Where We Fight

Cliff May

6/21/2007 12:06:12 PM - 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.

And does anyone seriously believe that, after leaving Iraq, we would not soon exit Afghanistan as well? How many suicide-bombings of police academies, market places and mosques would be required to get us out – slaughters that the major media will, as usual, blame not on the killers but on the “foreign occupation”?

If this is where members of Congress want to go, they ought to be honest about where it leads: al-Qaeda will still be waging a war against us, but we will no longer be waging much of a war against al-Qaeda.

To be sure, the war we’ve been fighting is not the war Americans signed up for when President Bush made the decision to enter Iraq four years ago. In the 20th century, international conflicts took the form of great European armies clashing. In the 21st century, Pentagon strategists thought conflicts would consist of short, decisive battles with small, well-trained American forces wielding high-tech weapons to produce “shock and awe” and break the enemies’ will to fight.

Our enemies had other plans. They decided to fight from the shadows -- kidnapping, torturing and mass-murdering whatever victims are at hand, relying on key groups in the West to blame the carnage not on them but on us, thereby eroding our will to fight.

Today’s wars, military analyst Tom Donnelly has written, are “like the frontier fighting of the 19th century -- in the American West but also in the far-flung outposts of the British Empire … the prime directive for U.S. land forces is neither deployability, nor mobility, nor lethality, but sustainability.”

And right now, sustainability appears to be the capability most lacking – not among America’s troops in the field but among the political classes in Washington. Almost a decade ago, Osama bin Laden said that Americans were “unprepared to fight long wars.” Secure in his Pakistani redoubt, he must be pleased that his analysis is proving so uncannily accurate.