on the global war on terror is often muddled, riddled with fuzzy definitions, unclear as to goals and overtaken by real events.
For too long, United States thinking was governed by the optical illusion of a triumph over the forces of radical Islam in Afghanistan. It was generated by the rapid US-led victory over the ruling Taliban and al Qaeda in October-November of 2001. This illusion was rudely dissipated in the past year.
But in the meantime, US war planners are haunted by the profound and lasting damage caused by four pivotal events:
A. Taliban-al Qaeda fighting forces were never subdued; they lived to fight another day by following one of the Prophet Muhammad’s war maxims: never try and break through a solid wall, but retreat and wait until the cracks form – and then drive back as hard as you can.
B. The unfortunate ending for the United States of the only really large-scale engagement of the Afghanistan war, the Nov.-Dec. 2001 battle of Tora Bora. That the fiasco was due to the deployment of Afghan forces instead of American soldiers is immaterial.
C. The almost impossible vanishing act performed by Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar with their commands. In Muslim eyes, they were imparted with a certain mystique and glamour at the expense of their pursuers.
D. By turning a blind eye to the Saudi airlift which broke the US-led siege of Konduz in the early days of the war, the United States allowed most of the Saudi nationals fighting with al Qaeda and the Taliban to be whisked to safety. This mid-war rescue operation was orchestrated by Prince Turki bin Faisal, ambassador to the United States and then head of Saudi General Intelligence.
The wholesale escape of the three big shots of the Islamist terror movement and many of their combatants, snatching them out of the jaws of possible defeat and annihilation, has left its mark on al Qaeda’s strategy up until the present.
Bin Laden retains his full ability to direct major operations
Its operational planners go for America, its allies and the Muslim regimes deemed apostates wherever an opportunity, i.e. a crack in the wall, presents itself; Iraq is as good a “focal point” as any other for a direct al Qaeda challenge to the American army. Its leaders will always beat their fists on the cracks rather than bludgeoning a solid wall.
The Bush administration allowed the cracks to form in its fighting stance by:
1. Ignoring forewarnings that Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay had prepared a guerilla army to resist the US-British led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
2. By giving scant heed to the active presence of Abu Musab al Zarqawi in northern Iraq from 2000 and the ties he formed with Saddam’s ruling Baath party.
3. By letting Syria be used by the Iraqi Baath machine as a rear logistic and financial base for Iraqi resistance, a role which remains undisturbed up to the present day.
Al Qaeda held its hand for several months and only jumped into Iraq in the summer of 2003, when all three of those cracks converged and US and British forces had begun to come under dangerous pressure from the Baathist insurgent guerrillas.
Bin Laden’s decision to sanction his protege Zarqawi’s barbarous methods, in defiance of the weighty opposition in his movement’s top ranks, was arguably his most significant action after the one he made in 1993 to destroy New York’s Twin Towers.
In the first half of 2004, bin Laden decided to go all the way and place at Zarqawi’s disposal al Qaeda’s worldwide recruiting machine for raising young Muslim manpower to fight the Americans in Iraq. The campaign focused on students at the medressas.
Unlike the United States and its war allies, bin Laden threw all the resources at his command behind Zarqawi’s campaign in Iraq.
There were two results: Zarqawi was provided with fighting manpower in excess of his needs in Iraq; secondly, the new untrained an inexperienced intake relieved the seasoned Saudi and Yemeni fighters. Highly-trained in battle and terrorist tactics, they were free to return to their countries and fight their own regimes.
This maneuver refutes the premise appearing in the Washington Post on Sept. 24 that “bin Laden’s ability to direct major terrorist operations has been greatly diminished,” while his status as leader of a global movement that appeals to disaffected Muslims has “vastly increased.”
In fact, the two qualities are interdependent; the al Qaeda leader’s ability to direct major operations bears directly on – and nurtures – his leadership standing in the radical Muslim world.
Al Qaeda has lost interest in Iraq since Zarqawi’s death
The damage Zarqawi’s achievements wrought the United States and its allies in Iraq far exceeded even bin Laden’s expectations:
1. The guerilla insurgents proved an insurmountable challenge to the American and British armies.
2. Bush’s Western democratic ideals were strongly resisted in the Islamic Middle East.
3. The sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims erupted in Iraq with such force that its burning embers threaten to inflame other parts of the Muslim world.
4. Zarqawi scattered his terror cells far and wide across Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Egyptian and the Palestinian Authority.
But, for al Qaeda, it all changed on June 7, 2006, the day Zarqawi died at the hands of his American pursuers. Since then, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports al Qaeda has begun drawing a curtain down on its Iraq involvement and much of his Middle East works.
In the four months since they lost their strong, military leader, al Qaeda and its affiliates have been bedeviled by quarrels and are breaking up.
Without Zarqawi’s evil genius, the entire Middle East is changed.
Our counter-terror sources report too that although American forces are based in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Eritrea, Djibouti and Israel, none of these places has become a main al Qaeda center of operation. Iraq was a focal point of al Qaeda’s clash with America by dint of Zarqawi’s larger-than-life personality, bottomless savagery and military, tactical and political gifts.
For the time being, al Qaeda has lost interest in Iraq and is trying its luck in other troubled arenas. The jihadist movement is ready to step into any local flare-up offering a chance to hit the forces fighting terror. The rise of Hamas as head of Palestinian government gave al Qaeda a foothold in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and a chance to get involved in the dispute with Israel. Another came about in July, when Israel and Hizballah came to blows in Lebanon and Iran and Syria stoked the violence.
The first stage of the Lebanon conflict ended in July 14 with the ceasefire brokered by the UN Security Council and the deployment of European peacekeepers in southern Lebanon. Al Qaeda saw its chance to wake up the 15 or so semi-dormant it had strewn across Lebanon and build up a strong terrorist infrastructure for attacking troops which the jihadists brand as NATO units (as does Syrian president Bashar Asad) as well as Israeli targets.
By striking NATO troops in Lebanon, al Qaeda will render aid to its partner, the Taliban, which is fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden and his strategists will take their time to prepare a campaign against the European peacekeepers in Lebanon, but France and Germany in particular are getting ready. Their commanders are spending more time preparing defensive measures than on the mission assigned them to hold Hizballah in check.
In short, the world war on global terror is nowhere near resolution on any of its five fronts – Afghanistan, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian arena, Chechnya and the Israel-Hizballah showdown in Lebanon. To this day, anti-terror forces have never come away from a military confrontation with terrorists with a convincing victory. Most of those conflicts are dragging on unresolved.