Iraq and London
The second reason the enemy is weaker is Iraq. It is widely accepted that thousands of Al Qaeda fighters, the cream of their rancid crop, is fighting to expel the American infidel from the Land Between the Rivers. A moment's reflection will show that if they are there they cannot be elsewhere -- in London, Paris, Rome or Boston -- sowing bombs on buses and trains.
Belton asks why this is necessarily true. Perhaps Iraq hasn't siphoned off Al Qaeda strength but augmented it.
How do we know that Al Qaeda hasn't reserved its best operatives for attacks against Europe and the United States while sending its foot soldiers into the trenches in Iraq? And how do we know that Iraq doesn't serve as an effective training ground for Al Qaeda, where those who survive gain the ability to operate in much less supportive enivornments, such as London or New York? In a limited sense, the "flypaper theory" is most certainly right; the war in Iraq is chewing up a lot of jihadist manpower. But is it chewing up enough to ensure that there aren't 19 more terrorists ready and able to carry out another 9/11?
The underlying idea is that Iraq is not Al Qaeda's unwanted 'second front' but its Fort Benning. The logical extension of the argument is that without Iraq Islamism would produce fewer or possibly less capable cadres. It's possible isn't it, Belton asks? So then how do we know which interpretation is correct. The definitive way to answer Belton's question would be to present numbers, a balance sheet so to speak, of that movement's assets and liabilities. It would be even better if we could construct some kind of 'income statement', which showed the delta in the movements value over a period. But I don't have that data and assert that in all probability, neither does Osama Bin Laden or any mortal man. It's hard enough to create an honest management information system for companies that deal in dollars and cents. The set of books which could answer Mr. Belton's valid question probably does not exist.
So we must do the next best thing. We must measure Al Qaeda's strength by the perturbation it creates; by the power it exercises; by the strength and capability it displays. Absent the books, we measure what we can measure by proxy. One way to do this is to create a column of countries: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Indonesia, etc. and ask ourselves whether the fortunes of Islamism in general and Al Qaeda in particular have prospered in these places since September 11 and especially after OIF. My personal subjective judgment is that Islamism has weakened across the board in nearly all of these places even after OIF. If we consider the nearest thing to referendums on Al Qaeda (as a component of the general question) available in the Islamic world -- the Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese elections -- it is safe to assert that they are not ringing endorsements of radical Islamism, but rather reflect its relative decline. Bin Laden was, until the London bombings, almost a forgotten man in comparison to his celebrity in 2001. The wisdom of the Western 'crowds' with respect to trends in the War on Terror was measured in the Australian, US and British elections. The proposition that Iraq was Islamism's Fort Benning, its recruiting station and training ground, was articulated with all the considerable fluency that its proponents could muster. Yet Howard, Bush and Blair were re-elected. If the proposition was true the electorate was not convinced.
From a technical point of view the London bombings, when compared to their counterparts in Iraq, the West Bank or Beirut, have the look of marked poverty. The quantity of explosives employed was in the tens of kilos max. This is far less than the Canary Wharf bomb employed by the IRA which was rated at 500 kg. For that matter, it was much less powerful that Timothy McVeigh's device at Oklahoma city. It was nothing compared to what blew Hariri sky-high in Beirut. The weapon of choice in Iraq, the trademark of Zaraqawi, is the car bomb. If we had seen a car bomb used in London, then we might say, 'aha! An Iraqi insurgent has come to mentor the British Al Qaeda cell'. That might still be true; but there is no obvious way one can get from Iraq to the London operation. Occam's Razor urges a simpler conclusion: that Al Qaeda's British minions either didn't have enough explosive to do worse or they didn't have the know-how to assemble a bigger bomb. It might still be argued that Al Qaeda is 'holding back' -- that it "reserved its best operatives for attacks against Europe and the United States while sending its foot soldiers into the trenches in Iraq" -- toying with the West really, teasing it with these tiny little bombs when it was capable of much more. Mark Steyn in the Telegraph argued that this self-restraint theory made no sense. The London attack was as deadly as Al Qaeda could make it. They would have blown up 30 trains if they had the means. Certainly it was not the milk of human kindness that stayed their hand.
Yesterday, al-Qa'eda hit three Tube trains and one bus. Had they broadened their attentions from the central zone, had they attempted to blow up 30 trains from Uxbridge to Upminster, who can doubt that they too would have been successful? In other words, the scale of the carnage was constrained only by the murderers' ambition and their manpower.
The inevitable question then is 'why could Bin Laden not find the means to attack 30 trains?' The answer it seems to me, must be Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and hundred other places where he is engaged without quarter by US forces. Resources, whether Jihadi or no are not infinite. They do not have some magical machine that allows them to be everywhere at once, to sustain losses yet grow. There's no free lunch, not even, and especially not for Bin Laden. If it were true that Islamism would shrivel faster were it pursued more passively, then pre-911 policy should have finished it by now. But what we empirically observe is that ignoring them allowed them to mount 911-scale attack. Hit them continuously and in four years they could scrape together enough to blow up a London bus and some subway trains.
I realize that this is not the unassailable proof that Patrick Belton seeks. I cannot provide that. But the practice of engaging an enemy on one front to weaken him on another has been tested from antiquity and is more natural than the alternative. The idea that fighting the enemy makes him stronger everywhere is a curious one and I've often wondered about the battlefield arithmetic that would make it possible. There are many who accept without question the proposition that the US Armed forces are being 'bled dry' in Iraq; that it has become over extended. They would accept, without reservation, the idea that using the US Army in Iraq would weaken it with respect to Korea. One Swedish researcher kept writing to me privately, 'proving' from all kinds of weird arithmetic that the USMC had been annihilated in Fallujah. Yet the very same persons will vehemently reject the idea that Al Qaeda can also be spread thin; that its cadres are subject to death as wastage; it is as if one set of natural laws operated for the Jihad and another for the blundering Americans. But mental honesty will compel us to accept that this can't be true: that the sun rises and sets on one man as for another: that if we thought about it really hard, everyone who lives peacefully in a Western city owes it to the men out on patrol tonight.