December 16, 2003


The return of Al-Qaeda: Bush and Blair thought they’d beaten bin Laden. They were wrong. He remains determined to wreak havoc on the world (Jane Corbin, 14 December 2003, S unday Herald)

It is true that following the rout of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001, al-Qaeda’s forces were scattered and many of them killed. But they had planned for this, as I discovered in the mountains of southern Afghanistan in the spring of last year when local warlords told me that most of al-Qaeda’s hardened fighters had melted away across the border to the wild no man’s land of Pakistan’s tribal territories. From there they made their way back to where they had originated from – the Gulf, North Africa, Indonesia, Chechnya and the Sudan. Their orders, from bin Laden, were to form links with local Islamic militants and to “hit the infidel wherever you can”. We are now reaping the bitter fruits of that migration from Afghanistan.

Osama bin Laden himself and his deputy, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ideological brains behind the organisation, relinquished much of the day-to-day control of al-Qaeda’s terror network. They had to, for they were on the run … although I believe that bin Laden has never left the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sightings of him continue to be reported by various security forces, the latest apparently in the border area of Chitral. [...]

While al-Qaeda is again stirring and proving its resilience, so too are bin Laden’s former hosts in Afghanistan – the Taliban. This week has seen the launch of the biggest ground attack yet by US Special Forces into the mountains of southeast Afghanistan. Optimistically entitled “Operation Avalanche”, it involves 2000 of the 10,000 US troops stationed in the country and its aim is to smoke out the enemy before the winter makes the area impassable. It proves how successful the Taliban has been at re-grouping and re-organising in Afghanistan whilst American forces are overstretched by the war in Iraq.

The Pentagon say their soldiers have been attacked more times in the past three months than in the previous year, a reflection of the growing boldness of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the shadowy border area. US forces killed 400 Taliban in September alone but still the attacks continue. Air strikes have begun again – and so too have civilian casualties. Fifteen children have been killed in the past two weeks and local anger in an area traditionally loyal to bin Laden will win yet more followers for the Taliban and the smaller al-Qaeda cadres still operating in this region.

This seems a fairly sensible strategy on our part, first denying them the nation-states from which they could operate with impunity (Afghanistan & Iraq), and driving them into the wilds of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region, where they are terribly isolated. Eventually, when the larger tasks are taken care of, we can return to the region with a genuine Anaconda plan, encircle them and squeeze.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 16, 2003 9:56 AM

What makes her think Sami's in Afghanistan? I thought he's in Iran

He could be in Pakistan which is where a lot of the Talibs are.

And if we can't get them before the winter, doesn't that mean they can't move til spring, either???

Posted by: Sandy P. at December 16, 2003 10:05 AM

I don't think it can be discounted that a lot of this is happening in order to give Iran time and breathing space.

A bloody, but concerted, distraction.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 16, 2003 10:53 AM

I'm still dubious Osama is alive at all. We haven't had anything but scratch audiotapes from him in over a year...

Posted by: Mike Earl at December 16, 2003 11:10 AM

I agree with Mike, above, that Osama is dead. My only argument would be that now is the perfect time for him to rally the troops, but there is no obvious communication from him yet. But it is a moot point anyway since I'm sure sufficient leadership can rise to the occasion.

Posted by: h-man at December 16, 2003 12:46 PM

Al Qaeda operated with impunity out of Iraq? Where's the evidence for that? I mean, I realize that the Bush administration has trotted out this tattered old claim as if every facet of it hadn't already been debunked, but this is getting ridiculous. One can make a roundabout argument that Iraq provided some ancillary support for anti-Israeli terrorists (money for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, shelter for the occasional old-timer Palestinian terrorist, e.g. Abu Nidal, although that story is a bit complicated), but Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with any deaths on American soil. It's a sidebar to the war on terrorism and nothing more--a war was needed, and the pretext was best for Iraq.

This does not, of course, contradict any valid geopolitical/strategic reasons for toppling the Baathist regime, or the moral dimensions of bringing a tyrant like Hussein to justice (I mean, the U.S. practically created him, after all, so in a sense he was our responsibility to begin with.) But among the many good reasons for the Iraq war, antiterrorism was not one of them.

Posted by: M. Bulger at December 16, 2003 4:35 PM


I thought even you didn't deny that al Qaeda operated in Kurdistan?

