on geopolitics

Mar 18, 2004 | 19:19 GMT

9 mins read

Counterattack

Since December 2003, the United States has been squeezing back al Qaeda and jihadists throughout the Islamic world. Al Qaeda's goal has proven elusive — there has not been a rising in the Islamic world to topple Islamic governments. To the contrary, Islamic countries have moved to accommodate themselves to the United States. As the strategic balance shifted in favor of the United States, the U.S. focus was on an offensive into Pakistan designed to capture Osama bin Laden and liquidate al Qaeda. In short, the United States was looking at the beginning of the endgame. The fundamental question has been: Is al Qaeda still there — and is it capable of carrying out further operations? It was obvious that if al Qaeda could carry out operations, it would have to do so now. Its viability was in doubt, and therefore its credibility — particularly in the Islamic world — was in decline. It was not a question of support or popularity, but a growing sense that al Qaeda, rather than triggering an Islamic renaissance, had led the Islamic world into a disaster of toppled regimes, regimes cooperating with the United States and a massive foreign military presence casting a shadow over the region. If al Qaeda did not act quickly and decisively, it was going to lose the war. More important than any single action, al Qaeda had to demonstrate that it had a strategy for reversing its fortunes. The March 11 attack indicates that al Qaeda still exists. It also indicates that al Qaeda has a strategy — one that strikes at the soft underbelly of the U.S. strategy in the war. The Iraq war succeeded in shifting the behavior of the Saudis and Iranians, albeit by very different routes. The U.S. position in the Islamic world is stronger than before. But the same war created a fault line within nations that worked with the United States in Iraq, as well as between those nations and the United States. Al Qaeda appears to be focusing on that fault line. The majority of Spaniards opposed the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Spain's participation in the war. Nevertheless, the Popular Party government that chose to support the war was, according to polls a week before the March 14 election, going to win. The peculiarity of a government following an unpopular foreign policy yet remaining likely to win is easy to explain: There were many other issues on the table, and the voters were not being driven to their decisions by Iraq. Issues such as Franco-German domination of the European Union were more important than the Iraq war. The attack on the Madrid train stations changed that. Perfectly timed to be absorbed into the Spanish electorate's psyche, it was designed to demonstrate the price that Spain would be forced to pay for its Iraq policy. What was a less-than-decisive issue for voters March 10 became the defining issue by March 12. The electorate, unhappy with the war in Iraq anyway, now saw themselves paying a price for the war that was simply too high. They voted the Popular Party out and the Socialists in. The Socialists pledged to withdraw Spain's troops from Iraq by June 30. From a strategic perspective, this is a massive al Qaeda victory. With one blow, it knocked a major U.S. ally out of the Iraq campaign and raised serious questions as to how far Spain will go to support the United States elsewhere. There can be no question but that al Qaeda understood what it was doing. It struck on the eve of the election in a manner that was clearly intended to cause maximum casualties. When viewed from the standpoint of total casualties (as opposed to total dead), the Madrid attack was almost half as devastating as Sept. 11. But in this case, rather than increasing Spain's aggressiveness as Sept. 11 did with the United States, it caused Spain to draw back. The attack has enormous political implications. There are a number of countries that supported the United States in Iraq in the face of majority popular opposition to the war. These countries have political dynamics similar to Spain's. They include Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland, Hungary, Australia and Japan. Their governments managed the politics of the war in ways similar to Spain. Each of these governments is highly vulnerable to the kind of attack carried out in Madrid. If al Qaeda could generate a process in which non-Islamic U.S. allies were to peel away from the United States, two things would happen. First, the position of the United States in the Islamic world might start to deteriorate. One of the strengths in the U.S. position has been deep divisions in Europe, which left Islamic states isolated from alternative centers of support. If Europe shifted en masse to the Franco-German position, the Islamic sense of isolation and lack of alternatives also would shift. It could — emphasize could — undermine the U.S. position in the region. Second, a massive defection from the United States by allied governments would hurt the Bush administration. One of the charges critics have made against President George W. Bush is that he has followed a unilateralist policy that has isolated him from allies. That criticism has never been true — most of Europe's governments supported the U.S. policy in Iraq — but if it becomes true, if reality catches up with perception, then Bush's domestic position would weaken enormously. Al Qaeda would love to see Bush defeated, particularly if his defeat could be perceived — particularly in the Islamic world — as a consequence of the network's actions. That means U.S. allies are not the only possible targets. Al Qaeda has shown itself to be politically sophisticated. If it has operatives in the United States, then those operatives have friends who can advise the group on U.S. politics. Any attack will give Bush an immediate boost. It is a given in U.S. policy that the president's support increases during a crisis. It is also true that over time that support bleeds off, particularly if the president is not seen as moving toward solving the problem effectively. It follows that al Qaeda will not attack on the eve of the U.S. election, but months before, giving the American public time to come to the conclusion that Bush is unable to cope with the threat. When we look at the attack on Madrid, we see a newer model of al Qaeda operations than we have seen in the past. This was not a suicide attack. It was an attack using explosives, arranged and triggered in a reasonably sophisticated fashion, with the attackers — far from killing themselves — trying to withdraw, evade and survive. Some of the team was captured. Others escaped and will be available for further operations. The fact that they did not use suicide attackers is, for us, extremely significant. It indicates that al Qaeda is preserving its personnel. This could mean that it is short of manpower. It could also mean that it is planning an increased tempo of operations and needs the same personnel to carry out multiple attacks, potentially in different countries. The political strategy fits neatly with the new operational modality. If the Spanish strategy is to be replicated, there will be a series of Madrids in the coming months. These will comprise conventional, nonsuicide attacks designed to elicit maximum casualties and will focus on countries allied with the United States with anti-war populations. The timing will be designed to influence elections or topple governments in parliamentary democracies. Assuming the attack teams can escape, there is no theoretical limit to the number of attacks that can be carried out, other than the number of teams available and their locations. This, of course, is the great unknown. The only victory al Qaeda can claim in March 2004 is that two-and-a-half years after Sept. 11, U.S. intelligence remains unclear as to al Qaeda's capabilities, globally and in the United States. This is al Qaeda's greatest strength. No one knows what it is capable of. After Madrid, as after Sept. 11, the world is braced for more attacks. They might or might not come. However, it should be noted that a massive truck bomb was found in Karachi two days before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived. That means that there were at least two teams out there — one in Spain and one in Pakistan. We suspect there are at least a few more. Al Qaeda has maintained a slow tempo of major operations in the past. Attacks have been separated by two or more years. That could happen again. Al Qaeda's political situation really will not support that, however, and it has political opportunities now that it needs to take advantage of. A wave of attacks in Europe followed by strikes in the United States at strategic moments could revive its credibility in the Islamic world and, in an extreme case, reverse the political shifts that have taken place. It might even trigger al Qaeda's holy grail: a rising of the Islamic masses. Clearly Madrid means the war is not going to end as neatly as the United States had hoped. Indeed, the political success of the attack in Spain will encourage al Qaeda. In a sense, this increases the pressure to find bin Laden, in the hope of disorganizing any impending campaign. We suspect that that campaign does not need further organizing — it is good to go with or without bin Laden. What we are going to see now is an intense effort in Pakistan to get bin Laden, plus — and this is our guess — an intensifying effort by al Qaeda to counter by destabilizing the U.S. alliance.

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