Commentary Magazine


Al-Qaeda and The Turning Tide

CIA Director Michael Hayden gave a noteworthy interview to the Washington Post this week. According to the Post:

Less than a year after his agency warned of new threats from a resurgent al-Qaeda, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden now portrays the terrorist movement as essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the rest of the world, including in its presumed haven along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In a strikingly upbeat assessment, the CIA chief cited major gains against al-Qaeda’s allies in the Middle East and an increasingly successful campaign to destabilize the group’s core leadership. While cautioning that al-Qaeda remains a serious threat, Hayden said Osama bin Laden is losing the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world and has largely forfeited his ability to exploit the Iraq war to recruit adherents. Two years ago, a CIA study concluded that the U.S.-led war had become a propaganda and marketing bonanza for al-Qaeda, generating cash donations and legions of volunteers. All that has changed, Hayden said in an interview with the Washington Post this week that coincided with the start of his third year at the helm of the CIA. “On balance, we are doing pretty well,” he said, ticking down a list of accomplishments: “Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally — and here I’m going to use the word ‘ideologically’ — as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam,” he said.

The sense of shifting tides in the terrorism fight is shared by a number of terrorism experts, though some caution that it is too early to tell whether the gains are permanent. Some credit Hayden and other U.S. intelligence leaders for going on the offensive against al-Qaeda in the area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where the tempo of Predator strikes has dramatically increased from previous years. But analysts say the United States has caught some breaks in the past year, benefiting from improved conditions in Iraq, as well as strategic blunders by al-Qaeda that have cut into its support base.[…]

On Iraq, he said he is encouraged not only by U.S. success against al-Qaeda’s affiliates there, but also by what he described as the steadily rising competence of the Iraqi military and a growing popular antipathy toward jihadism. “Despite this ’cause célebrè’ phenomenon, fundamentally no one really liked al-Qaeda’s vision of the future,” Hayden said. As a result, the insurgency is viewed locally as “more and more a war of al-Qaeda against Iraqis,” he said. Hayden specifically cited the recent writings of prominent Sunni clerics — including some who used to support al-Qaeda — criticizing the group for its indiscriminant killing of Muslim civilians. While al-Qaeda misplayed its hand with gruesome attacks on Iraqi civilians, Hayden said, U.S. military commanders and intelligence officials deserve some of the credit for the shift, because they “created the circumstances” for it by building strategic alliances with Sunni and Shiite factions, he said.

Hayden’s assessment comes on the heels of important essays by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker and Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank in The New Republic arguing that the tide within the Islamic world is turning strongly against al Qaeda and jihadism. The causes for this shift include an organic uprising within the Arab and Islamic world against the barbaric tactics of al Qaeda, as well as the success of the Petraeus-led strategy in Iraq, which has been indispensable in aiding the “Anbar Awakening” and which has also dealt devastating military blows to al Qaeda.

We need to be very cautious. Progress, like setbacks, can be reversed. Georgetown University terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman is surely right when he says “Al-Qaeda’s obituary has been written far too often in the past few years for anyone to declare victory. I agree that there has been progress. But we’re indisputably up against a very resilient and implacable enemy.” And Hayden’s right to warn us that progress in Iraq is being undermined by increasing interference by Iran, which he accused of supplying weapons, training, and financial assistance to anti-U.S. insurgents. According to the Post:

While declining to endorse any particular strategy for dealing with Iran, he described the threat in stark terms. “It is the policy of the Iranian government, approved at the highest levels of that government, to facilitate the killing of American and other coalition forces in Iraq. Period,” he said.

It’s worth recalling how widely the pendulum has swung in just the last two years. In 2005 and 2006, Iraq, it was said in many quarters, was lost; we either had to beat a hasty retreat or, as Joe Biden and Les Gelb counseled, we needed to separate Iraq into three largely autonomous regions (Shia, Sunni, and Kurd). For a time the Biden-Gelb plan was the “hot” one among commentators — the “third way” between leaving Iraq precipitously and foolishly attempting to repair a hopelessly broken and divided society. In fact, we are now seeing precisely the reconciliation and progress that many analysts believed was impossible to achieve.

It was also said by many analysts that as a result of the President’s misguided policies, al Qaeda was growing more popular, terrorist recruitment was up, al Qaeda had been handed great gifts by the Bush administration, and that America was less safe than prior to 9/11. The conventional wisdom was that the “Bush legacy” would be that al Qaeda was much stronger and America was much weaker than before the Iraq war.

Today the pendulum is swinging very much the other way. The reality is that things are much better now then they were at the mid-point of this decade. The cautionary tale in all this may be that we need to resist the temptation to take a snapshot in time and assuming that those things will stay as they are. Two years ago there were reasons for deep concern — but there were not reasons, it turns out, for despair or hopelessness. Events are fluid and can be shaped by human action and human will. While commentators were busy writing obituaries on Iraq, Bush, in the face of gale-force political winds, changed strategies –and Petraeus and company took on the hard task of redeeming Iraq.

Recent events are reminders, too, that equanimity and the capacity for some degree of detachment are important qualities to possess–qualities which are often lacking among those of us who inhabit the world of politics and government and comment on events on a daily or weekly basis.

It seems clear that among the worst thing we could do right now, in the wake of the significant, indisputable but reversible progress we’ve made, is to turn away from what works. It’s certainly true that the United States is limited in its capacity to shape the intra-Islamic struggle that is unfolding. But we do have the capacity to influence things in some arenas–and Iraq is, right now, a central battlefield in the war against jihadists. To undo what we have put in place would be unwise, reckless, and–given events of the last year–indefensible as well.

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