Hirsh: Seven Years On, Al Qaeda Has a Nuclear Host

Let's take stock: How well have we done against Al Qaeda?

Here's one measure. Seven years ago today, on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri—two men who have dedicated their lives to killing as many Americans as they can—were living in Afghanistan. Their hosts, the Taliban, possessed only primitive weapons and rode around in Toyota pickup trucks.

Today, bin Laden and Zawahiri are almost certainly living in Pakistan. Their hosts, the Pakistanis, have an arsenal of nuclear bombs and missiles with which to fire them. And the Pakistanis, including many in the military and ISI (its intel service) are becoming more anti-American as the Bush administration embraces their mortal enemy, India, with a technology-rich new strategic partnership. Under this deal, Washington will forgive India's decision to go nuclear and not even require that it abandon nuclear testing. And we will inadvertently send a message to every other major would-be nuclear power in the world (like Iran): You too can rejoin the international community if you wait long enough! So keep at it.

After 9/11, Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that the nation's No. 1 strategic challenge was to prevent Al Qaeda suicidists from getting hold of a nuclear bomb. Now the Al Qaeda suicidists live closer to a bomb. And our policies are creating enough angry Pakistanis to increase the likelihood that Al Qaeda-linked groups will gain access to the knowhow, material and technology that could deliver to our shores, some years hence, our worst national nightmare—far worse than anything we saw on September 11.

Why, you might ask, are we doing this India deal at a time when Pakistan has become so dangerous and unstable? When its fragile civilian government and military are at loggerheads and we have been forced to launch unilateral strikes inside Pakistan's borders? The seeming strategic reason is to contain a "rising China," a stable, nonterrorist nation that the Bush administration, in other forums, is trying to make a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system, including nuclear nonproliferation. A country that has remained a relatively small nuclear power until the present but which now—with trillions of surplus trade dollars to spend—has both the means and motive to dramatically build its deterrent, possibly setting off a nuclear arms race in Asia.

New Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the controversial widower of Benazir Bhutto who is profoundly mistrusted by the Pakistani military, is desperately in need of shoring up by Washington. Instead, we're undercutting him and ensuring that Pakistan's military chiefs sign even more deals with jihadists (whom the Pakistanis see as a strategic asset against India), giving the bad guys more carte blanche to attack NATO across the border in Afghanistan. And as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, acknowledged in testimony on Wednesday, we're no longer "winning it in Afghanistan." U.S. military experts say that victory won't be achievable as long as Al Qaeda has a safe haven in Pakistan.

There is currently no policy in place to destroy that safe haven. Our most urgent challenge in recent years has been to win the hearts and minds of the Muslims in Pakistan, but our response has been to enrage them by making friends with the Hindus in India. Last I checked, we weren't threatened by Hindu terrorists. This latest distraction from the real enemy comes five years after we launched a draining, $2 trillion war a thousand miles away from where Al Qaeda was actually hiding after 9/11.

So if you're wondering why it's taking so long to destroy the small, ragged group that hit us seven years ago, don't. It might help if we kept our eye on the ball once in a while.

Here's a little perspective. We are now at the point in the war against Al Qaeda where nearly twice as much time has passed as it took America to win World War II. Between Dec. 7, 1941, and the surrender of Japan on Aug. 15, 1945—a period of 3½ years—Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman raised a Depression-ravaged, isolationist nation, one with virtually no Army, into the world's dominant power. They assiduously cultivated alliances with nations that did most of the fighting and dying, oversaw the defeat of two hegemonic threats (Japan and Germany), and began to rebuild these former enemies into peaceful democratic allies. At the same time, the two presidents created many of the institutions that still define the global system, including the United Nations, planning for which began in 1944. In contrast to bin Laden and Zawahiri—whose trail is as cold as it's ever been—Hitler was already dead by now. His top lieutenants, as well as their counterparts in Japan, were on trial for war crimes.

And in contrast to the United Nations and other new institutions, we have a giant, shameful pit at Ground Zero. We have a five-year-old war in Iraq that, while improving, will continue to tie down the bulk of our Army for years to come. We have a newly empowered Iran. We have a deal with the other "Axis of Evil" member, North Korea, that has taken so long to negotiate it may outlive its chief proponent, the ailing Kim Jong Il (causing military hard-liners to undermine it before it even gets off the ground). Oh, yeah, and we do have that great new strategic partnership with India. What do we get for that one—more calls routed to outsourced service techs in Mumbai?

Bush administration officials reject this view of a scattershot "War on Terror" where we seem focused on every place but the real battlefield. They contend that they have prevented any other attacks since 9/11 and killed and captured a lot of Qaeda lieutenants. As for all the time that's passed, they say this struggle is much more like the ideological one of the cold war, which lasted at least 40-odd years. But that's hyperbolic nonsense, most experts agree. Comparing the threat of tiny Al Qaeda to that of the Soviet empire is like comparing the invasion of Grenada to D-Day. Comparing Al Qaeda's lunatic, death-cult ideology to the 20th-century allure of Soviet communism is like confusing alchemy for nuclear physics. "Osama bin Laden and his disciples are small men and secondary threats whose shadows are made large by our fears," wrote former CIA counterterror expert Glenn Carle in The Washington Post recently. "We do not face a global jihadist 'movement' but a series of disparate ethnic and religious conflicts involving Muslim populations, each of which remains fundamentally regional in nature and almost all of which long predate the existence of Al Qaeda."

Al Qaeda was and remains, Carle says, "the only global jihadist organization and is the only Islamic terrorist organization that targets the U.S. homeland." And Al Qaeda, though composed of angry young Arab men, was rooted in basically one place after 9/11—Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was an organic outgrowth of the anti-Soviet jihad that began there in the '80s, and it "has only a handful of individuals capable of planning, organizing and leading a terrorist operation," says Carle.

This is a group that was, and still is beatable. But in order to beat the enemy, you have to fight where he is. Seven years on, do you think we can finally do that?