Is Osama winning?

Playing into al-Qaida's hands: Will invading Iraq inflame the Arab and Muslim world and "open the gates of hell"?

By Edward W. Lempinen

Published September 6, 2002 10:39PM (EDT)

In the first month after terrorists slammed fuel-laden passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush won high marks at home and abroad for the restraint he displayed in preparing his response. The U.S. and its allies didn't invade Afghanistan until Oct. 7, and when Hamid Karzai was sworn in as head of an interim government a little more than 10 weeks later, it seemed that a well-planned war was nearly won.

But the deadly explosion of two bombs Thursday in Kabul, followed two hours later by a failed attempt to assassinate Karzai in Kandahar, served as blunt reminders that peace is not at hand. Far from it: Dutch investigators last month broke up an alleged al-Qaida cell plotting new attacks against U.S. targets in Europe. A draft United Nations report disclosed that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida forces have deftly managed to protect their funds from an international freeze. The organization, investigators found, "is poised to strike again at its leisure." And analysts on the left and the right are warning that an invasion of Iraq could push the war on terrorism into a perilous new phase.

Confronted by an unprecedented and deadly attack on U.S. soil, it is no surprise that our response in aftermath was so emotional. But a year into the first war of the 21st century, 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?

Fragments of an answer are found every day in the news. But from the relative obscurity of scholarly journals, seminars, congressional testimony and a handful of books, a disconcerting picture is emerging. Bin Laden and his strategists appear to have a complex strategy to foment jihad, a modern-day domino theory for the unstable countries of the Muslim world, toppling pro-U.S. governments and uniting the Islamic world against the West. Al-Qaida's goal is "to advance the vision of a radical pan-Islamic region from Central Asia to the [Persian] Gulf and beyond," Samuel Berger, the former national security advisor to President Bill Clinton, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In an essay written with coauthor Mona Sutphen last year, Berger put it more succinctly: "Bin Laden's ultimate Twin Towers are Pakistan and Saudi Arabia."

In striking as they did on Sept. 11, experts suggest, al-Qaida scored a significant victory. And while they paid heavily in the counterattack, the tide may be running against the U.S. and its allies. The repercussions of Sept. 11 have destabilized the entire region, and foreign policy experts say that plays to al-Qaida's advantage.

A quick review of a map of the region shows the danger. Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have risen dramatically. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has used the war on terror to justify a fierce crackdown, inflaming anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world. 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 months of turbulence ahead. Pakistan and India, both nuclear powers, have nearly been to war over Kashmir; al-Qaida is reportedly working from Pakistan to aid some Kashmiri separatists. Violence this spring between Muslims and Hindus in the Indian state of Gujarat left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless.

Meanwhile, Russia's long war against a largely Muslim force of al-Qaida-linked separatists in Chechnya continues, spilling over into a conflict between Russia and the neighboring republic of Georgia, where a suspected al-Qaida operative was arrested last week. Tensions are flaring between Albania, which is largely Muslim, and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which is largely Christian. As far away as the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf rebels linked with al-Qaida have continued to kidnap and execute foreigners.

No wonder, then, that retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor to Republican President Gerald Ford, as well as 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] which to every Muslim is a real problem, could turn the whole region into a cauldron," he said on "Face the Nation."

But some Iraq hawks 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 advisor under President Ronald Reagan. Sneering at Scowcroft's hand-wringing in the National Review Online, Ledeen declared: "If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today. 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. and allied troops. While many would deplore Ledeen's reasoning as inhumane, it may also be strategically obsolete. Even among mainstream scholars and statesmen, there is an emerging belief that 9/11 was the herald of a new era, with a new sort of war. The days of state fighting state over borders and territory may be fading; in the new era, we will be called to battle against near-invisible enemies like al-Qaida, small and highly motivated units that have no state and no single base, which can emerge from the vapor to strike and then, just as suddenly, fade away again. Such groups can turn the whole globe into a Vietnamese jungle, if we let them.

