by Austin Bay
September 9, 2008
In late August 2004, after shutting off the recorder, I asked the British
general to tell me how Iraq and coalition forces should handle the complex
ethnic, sectarian and security challenge presented by Shia "Mahdi Militia"
leader Moqtada al-Sadr. That month, Sadr's thugs had invaded Najaf's Grand
Mosque and attempted to bait the coalition into bombing the shrine.
The coalition chose to follow the advice passed on by an aide of Shiite
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani: "Let us deal with Sadr. We know how to handle him and
will do so. However, the coalition must not make him a martyr."
The British general shook his head. "Dealing with Sadr will appear
indecisive, as the Battle of Najaf appears indecisive. But in the long run Iraq
will be better off if Sadr withers, or defeats himself."
Seven years ago, Osama bin Laden was a Big Man on the planet, a bearded
stud with a Himalayan reputation among young Muslim militants from Morocco to
Indonesia. Now, bin Laden hides in the Himalayas.
The Hollywood finale to 9-11 would have U.S. special forces dragging a
chained bin Laden from his hideout, the frightened wannabe Caliph squinting in
the harsh sunlight.
The Hollywood ending hasn't happened. Bin Laden may yet be arrested and
brought to trial and convicted -- it should be done.
Bin Laden's slow rot may be the "Sadr strategy" writ large, however. The
slow rot certainly isn't as emotionally satisfying as Hollywood's denouement. It
has political consequences. "Bush can't get bin Laden" is a frequent taunt. But
in terms of forwarding America's long-range strategy for defeating
Islamo-fascism and helping Middle Eastern Muslim nations address their long-term
challenge, bin Laden's slow rot -- in lieu of ascent to martyrdom -- may prove
to be ironically useful.
Every war is a series of mistakes -- bloody, expensive mistakes. France's
Georges Clemenceau provided a more elegant rendering of the terrible hell of it:
War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory. Ultimately, winning
any war, but especially this intricate, multidimensional war, demands
perseverance and creative adaptation.
In war, the enemy makes mistakes as well, and al-Qaeda has made numerous
Al-Qaeda's dark genius has been to connect the Muslim world's angry,
humiliated and isolated young men with a utopian fantasy preaching the virtue of
violence. That utopian fantasy seeks to explain and then redress roughly 800
years of Muslim decline. Bin Laden concluded that attacking the United States
and the infidel West was the way to energize these young Muslims -- a physical
demonstration of "violent virtue" and its history-shaping effects.
Attacking the United States and Europe would be so overwhelmingly popular
the West would leave Muslim nations. Al-Qaida would then take control of Saudi
Arabia and Egypt. Bin Laden provided a sketch but few details. He would rely on
anger and fervor -- and his own iconic leadership.
Seven years later, it appears attacking the West was a huge strategic
blunder by al-Qaida -- and that's not a solely "Western" opinion. Al-Qaida's
criminal record has wrecked its reputation in Muslim nations. We've had
indications. StrategyPage.com noted on Oct. 27, 2005, that "the Muslim media is
less and less willing to be an apologist for al-Qaida, at least when it comes to
killing Muslim civilians" and that the Iraqi media in particular "really has it
in for al-Qaida."
On Oct. 1, 2006, StrategyPage.com argued that "dead Iraqis were killing
al-Qaida. ... Westerners, unless they observe Arab media closely, and have
contacts inside the Arab world, will not have noted this sharp drop in
Al-Qaida's malignant message still dupes some young Muslim men.
Nineteenth and early 20th century militant anarchist tracts still appeal to
violent killers like the Unabomber. Rock music critics and late-night TV cable
talk show hosts toy with anarchist tropes.
Bin Laden still has "gangsta" appeal, but mere survival was not his goal.
If bin Laden had been killed in Afghanistan in 2001, the United States
would be combating a myth and a legend. Instead of caliphate, bin Laden has
produced his own catastrophe. The bin Laden icon is seriously fractured, if not