During last Friday’s debate, John McCain – whose performance was otherwise very strong – failed to debunk the falsest charge of the evening. According to Obama, “from a strategic national security perspective, Al Qaeda is resurgent, stronger now than at any time since 2001.” This is the one meme of the anti-war left that the success of the surge has most decisively put to rest. But after the debate – and after eight years of an administration that long ago stopped trying to defend its policies in Iraq – the prospect that McCain will more competently ward off critics is far from certain.
Critics like Obama carp that had there been no invasion, there never would have been al Qaeda in Iraq. This is difficult to either prove or disprove. We know that Iraq harbored and very likely supported Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the suspected bomb makers involved in the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. A series of memos from the spring of 2001, uncovered after the U.S. invasion, shows that the Iraqi Intelligence Service funded Abu Sayyaf and Ansar Al Islam, Al Qaeda affiliated groups; that Osama bin Laden requested Iraqi cooperation on terrorism and propaganda; and that in January 1997 the Iraqi regime was eager to continue its relationship with bin Laden. Other documents indicate that Hussein was a sponsor of Al Qaeda activities in the Sudan. Still, an exhaustive Pentagon study concluded in 2006 that there was “no operational” relationship between Sadaam and Al Qaeda.
But what is not in dispute is that thousands of jihadists are dead, Al Qaeda has suffered a major loss in Iraq, its self-declared "central battlefield," and the movement is largely discredited on the Arab street and even within Islamist circles. Not even the war’s strongest supporters could have predicted this in 2003.
In May of this year CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Washington Post that Al Qaeda is essentially defeated in Iraq and Saudi Arabia and on the defensive throughout much of the world. Pointing to the series of mostly low level terrorist attacks in European countries since 2003, former CIA official Robert Baer backs this view, telling Reuters last month that what “Al Qaeda's left with is a bunch of Sunni radicals in various capitals who get their orders and technology on the Internet. But their contact with home base is not very strong and they're not very disciplined.”
This shouldn’t surprise anyone: it makes sense that an Arab-led terrorist group like Al Qaeda would suffer more from a defeat in a strategically critical country in the heart of the Arab Middle East than from a defeat in a primitive backwater in Central Asia, like Afghanistan. The rugged hills on the Pakistani Afghan border may be dangerous, but they are not conducive to organizational command and control.
It is for this reason that Osama bin Laden would state in 2004, “The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world’s millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.”
Indeed, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman recently told reporter Michael Totten, “[Abu Musab al] Zarqawi invented Al Qaeda in Iraq . . . Then he blew up the Samarra mosque . . . Then the Al Qaeda leadership outside dumped huge amounts of money and people and arms into Anbar Province. They poured everything they had into this place. The battle against Americans in Anbar became their most important fight in the world. And they lost.”
Government experts are not the only ones who have made this diagnosis. Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, research fellows at New York University's Center on Law and Security, write in the June 11th issue of The New Republic that an open letter to Osama Bin Laden’s number two man Ayman al Zawahiri in November of 2007 by Noman Benotman, a Libyan jihadist and close associate of Osama Bin Laden, which called on Al Qaeda to end all operations in Arab countries and in the West, represents a turning point in the Muslim world. “In repudiating Al Qaeda,” they wrote, “Benotman was adding his voice to a rising tide of anger in the Islamic world toward Al Qaeda and its affiliates, whose victims since September 11 have mostly been fellow Muslims. He was also joining a larger group of religious scholars, former fighters, and militants…who are alarmed by the targeting of civilians in the West, the senseless killings in Muslim countries, and Al Qaeda's barbaric tactics in Iraq--have turned against the organization, many just in the past year.”
Experts of all stripes agree that Al Qaida has been crippled, and the defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq was crucial to this development. But Iraqis aren’t the only ones who have soured on Al Qaeda. Last year the Pew Research Center surveyed Muslims in 16 different countries. Support for suicide bombers has declined in nearly every country that was also surveyed in 2002, and the decline is dramatic almost everywhere. The only Muslim communities surveyed where support for suicide bombers remains at greater than 50 percent are, unsurprisingly, the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
If we had been told immediately after 9/11 that our invasion of Iraq would ensure that a majority of Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East would despise Al Qaeda, that no terrorist attacks would take place on American soil at least through 2008, that the world would, after having removed the Taliban, be rid of a second major terrorist supporting regime, I suspect most Americans would have taken that deal, even with the loss of life and injuries our armed service men and women have suffered.
Here is the important point: by bringing the war to their turf, to the heart of the Middle East, the United States forced the Muslim world to witness the barbarity of the jihadist movement that many of them supported only from a distance, and has thus mid-wifed into existence a steady and inexorable change in the Muslim world. That has always been the war’s most important foreign policy goal. It was deeply discouraging that McCain didn’t clarify the record.