Jewish World Review August 16, 2004 / 29 Menachem-Av, 5764
Stratfor Intelligence Brief by
Why we are winning against al-Qaida
There is a general perception that the U.S. war on al-Qaida is going badly. The war in Iraq certainly is troubled, and many mistakes have been made - as in every war. But in the broadest strategic sense, the war is going remarkably well.
It is important to remember al-Qaida's strategic goal: It wants to recreate the caliphate that once governed the Islamic world. In order to achieve that, al-Qaida must trigger a rising in the Islamic world. At the very least, one Muslim government must be overthrown and replaced with a government favorable to al-Qaida's point of view - a government more significant than Afghanistan's once was.
Here is the critical point that everyone forgets: Not a single Muslim government has thus far been overthrown by radical Islamists. The feared rising of the Arab street that was forecast as a result of the Iraq war, for example, simply never happened. Nor has a single Islamic government shifted to a strategic alignment with al-Qaida. On the contrary, virtually every Islamic country - including Saudi Arabia - has moved toward greater cooperation with U.S. intelligence against al-Qaida. The instability in countries like Saudi Arabia, where al-Qaida is striking back at the government, speaks to this shift.
Certainly, anti-Americanism in the region is intense, but it has been intense for years. What is important is not that many in the region hate us, but that they have not translated that hatred into effective political action - at least not thus far. The inability of al-Qaida to expand its operational structure, as opposed to its base of sympathizers, points to a core weakness in al-Qaida's structure. If it expands, the CIA can slip in agents. If it stays small, it is more difficult to penetrate - but then it's small.
This week, the action has focused on a key play: Iran. The United States was in an effective alliance with Iran until April, when the United States reversed course and rejected Shiite demands to dominate the interim Iraq government. This split the Shiite movement in Iraq and triggered a massive crisis with Iran. Iran had as its main strategic goal the creation of a Shiite - and pro-Iranian - Iraq. This was intended to protect Iran against another war with Iraq such as the one in the 1980s that left hundreds of thousands dead. With the U.S. reversal, this Iranian strategy collapsed.
The Iraqi Shiite community split. The spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, after hesitating, moved toward accommodation with the United States. Muqtada al-Sadr, with increasing Iranian support, moved into confrontation with the United States. The United States avoided bringing the battle to a conclusion - until last weekend.
Sistani discovered that he had a heart condition that was not life-threatening but that could only be treated in London. While he was flying to London, and to safety from potential assassins or his own change of mind, Iraq forces, backed by U.S. Marines, began a systematic assault on Sadr's forces, Iran's main and possibly last card in Iraq. Hundreds were killed, but no one flocked to support Sadr. The United States doesn't want Sadr dead. It wants him isolated from his forces. With Sistani's backers staying out of the fight, Sadr doesn't have a chance, and Iran is running out of options in Iraq.
When we look at events such as these, two things strike us. First, the Bush administration is far more skilled than its critics claim - but as inarticulate as its leader. For an administration that is supposed to be politically slick and strategically shallow, it now appears to be politically obtuse but strategically deep. It has managed effective and subtle moves while appearing to be bumbling and incompetent.
When we stand back from the sound and fury, and look at the strategic picture, the situation is far better than anyone could have imagined on Sept. 12, 2001. Not only hasn't the Islamic world been swept by revolutions, not only are Islamic and other states collaborating more - and more intensely - with the United States, but al-Qaida has not yet chosen or managed to carry out another strike in the United States.
This is not to say that the administration hasn't committed massive errors, told egregious lies or even been the architect of this difficult situation. It may be argued that events in the Middle East have taken a better turn in spite of the administration. But the fact of the matter is that the situation is improving, and whatever perceptions may be, it is remarkably better than any of us would have guessed a few years ago.
You can still want Bush out of office - this analysis doesn't address that question. But it is tough to make the case that the Middle East situation is out of control.
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George Friedman is president of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., one of the world's leading global intelligence firms, providing clients with geopolitical analysis and industry and country forecasts to mitigate risk and identify opportunities. Stratfor's clients include Fortune 500 companies and major government. Comment by clicking here.
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