In the year since Sept. 11, the attention of the U.S. public has understandably been focused on ground zero in New York, on the Pentagon, on a field in rural Pennsylvania. But this is not Osama bin Laden's battlefield. Some experts have argued that the attack was instead "propaganda of the deed," a fiery political commercial that would help project al-Qaida's message and its strength, demoralizing his enemy and helping to recruit new adherents. In fact, though, his battleground is the Middle East and the farther reaches of the Muslim world -- from the former republics of Yugoslavia to Sudan, from China's remote Xinjiang province to Indonesia.

In effect, the U.S. is in a battle for the hearts and minds of people in this region, a realm where bin Laden has many advantages -- but not all of them.

In a new poll of public opinion in eight Arab and Muslim nations, New York-based Zogby International found striking results: In each of the countries, the public has a favorable view of U.S. technology and scientific accomplishments and its products -- even its television shows and movies. Except in Iran, the U.S. education system gets strong marks from those polled. But when asked for their opinion about U.S. policy toward the Middle East and the Palestinians, the numbers "fell off a cliff," says pollster John Zogby.

In Iran, only 1 percent had a favorable view of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. The number was 4 percent in Egypt, 5 percent in Kuwait and 8 percent in Saudi Arabia. When asked about U.S. policy toward the Palestinians, the numbers were even more negative: About a third of those polled regard bin Laden as a hero, Zogby said. A similar number consider America a terrorist nation. And yet, only 8 to 12 percent in any country said they would like to live under a fundamentalist regime such as the Taliban.

Zogby has shared the poll with top officials at the U.S. State Department, with the Central Intelligence Agency and with members of Congress. And he has stressed the split between admiration for U.S. culture and hostility toward U.S. policy in the region. "There is not a core anti-American sentiment," he insists. "There is anti-American-policy sentiment, but they don't hate us and they don't hate our values. My fear, though, is that they could."

Experts disagree about the details of bin Laden's motivation and the sophistication of his strategic planning, but virtually every analysis assumes that he was trying to leverage that anti-American sentiment and use it to achieve his aims. In 1998, bin Laden announced his World Islamic Front for Jihad aimed at Israel and the West. In the text of the announcement, he slammed the U.S. for "occupying" Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War against Iraq, for enforcing the sanctions against Iraq and for supporting Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. Ayman al-Zawahiri, founder of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and now a top al-Qaida strategist, signed on, as did leaders in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the same year, al-Qaida hit the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. On Oct. 12, 2000, his agents would bomb the USS Cole in a Yemeni port. Less than a year later, they would attack the U.S. on its own soil.

Peter Bergen, a CNN Middle East expert and author of "Holy War, Inc.," said in a recent interview that bin Laden may have been exercising a primitive desire for revenge. "[He] wanted the West to taste the kind of bitter fruit that Muslims have tasted for 80 years of humiliation," Bergen said. And in his book, he cites bin Laden's own expressed interest in starting a clash of civilizations.

Bergen and others have suggested that bin Laden perceived the U.S. as weak and quick to capitulate. In October 1983, for example, a suicide bomber killed 241 Marines at their barracks in Lebanon; in February 1984, the U.S. pulled its troops out of Lebanon. In Somalia, too, a small but bloody defeat dispirited the U.S. and led to a withdrawal. Perhaps, those analysts say, bin Laden believed that the Sept. 11 attack would compel the U.S. to leave Saudi Arabia.

But in influential essays published this year in Foreign Affairs magazine and Political Science Quarterly, Michael Doran, an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, wrote that bin Laden intentionally sought a conflict with the U.S. in Afghanistan. According to Doran, bin Laden believed that in news accounts of the war, the Muslim world "would find it shocking how Americans nonchalantly caused Muslims to suffer and die." The images of death and violence broadcast by CNN and al Jazeera would cause a "legitimacy crisis" for Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and other governments allied with the West, he wrote. And that "would help to advance the cause of the Islamic revolution, either by actually shaking the regimes to the core or simply weakening them."

