Week out of Focus: Washington, Iraq and Al Qaeda
By George Friedman
Last week, the United States focused on the state of the war -- not just the one in Iraq, but the broader war against al Qaeda. A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was released asserting that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in Pakistan and is either at or near its previous capabilities. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his gut told him there is an increased risk of an al Qaeda attack in the United States this summer. President George W. Bush said at a press conference that the July 15 status report on Iraq would show that progress is being made in the war. When the report actually was released, it revealed a somewhat more pessimistic picture in some areas. Meanwhile, the Republican Party was showing signs of internal strain over the war, while the Democrats were unable to formulate their own collective position. So, it was a week in which everyone focused on the war, but not one that made a whole lot of sense -- at least on the surface.In some ways, the most startling assertion made was that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in Pakistan. What is startling is that it appears to acknowledge that the primary U.S. mission in the war -- the destruction of al Qaeda -- not only has failed to achieve its goal, but also has done little more than force al Qaeda out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan. Chertoff's statement that there is a high threat of an attack this summer merely reinforces the idea that the administration is conceding the failure of its covert war against al Qaeda. This is not an impossible idea. A recent book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tim Weiner, "Legacy of Ashes," provides an extraordinary chronicle of the CIA's progressive inability to carry out its mission. So the NIE claim might well have been an admission of failure. But it was an odd admission and was not couched as a failure.What made this odd is that the administration is not known to concede failure lightly. During the same week, it continued to assert the more dubious proposition that it is making progress in Iraq. Why, therefore, was it releasing such pessimistic reports on al Qaeda, and why was Chertoff saying his gut tells him an attack this summer is possible? Why make the best-case scenario for Iraq and the worst-case scenario for al Qaeda?There is nothing absurd about a gut call in intelligence, and much of the ridicule of Chertoff was absurd. Intelligence analysis -- particularly good intelligence analysis -- depends on gut calls. Analysts live in a world of incomplete and shifting intelligence, compelled to reach conclusions under the pressure of time and events. Intuition of experienced and gifted analysts is the bridge between leaving decision-makers without an analysis and providing the best guess available. The issue, as always, is how good the gut is.We would assume that Chertoff was keying off of two things: the NIE's assertion that al Qaeda is back and the attacks possibly linked to al Qaeda in the United Kingdom. His gut told him that increased capabilities in Pakistan, coupled with what he saw in England and Scotland, would likely indicate a threat to the United States.One question needs to be asked: What should be made of the NIE report and the events in the United Kingdom? It also is necessary to evaluate not only Chertoff's gut but also the gut intuitions of U.S. intelligence collectively. The NIE call is the most perplexing, partly because the day it appeared Stratfor issued a report downplaying al Qaeda's threat. But part of that could well be semantics. Precisely what do we mean when we say al Qaeda?When U.S. forces talk about al Qaeda, they talk about large training camps that move thousands of trainees through them. Those are not the people we talk about when we discuss al Qaeda. The people who go through the camps generally are relatively uneducated young men being trained as paramilitaries. They learn to shoot. They learn to devise simple explosives. They learn infantry tactics. They are called al Qaeda but they are more like Taliban fighters. They are not trained in the covert arts of moving to the United States, surviving without detection while being trained in flying airliners, and then carrying out complex missions effectively. They are al Qaeda in name and, inside Afghanistan or Pakistan, they might be able to do well in a firefight, but they are nothing like the men who struck on 9/11, nor are they trained to be. When the U.S. government speaks about thousands of al Qaeda fighters, the vision is that the camps are filled with these thousands of men with the skill level of the 9/11 attackers. It is a scary vision, which the administration has pushed since 9/11, but it isn't true. These guys are local troops for the endless wars of the region.When we think of al Qaeda, we think of the tiny group of skilled operatives who gathered around Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef in the 1990s. That group was capable of planning attacks across continents, moving money and men around the world -- and doing so without being detected. Those people have been the target of U.S. intelligence. The goal has been to capture, kill or bottle up those men in inaccessible places in order to prevent another attack like 9/11 or worse. If the NIE report meant to say this group has reconstituted itself, it would be startling news. One of the ways this group survived is that it did not recruit new members directly into the core organization. One of the ways Palestinian terrorist organizations have been destroyed is by allowing new personnel into the core. This allowed intelligence agencies to vector agents into the core, map them out and destroy them. Al Qaeda was not going to make the same mistake, so it was extremely reluctant to expand. This has limited its operations. It could not replace losses and therefore weakened as it was assaulted. But it did protect itself from penetration, which is why capturing surviving leaders has been so difficult.If the NIE report is true, then the NIE is saying al Qaeda not only has been recruiting members into the core group, but also that it has been doing so for some time. If that is true then there have been excellent opportunities to penetrate and destroy what is left of it. But we don't think that is true, because al-Zawahiri and others, possibly bin Laden, are still on the loose. Therefore, we think the NIE is saying that the broad paramilitaries are active again and are now located in Pakistan.Strange Week in WashingtonAlternatively, the NIE is saying that a parallel covert group has been created in Pakistan, is using al Qaeda's name and is mounting new attacks. The attacks in the United Kingdom might have been part of its efforts, though they are an example of why we have always argued that terrorism is technically much more difficult to carry out than it might seem. Those attacks were botched from beginning to end. Unlike strikes by al Qaeda prime -- the core group -- these attacks, if they represent an effort by a new al Qaeda, should be a comfort. It