Al-Qaeda Five Years After the Fall of Kandahar

Some five years after the fall of Kandahar to American and Afghan troops the al-Qaeda movement remains vibrant and deadly. It has suffered significant setbacks since September 11, 2001, notably the loss of its state within a state in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and in its campaigns to overthrow the Egyptian and Saudi governments. But it has retained its base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it has created a new base in western Iraq. It has spread like a virus elsewhere, developing cadre throughout the Muslim world and in the Muslim Diaspora in Europe. Its ideas have attracted more followers than ever. It is a more dangerous enemy today than it was before 911.

Why has this happened? The opportunity to destroy the al-Qaeda leadership was lost in late 2001 when they fled into Pakistan where the chase ran cold. Instead of focusing resources and attention on the remnants, America went to Iraq. Usama bin Ladin welcomed the American invasion of Iraq openly and worked hard to turn it into a trap for the occupiers. He has openly said his goal is to “provoke and bait” the U.S. into “bleeding wars” throughout the Islamic world to bankrupt it as the USSR was bankrupted in Afghanistan. He aggressively pursues a propaganda campaign to put himself and his movement forward as the symbols of Islamic resistance on the global stage. He implores his followers to topple the Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian and Pakistani governments. This essay reviews Qaeda’s path over the last five years and tries to outline a strategy to defeat it.

A brief note on sources. By its nature al Qaeda is a shadowy movement, almost every issue surrounding its leaders and activities is subject of much dispute among experts. This narrative is derived almost entirely from al-Qaeda’s own words, especially the messages from bin Ladin, his partner Ayman Zawahiri and other key al-Qaeda leaders like the late Abu Musaib Zarqawi and his successor in Iraq, as well as the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. This is a rich source of information on the group and its thinking openly available. To supplement this stream of information, there are some valuable public statements from key Western intelligence service chiefs.

The Loss of Afghanistan

Kandahar, not Kabul, was the capital of Mullah Omar’s Islamic Emirate. He lived there and rarely ventured to Kabul. Its loss signified the end of the state. The al-Qaeda leadership did not anticipate the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. They welcomed the American and coalition invasion but assumed the invaders would be mired down in conflict quickly as the Soviets had been two decades before. They had anticipated that their assassination of the Northern Alliance commander Masoud two days before September 11th by a hit squad sent from Belgium would decapitate the Afghan opposition and severely weaken its ability to fight.

The loss of Afghanistan Emirate was a major setback in terms of safe haven for training, propaganda, operational planning and leadership protection. Some estimates suggest up to 60,000 jihadis were trained by the movement in Afghanistan prior to 911. The Taliban provided protection and secure working environment. The self proclaimed Commander of the Faithful Mullah Omar was ideological partner to whom bin Ladin had sworn allegiance.

The key to defeat was Pakistan’s defection from the Taliban. Pakistan had provided political patronage to Taliban from its birth and considerable military assistance both direct and indirect. According to the best expert on the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, up to 60,000 Pakistanis had served in the Taliban militia by 911, in addition to dozens of Pakistani army advisors, experts and even small units of commandos. When these critical advisors and experts left, the Taliban lost whatever conventional military capability it had. It had also lost considerable popular support among Afghans because of its draconian implementation of fundamentalist Islam and its harsh crackdown on poppy cultivation, the mainstay of the Afghan economy.

Quick Recovery in Pakistan as US Turned Toward Iraq

But the senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership recovered quickly. They escaped into hiding in badlands along the Pakistani-Afghan border by early 2002. The trail for top three—bin Ladin, Zawahiri, Omar—went stale almost immediately.

The Taliban fighters went underground. They focused on survival in 2002-2003 and developing a new base of operations in Pakistan, especially around Quetta in Baluchistan. Resurgence in their strength was already apparent by 2004. By 2006 they were sufficiently recovered in their Pakistani strongholds to launch a major offensive, even briefly trying to recover Kandahar. Attacks by the insurgents grew from 130 a month in September 2005 to 600 a month a year later. New tactics—suicide bombings and improvised explosive device booby traps—imported from Iraq became commonplace in Afghanistan. Overall attacks rose from 1632 in 2005 to 5388 in 2006, according to the US military, and suicide operations grew from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006. NATO troops suffered significant losses but held on to the major towns and cities.

