Friday, July 29, 2005

The Stalled Struggle Against Al Qaeda

The shock and tragedy of the London bombings naturally inspires reflection on the progress of the struggle against Al Qaeda. Sadly, four years later, the state of that conflict remains much the same as it was prior to 9/11. Al Qaeda has lost its base area in Afghanistan, but its leadership remains at large along the Afghan/Pakistani frontier. Whatever strategic assets it lost in Afghanistan it has more than made up in Iraq, where the US led invasion has afforded Al Qaeda and its confederates a foothold in the Arab world more profound and strategically advantageous than it has ever enjoyed in the Arab world previously. London's tragedy demonstrates that four lost years is more than the US and its allies can afford. The longer Al Qaeda is given to martial its resources and develop its plans, the more audacious and destructive its attacks will become. This, in turn, will produce a snowball effect, as Al Qaeda's political capital rises among disaffected elements throughout the Islamic world and its power to intimidate fence-sitters grows.

What, then, is the way forward? Unfortunately, the chaos in Iraq has moved one front of the struggle against Al Qaeda into an arena in which the US and its allies has no control over outcomes. The Coalition can only stand by and safeguard the political rebuilding process in Iraq and hope that, over years, it will choke off Al Qaeda's strategic resources in that country. If and when this happens, if all else remains equal, the situation would return to the status quo just after 9/11.

This is obviously unsatistfactory, however. Fighting back to square one over the next few years would be tantamount to defeat, especially as Al Qaeda can be counted on to present a "moving target" during that time and be working on building its political and material assets outside of Iraq. Genuine, proactive progress can not be made against Al Qaeda in Iraq, but it can be made in South, Central, and Southeast Asia where Al Qaeda's political appeal remains broadest. More military and economic assets must be devoted to the struggle against Al Qaeda's allies, the Taliban, in Afghanistan. The "soft support" of the Pakistani political and military establishment for Al Qaeda must be openly confronted. The Pakistani government obviously lacks the political cohesion and will to root out the Al Qaeda forces that refuge along the Afghan/Pakistani frontier.

The US must exert all of its political, diplomatic, economic, and military influence to gain direct access to Pakistani frontier territory for the US military. This can almost certainly not be done without setting off a radically disruptive international confrontation, but this is a hard medicine that will have to be taken eventually. The Bush administation's decision to focus on Iraq rather than force a confrontation in Pakistan has already had disastrous consequences. The longer US leadership remains blinkered toward the situation in South and Central Asia, the more dangerous Al Qaeda will become, and the more insuperable the task of defeating them.

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