Pity the al-Qaida analyst in the 16-agency, 100,000-strong U.S. intelligence community, which spends $50 billion a year, much of it to track al-Qaida operatives the world over.
President Barack Obama made clear during last year's presidential campaign that Afghanistan would be his war if he was elected. Since being sworn in, true to his word, he has made the Afghan war a national security imperative because that's where al-Qaida is. At least, that's where Obama thinks it is. But nothing is less certain.
On the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The Islamist terrorist organization would not maintain bases in Afghanistan with a war that extends to every part of that Texas-size country. But al-Qaida does have safe houses and underground shelters in Pakistan's tribal areas on the Afghan border.
It also has a worldwide presence on the Internet and millions of clandestine followers from Mindanao in the Philippines to the Persian Gulf States to Yemen to Somalia to North, West, and East Africa, and possibly a few in Latin America. One percent of 1.3 billion Muslims — or 13 million — is the estimated number of religious extremists prone to violence to propagate their palpably fraudulent version of the prophet's teachings.
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which has ties to Israel's intelligence community, keeps eyes and ears peeled for the slightest al-Qaida vibration in cyberspace. This is where al-Qaida maintains a virtual caliphate, a device that tricks thousands of impressionable young Muslims to espouse extremist doctrine. With the Internet moving every 24 hours several million more words, documents, and books than are contained in the entire Library of Congress, stumbling across terrorist intelligence in real time is as frequent as hitting multimillion-dollar jackpots in Las Vegas.
MEMRI's posts from the Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor between Sept. 1 and Sept. 10 consisted mostly of things extremists wanted publicized:
Yaman Mukhaddab, a well-known author on jihadist forums, warns, "Al-Qaida's new trap has been laid" and predicts "days of calamity for the infidels."
A Saudi al-Qaida defector says there is widespread dissatisfaction among al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan and that many want to desert.
The "moderator" of the Al-Shura jihadist forum claims an Osama bin Laden message has been "hijacked."
A message from "Umm Hamza" from Lyon, France, asks al-Qaida Maghreb (North Africa) to save Muslim women from "Mad Dog" (French President) Nicolas Sarkozy.
Al-Shahab Al-Mujahideen reports successful operations in "Winds of Victory" offensive — three of them in one day against the "Crusaders" and the "apostate militias" as part of its "Ramadan Winds of Victory offensive."
Clearly, al-Qaida's terrorist operations these days have little to do with the war in Afghanistan. The Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry says security forces foiled 31 al-Qaida attacks on oil and other economic targets in the past five years. In June, Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid, an al-Qaida commentator, said "Hamas [in Gaza] and al-Qaida share the same ideology and the same doctrine."
The Afghanistan-Pakistan front also showed signs of division between the two wings of Taliban. The Afghan Taliban organization declined a request for help from Taliban militants in Pakistan's Swat Valley by apparently reminding their Pakistani brothers of their policy of noninterference in Pakistan's internal affairs. The Afghan Taliban are under the overall command of Mullah Omar, the one-eyed underground leader who has not been seen since Sept. 11, 2001, but who maintains contact with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
The Pakistani Taliban were not defeated in the Swat Valley, as previously claimed. And the Pakistani army is reluctant to take on Taliban in their tribal areas until the rest of the country is under control. In Sindh province, for example, the provincial government ordered special security arrangements for ministers, anti-Taliban religious scholars and key buildings following reports that 57 Taliban suicide bombers were planning simultaneous attacks. Over the past two years, suicide bombers have struck in every major city at least once and killed about 8,000 people countrywide.
Eight years after Sept. 11, the Taliban has a permanent presence in 80 percent of Afghanistan, according to the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS). Another 17 percent of the country is seeing "substantial" Taliban activity. In November 2007, ICOS assessed that the Taliban had a permanent presence in 54 percent of Afghanistan.
A French political scientist, the Sorbonne's Gilles Dorronsoro, with long experience in, and just back from, Afghanistan, told a Carnegie Foundation meeting in Washington that the much-publicized joint operation by U.S. Marines and British troops in Helmand province was a major disappointment. The ethnic map he produced showed the entire Pushtun belt, from the Iranian border to the Khyber Pass and north of the Kabul-Jalalabad highway, under Taliban control.
Given the limitations on troop numbers for the U.S.-NATO coalition, Dorronsoro recommended that the countryside be left to Taliban — and U.S. air strikes — and that all available troops be assigned to protect the main cities. Failing such a redeployment of allied assets, several major cities could be hit simultaneously, as was done by the Viet Cong in the Tet offensive of Feb. 1, 1968, which convinced President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. opinion that the war was unwinnable. Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Dorronsoro has been "on target" for the past five years.
The Viet Cong strategy was not to take their 27 cities but to show they could enter the cities with impunity and cause much havoc and damage before pulling out. A similar offensive in Afghanistan could be successful with or without coalition troops protecting major cities. Taliban insurgents, looking like any other group of civilians at rush hour, could infiltrate and surround government buildings with concealed weapons. An Afghan Tet offensive is a growing danger.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor-at-large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.
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