New Republic Author Gets it Backwards on Al Qaeda

Critics of President Bush's leadership continue to maintain that the War on Terror is failing, despite accumulating evidence to the contrary. Peter Bergen's attention-grabbing article in the New Republic, War of Erroris itself in error on the history of the war on al Qaeda. Bergen criticizes President Bush for getting the drop on Usama in 2001 only to lose it as al Qaeda renewed itself in Pakistan. The only problem is, he has it all backwards.

Powerline's Paul Mirengoff noted that Bergen rests his case on a letter written by an al Qaeda leader to Khalid Sheik Mohamed:
Al Qaeda's cadres were right to be dispirited. (In reference to the letter written by an unidentified al Qaeda commander to Khalid Sheik Mohamed about the bitter defeat they tasted in late 2001 in Afghanistan.) The United States appeared to have soundly defeated the terrorist organization. As Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown professor and one of the world's leading authorities on terrorism, told me, "It's difficult to recall the extent to which it was believed that a decisive corner had been turned in 2002 as a result of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. We believed not simply that Al Qaeda was on the run, but that it had been smashed to bits."
There is an important context of the al Qaeda letter Bergen has missed. If he had read the study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point called Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in al Qaeda 1989-2006, he would have learned of the disparate factions of al Qaeda, including an important faction that opposed the 9/11 attacks. The letter cited by Bergen comes from that faction. The West Point CTC study refers to this same letter in making the case that this opposing faction invested heavily in Afghanistan and leaving it caused them much grief. 

However, the core al Qaeda leadership of Usama bin Laden and Zawahiri were not dispirited to leave Afghanistan, as they had done so before when they moved their operation to Sudan in the 90's. Core Al Qaeda is not so much about holding terrain as it is about striking the foe, chiefly us.

Asian media interviews in Pakistan make it look pretty likely that they had already planned their escape routes with the assistance of the Pakistani jihad groups under the Maulana Fazlur Rahman. They were fully aware as they launched the 9/11 attacks that they would lose Afghanistan. Their plan was always to lead the Pakistan-based Taliban in a long, bloody insurgency to defeat coalition forces, just as they  imagine that they did against the Soviets, and launch terror cells against the West from their Pakistani camps.

To use a military analogy, they fell back in the center of the line to lure us in so they could trap us. But unlike the jihad of the 80's, this one has never even come close to deposing the new Afghani government or forcing out the "foreign invaders".

In other words, driving al Qaeda leadership from Afghanistan was far from a defeat for them, it was their plan. Those who made the assumption that al Qaeda was defeated then were wrong. Al Qaeda simply located to a new base to plot their terror attacks. One should not confuse a battlefield defeat of Taliban and al Qaeda forces with ending their ability to train and direct terror cells.
But that was five very long years ago--five years during which Al Qaeda has not only survived but also managed to rebuild at an astonishing clip. The group's leadership has reconstituted itself and now operates rather comfortably along the largely lawless Afghan-Pakistan border.
I am not sure how such a renowned journalist can be so far behind on his information, but recent operations and the CTC study point to not a resurgence of al Qaeda in Pakistan, but the beginning of a dissolution of al Qaeda and the loss of much of their Taliban support base. Review this AT article for a more detailed review of recent success against al Qaeda in Pakistan. Early successes against the leadership of al Qaeda were limited to just a few high profile deaths, like Mohammed Atef. Khalid Sheik Mohammed may have been an operational leader, but he was not a core leader making decisions for al Qaeda. His capture in 2003 hurt their operations, but certainly didn't end them.

Bergen's view that al Qaeda was stopped and then regrouped is echoed by much of the media. The truth is that they were never crippled because individual leaders can be replaced. The real damage to al Qaeda will come from splintering the core factions and that has only begun recently. But the fact that it is underway is an indicator of success, not failure.

