The Magazine

The Long, Hard Slog

From the November 10, 2003 issue: We've made military strides against al Qaeda. Next step: Iraqi democracy.

Nov 10, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 09 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE Donald Rumsfeld's memo on the "Global War on Terrorism" has elicited derision and glee from many in the press and the Democratic party. The publicly upbeat, brusque secretary appears in the in-house memorandum far more pensive and tentative in his judgments about America's--specifically the Pentagon's--success in its battle against Islamic holy-warriorism.

"We are having mixed results with [Osama bin Laden's] al Qaeda," Rumsfeld confesses. "Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. . . . Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us? . . . Does DoD need to think through new ways to organize, train, equip, and focus to deal with the global war on terror?"

Though it is always difficult to tell whether the "private" queries of a senior official are intended to reveal serious intellectual agitation and curiosity, or rhetorical self-aggrandizement, or both, it isn't that difficult to answer Rumsfeld's principal questions about al Qaeda and its jihad against America. The Bush administration--specifically the Pentagon--has been enormously successful in its efforts to gut Osama bin Laden's organization. It is, of course, possible that al Qaeda, a transnational union of suicidal believers, will be able to regroup with time and again strike the United States with the same lethality as it did on 9/11. The dream of al Qaeda--the conviction that Muslims armed with a violent faith can restore the glory, pride, and power of Islam--obviously remains a potent elixir for many young men who live on a diet of Saudi-financed Wahhabism.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration has shattered al Qaeda's structure and, possibly, its triumphalist ideology built on bombing successes through the Clinton years. Al Qaeda was founded on the premise that a worldwide cadre of Muslim holy warriors could be recruited, indoctrinated, and militarily trained.

Look at its early operational bible, "The Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad," which was a multi-volume guide to paramilitary and terrorist activity compiled by the Maktab al-Khadamat, the Pakistan-based jihadist organization from which al Qaeda evolved. The "Encyclopedia" and its many derivatives clearly aim to democratize terrorism, to make it possible for small holy-warrior cells to sustain themselves in the West far from a Middle Eastern home-base. In other words, to create a viable equivalent of the Communist International without having Moscow at its center to provide aid, encouragement, and training in the black arts.

It was never clear that al Qaeda's geographical aspirations could be realized. The group could not have been born without state sponsorship--first in Pakistan, during the Soviet-Afghan war, and then later in fundamentalist Sudan and Afghanistan. Virtually all of al Qaeda's frontline holy warriors, particularly its lieutenants, required training time in Afghanistan. Young militant Muslim men may be found the world over. But the fine-tuning required to turn these men into effective death-wish believers demanded a pipeline back to Afghanistan, a secure domain where bin Laden and company could intellectually and operationally work through their ever-evolving, ever-more complex terrorist conspiracy.

The destruction of the Taliban state in Afghanistan has put to the test the foundation myth of al Qaeda, that a transnational body of Muslim militants can effectively wage holy war against the United States without having a Muslim state grant it safe harbor. It is certainly possible that al Qaeda will be able to think its way through its current stateless conundrum. It may be able to marry with other Muslim militant/terrorist organizations that can protect it, giving it a home where it can have sufficient leisure to plot, plan, and train. Kashmir, the Gaza Strip, the islands of Indonesia, the feudal lands of Yemen are all possibilities. But they are far from ideal. Secretary Rumsfeld's Pentagon can strike ruthlessly anywhere. Assuming the Bush administration retains the will to let loose hell against any land or group that gives comfort to al Qaeda, the odds of its being able to congeal as effectively as it once did are poor.