In late August 2004, after shutting off the recorder, I asked the British general to tell me how Iraq and coalition forces should handle the complex ethnic, sectarian and security challenge presented by Shia "Mahdi Militia" leader Moqtada al-Sadr. That month, Sadr's thugs had invaded Najaf's Grand Mosque and attempted to bait the coalition into bombing the shrine.
The coalition chose to follow the advice passed on by an aide of Shiite Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani: "Let us deal with Sadr. We know how to handle him and will do so. However, the coalition must not make him a martyr."
The British general shook his head. "Dealing with Sadr will appear indecisive, as the Battle of Najaf appears indecisive. But in the long run Iraq will be better off if Sadr withers, or defeats himself."
Seven years ago, Osama bin Laden was a Big Man on the planet, a bearded stud with a Himalayan reputation among young Muslim militants from Morocco to Indonesia. Now, bin Laden hides in the Himalayas.
The Hollywood finale to 9-11 would have U.S. special forces dragging a chained bin Laden from his hideout, the frightened wannabe Caliph squinting in the harsh sunlight.
The Hollywood ending hasn't happened. Bin Laden may yet be arrested and brought to trial and convicted -- it should be done.
Bin Laden's slow rot may be the "Sadr strategy" writ large, however. The slow rot certainly isn't as emotionally satisfying as Hollywood's denouement. It has political consequences. "Bush can't get bin Laden" is a frequent taunt. But in terms of forwarding America's long-range strategy for defeating Islamo-fascism and helping Middle Eastern Muslim nations address their long-term challenge, bin Laden's slow rot -- in lieu of ascent to martyrdom -- may prove to be ironically useful.
Every war is a series of mistakes -- bloody, expensive mistakes. France's Georges Clemenceau provided a more elegant rendering of the terrible hell of it: War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory. Ultimately, winning any war, but especially this intricate, multidimensional war, demands perseverance and creative adaptation.
In war, the enemy makes mistakes as well, and al-Qaeda has made numerous strategic errors.
Al-Qaeda's dark genius has been to connect the Muslim world's angry, humiliated and isolated young men with a utopian fantasy preaching the virtue of violence. That utopian fantasy seeks to explain and then redress roughly 800 years of Muslim decline. Bin Laden concluded that attacking the United States and the infidel West was the way to energize these young Muslims -- a physical demonstration of "violent virtue" and its history-shaping effects.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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