Al Qaida's most spectacular attack came on 9/11. But its most successful attack took place two days before, when two al Qaida operatives posing as photo journalists assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud.
History is biography, Ralph Waldo Emerson said. The history of Afghanistan, and of the war on terror, likely would have been much different if the Lion of the Panjshir had not been killed that dreadful day.
Ahmad Shah Massoud was a brilliant and inspirational military leader his forces inflicted about 60 percent of all the casualties suffered by the Russians during their occupation of Afghanistan and he was also the closest thing to a democrat Afghanistan had yet produced. My friends Jack Wheeler and Dana Rohrabacher, who knew him, said Gen. Massoud was potentially the George Washington of his country.
Ahmad Shah Massoud was all that stood between the Taliban and the total conquest of Afghanistan, which is why al Qaida marked him for death. Osama bin Laden knew that if he did this "favor" for Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader would resist the calls for extradition that inevitably would follow the attacks al Qaida was planning on New York and Washington.
Hamid Karzai has his virtues. But he's no Ahmad Shah Massoud. Afghanistan almost certainly would be better governed and more effective in fighting the Taliban if the Lion of the Panjshir were its prime minister.
Last Thursday al Qaida killed with a roadside bomb Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who was becoming to Iraq what Ahmad Shah Massoud was to Afghanistan. Sheikh Abu Risha was the founder and leader of the Anbar Salvation Council, the coalition of Sunni tribes that banded together to fight al Qaida. He, more than any person save Gen. David Petraeus, is responsible for the dramatic turnaround in Iraq.
The political "leadership" in Iraq has ranged from poor to frightful, in large part because Saddam Hussein ruthlessly murdered anyone who might one day oppose him. But Sheikh Abu Risha rose far above mediocrity.
"It is an Iraqi national disaster," Iraq's national security adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, said at Sheikh Abu Risha's funeral Friday. "What Abu Risha did for Iraq, no single man has done in the country's history."
"Sattar was seen as a legitimate, pro-American alternative to the current crop of Sunni leaders in the Iraqi government," wrote independent journalist Bill Roggio.
By murdering the Lion of Anbar, al Qaida hopes to fragment the Anbar Salvation Council, weaken Sunni efforts to fight the terror group, and to foment strife between Sunni and Shia.
It could work out that way. But the murder of Sheikh Abu Risha also may backfire. More than 1,500 mourners attended his funeral. Mourners chanted "We will take our revenge," and "There is no God but Allah and al Qaida is the enemy of Allah," the BBC reported.
It cannot warm Osama bin Laden's heart (assuming it's still beating) to have so many Sunni Muslims in what just a year ago was al Qaida's stronghold in Iraq declaring that al Qaida is the enemy of Allah. Support for al Qaida has plummeted in seven of the eight Muslim countries polled by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The assassination of Sheikh Abu Risha will not enhance the terror group's diminishing popularity.
The Anbar Salvation Council has chosen Sheikh Abu Risha's brother, Ahmed, as its new leader. "All the tribes agreed to fight al Qaida until the last child in Anbar," Ahmed Abu Risha said.
"The killing will give us more energy...to continue confronting al Qaida members and to dispose of them," said another member of the council, Sheikh Rashid Majid.
The assassination of Sheikh Abu Risha provides an opportunity for reconciliation between Anbar's Sunnis and the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who in the past has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The presence of Mr. al-Rubaie, a Shia, at Sheikh Abu Risha's funeral is an indication Mr. Maliki may not miss this opportunity. His decision to erect a statue of Abu Risha in Ramadi was well received.
I said at the outset of this column that al Qaida's most successful operation was the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud. But it wasn't, in the end, all that successful.
It certainly wasn't for the Taliban, which once controlled three quarters of Afghanistan, and now controls a couple of caves. And though Osama bin Laden did escape extradition to the U.S., al Qaida lost its safe haven in Afghanistan. Thanks to Iran and the Shia militias it supports, we have not won in Iraq. But al Qaida has lost.