If bin Laden and his lieutenants expected a quick capitulation from the U.S. after Sept. 11, they got just the opposite. In the ensuing military and law enforcement campaign, al-Qaida and the Taliban lost Afghanistan and the terrorist training bases there. They have suffered a huge loss of troops and, it seems likely, dramatic disruptions of leadership and communication as special forces units hunt for them and intelligence agencies seek to capture their communication. Allies worldwide have cracked down on the finances of terror groups. In just the past few weeks, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have uncovered suspected terrorist plots and cells ranging from Oregon to the Netherlands and Sweden.

But if the U.S. expected to quickly gain the upper hand against the relatively small and ill-equipped al-Qaida jihadis, then they clearly have failed. In fact, especially given the huge advantage in resources and technology enjoyed by the U.S. and its allies, al-Qaida has scored significant victories. Most obvious, its attack on the World Trade Center was far more destructive and deadly than bin Laden expected. It showed that the U.S. was vulnerable on its own soil -- a stunning propaganda victory that enhanced bin Laden's reputation as a leader and could serve as encouragement to other terrorists. He has injected a daily, palpable fear into the lives of Americans. He has cost the economy billions, and billions more must now be spent in the war on terror. He has compelled the U.S. government to compromise civil liberties to improve security, a policy that has divided the nation.

In Afghanistan, the effects of the U.S. invasion have hardly been decisive. Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaida leaders have eluded capture, and are presumed alive. The U.S.-backed government has only nominal control in many areas outside of Kabul. Perhaps those are pyrrhic victories if you've lost the country and your leaders haven't been heard from publicly in months. But other al-Qaida accomplishments are more substantive, and more worrisome for the West.

Since the murder of Wall Street Journal report Daniel Pearl in January, al-Qaida has been linked to at least a half-dozen attacks worldwide. In Afghanistan itself, daily life has improved but remains far from safe and secure. Late last month, unidentified attackers fired three rockets at an observation post outside a U.S. special operations base in remote Konar province. Kabul itself has been hit by a series of deadly explosions. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the Central Command chief responsible for military operations in Afghanistan, recently predicted that the U.S. would be in the country for "a long, long time." That could be five years, by some estimates, perhaps 10. Meanwhile, up to 20,000 al-Qaida 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 the draft report by U.N. investigators, detailed last week in the Washington Post, concluded that the world campaign to freeze al-Qaida's funds has all but stalled. Where $112 million was frozen in the month after Sept. 11, only $10 million has been tied up since, the report says. New reports, citing European, Pakistani and U.S. investigators, say al-Qaida 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-Qaida also has 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 the country, and that the U.S. was moving to comply. Fearing upheaval at home, the Saudis have ruled that the U.S. cannot use its airbases there for an attack on Iraq. Meanwhile, conservatives usually allied with Bush have begun openly discussing the Saudis as an enemy state. Despite recent efforts by Saudi leaders and the Bush administration to portray a strong, continuing alliance, relations between the two countries are deeply strained.

In Pakistan, the Taliban had strong influence in military and intelligence circles and many grass-roots allies. But the terrorist attacks forced Gen. Pervez Musharraf to make a critical choice between the U.S. and his alliance with the Taliban -- and he chose the U.S. He has sought to purge pro-Taliban elements from the government, and has jailed hundreds of people with suspected terrorist ties. And last month he moved to co-opt his own power in the government in advance of national elections, a move that enraged both the country's pro-democracy forces and its Islamic fundamentalists.

Though the U.S. protested Musharraf's constitutional rewrite, many analysts there believe the Bush administration accepts his move as necessary to preserve Pakistan as a stable ally in the war on terrorism. But historically, backing anti-democratic Middle Eastern regimes has had disastrous consequences for the U.S., says Samer Shehata, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. In 1953, the U.S. helped engineer the overthrow of a popular government and installed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and supported him for years. "We funded the military, trained the secret police, and it blew up in our face," says Shehata, referring to the Islamic revolution 1979. "It lead to the hostage crisis and to a regime that is dead-set against the United States."

