CNN National Security Analyst
In a speech in Ohio on Thursday John McCain laid out his vision for his putative presidency. Perhaps the most striking part was the claim that by the end of his four year-term in 2013 the global war on terrorism would be effectively over—Osama bin Laden and his key lieutenants would be behind bars or dead; al Qaeda would no longer have a safe haven on the Afghan-Pakistan border; the Taliban would be largely out of business; al Qaeda in Iraq defeated; the Iraq War “won,” and no major terrorist attack would have taken place in the United States.
It’s undeniably an attractive vision of the future, but how plausible are those claims? Given the fact that bin Laden remains at large today more than six years after 9/11 it is wishful thinking that he will be caught in the next five years. There hasn’t been a solid lead on bin Laden’s whereabouts since the battle of Tora Bora in December of 2001 when radio intercepts definitively placed him in the mountain redoubt in eastern Afghanistan.
But since then the al Qaeda leader hasn’t talked on a cell or satellite phone so there is no signals intelligence on his whereabouts, and it is quite unlikely anyone in his immediate circle will drop a dime on him for a large cash reward as there have been no takers for the millions of dollars of bounty on his head that the United States has advertised since 1999.
Similarly, absent a massive terror attack on the United Kingdom or the United States traceable to the tribal areas on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the Pakistani government will do what is required to wipe out al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership headquartered there. The Pakistanis have proven to be either unwilling or incapable of doing so since 9/11, and now the newly elected government in Pakistan has negotiated a peace agreement with militants in the tribal regions that is reminiscent of past ‘peace’ agreements in 2005 and 2006 that simply gave the militants more room to maneuver.
And rather than withering away, the Taliban in Afghanistan may survive for decades because they are benefiting from the most important products of the Afghan economy–opium and heroin–which are pumping large amounts of cash into their coffers. A more plausible outcome for the Taliban than defeat on the battlefield is that they increasingly mimic the FARC in Colombia, which started life in the 1960s as an ideologically-driven Marxist guerilla movement and has increasingly devolved over time into a powerful and long-lived drug cartel.
Al Qaeda in Iraq today is a wounded organization, but writing its obituary is premature. The number of foreign fighters coming in to Iraq has declined from 120 a month in 2007 to 40 or 50 today and, according to the US military, foreign fighters are now trying to leave the country. However, the future inevitable withdrawals of American troops from Iraq will obviously help Al Qaeda’s ability to operate in the country. Al Qaeda has a ‘paper tiger’ narrative about the United States based on American pullouts from Vietnam during the ‘70s, Lebanon in the ‘80s and Somalia in the ‘90s. Obviously, US drawdowns from Iraq will be seen as confirming this narrative.
More importantly, Al Qaeda also has a strategy laid out by al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, who wrote in his November 2001 Knights under the Banner of the Prophet, that “victory by the armies cannot be achieved unless the infantry occupies territory. Likewise, victory for Islamic movements against the world alliance cannot be attained unless these movements possess an Islamic base in the heart of the Arab region.” Obviously, securing such a safe haven in Iraq is a primary goal of al Qaeda and will remain so whatever the scale and timing of an American withdrawal.
And it seems unlikely that the U.S. will “win” the Iraq War by 2013 if winning, as McCain suggests, means that Iraq is a “functioning democracy” and violence is only ‘spasmodic”. In the five years since the U.S. has occupied Iraq virtually no significant steps have been taken by the Iraqis to bring out about genuine political reconciliation between the Sunni and the Shia, so why would the next five years be significantly different? Indeed, in an authoritative study of 91 insurgencies in the past century, Seth Jones of RAND found that it takes 14 years for the government to win against the insurgency, and 11 years for the insurgents to win against the government. Either way by 2013, a decade into the Iraq War, historical trends suggest that is highly unlikely that the Iraq war will be “won”. Rather the future of Iraq looks more like the histories of Afghanistan or Lebanon over the past two and half decades—weak states that are continuously racked by militia infighting and general instability.
The one claim that McCain made that is entirely plausible is that there won’t be a major terrorist attack in the United States over the next five years. That’s because of a more vigilant American public; a country that is much harder for jihadist terrorists to enter; an al Qaeda organization that is not as strong as it was on 9/11, and the wholesale rejection of bin Laden’s ideology by the American Muslim community. All of those factors will continue to hold true whoever is sitting in the Oval Office in 2009.