Monday, August 01, 2005

Quagmire for al-Qaida

Debkafile, the private Israeli intelligence service, which is always entertaining but often in error, reports that al-Qaida is shifting more than 1,000 of its operatives from Iraq for terror offensives in Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East.

"The countries targeted were named as Britain, Italy, France, Denmark, Russia -- with the U.K. and Italy at the top of the list; and in the Middle East, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel," Debka said on its Web site. READ MORE

The (successful) 7/7 and (fizzled) 7/21 attacks in London and especially the July 22 attack at the Sharm el-Sheik resort in Egypt suggest that this time Debka may be on to something. Six Pakistani men are being sought in connection with the Sharm el-Sheik, bombing, and the car bombs used in the attack appear to have passed through Egyptian customs.

If true, is the shift of forces from Iraq a product of confidence, of desperation, or of sheer nuttiness?

Debka suggests confidence. "[Abu Musab al] Zarqawi [the al-Qaida chieftain in Iraq] offered his estimate that after three years of joint combat, Iraqi insurgents ought to be capable of running the guerrilla war against the Americans on their own."
But except in news reports, the war in Iraq has been going poorly for al-Qaida.

Retired Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the Army, said in a speech July 25 that so far this year, U.S. and Iraqi security forces have killed or captured more than 50,000 insurgents, including a significant portion of the leadership. While the majority of these have to be people who were interviewed and released, that's still an impressive total.

Car bombings, al-Qaida's specialty, have fallen from (a record high of) 170 in April to 151 in May to 133 in June, with less than 100 so far in July. (Journalists describe this as a "worsening" trend.) Al-Qaida could be storing up for an offensive when the new Iraqi constitution is unveiled next month. We'll know soon enough.

The targets have shifted in emphasis from American forces to Iraqi forces to Shiite civilians to, most recently, Sunni Arabs who are cooperating with the government. This does not suggest growing capability or rising support. Nor do the increasing number of gun battles between al-Qaida and its ex-Baathist allies in the insurgency suggest harmony in the resistance.

Suicide attacks have been successful in gaining headlines, but have not slowed enlistment in the Iraqi armed forces, or prevented prominent Sunnis from taking part in the writing of the constitution.

American commanders are now talking openly about a major withdrawal of troops after the Iraqi elections scheduled for December. While this may reflect concerns about the strains the massive deployment in Iraq is placing on the Army and Marine Corps as much as an improving situation, it is doubtful these statements would be made publicly if the situation weren't in fact improving.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-D.C. -based think tank, has been pessimistic about Iraq. He returned from a recent visit singing a different tune:

"If current plans are successfully implemented, the total number of Iraqi military and police units that can honestly be described as trained and equipped should rise from 96,000 in September 2004, and 172,000 today to 230,000 by the end of December and 270,000 by mid-2006," he said.

Strategic Forecasting, a private American intelligence service, thinks al-Qaida is engaged in the terrorist equivalent of the Tet Offensive: "launching a series of attacks -- some significant, others mere psyops -- in an effort to turn the tide in a war it has been losing."

Clumsy mistakes made in the London bombings suggest to Strategic Forecasting that al-Qaida has suffered "a rather serious decline in the quality -- though not necessarily the quantity -- of its operational assets." A shortage of skilled labor would explain why al-Qaida is shifting assets from Iraq. But, in effect, conceding defeat in the principal theater rarely is the path to ultimate victory.

If al-Qaida is indeed shifting personnel out of Iraq, expect to hear more about Iraq as an "incubator" for terrorism. But what, pray tell, do the promoters of this theory imagine Zarqawi and his minions would have been doing these past two years if there had been no war in Iraq? Origami?

Iraq has indeed proven to be a quagmire. But not for us.