Ray Robison is proprietor of Ray Robison: Pointing out the Obvious to the Oblivious.
Critics of President Bush's leadership continue to maintain that the War on Terror is failing, despite accumulating evidence to the contrary. Peter Bergen's attention-grabbing article in the New Republic, War of Erroris itself in error on the history of the war on al Qaeda. Bergen criticizes President Bush for getting the drop on Usama in 2001 only to lose it as al Qaeda renewed itself in Pakistan. The only problem is, he has it all backwards.

Powerline's Paul Mirengoff noted that Bergen rests his case on a letter written by an al Qaeda leader to Khalid Sheik Mohamed:
Al Qaeda's cadres were right to be dispirited. (In reference to the letter written by an unidentified al Qaeda commander to Khalid Sheik Mohamed about the bitter defeat they tasted in late 2001 in Afghanistan.) The United States appeared to have soundly defeated the terrorist organization. As Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown professor and one of the world's leading authorities on terrorism, told me, "It's difficult to recall the extent to which it was believed that a decisive corner had been turned in 2002 as a result of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. We believed not simply that Al Qaeda was on the run, but that it had been smashed to bits."
There is an important context of the al Qaeda letter Bergen has missed. If he had read the study from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point called Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in al Qaeda 1989-2006, he would have learned of the disparate factions of al Qaeda, including an important faction that opposed the 9/11 attacks. The letter cited by Bergen comes from that faction. The West Point CTC study refers to this same letter in making the case that this opposing faction invested heavily in Afghanistan and leaving it caused them much grief. 

However, the core al Qaeda leadership of Usama bin Laden and Zawahiri were not dispirited to leave Afghanistan, as they had done so before when they moved their operation to Sudan in the 90's. Core Al Qaeda is not so much about holding terrain as it is about striking the foe, chiefly us.

Asian media interviews in Pakistan make it look pretty likely that they had already planned their escape routes with the assistance of the Pakistani jihad groups under the Maulana Fazlur Rahman. They were fully aware as they launched the 9/11 attacks that they would lose Afghanistan. Their plan was always to lead the Pakistan-based Taliban in a long, bloody insurgency to defeat coalition forces, just as they  imagine that they did against the Soviets, and launch terror cells against the West from their Pakistani camps.

To use a military analogy, they fell back in the center of the line to lure us in so they could trap us. But unlike the jihad of the 80's, this one has never even come close to deposing the new Afghani government or forcing out the "foreign invaders".

In other words, driving al Qaeda leadership from Afghanistan was far from a defeat for them, it was their plan. Those who made the assumption that al Qaeda was defeated then were wrong. Al Qaeda simply located to a new base to plot their terror attacks. One should not confuse a battlefield defeat of Taliban and al Qaeda forces with ending their ability to train and direct terror cells.
But that was five very long years ago--five years during which Al Qaeda has not only survived but also managed to rebuild at an astonishing clip. The group's leadership has reconstituted itself and now operates rather comfortably along the largely lawless Afghan-Pakistan border.
I am not sure how such a renowned journalist can be so far behind on his information, but recent operations and the CTC study point to not a resurgence of al Qaeda in Pakistan, but the beginning of a dissolution of al Qaeda and the loss of much of their Taliban support base. Review this AT article for a more detailed review of recent success against al Qaeda in Pakistan. Early successes against the leadership of al Qaeda were limited to just a few high profile deaths, like Mohammed Atef. Khalid Sheik Mohammed may have been an operational leader, but he was not a core leader making decisions for al Qaeda. His capture in 2003 hurt their operations, but certainly didn't end them.

Bergen's view that al Qaeda was stopped and then regrouped is echoed by much of the media. The truth is that they were never crippled because individual leaders can be replaced. The real damage to al Qaeda will come from splintering the core factions and that has only begun recently. But the fact that it is underway is an indicator of success, not failure.

Ray Robison is proprietor of Ray Robison: Pointing out the Obvious to the Oblivious.