'Bush Is Still Winning War There, but He Begins to Lose Battle Here," said the headline in yesterday's New York Times. The assumption that the United States is at least winning There is widespread, and with good reason. US forces brought down the Taliban regime in Afghanistan with terrific speed. And yet the apparent success of the military strategy is illusory. That, as American officials and generals know all too well, is why the conflict will go on for years, and why Winning There is as far away as ever.
For a start, as Gertrude Stein once said, there is no There there. Afghanistan isn't the problem and it isn't the enemy, as the Americans have said repeatedly, and it was not their goal to get control of it. The victory, such as it was, was to deny al-Qai'da use of Afghan territory as a base for command, organisation, training and recruitment. That hasn't been achieved, which is why fighting continues.
But even if it is achieved, al-Qa'ida remains. Command structures and cells outside the country still exist, even if they have been badly damaged. And al-Qa'ida's goal – to remove US influence from Islamic countries – is still viable. Its tools remain the same: massive terrorist attacks on US targets in the region and beyond. And its intermediate objectives are the same: to create a split between Saudi Arabia and the US, to highlight the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to use US strategy towards Iraq to divide Islamic opinion. Al-Qa'ida can be said to have achieved a lot in the past six months, even if its bunkers and safe houses are gone and some of its members are dead.
By focusing all its early public efforts on Afghanistan, the US virtually guaranteed a quick initial victory. It used a tried and tested programme of massive air strikes to disable Afghan command and control centres, and suppress Afghan air defences. But these were not exactly formidable targets. Then the Northern Alliance, fighting as the US's proxies, swept the Taliban out of power.
At Tora Bora, we were led to believe we were seeing al-Qa'ida's Last Stand. Yet now we find ourselves, unaccountably, facing another Last Stand in the mountains. The reality is that this is no more the end than was Tora Bora, and nor can there be, in this kind of a campaign, any finality. After six months of fighting, probably the best depiction of the US's victories in Afghanistan, and its failures, is: al-Qa'ida is dead, long live al-Qa'ida.
Al-Qa'ida – literally "the base" – is broken as a cohesive single unit, the command structure scattered to the winds, and individual cells fighting, or biding their time, on their own. But hundreds of individuals are out there somewhere, perhaps in the mountains of Afghanistan, perhaps in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Chechnya, Georgia, or perhaps in condominiums in Florida, blocks of flats in Maida Vale, or tenements in Brussels.
A war of the sort that the US is fighting is a military war, a war of intelligence and a political war. Militarily it has done well, though not as well as it thought it had. Afghanistan is now unsafe as a haven for al-Qa'ida and its supporters. Although hundreds, thousands even, remain in the hills, they cannot organise a global effort in the same way that they did six months ago.
In intelligence terms, the results are harder to judge. Al-Qa'ida is an even looser confederation than it was before. Its behaviour is harder to guess at, and plans developed over the past five years are still live.
In political terms – the only ones that matter – the task is formidable. Al-Qa'ida does not have to erase the US: it simply has to drive wedges between Washington and Islamic opinion – hardly a difficult exercise at the best of times. The US must end its ability to do that. Its target needs to be clearer too. The Taliban was never the point of this exercise. Neither was Afghanistan, nor even Osama bin Laden himself. The objective was supposed to be to end the ability of al-Qa'ida to operate.
This is a war with long-time horizons. The African embassy bombings and US retaliation against Afghanistan and (mistakenly) Sudan were in 1998; it was three years before al-Qa'ida struck back at the US. Perhaps there will be terrorist attacks this weekend. Perhaps they will come on the anniversary of the bombing. Perhaps in two or three years.
The next stage of the war is already well under way. The US is concentrating on the possible alternative havens for al-Qa'ida, places where individuals and perhaps command elements might relocate: Yemen, Georgia, Somalia, perhaps Sudan. Already we are being prepared for the next phase of the war, against Iraq. The aim is to remove Saddam, but also to end the unsustainable stalemate in western policy towards Iraq that presents Mr bin Laden with such an obvious opportunity.
The real problem with the War on Terrorism is that every term within it is almost impossible to define in the crisp, tactical terms that a military solution requires. War? Terrorism? But also: There? And, perhaps most difficult of all: Winning?Reuse content