The U.S. invasion of Iraq took the pressure off al Qaeda in the Pakistani badlands and opened new doors for the group in the Middle East. It also played directly into the hands of al Qaeda leaders by seemingly confirming their claim that the United States was an imperialist force, which helped them reinforce various local alliances.
The visible success of its partners in Iraq has strengthened the hand of al Qaeda and its allies, old and new, in Pakistan. With the help of tactical advice and, probably, funds from al Qaeda, the Taliban had already regrouped by 2004. In 2005, bin Laden appeared in a Taliban video advising its commanders. By 2006, the Taliban had recovered sufficiently to launch a major offensive in Afghanistan and even attempted to retake Kandahar. New tactics imported from Iraq, such as suicide bombings and the use of improvised explosive devices, became commonplace in Afghanistan.
Of course, Riedel is only one of a long line of commentators to point out that the invasion of Iraq breathed new life into al Qaeda. What’s scary is the extent to which al Qaeda has recovered from the invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban. Al Qaeda is arguably in a better position than they were before we invaded. Had al Qaeda-and bin Laden-simply survived, that alone would have demonstrated our weakness before the world. But they’ve done far more than survive, and the war in Iraq has been nothing short of a propaganda victory for al Qaeda, which they have effectively turned into a recruiting tool. If anything, the name “al Qaeda” is now a brand that other terrorists and jihadists are eager to adopt, as this NPR story makes clear:
For a local terrorist group, joining al-Qaida makes it harder for members to move around — and harder to raise funds openly. But, on the plus side, publicity will increase, which is good for recruitment. A link to al-Qaida may bring other monetary investment. And, seen through the eyes of would-be jihadi, al-Qaida means prestige.
"Al-Qaida, because of its perceived success — especially in Iraq — is the team you want to be on," said Daniel Benjamin, of the Brookings Institution, who was formerly a director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.
And al Qaeda has proven itself quick to encourage these groups to conduct more attacks in their home territories. But more sectarian violence is not the only concern:
…the real fear among intelligence officials and analysts is that the new partnership with al-Qaida brings new obligations to attack what's known as the "Far Enemy" — the West. This month, police in Milan arrested several members of the group, who were allegedly planning attacks in Italy.
The good news in all this, Benjamin said, is that none of the new offshoot groups appear capable of directly threatening the United States. But al-Qaida-linked groups are "ever more active in more parts of the world," he said. "And that is not the outcome we wanted."
Certainly not. While these groups may pose no threat to us directly, they most certainly do pose a direct threat to our interests in the Middle East, North and East Africa, and Europe. An al Qaeda’s resurgence most certainly does pose a direct threat to us. To think that the al Qaeda leadership is not plotting attacks on us here at home is naïve and foolish.
So Iraq has been a disaster for us, and (so far) a victory for al Qaeda. What do we do about it? Here are some sensible suggestions from Riedel:
The focus of Washington's new strategy must be to target al Qaeda's leaders, who provide the inspiration and direction for the global jihad. As long as they are alive and active, they will symbolize successful resistance to the United States and continue to attract new recruits. Settling for having them on the run or hiding in caves is not enough; it is a recipe for defeat, if not already an acknowledgment of failure. The death of bin Laden and his senior associates in Pakistan and Iraq would not end the movement, but it would deal al Qaeda a serious blow.
A critical first step toward decapitating al Qaeda is for Washington to enhance its commitment in Afghanistan.
The United States and its partners, including NATO, also need to take a firmer position with the Pakistani government to enlist its help in tracking down al Qaeda leaders…The prevailing theory that strongmen such as Musharraf make for better counterterrorism partners is a canard; Musharraf, for one, has not delivered the goods.
Iraq is, of course, another critical battlefield in the fight against al Qaeda. But it is time to recognize that engagement there is more of a trap than an opportunity for the United States…No doubt al Qaeda will claim a victory when the United States leaves Iraq. (It already does so at the sheer mention of withdrawal.) But it is unlikely that the Islamic State of Iraq will fare well after the occupation ends.
Another essential aspect of the United States' war against al Qaeda is the war of ideas. Washington must learn to develop more compelling narratives for its actions. Its calls for bringing democracy to Iraq have not resonated, partly because its actions have not matched its rhetoric.
The repackaging effort will also have to involve concrete actions to address the issues that al Qaeda invokes to win recruits, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict but also the conflict in Kashmir.
In other words…get out of Iraq, get into Afghanistan, end the one-sided deal with Musharraf, stop torturing and “rendering” terrorist suspects, and deal with the long-simmering Palestinian problem as a honest broker and not as an Israeli proxy. My own last suggestion would be, above all else, no war with Iran. Iran is not a “second chance” to fix what went wrong after the Iraq invasion. It’s yet another distraction, and would be an even costlier one for us (and beneficial one for al Qaeda) than Iraq has been.
Though we’ve scored some tactical successes, our strategy in the “war on terror” has been almost as wrong-headed as it’s possible to be. There’s little chance for real change before January of 2009 when a new (Democratic) President comes into office, but these are the sorts of things the Democratic candidates should seriously be discussing at this point (as opposed to Republican candidates, who think we should "double Gitmo".) It’s up to you and I to encourage just such discussions, if we want to have any chance at all of defeating al Qaeda and making ourselves-and the world-safer.