It is unlikely that bin Laden or al-Zawahiri expected the momentum from a U.S. war on terrorism could propel it into a war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. A superficial analysis suggests al-Qaida would have no direct interest in that conflict. There is little persuasive evidence to suggest that Hussein aided the terrorists, and much evidence to suggest that they have competing ambitions. But a year after Sept. 11, many analysts say that a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq could deliver a victory to al-Qaida -- a victory that could be more significant than its attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon. Such an attack, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Thursday in Cairo, would "open the gates of hell."

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 poor and poorly educated 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, causing widespread destruction. Leaders there who have been allied with the U.S. would be forced to choose between their people and the alliance; even if they choose to side with their people, it may be too late to save their own offices, their own power.

Uprisings might come anywhere in the Muslim world. Kashmir could become a flash point 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 of the governments could ride out the storm, the uprising would leave the countries profoundly destabilized. The public's resentments would have to be addressed, or they would fester. "It would basically just be chaos," MacKey says.

In chaos, there is opportunity -- and many analysts believe that al-Qaida and its allies know that. When order breaks down, the unpredictable happens. Perhaps nuclear weapons would find their way out of Pakistan into al-Qaida's hands, some say. 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-American and anti- Western reaction in the Arab world ... And it will create young men who will be enraged and who will be ready to become fighters in the terror war."

Meanwhile, some say, al-Qaida 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-Qaida 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 the Pentagon attacks?' Then public support is going to evaporate and you're going to have a divided country fighting a war, which is the military's worst-case scenario, because they see echoes of Vietnam."

Others, like Shehata, suggest that even if no governments fall and no new troops enlist with al-Qaida, anti-U.S. sentiment alone will have a corrosive effect. "I would say that 95 percent of the people in the Arab world are just outraged at the idea of an attack against Iraq, be they secularists, ex-communists or 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-Qaida."

Humans, seemingly by nature, are attracted to worst-case scenarios. That's true for diplomats and journalists no less than for people who gather at the site of a nasty car wreck. That's a frustration for those in and near the Bush administration who favor an invasion; overheated worst-case scenarios, they say, are blocking the liberation of Iraq, the destruction of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and enhanced regional stability.

"The message is very clear," Richard Perle, the influential chairman of the advisory Defense Policy Board, told a PBS interviewer in July. "We have no time to lose. Saddam Hussein must be removed from office. And it will be quicker and easier than many people think. He is far weaker than many people realize."

But al-Qaida may be stronger than many people realize, and attacking Saddam Hussein could feed that strength. It is a paradox of the current war, says Doran: Especially in the polarized political climate of the Middle East, where the U.S. is widely seen as the enemy, al-Qaida can fashion victory even out of defeat.

"If al-Qaida simply lives to regroup and to fight in the next stage of this ongoing process, it has scored a significant victory," he writes. "On the basis of its worldview, even total destruction of the organization does not necessarily constitute failure. If, for instance, al-Qaida's destruction were to result in the weakening of apostate regimes [like Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Pakistan], and at the same time its martyrdom were to inspire a like-minded group to emerge from the enclave of true believers, then the very destruction of al-Qaida would constitute a political success."

In planning to invade Iraq, Bush and his advisors have reverted to the impulse of an earlier time -- the impulse to find a conventional enemy and attack it with conventional means. But in the Middle East, where the U.S. has cultivated mistrust for a half-century, caution and patience seem essential to the battle plan. And not merely patience, but a commitment to the building of democratic nations that will begin to reverse the U.S. reputation for boasting of its freedom while supporting dictators abroad. Failing that, history may find we were our own worst enemy, and al-Qaida may win the war.

Edward W. Lempinen

Edward W. Lempinen is a senior news editor at Salon.

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Afghanistan Iraq Middle East Osama Bin Laden