Cliff May

Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama wants to fight al-Qaeda in Pakistan – after accepting defeat at the hands of al-Qaeda in Iraq. His critics say that shows his inexperience. But he’s hardly alone.

A sophisticated member of what may fairly be called the Washington Foreign Policy Establishment was discussing Iraq with me. We agreed on the patterns many Americans are just now beginning to discern within the media clutter: the new American commander in Iraq, Gen. David A. Petraeus, is targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq and making progress against that terrorist organization.

But this experienced professional was willing to give the effort only two cheers. “I don't think we need to worry about al-Qaeda in Iraq attacking our homeland,” he said. “But as for al-Qaeda currently located in Pakistan, that's an entirely different matter.”

The reconstitution of al-Qaeda (AQ) in a remote region of Pakistan is both frustrating and threatening. Frustrating, because we want to bring to justice those responsible for the atrocities carried out six years ago next month. Threatening, because if Osama bin Laden feels safe, we can not.

But is there any basis for the widespread belief that the AQ operation in Pakistan is more dangerous to Americans on American soil than is al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)? Consider: The most recent National Intelligence Estimate — the collective judgment of the American intel community – makes clear that AQI is AQ’s “most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the [U.S] Homeland.” It adds that AQI clearly intends “to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq."

AQI terrorists suicide-bombed three hotels in Jordan in late 2005, killing dozens of innocent people. The recent failed attacks in London and Glasgow, British intelligence services believe, “bear the fingerprints of al Qaeda in Iraq,” as CBS News has reported.

AQI carried out these attacks while also overseeing a campaign of murder, torture and suicide-bombing – up to 90 percent of suicide-bombers in Iraq are estimated to be directed by AQI, utilizing terrorists from other countries. (AQI’s leadership also is mainly non-Iraqi.)

Can you imagine what AQI will do if American troops withdraw from Iraq too soon, leaving the group in position to resume its slaughter of Iraqis who refuse to submit, and to feed off Iraq’s abundant resources? General Michael Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said if the U.S. fails in Iraq, AQ will be likely to achieve its “goal” there – establishing a “safe haven from which then to plan and conduct attacks against the West.”

Cliff May

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