Monday’s revelation from Defense Secretary Robert Gates that "I think it has been years" since the US government has had any solid information about Osama bin Laden should come as no surprise to readers of Antiwar.com, which has been questioning the rationale for the global war on terrorism ever since it was a twinkle in Dick Cheney’s eye. Gates also commented that US intelligence believes that the fugitive terrorists might well be moving about in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The "where’s Waldo" narrative provided by Gates is somewhat shocking in light of the billions of dollars that have been spent in the search for the slippery Saudi, but it is even more significant in that it completely undercuts the Barack Obama Administration’s case for increasing the number of American troops in Afghanistan.
Many analysts both inside and outside of the government have become convinced that Osama bin Laden is dead and has been so for quite some time. They base this perception on the same non-evidence that Gates cites, i.e. that there has been no solid information on bin Laden or his whereabouts since late 2001. The absence of any intelligence could be due to the likelihood that a top terrorist on the run would be extremely careful about how he moves about and how he communicates, which is what many have believed up until recently, but at a certain point it becomes too much of a stretch to believe that a man heading a major terror organization has successfully become invisible. It is widely believed that videos and recordings featuring his image and voice could well be clever composites.
The dead bin Laden school of thought also points to the impotence of al-Qaeda in events unfolding in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even the redoubtable General Stanley McChrystal, relying on the paucity of al-Qaeda sightings and the intelligence void, has estimated that there are likely fewer than 100 al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. His estimate is undoubtedly fairly rough as the CIA has no idea what is going on, but the comment itself implies that the formerly scary terrorist group is not up to much. Pakistani intelligence sources, who are almost certainly better informed than their American counterparts, believe that there is only a tiny al-Qaeda presence inside their own country. Prime Minister Sayed Yusuf Raza Gilani recently declared flatly that bin Laden is not inside Pakistan.
If bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is shadow of what it once was then the whole justification for maintaining 100,000 soldiers and a nearly equal number of contractors in Afghanistan at ruinous expense becomes a fiction. President Obama based his call for an escalation on the terrorist threat in the region, but it can be plausibly argued based on available evidence that al-Qaeda has essentially faded away. If that is so, and Obama almost certainly knows that to be a distinct possibility, the American soldiers are essentially being sent to prop up two extremely corrupt American allies, President Asif Zardari in Pakistan and President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. A prolonged bout of nation building is not exactly the snake oil that was sold to the American people in Obama’s speech on December 1st and it calls into question the integrity of a president whose majority over John McCain certainly consisted of voters who believed that would end ongoing wars and bring about change in the way America conducts its foreign policy.
Most intelligence analysts who follow terrorism issues seriously would admit that the terrorism issue has been consistently overhyped and that it is also receding due to concerted action by a number of governments since 2001 combined with diminishing appeal among young Muslims. They would also likely agree that the international brand of al-Qaeda-like Salafist-style terrorism, albeit diminished, continues to be a serious problem for much of the world. But its epicenter is almost certainly not where President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear to think it is located, somewhere north of the Khyber Pass.
There is only one part of the world where the Salafists continue to be strong. It is North Africa, in the arc of countries running from Mauretania in the West to Libya in the east, a region plagued by a loosely collected group of terrorists who call themselves al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Because several of the countries – Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia – have large diaspora populations in Western Europe, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb has genuine international reach. It has been able to exploit its European presence to carry out terrorist acts in France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
When considering the capabilities of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, most intelligence analysts would also note that all of the countries in North Africa with the sole exception of Mauretania have strong governments that control effective intelligence and police services. If Barack Obama were truly serious about attacking the remaining terrorist problem, he would focus the limited available resources on helping the North African countries improve their own capabilities rather than sending 100,000 soldiers to Afghanistan. That he is not doing so demonstrates that the possible disintegration of nuclear armed Pakistan, not terrorism, is really his driving concern.
That Pakistan is politically wobbling is clear to everyone and the possibility that it could become an Islamist dominated state, once remote, is increasing due to widespread corruption and the Islamabad’s government’s inability to curtail US drone strikes along its borders. There has been some serious consideration in Washington of what might happen if the current government were to fall, including suggestions that the US and Pakistani military would intervene to remove the country’s nuclear arsenal and take it to some place for safe keeping. That such an idea might even be seriously floated calls into question the sanity level of Obama Administration policy makers. Pakistan would never agree to such a scheme and the US does not have either the resources or the information needed to enable it to go around to the numerous dispersal sites where Pakistan keeps its weapons to scoop them up. So that leaves the Pakistan conundrum unresolved and 100,000 American soldiers sitting next door as some sort of guarantor of stability waiting to close the barn door after the horse escapes into the night.
So Secretary Gates has inadvertently let the cat out of the bag even though the mainstream media apparently has not yet figured it out. He has revealed that the war on terror is dead, or at least it should be. But rather than breathe a sigh of relief, rest assured that the word "terrorism" will be trotted out periodically to scare the public and keep the long war going. Nobody is coming home. America is in for a prolonged, bloody, and expensive experience in AfPak in spite of Obama Administration insistence that there is some kind of end game. America under President Barack Obama will be nation-building big time and for years to come, until the supply of money and soldiers run out.