Defeating al-Qaida

There’s a growing meme that between battlefield defeats in Iraq, internal divisions and souring public opinion, al-Qaida is a hobbled enemy. While I don’t agree with all of his answers, I think that Walid Phares is asking some very important questions about just how to measure victory or defeat over al-Qaida.

Essentially, Phares argues that all of the current progress is contingent on keeping a firm military bootprint on the regional pressure points that, if loosened, would allow al-Qaida to regroup, whether under its Bin Ladenist current or some other ideological replacement:

As simple as that: if the United States decides to end the War on Terror, or as its bureaucracy has been inclined to do lately, end the War of Ideas against Jihadism, the hydra will rise again and change the course of the conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Arabia and the African Sahara. All depends on how Americans and other democracies are going to wage their campaign against al Qaeda’s ideology. If they choose to ignore it and embark on a fantasy trip to nowhere, as the “Lexicon” business shows, al Qaeda — or its successors — will win eventually.

My principle problem with that argument isn’t a tactical one, but a strategic one. The two questions that Phares doesn’t ask are, 1) What does an al-Qaida victory actually look like? and, 2) Do the costs associated with the broad commitment from Pakistan through Central Africa make sense from a strategic perspective?

I’m not convinced that al-Qaida poses anything more than a very dangerous and at times very painful security risk, and I don’t think that anything they might eventually “win” will allow them to amount to much more than that. Which means that depleting our power and influence on a global level, bleeding our military and embittering our domestic political debate are exorbitant costs to bear for the strategic advantages they confer.

That, to me, is the crux of the debate. Iraq overlaps with it, but includes other dimensions (e.g. our moral obligation to prevent a bloodletting, containing Iran’s influence, etc.). But I imagine that your view of the way forward, both in Iraq and regionally, depends in large part on how you answer those two questions.

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