As the Taliban have regrouped and recovered, al-Qaeda has assisted its ally with tactical advice and probably fundraising. In 2005 bin Ladin appeared in a Taliban video advising their commanders. If the Taliban’s fortunes improve further in 2007, al-Qaeda will be a major beneficiary.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda has used its hideout in Pakistan to resume operations against Western targets and its propaganda activities. New audio and video tapes with bin Ladin and Zawahiri messages began to emerge by early 2002. Bin Ladin made a major video tape in October 2004, timed for US elections in which he promised that Qaeda would bankrupt America in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as the Soviets had been overstretched in the 1980s and ultimately collapsed. He was largely silent in 2005, and then produced several tapes in 2006. A major Qaeda statement came on the fifth anniversary of 911 entitled “the Manhattan Raid” with previously unseen videos of two of the pilots and the most extensive discussion yet on the purpose and background of the operation. Zawahiri is much more prolific in his messages; in 2006 he issued at least fifteen messages. He is clearly the point man for propaganda and reassuring the faithful that movement is alive and well.

These tapes are more than propaganda instruments. They are a means by which the Qaeda leadership communicates to its followers, rallies them and sends guidance to them. According to one expert, there are now some 4500 overtly jihadist websites which disseminate and reproduce the Qaeda leadership’s messages. One should also assume they complement more detailed guidance sent in more discrete channels.

Al Qaeda’s global operations became “Pakistanized” because of its base. With entry into the United States more difficult, a key target has been using the UK as a stepping stone to the USA. The large communities of the Pakistani and Bengali diaspora in England have been targeted for recruitment of disaffected British Muslim citizens willing to fight for Qaeda’s goals. The relatively easy access to the Pakistani-UK community by visitors from Pakistan and for recruits to travel to Pakistan and back has facilitated recruitment, training and communications. For example, by one estimate there were 400,000 visits by residents of UK to Pakistan in 2004.

Al Qaeda also moved closer to Kashmiri terrorist groups like Lashkar-e Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. These ties predated 911. In late 1999 for example Bin Ladin had been intimately involved in the Kashmiri hijacking of an Indian airliner to Kandahar along with the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence agents. But in the wake of the loss of Afghanistan both the Taliban and Qaeda moved to consolidate further their ties to the Kashmiri extremists.

The extent of Qaeda’s recruitment in the UK has been discussed by Eliza Manningham-Buller, Director General of MI5, the British Security Service. She said in November 2006 that MI5 is monitoring some 200 networks in the UK of disaffected Muslims of South Asian descent which have produced 30 or so plots which have been disrupted to attack targets in the UK or aircraft leaving the UK for America. She noted that at “the extreme end of this spectrum, are resilient networks directed from al-Qaeda in Pakistan. These plots often have links back to al-Qaeda in Pakistan and through those links al-Qaeda gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers on an extensive and growing scale. ? The al-Qaeda threat is serious, is growing and will, I believe, be with us for a generation.” (9 November 2006)

The most notable success of these networks to date was the July 7, 2005 attacks on the London underground. Since the attacks Ayman Zawahiri has released two videos with the martyrdom videos of two of the terrorists, a clear indication of Qaeda’s sponsorship of the attacks.

The most important operation of this Pakistani-UK connection was the foiled plot last August to destroy 10 trans-Atlantic commercial airliners en route to the US from the UK, a plot likely timed for the sixth anniversary of 911 and which if successful would have had devastating impact. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has characterized this operation as the worst plot to slaughter innocent civilians since 911. As he told the Senate recently “Al Qaeda’s core element continues to plot attacks against our homeland and other targets, with the objective of inflicting mass casualties. And they are cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.”

Qaeda has also been active elsewhere in Europe but the linkages back to Pakistan are less established. For example the extent of direct Qaeda involvement in the March 11, 2004 Madrid subway attack is unclear. This may have been a copy cat operation independent of bin Ladin. Other sources, including the usually well connected Al Quds al-Arabi editor Abdel Bari Atwan claim it was a Qaeda operation. Zawahiri included it in a list of successful Qaeda’s “raids” in a public message last year.

