The enlarging Al-Qaida

Posted: Feb 11, 2004 12:00 AM
If President Bush had had in hand the now-famous letter to the al-Qaida leaders urging civil war in Iraq, would that have helped him in his encounter with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press"? Or for that matter, help him in his encounter with John Kerry later on this year in the presidential debates? The 17-page letter, presumed authentic, urges the al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan to act through its operatives in Iraq, directing them to mobilize Shiite hostilities with the end of bringing on a civil war.

There was an aside in that letter touching on the American role in Iraq. The Americans, the Islamic fundamentalist notes, are easy targets. However, "America has no intention of leaving, no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes."

Mr. Bush would certainly have cited the letter as further documentation for the contention that the problem we face extends beyond what was once supposed to be nothing more than vindictive twitches by Saddam loyalists. The author of the letter proudly asserts that "he" -- his unit of the fundamentalist resistance -- can proudly take credit for 25 suicide bombers. Mr. Bush might have stressed that what Saddam Hussein had generated was perhaps not weapons of mass destruction measured in atoms or viruses or ricin, but weapons measured in a fanatical devotion to a cause, Muslim fundamentalism.

We are learning once again that an important lesson in recent world history tells us that terrorist activity can succeed. One can say that eventually, as in Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, it is overcome. That here and there it is carried on resulting in standstills, as in Israel. But there is always the prospect of winning, as in Cuba under Fidel Castro.

The al-Qaida postulant correctly says that there is no prospect of a U.S. removal of our forces in Iraq, and Mr. Bush reiterated that so often as to give the impression that he wants Candidate Kerry to bounce off the same question: Is retreat conceivable? Likely?

The success of the terrorists in Iraq can be measured in political units. Every day we are told by the pollsters that if the presidential race were run tomorrow, Bush vs. Kerry, its outcome cannot be predicted, so close are the numbers.

That closeness is a direct, clear-cut victory achieved by terrorism in Iraq. If the terrorists had been overcome, Iraq tranquilized, Saddam Hussein in captivity, is it imaginable that Democratic critics would have asked that Bush be run out of office because of his foreign policy? On the grounds that his war cost more than 100 American lives?

But the terrorists have augmented that figure. It was 138 when the military war ended. It is more than 500 today. And this is the burgeoning figure to which the politicians will draw attention. Their indictment is to the effect that we entered into a war without an imperative reason to do so. And then that we conceived the challenge so maladroitly that we can now be said to be in Iraq not to win a military victory there (that was easy, and done quickly) but to see whether we can overcome the terrorists. What the enemy wants, the intercepted letter confirms, is a civil war. A civil war in Iraq is not the kind of challenge the 101st Airborne was trained to handle.

Mr. Bush told Mr. Russert that the terrorists were protesting the prospect of peace and freedom. It seems strange to tie bombs around your torso and charge into groups of innocent civilians, including children, in order to further the defeat of freedom. But the only thing Mr. Bush can come up with is -- success. There is, conceptually, the marginal terrorist: After he is struck down, the movement withers. What Mr. Bush needs is evidence that we are moving in the direction of the marginal terrorist, because there is evidence on the other side that the terrorists are begetting more terrorists. And Don Rumsfeld himself asked the question weeks ago: Can we prove we are winning? He did not have the answer.

Mr. Bush has acquired a rhetorical side that deeply offends critics of his policies. "I'm a war president. I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind." But combating terrorists is a different challenge, and Mr. Bush hasn't met it, and the Democrats sense this and say it to the pollsters.