Ironically, the most devastating admission of failure came from the president's No. 1 advocate. When Frances Fragos Townsend, George W. Bush's homeland security adviser, was asked this week about the resurgence of Al Qaeda detailed in the administration's new National Intelligence Estimate, she replied: "The fact is, we were harassing them in Afghanistan, we're harassing them in Iraq … Every time you poke the hornet's nest, they are bound to come back and push back on you."
Harassing? Poking? That's the best we can do? This is the small, fractious group of several thousand fighters that launched the worst-ever attack on U.S. continental soil. We knew where they were all the time: in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan (not in Iraq). We had an organization chart of the baddest of the bad: Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Mohammed Atef, Abu Zubaida. We had a lot of support around the world in pursuit of our mission to hunt these men down, kill them or capture them and do with them as we pleased; no one, after all, had much use for Al Qaeda, including much of the Arab world. Indeed, we very nearly caught Osama bin Laden only two months after 9/11, at Tora Bora. (As Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, recorded in his 2005 book "Jawbreaker," bin Laden told his followers, "Forgive me," and apologized for getting them pinned down by the Americans; but the Pentagon refused to send in more troops to encircle the trapped "sheik."). It's nearly six years later. How is it that the mightiest economic and military power in history can't destroy a mere hornet's nest?
We know the answer. The needless diversion to Iraq. It's not just that resources, money and attention were directed to Iraq long before the brutally difficult job of pacifying Afghanistan and transforming the jihadi-infested regions of Pakistan was done. (Jim Dobbins, Bush's former special envoy to Kabul, now calls Afghanistan the "most under-resourced nation-building effort in history.") The invasion of Iraq also vindicated, in the eyes of Islamists around the world, bin Laden's once-dubious strategic decision to confront what he's called the "far enemy," the United States. On the eve of 9/11, according to documents obtained from Al Qaeda's seized computers, bin Laden and his top aide, Zawahiri, had difficulty persuading their fellow jihadis that the distant superpower should be their real target. Bush ended that debate in bin Laden's favor when, by invading Iraq for trumped-up reasons, he made the United States the "near enemy" in the Arab world. And now the merger between the old near enemy (the Sunni Arab regimes) and the new near enemy (America) is all but complete, giving Islamists a neatly defined adversary. The president's newest conception of the global war on terror is that it is a fight that pits him and fellow "moderates" (Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Jordan and so on) on one side against the "extremists" (groups like Hamas and Hizbullah that have been further empowered by the president's democracy campaign).
Bush's profound strategic misconception of the nature of this war—abetted by many prominent pundits who to this day cannot admit they were wrong in fraudulently linking Al Qaeda to Iraq—is the main reason why a group that represented a small, extremist strain of Islam before 9/11 has now grown into a worldwide movement. Let's not kid ourselves about that. But there is still a window for hope here. One conclusion that the National Intelligence Estimate fails to draw is that even though Al Qaeda has partially reconstituted its organizational structure, mainly in the tribal regions of Pakistan, it is not yet back to where it was pre-9/11 in terms of competence. "What the NIE totally misses is that there's been a big decline in Al Qaeda's human capital," says John Arquilla, an intelligence and Islamist expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. "When we hit Afghanistan, there were probably about 3,000 core Al Qaeda operatives. We killed or captured about 1,000; about 1,000 more end up in distant parts of world. And about 1,000 ended up in Waziristan. But the great terror university in Afghanistan is gone; they've relied on the Web since. They haven't had hands-on instruction and the bonding instruction of the camps. That's resulted in low skill levels. Their tradecraft is really much poorer. They didn't make the bombs right in London. One cell got lost on its way to attacking the U.S. Embassy in Rabat [Morocco]. The rise of suicide attacks by foreign fighters in Iraq is also reflective of this lower skill level."
The danger, Arquilla says, is that the longer the Iraq War goes on, with America as the central enemy, the more skilled the new generations of jihadis will become. "They're getting re-educated. The first generation of Al Qaeda came through the [Afghan] camps. The second generation are those who've logged on [to Islamist sites]. The next generation will be those who have come through the crucible of Iraq. Eventually, their level of skill is going to be greater than the skill of the original generation. We're already starting to see that, for example in places of Western Africa.…"
There is only one conclusion. If we are to avoid another 9/11 some day, we must go back to square one and correct Bush's original mistake—the disastrous strategic misconception that turned America into the "near enemy" in the Arab world. We must remove ourselves from the front lines in Iraq and stop it from becoming Al Qaeda's new "terror university." That doesn't argue for total withdrawal. But it does suggest that the surge must stop—and soon. Only if the United States assumes a lower profile in Iraq—retreats to its four superbases and redoubles training of the Iraqi Army—will the jihadis begin to lose their new rallying cause.