It is also true that Pakistan has also been scene of most successful manhunts for Qaeda’s lieutenants including the detention of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad who has provided to us his version (perhaps a bit self serving) of the planning behind 911. But these arrests have not led to the capture of the senior leadership nor have they significantly disrupted propaganda operations nor broken the Pakistan-UK connection.

Pakistan is the ground center for the international al Qaeda movement today. President Musharraf rightly notes that he has been the target of at least two plots by the movement to kill him. But there is also no question of Pakistani continued tolerance for those who harbor bin Ladin and his lieutenants in Pakistan, the Taliban, their Afghan fellow travelers, and the Kashmiri terrorist infrastructure. Even many senior Pakistani politicians privately say they believe Pakistani intelligence still has extensive links to bin Ladin, some even claim ISI harbors him. Musharraf has promised a full crackdown on extremism more than once but has instead sought to tame it without notable success.

Twin Offensives Fail

After the fall of Kandahar, bin Ladin and Zawahiri issued calls for the overthrow of their home regimes, the Saudi and Egyptian governments. In February 2003 bin Ladin wrote a famous sermon extolling the “Band of Knights”, the jihadi warriors who had attacked Manhattan and the Pentagon and calling for the overthrow of all the apostate regimes in the Gulf—the “Karzai’s” of Riyadh, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.” In a follow on message in December 2004 he called for the tyrants to be deposed and named those who he specifically argued should be killed in the revolution in the Kingdom: Crown Prince (now King) Abdallah, Defense Minister Sultan, Interior Minister Nayef, and Prince Bandar, then Saudi Ambassador in Washington. In several messages he urged the jihadis to target the oil sector to drive up the cost of oil on the global market. According to Saudi officials, these public messages were accompanied by secret orders to cells in Saudi Arabia from bin Ladin instructing them to attack soft targets in the Kingdom.

In Saudi Arabia bin Ladin’s words were translated into the most serious and sustained domestic violence since the creation of the modern Kingdom at the start of the 20th century. The al-Qaeda apparatus in the Kingdom—quiescent previously—exploded into action. From May 2003 until 2006, Qaeda undertook a series of high profile attacks on Western and regime targets in the Kingdom.

Ironically, this offensive coincided with withdrawal of US military forces from their main base at Prince Sultan Air Base and the rest of Kingdom which some analysts had incorrectly believed to be the main goal of bin Ladin. The departure of the Americans was never bin Ladin’s principal goal, rather it is and was a stepping stone to the overthrow of the “corrupt” regimes in the Islamic world and the ultimate destruction of Israel.

Al Qaeda’s targets included the housing compounds of Western firms like Vinnell, individual Westerners, Arab housing compounds connected to the oil industry, the Ministry of Interior, the US Consulate in Jidda in December 2004, and in February 2006 the Abqaiq oil processing facility in the Eastern Province (the facility responsible for 60% of Saudi oil production). Hundreds died in clashes between the al Qaeda terrorists and the security forces.

But the Saudi internal security forces fought back very effectively. By the end of 2006 they had killed or captured over 260 terrorists including all but one of the most wanted top 26 in the country. According to the Saudis they foiled more than 25 major attacks. The backbone of the al-Qaeda movement in the Kingdom was apparently broken, but probably only for a time.

The al Qaeda offensive in Egypt fared less well. Ayman Zawahiri preached the overthrow of the Mubarak government in a series of messages after 911. Violence did wrack Egypt for a time in 2004 and 2005. Hotels and tourist sites frequented by Israelis and Westerners in the Sinai were struck in October 2004 and July 2005. The July attacks were especially destructive killing almost a hundred in Sharm al Shaykh. (Outdoing the previous worst terror in Egypt, the Luxor massacre in 1997, also linked to Zawahiri).

But the violence never spread to Egypt proper. The Egyptian security apparatus successfully confined the threat to the Sinai and away from the center of the Egyptian political life. A cadre of terrorists and sympathizers almost certainly still exists in Sinai but it does not threaten the regime. Most recently Zawahiri has announced a new alliance between al-Qaeda and an Islamic group inside Egypt led by the brother of Khaled Ahmed Islambouli, the assassin of Anwar Sadat, but it is too early to tell if they can spread the violence into Cairo and the Nile delta.