was the gang that couldn't shoot straight operating globally. If Chertoff's gut is speaking about a secondary group in Pakistan carrying out attacks similar to those in the United Kingdom, then certainly there is cause for concern, but nothing like the concern that should be felt if al Qaeda prime is active again. But then we don't think it can be, unless it has recruited new members. And if it has been recruiting new members and U.S. intelligence hasn't slipped someone inside during the process, then that would be not only a shame but also the admission of a major intelligence fiasco. We don't think that is what the NIE is discussing. It is a warning that a group calling itself al Qaeda is operating in Pakistan. That can be called a revived al Qaeda, but only if one is careless with terminology.It should also be remembered that the United States is placing heavy pressure on the Pakistanis. A report leaked early last week by the New York Times confirmed what Stratfor said as early as January 2004, that a major incursion into northwestern Pakistan had been planned by the United States but was called off at the last minute over fear of destabilizing President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Or, more precisely, it was called off after Musharraf promised to carry out the operation himself. He did so, but ineffectively and half-heartedly, so that al Qaeda prime was not rooted out. By leaking the report of the planned incursion, the United States was reminding Musharraf of his guarantee. By issuing the NIE report, it was increasing pressure on Musharraf to do something decisive about militant Islamists in Pakistan -- or the United States would have to do something. Already heavily pressured by domestic forces, Musharraf ordered the raid on the Red Mosque last week, demonstrating his commitment to contain radical Islamism in Pakistan and root out al Qaeda -- or at least that part of al Qaeda that is not part of the isolated primary group. Between the implicit threat of invasion and the explicit report that Pakistan is the center of a new al Qaeda, Pakistan got the message. Whether Islamabad will be able to act on it is another question.So the NIE report was meant to pressure Pakistan, even if it looked like an admission of the total failure of the intelligence community's mission. Chertoff's warning of attacks this summer was partly an attempt to warn that there might be attacks like those that happened in the United Kingdom -- to which the answer is that one can only hope that they would be exactly like those. Even had they been successful, they would not have risen to the level of 9/11 or even close. And they failed. The fact is that, in a simple empirical sense, the one thing that has been successful in this war is that there has not been a single follow-on attack to 9/11 in the United States. The reason might be because al Qaeda either doesn't want to attack or lacks the resources. Another answer might be that it has been stopped by effective U.S. counterterrorism activities. This is a subject that needs analysis. In our view, it is the latter. But the simple fact is that the one mission achieved by the administration is that no attacks have occurred.There have been numerous warnings of potential attacks. Such warnings are always interesting. They imply that the United States has sufficient intelligence to know that attacks are being planned but insufficient intelligence to block them. The usual basis of these warnings is an attack elsewhere. The second is access to a fragmentary bit of intelligence, human or electronic, indicating in a nonspecific way that an attack is possible. But such warnings usually are untrue because an effective terrorist group does not leak information. That is its primary defense. So chatter about attacks rarely indicates a serious one is imminent. Or, and this happens, a potential attack was aborted by the announcement and by increased security. We have no idea what Chertoff saw to lead him to make his announcement. But the fact is that there have been no attacks in six years -- and should there be a strategic attack now, it would represent not a continuation of the war but a new phase.All of this neatly intersected with Bush's discussion of Iraq. He does not want to withdraw or announce a time line for withdrawal. His reason should be that a withdrawal from Iraq would open the door to Iranian domination of Iraq and a revolution in the geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula. Bush has not stated that, but it is the best reason to oppose a withdrawal. Not announcing a timetable for withdrawal also makes sense because it would be tantamount to announcing a withdrawal. It tells Iran to simply sit tight and that, in due course, good things will come to it. The primary U.S. hope for a solution to Iraq is an understanding with Iran. The administration both hates the idea and needs it. A withdrawal would make any such understanding unnecessary from the Iranian point of view and end any chance that Iran will reach an agreement. In our view, Iran appears to have decided not to continue the negotiating process it began precisely because it thinks the United States is leaving anyway. Therefore, Bush must try to convince the Iranians that this isn't so.Bush has not given a straightforward justification for his concerns from the beginning, and he is not starting now, although the thought of an Iran-dominated Iraq should give anyone pause. But in arguing that the war in Iraq is a war against al Qaeda, and that al Qaeda is getting stronger, he justifies the continuation of the war. In fact, Bush explicitly said that the people who attacked the United States on 9/11 are the same ones bombing American troops in Iraq today. Therefore, the NIE report and Chertoff's warning of attacks are part of the administration's effort to build support for continuing the fight.Bush's problem is that the idea that Iraq is linked to al Qaeda rests on semantic confusion -- many things are called al Qaeda, but they are different things. Something called al Qaeda is in Iraq, but it has little to do with the al Qaeda that attacked the United States on 9/11. They share little but the name. U.S. policy on Iraq and the war is at a turning point. There would normally be a focusing down to core strategic issues, such as a withdrawal's consequences for the strategic balance of power. That not only is not happening, but Bush, for whom this is the strongest argument against withdrawing, also seems incapable of making the argument. As a result, the week saw an almost incoherent series of reports from the administration that, if examined carefully, amounted to saying that if you think the war in Iraq is going badly, you should take a look at the war against al Qaeda -- that is a total failure.We simply don't think that is true. Of course, you can never prove a negative, and you cannot possibly prove there will be no more attacks against the United States by the original al Qaeda. Also, you can claim anything you want on a gut call and if it doesn't happen, people forget.The intellectual chaos is intensifying -- and with it, the casualties on the ground.