by Austin Bay
September 9, 2008
In late August 2004, after shutting off the recorder, I asked the Britishgeneral to tell me how Iraq and coalition forces should handle the complexethnic, sectarian and security challenge presented by Shia "Mahdi Militia"leader Moqtada al-Sadr. That month, Sadr's thugs had invaded Najaf's GrandMosque and attempted to bait the coalition into bombing the shrine.
The coalition chose to follow the advice passed on by an aide of ShiiteAyatollah Ali al-Sistani: "Let us deal with Sadr. We know how to handle him andwill do so. However, the coalition must not make him a martyr."
The British general shook his head. "Dealing with Sadr will appearindecisive, as the Battle of Najaf appears indecisive. But in the long run Iraqwill be better off if Sadr withers, or defeats himself."
Seven years ago, Osama bin Laden was a Big Man on the planet, a beardedstud with a Himalayan reputation among young Muslim militants from Morocco toIndonesia. Now, bin Laden hides in the Himalayas.
The Hollywood finale to 9-11 would have U.S. special forces dragging achained bin Laden from his hideout, the frightened wannabe Caliph squinting inthe harsh sunlight.
The Hollywood ending hasn't happened. Bin Laden may yet be arrested andbrought to trial and convicted -- it should be done.
Bin Laden's slow rot may be the "Sadr strategy" writ large, however. Theslow rot certainly isn't as emotionally satisfying as Hollywood's denouement. Ithas political consequences. "Bush can't get bin Laden" is a frequent taunt. Butin terms of forwarding America's long-range strategy for defeatingIslamo-fascism and helping Middle Eastern Muslim nations address their long-termchallenge, bin Laden's slow rot -- in lieu of ascent to martyrdom -- may proveto be ironically useful.
Every war is a series of mistakes -- bloody, expensive mistakes. France'sGeorges Clemenceau provided a more elegant rendering of the terrible hell of it:War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory. Ultimately, winningany war, but especially this intricate, multidimensional war, demandsperseverance and creative adaptation.
In war, the enemy makes mistakes as well, and al-Qaeda has made numerousstrategic errors.
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 ofviolence. That utopian fantasy seeks to explain and then redress roughly 800years of Muslim decline. Bin Laden concluded that attacking the United Statesand the infidel West was the way to energize these young Muslims -- a physicaldemonstration of "violent virtue" and its history-shaping effects.
Attacking the United States and Europe would be so overwhelmingly popularthe West would leave Muslim nations. Al-Qaida would then take control of SaudiArabia and Egypt. Bin Laden provided a sketch but few details. He would rely onanger and fervor -- and his own iconic leadership.
Seven years later, it appears attacking the West was a huge strategicblunder by al-Qaida -- and that's not a solely "Western" opinion. Al-Qaida'scriminal record has wrecked its reputation in Muslim nations. We've hadindications. StrategyPage.com noted on Oct. 27, 2005, that "the Muslim media isless and less willing to be an apologist for al-Qaida, at least when it comes tokilling Muslim civilians" and that the Iraqi media in particular "really has itin for al-Qaida."
On Oct. 1, 2006, StrategyPage.com argued that "dead Iraqis were killingal-Qaida. ... Westerners, unless they observe Arab media closely, and havecontacts inside the Arab world, will not have noted this sharp drop inal-Qaida's fortunes."
Al-Qaida's malignant message still dupes some young Muslim men.Nineteenth and early 20th century militant anarchist tracts still appeal toviolent killers like the Unabomber. Rock music critics and late-night TV cabletalk 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 Stateswould be combating a myth and a legend. Instead of caliphate, bin Laden hasproduced his own catastrophe. The bin Laden icon is seriously fractured, if notquite shattered.