The bottom line in both cases is that al-Qaeda’s appeals to depose the “tyrants” failed. The Saudi and Egyptian regimes withstood the Qaeda offensive and survived. Obviously there may be more acts of terror in both in the years ahead; indeed one should especially expect attacks on Western targets. But one should also anticipate both regimes to survive. But even as Qaeda failed in the Kingdom and Egypt, it found pay dirt in Iraq.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq—Success Beyond Imagined

As the 911 commission reported, prior to 911 there is no credible evidence of any operational connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq. The infamous Czech report about the 911 pilot who lead the Hamburg cell of terrorists, Mohammad Atta, meeting with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague has been thoroughly discredited and the Czechs have admitted to mistaken identity.

But after the fall of Kandahar al-Qaeda embarked on a several moves to develop rapidly a capability in Iraq. On 11 February 2003 bin Ladin sent a letter to the Iraqi people, broadcast via al-Jazirah, warning them to prepare for the “Crusaders war to occupy one of Islam’s former capitals, loot Muslim riches, and install a stooge regime to follow its masters in Washington and Tel Aviv to pave the way for the establishment of Greater Israel.” He advised the Iraqi nation to prepare for a long struggle against the Crusaders and in particular to engage in “urban and street warfare” and to “emphasize the importance of martyrdom operations which have inflicted unprecedented harm on America and Israel.”

Bin Ladin even encouraged the jihadists in Iraq to work with “the socialist’s infidels”, i.e. the Baathists and others, against the Crusaders in a “convergence of interests.” This overt message five weeks before the Anglo-American invasion was accompanied by more active measures.

Thousands of Arab volunteers went to Iraq in the run up to the invasion; some inspired by bin Ladin’s words. Most importantly a long time bin Ladin associate, Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayilah aka Abu Musaib Zarqawi, infiltrated into Iraq sometime in 2002 to begin preparations to resist the invasion. Zarqawi had been a partner in al Qaeda’s millennium plot in December 2000 to blow up the Radisson Hotel and other targets in Amman, Jordan, and had subsequently fled to Herat in Afghanistan via Pakistan. In Herat he operated independently of al Qaeda but as a complement to it. After the coalition overran Herat he moved to Iraq. In 2002 he created an infrastructure in Iraq to prepare for the Americans. His network carried out its first operation before the invasion by killing a USAID officer, Laurence Foley, in Amman on October 28, 2002.

Zarqawi became much more active after the invasion. He pursued a two prong strategy. First he sought to isolate the Americans by driving out all other foreign forces. This was done with systematic terrorist attacks, most notably the bombing of the UN headquarters and the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad in the summer of 2003.

Second, and more importantly, Zarqawi went after the fault line in Iraqi political society—the Shia-Sunni divide—with the goal of provoking a civil war among the Iraqi people. His goal clearly was to isolate America, then destabilize the country.

Zarqawi thus pursued a series of attacks on the Shia leadership in Iraq, its holy places and the Shia man and woman in the street. Beginning with an attack that killed the senior leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Ayatollah Hakim, in the summer of 2003, these attacks escalated with bombs of Shia shrines in Najaf and Baghdad in March 2004 and in Najaf and Kerbala in December 2004. They culminated in the attack on the Samarra shrine in February 2006. Even by the ruthless standards of al Qaeda, Zarqawi excelled in violence and brutality. Within the movement he was known as al Gharib, the stranger, for his extreme views.

