Cliff May

America is at war with al-Qaeda – on that surely we can agree -- and we know that al-Qaeda has bases in Pakistan. In fact, it is probable that Osama bin Laden resides at one of those bases. But we can’t fight al-Qaeda in Pakistan because Pakistan is an ally, and America does not violate the territorial integrity of its allies.

Al-Qaeda is active in Gaza, according to Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence. Al-Qaeda supports Hamas which has just waged a bloody – and successful – civil war against Fatah, its Palestinian rival. But we’re not about to invade Gaza in pursuit of al-Qaeda. Even Israel, which withdrew from Gaza two years ago, is not eager to return there.

In Lebanon, Fatah al-Islam, which is fighting the Lebanese government, is believed to be linked to al-Qaeda. But the last time U.S. troops were in Lebanon, they were attacked by suicide-bombers dispatched by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization directed by the regime in Tehran. There is no way the U.S. is going to send troops into Lebanon again.

Groups linked to al-Qaeda are in Somalia. We have supported Ethiopian troops fighting there. But a serious effort by Americans against al-Qaeda in Somalia seems unlikely.

Al-Qaeda cells operate in Europe. But it is problematic for American operatives to kill or capture terrorists there: To do so sparks allegations from the “human rights community” and the media about violations of international law, torture and secret prisons. Also, as has happened in Italy, it can lead to criminal prosecutions of Americans thought to be involved. So America’s ability to fight al-Qaeda in Europe is limited.

There are probably al-Qaeda cells in the U.S. too. One hopes the FBI is monitoring them. But until the members of these cells commit crimes, there is not much that can be done. On what basis could Mohammed Atta, ringmaster of the 9/11/01 hijackers, have been arrested on 9/10/01?

What’s more, some judges and legal activists are now insisting that even combatants illegally in the U.S. are entitled to all the rights enjoyed by American citizens. If this view prevails, fighting al-Qaeda within the U.S. will become even harder.

That leaves only two places where we know for sure al-Qaeda and its associates are operating actively -- and very lethally -- and where the U.S. can send its best warriors against them with the approval of the local, elected governments. Those places are, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But many politicians, looking at polls showing Americans fatigued by a war that was not supposed to be so prolonged or arduous, now favor withdrawing from Iraq -- retreating from the battlefield al-Qaeda calls the central front in their jihad against us.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.