A year into the first war of the 21st century -- the war on terror -- and it seems a remarkable oversight that so little attention has been focused on the questions that are central to any war: What is the enemy's objective? Is the enemy achieving that objective? Who is winning the war? A quick review of a map of Central Asia and the Middle East shows the danger. The deadly explosion of two bombs last week in Kabul, and, two hours later, a failed attempt to assassinate the head of government, Hamid Karzai, served as blunt reminders that peace is not at hand. Conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has escalated. Relations between the U.S. and the Saudis are deeply strained.
In Pakistan, a country crucial to the anti-terror campaign, General Pervez Musharraf last month unilaterally amended the constitution to solidify his control of the country, and analysts are predicting turbulence. Pakistan and India, both nuclear powers, have nearly been to war over Kashmir; al Qaeda is reportedly working from Pakistan to aid Kashmiri separatists.
Meanwhile, Russia's long war against a largely Muslim force of al Qaeda-linked separatists in Chechnya continues, spilling over into a conflict between Russia and the neighbouring republic of Georgia, where a suspected al Qaeda operative was arrested last week. In the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf rebels linked with al Qaeda continue to kidnap and execute foreigners.
No wonder, then, that retired general Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush during the Gulf War, warned last month against an invasion of Iraq. "To attack Iraq while the Middle East is in the terror that it is right now, and America appears not to be dealing with something (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) that to every Muslim is a real problem, could turn the whole region into a cauldron," he said.
But some hawks on Iraq say, "Bring it on."
"One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please," wrote Michael Ledeen, who served as national security adviser under former president Ronald Reagan. "If we wage the war effectively, we will bring down the terrorist regimes in Iraq, Iran and Syria, and either bring down the Saudi monarchy or force it to abandon its global assembly line to indoctrinate young terrorists."
Ledeen doesn't mention that such a course could leave tens of thousands dead and injured, including civilians in those countries as well as U.S.
If the U.S. expected to quickly gain the upper hand against the relatively small and ill-equipped al Qaeda jihadis, then they clearly have failed. In Afghanistan the effects of the U.S. invasion have hardly been decisive. Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders have eluded capture and are presumed alive. The U.S.-backed government has only nominal control in many areas outside of Kabul.
Since the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in January, al Qaeda has been linked to at least a half-dozen attacks worldwide. And up to 20,000 al Qaeda troops and affiliates remain on the loose in Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the globe.
Some scholars say that controlling the terrorists' finances may be more crucial to victory than picking off their leaders. But a draft report by UN investigators, detailed last week in the Washington Post, concluded that the world campaign to freeze al Qaeda's funds has all but stalled. While $112 million was frozen in the month after September 11, only $10 million has been tied up since, the report says. New reports citing European, Pakistani and U.S. investigators say al Qaeda and the Taliban have shipped a large cache of gold from Pakistan to Sudan in recent weeks.
Even as it has managed to preserve much of its strength, al Qaeda has also succeeded in destabilizing the Middle East and increasing the pressure on its enemies. As early as January, top Bush administration officials acknowledged that Saudi Arabia had asked the U.S. to withdraw its force of nearly 5,000 troops from that country, and that the U.S. was moving to comply.
Journalist Sandra MacKey, a veteran Middle East expert and author of Before Baghdad Burns, articulates a grim vision of what might come after the U.S. delivers its first strike against Saddam. He would likely counterattack, MacKey predicts, perhaps by hitting Israel with chemical or biological weapons. Israel would strike back, possibly with a nuclear device. Even short of nuclear war, rage would explode among the Arab masses who already detest Israel and the United States. With passions inflamed, they would take to the streets, attacking U.S. embassies and corporate offices.
Uprisings might occur anywhere in the Muslim world. Kashmir could become a flashpoint for nuclear war. Pakistan could fall. Egypt could fall. Saudi Arabia could fall, though in MacKey's view that might be less likely. But even if all those governments could ride out the storm, uprisings would leave the countries profoundly destabilized.
In chaos there is opportunity -- and many analysts believe that al Qaeda and its allies know that. When order breaks down, the unpredictable happens. Perhaps nuclear weapons would find their way out of Pakistan into al Qaeda's hands. Other scenarios are less dire but nevertheless troubling.
"There is definitely an argument to be made that a unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq could advance bin Laden's interests and could be exploited by him," says Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "If it doesn't happen very fast, with a very positive outcome, where there's not a lot of death and destruction, there will be a tremendous anti-Western reaction in the Arab world."
Meanwhile, some say, al Qaeda may lie in wait to strike at a time when U.S. forces are stretched thin. "My great concern is that, in the middle of a war against Iraq, al Qaeda is going to strike us," Peter Singer, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said in an interview. "Suddenly, people are going to say, "Hold it, you mean we're slogging it out in the middle of Baghdad, American troops are fighting and dying, and this isn't going to prevent a repeat of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks?''
Others, like Georgetown University professor of Arab politics Samer Shehata, suggest that even if no governments fall and no new troops enlist with al Qaeda, anti-U.S. sentiment alone will have a corrosive effect. "I would say that 95 per cent of the people in the Arab world are just outraged at the idea of an attack against Iraq, be they secularists, ex-Communists, Islamists or people who have no politics whatsoever," he says. "And such a reservoir of ill-feeling is not what you want if you want to gather intelligence on a group like al Qaeda."
Humans, seemingly by nature, are attracted to worst-case scenarios. That's no less true for diplomats and journalists than for people who gather at the site of a nasty car wreck. But al Qaeda may be stronger than many realize, and attacking Saddam Hussein could feed that strength. The U.S. needs patience and a commitment to the building of democratic nations that will begin to reverse it's reputation for boasting of its freedom while supporting dictators abroad. Failing that, history may find we were our own worst enemy, and al Qaeda may win the war. From Salon