This evil strategy succeeded brilliantly. It provoked some criticism from other Jihadists and some second guessing even within al-Qaeda, but it worked. Zawahiri, according to an intercepted letter to Zarqawi, expressed doubts about the wisdom of opening the Pandora’s Box of Sunni-Shia hatred in the Muslim world but Zarqawi pressed ahead. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan never publicly argued with him. While only a small percentage of the Sunni insurgents under its leadership, Al Qaeda in Iraq became the cutting edge of the insurgency and the engine of civil war. By late 2004, Zarqawi had formally and publicly proclaimed his allegiance to bin Ladin and in turn Usama called Zarqawi “the Prince of al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Après Zarqawi—The Islamic State of Iraq

The apparatus Zarqawi built survived his own death in the summer of 2006. And it continued his strategy, most notably by orchestrating the Thanksgiving Day massacres in Baghdad. It has also pursued the goal of civil war by proclaiming the independence of a Sunni state in the Sunni inhabited areas of Iraq. On 15 October 2006 it proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq in Baghdad, Mosul and Anbar province. This state would fight not just the Crusader occupation but also—as the statement indicated—the allegedly Israeli supported Kurdish state in the north and the Persian backed Shia state in the south.

Indeed there is evidence that Al Qaeda in Iraq increasingly is looking beyond the American occupation as the greatest threat to the Sunni community to the growing danger of Iranian domination of Iraq. In a remarkable statement on 10 November, Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Hamzah Muhajr, AKA al-Masri, thanked President Bush for sending the American Army to Iraq where al-Qaeda could capitalize on the “great historic opportunity” to engage the Americans in direct fighting on Arab ground. For this he praised Bush as “the most stupid and ominous President” in American history. But he also warned that the invasion had “revived the glory of the Old Persian Safavid Empire in a very short period of time.” His statement suggests al Qaeda’s own worries about the future of the Sunni minority in a Shia dominated Iraq after the Americans leave.

Zarqawi and Al Qaeda in Iraq are important for two other reasons. First, like bin Ladin and Zawahiri, Zarqawi tried to overthrow the leader of his home country, King Abdallah of Jordan. His apparatus in Iraq engaged in a series of plots against the Hashemite Kingdom most of which the Jordanian security forces foiled. The most ambitious was a plot to strike the headquarters in Amman of the General Intelligence Directorate with a chemical bomb in April 2004. The GID seized truck bombs with over 20 tons of chemical explosives.

Zarqawi openly claimed credit for the plot to attack the GID but said the claim of a chemical attack was an invention of the Jordanian authorities because, as he said in a remarkable commentary, if he got possession of such a “bomb we would not hesitate one second to use it on Israeli cities.” Al Qaeda was responsible for the November 2005 bombing of three Amman hotels (including the Radisson). An Iraqi female suicide bomber was captured by the GID and confessed to being sent by Zarqawi to participate in the attack with her husband.

But Zarqawi’s efforts in Jordan have been as much a failure as his mentor’s efforts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Again the traditional Arab regimes have proven to be too strong for Al-Qaeda.

Secondly, Zarqawi built an elaborate infrastructure of support in the Arab world and in the Muslim communities in Europe to provide foot soldiers for the war in Iraq. Dozens of these foreign fighters have come to Iraq to join the jihad, a pipeline that potentially could be used to ship experienced fighters back to their homelands at a later date. Saudis appear to be among the most numerous but exact numbers are impossible to come by. Perhaps the most famous is the Belgian girl who blew herself up in Iraq in November 2005 after her husband persuaded her to travel with him to commit martyrdom.

In the process Al Qaeda in Iraq has developed a credibility and legend in the jihadist subculture that is extremely powerful. It videos most of its operations and then transmits the gruesome coverage rapidly to jihadist websites all over the world to vividly demonstrate its strength.

The bottom line is that al Qaeda’s Iraq apparatus has developed as a second Qaeda center—in partnership with the old center in Pakistan, but able to operate independently of its father apparatus—giving Qaeda a base of operations in the very heart of the Arab world. Never before has the movement had so much influence on Arab soil.

Whither Al Qaeda?

Given its current trajectory, Al-Qaeda is well placed to continue to threaten global security in the next five years. It has survived the post-911 assault by the US and its allies. Its leadership remains intact at the top. It has retained a base of operations in Pakistan/Afghanistan and is conducting operations from there into Europe. It has created a new base of operations in Anbar and Baghdad. Its decentralized command and control is an asset allowing it to survive the loss of key operatives like Khalid Shaykh Muhammad and Abu Musaib Zarqawi. It is certain to get a big boost if and when US forces begin withdrawal from Iraq or NATO pulls out of Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda’s confidence is reflected in its rhetoric. The newly proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq now says “the waves of the fierce Crusader campaign against the Islamic world have broken on the rock of the mujahidin and have reached a dead end in Iraq and Afghanistan ? For the first time since the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in the past the century, the region is witnessing the revival of Islamic Caliphates.”