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2003 4:42 PM

Yes, they supposedly did. Note, however, that Saddam Hussein has had absolutely no power there since the end of the first Gulf war. He could hardly be held responsible for a terrorist presence in a region that was, for all practical purposes, another nation.

Posted by: M. Bulger at December 16, 2003 4:48 PM


Who said he was responsible? The point is that until we settled the status of Iraq they were going to be able to operate there freely. Now they can't. Saddam was incidental.

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2003 5:02 PM

And what's all this hype about an Abu-Nidal - Mohammad Atta link, and the former's alleged training of the latter in Iraq, allegedly alleged, by alleged Iraqi documents allegedly seized earlier this month. (Allegedly.)

(That's right, the Abu-Nidal that committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth four times.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 16, 2003 5:07 PM


Now you're confusing me. Are you sure which one of us is a member of the Stupid Party?

Hopefully you aren't trying to sell me on the idea that the Iraq war was waged even in part to get at a few dozen terrorists in Kurdistan. A Special Forces operation or two would have sufficed for that, and the "status of Iraq" didn't have to come into it at all. As it is, it took an inordinately long period of time before U.S. forces were sent to address any situations in Kurdistan; for that matter, the laxity with which so many presumed Iraqi WMD sites were secured speaks volumes as to how seriously that threat was ever taken by our leadership.

Posted by: M. Bulger at December 16, 2003 5:37 PM


Yes, that's how we're doing it in friendly countries--Colombia and The Philippines--where we're conducting major counter-insurgencies under the radar because the governments support us. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the governments were hostile, we decided to take them out as long as we were there, even though neither was a threat in itself.

Posted by: oj at December 16, 2003 6:21 PM

That should be "... even though neither was a direct, imminent threat in and of itself."

Posted by: ray at December 16, 2003 6:36 PM

OJ: Your theories about why the Iraq war was waged could be valid only in hindsight. Iraq has been on the neocon wish list since before Bush ran for office, and it was a neocon war if it was anything. At the same time, terrorism wasn't even on the Bush administration's radar until 9/12; as the leaked Cheney memos have shown, it took about 15 minutes for key Bush administration figures to begin trying to tie 9/11 into Iraq, irrespective of any evidence. Ergo, the argument you are trying to make is something that has been bootstrapped into the original argument, such as it was, and even then it's a weak justification.

I repeat: to get at a few dozen terrorists in Kurdistan, who represent maybe the tenth or eleventh most important concentration of Al-Qaeda resources on the planet (behind Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, upstate New York, etc.), we have to devote more than half the nation's military resources, depose a government (albeit a government worth deposing), sap resources from other, more relevant fronts in the war on terror, and spend $87 billion when domestic coffers are empty? Furthermore, we had to topple an Iraqi regime in order to get at terrorists operating in a region not under that regime's control? Where U.S. advisors have been working with Kurds for a decade? I've avoided the term "laugh test" up until now, but I have my breaking point.

Posted by: M. Bulger at December 17, 2003 9:25 AM


It took three weeks, cost less than 500 American lives and about the budget of the Agriculture Department. We'd have to do it ten more times before it even began to be significant in terms of time, blood, or money.

Posted by: OJ at December 17, 2003 9:38 AM

And have an Army 10 times bigger to handle the occupation duties.

Well, not 10 times. More like 5 times bigger.

We could, at full stretch, produce an army of 25 million or so, but even an army of 2 million ain't gonna happen.

You would also need a whole lot more munitions to do it 10 times. We didn't use up a lot of soldiers in Iraq, and be grateful for that, but army materiel wears out and gets used up very quickly, even in cakewalks.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 17, 2003 5:30 PM


We'd need no occupation forces in places like Cuba--which would be a democracy the next day, or Korea, where we don't care what comes after the Kims. It's easier to rotate troops into Syria than bring them home, so that one would be pretty easy. Venezuela's military would take over once Chavez and a few loyal officers were gone. It's not so tough.

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2003 6:23 PM

Amateurs talk strategy, professionals logistics.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 17, 2003 7:00 PM

Amateurs make the wars, professionals fight them.

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2003 7:14 PM

Not for long without beans and bullets.

We still don't have enough infantry to swing our weight. I'm assuming Bush understands that, even if you don't, and that's why he has not stormed into Syria.

You'd think that people who monthly predict revolution in Iran without ever getting it would be more modest in predicting what other people will do.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at December 17, 2003 9:35 PM

There is a revolution in Iran.

Posted by: oj at December 17, 2003 10:05 PM