These developments have major implications for the West in general and the US in particular. Five years after September 11th the West is no safer today than it was then. Qaeda thrives on failed or failing states. In Iraq it set a sectarian trap which the US stumbled into. In Afghanistan it is making a comeback. What other failing states may next witness creation of an al Qaeda base camp?

Potential candidates include Lebanon, which has a long history of extremist Sunni groups operating particularly in the country’s second largest city, Tripoli, which was controlled by a Sunni fundamentalist group during much of the 1980s before Syria cracked down on it. If the Lebanese state is further weakened or civil war breaks out, look for Qaeda to seek a foothold there. UNIFIL is a likely target for Qaeda operations since for jihadists it is just another Crusader army in the Muslim world. Gaza is another prime candidate. Already divided between Hamas and Fatah, there is evidence of a small Qaeda apparatus under development in the strip. Bangladesh is a third possible candidate. One of the original signators of bin Ladin’s 1998 declaration of war on the West was a Bangladeshi jihadist group. Last year there were growing indications of a radicalization of Bengali fundamentalist groups as the country itself is increasingly torn apart by the bitter political feud between its two political parties. The political meltdown now underway in Dacca is ripe for Qaeda to thrive.

The challenge of defeating al Qaeda today is more complex in 2007 than it was 2001. Then it was a relatively unified movement. Now it is more diffuse and its subcomponents operate more independently of the old center. This is not to say that bin Ladin doesn’t influence its direction. As the record shows, he still provides general guidance and there is good reason to believe he and Zawahiri also provide more specific instructions on occasion. But overall the movement is more loosely structured, leaving more room for copy cat terrorism and independent operations. That is a harder target to combat than the old Qaeda.

What to Do?

Finally, it is clear the West needs a grand strategy for defeating the Al Qaeda movement. The past five years have demonstrated that a primarily military strategy will not work. To the contrary the occupation of two Muslim countries has unwittingly played into the propaganda hands of the jihadist, validating their argument that the US wants to control the Muslim world to exploit its resources and allow Israel to be the dominant regional power.

A new grand strategy against the Qaeda movement must integrate all aspects of both national and homeland security. Diplomacy needs to be harnessed effectively to resolve the quarrels that fuel Qaeda’s recruitment in the Muslim world. Intelligence collection and analysis needs to be more sharply focused to track down the leadership and break up cells before they act. Defenses at home need to be closely integrated with our alliance structures abroad. Our allies need to have renewed confidence in American leadership.

The target of our strategy needs to be the Qaeda leadership. The leaders of the movement provide the inspiration and direction for the jihad. As long as they are alive and active, they symbolize the success of resistance to America and attract new recruits. It is not good enough to have them “on the run” or “hiding in cave.” That is a recipe for defeat, if not an acknowledgement of failure. Clearly Usama bin Ladin’s death and that of his senior associates in Pakistan and Iraq will not end the Qaeda movement, but it will deal it a serious setback.

How to Do It?

A critical first step is to enhance our commitment to Afghanistan. DNI John Negroponte told Congress this year that 2007 will be pivotal for Afghanistan. To defeat the resurgent Taliban this year will require a significant increase in NATO forces and that means American leadership. The US should divert troops from Iraq to Afghanistan urgently, only when the other allies see a revived US commitment will they provide the numbers of troops and equipment needed. Moreover, NATO should encourage its partners in the NATO Mediterranean dialogue, especially Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco to offer troops to help stabilize Afghanistan.

NATO should create a contact group led by a senior NATO diplomat to engage with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors on means to stabilize the borders, especially along the 1500 mile long Pakistan border. This group should include Iran which has been a generally helpful player in Afghanistan in the last few years (unlike in Iraq). NATO should also reach out to India, which has provided already a half million dollars in aid for Afghanistan and has a national interest in defeating Islamic terrorism having been for too long a target.

Beyond a military and security buildup the US should also take the lead on a major economic reconstruction program. The international community has delivered far less aid to Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, since 2001 than it has to other recovering states like Bosnia on a per capita basis. Infrastructure needs enormous development to help develop an agricultural economy that can compete with poppy cultivation. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is too important to be underfinanced.

The US and its partners including NATO also need to take a firmer line with Pakistan. President Musharraf has taken some important steps against Qaeda, especially after their attempts to kill him. For this we have promised a $3billion aid program. But it is not enough to apprehend a few Qaeda officers, rather a systematic crackdown on all terrorists—Arabs, Afghans and Kashmiris—is critical. Pakistan should not be rewarded for selective counter terrorism, arresting a few while still sponsoring Kashmiri violence and tolerating Taliban activity. The new Congress should take a sharp look at the evidence of Pakistani cooperation including from the Afghan authorities.

Congress should also press the Administration to ensure Pakistan has free and fair parliamentary elections this year and that Pakistani opposition leaders are allowed to compete in them. If it makes sense to bring democracy to Afghanistan then surely it makes sense to bring it to Pakistan. Moreover, until the Pakistani army and intelligence services are back in their barracks, the nexus between terrorism and Pakistan will continue. It is the army and the ISI that have tolerated and sponsored terrorism for the last decade.

Iraq is also a critical battlefield but it is time we recognize that it is more of a trap than an opportunity for the US. Our enemies, Qaeda and Iran, want us to remain bogged down in a quagmire in Iraq. As noted earlier Qaeda even openly welcomes the chance to fight us there. It is time to stop reinforcing failure and disengage from the Iraqi civil war. An orderly and phased troop drawdown should be conducted but not with haste. This is not the place to review the litany of American mistakes and misjudgments that led to this disaster. Our diplomacy has been clumsy, inept and counterproductive. It is time now to let Iraqis settle their conflicts. The key is to give the Iraqi government the credit for our departure so as to enhance its own legitimacy.

Qaeda will claim a victory when we leave. In fact it already is claiming victory. But it is unlikely its Islamic State of Iraq will fare well after the occupation ends. Anbar and its adjacent Sunni provinces have few natural resources or water and no access to the outside world except through hostile territory. Iraq’s Shia and Kurdish militias will have no compunctions about repressing the Islamic State of Iraq with ruthless violence. It is already clear from Qaeda’s own propaganda that they fear the Shia wrath after we go more than they fear the Americans while we stay. It will be a messy and ugly aftermath and it will require careful conflict management to keep it a civil war not a regional war, but we should face the realities of the situation sooner rather than later.

Above all the West needs a more effective narrative to win the war of ideas with al Qaeda. Simply calling for democracy has not resonated. Our actions have not matched out rhetoric. Abu Gharaib and Guantanamo have sullied our reputation and honor. Iraq is not a model anyone would want to emulate. A more powerful narrative probably will require new leadership in Washington and London untarnished by the events of the last few years. It will need to show with concrete action that America is prepared to take a leadership role in addressing the conflicts and issues that Qaeda uses to win recruits, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict but also other conflicts like Kashmir.

The President should get personally involved in peace making in both cases. This will not be easy, especially with a Hamas government but history demonstrates that neglecting the issue is not a solution either. We should consider other ideas for how to get back to the negotiating table including the Baker proposal for a new international conference. The President should also use our enhanced relationship with India in the wake of the nuclear deal signed last year to encourage the nascent Indo-Pakistani dialogue and seek a solution to end their rivalry. This will make it easier for a Pakistani government to crack down on terror. Kashmir is the key to breaking the Pakistani connection to terror. The time for preventive diplomacy on the subcontinent is now while they are talking to each other.

It is fashionable to call this struggle with Qaeda the long war now. It does not need to be a long war. Decisive actions in the key arena can bring results. A focused strategy can destroy the Qaeda movement. Failure to do so will risk another “raid” on our country but perhaps with a weapon of mass destruction. For the last several years al Qaeda’s priority has been to bleed America in Afghanistan and Iraq. Striking the homeland of the Crusaders has been a lesser priority. Should Qaeda survive longer, however, sooner or later it will strike us again at home.