The United States is planning a spring offensive against al Qaeda and Taliban positions in Afghanistan, and a spokesman for the U.S. military said America’s armed forces are “sure” they can catch Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar “later this year.” Unfortunately, al Qaeda likely has a spring offensive of its own in the plans.
But first, confirmation of the American plans from Stratfor:
Former Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence Chief Lt. Gen. Hameed Gul (Ret.) has told the daily _Nawa-I-Waqt_ that reports of a planned U.S. offensive against al Qaeda in the spring were true. Gul said CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid had asked countries bordering Afghanistan for permission to carry out operations within their borders. Gul implied that Pakistan had not granted its consent. In further comments, he said Washington would postpone elections in Afghanistan in order to conduct this operation and had been pressuring Islamabad regarding its nuclear program to coerce its cooperation.
Pakistan has already apparently taken the lead on this offensive. On Jan. 13, according to the _Pakistan Daily Times_, about 250 commandos from the Pakistani military’s elite Special Services Group (SSG) along with regular infantry troops were shifted from North Waziristan to the Wana area in South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, notes Stratfor.
The goal of both America and Pakistan will be to root out al Qaeda’s entrenched positions in the lawless Northwest Territories. Ideally, Pakistani troops will be used for the bulk of the fighting, and this is the reason for Gul’s denial to the United States.
However, Pakistan’s refusal should be seen as a net gain for both countries. The United States has apparently been planning this offensive for some time, and with the Bush administration’s history of unilateral action at the expense of other countries’ sovereignty pretty well known, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has some cover for going into a region hostile to outside control. He can’t be seen by his people as acquiescing to the Americans’ wishes, so he denies them access and moves his own troops into the region as a show of strength and sovereignty. He knows full well that the United States will move into Pakistani territory anyway, and his thinking is that there’s not a lot the Pakistanis can do to stop Washington. At the same time, because Pakistan is making an effort to to root out bin Laden and his jihadists, the White House can’t accuse Musharraf’s government of not stepping up to the plate. And — bonus! — any pressure on Pakistan’s nuclear program from Washington will probably ease a little bit. The upshot? Washington gets to act against its real enemies without destabilizing Musharraf, and he doesn’t look like a patsy to his own people. Also, Islamabad gets to keep the Bomb, a source of great national pride in Pakistan.
With this strategy, the goal is to have the war against al Qaeda wrapped up some time in 2005.
But back to bin Laden. What will be al Qaeda’s response? Three things: It will to 1) destabilize or overthrow the Saudi Arabian royal family (a long-held goal), 2) destabilize Pakistan or 3) weaken U.S. resolve by massive attacks inside the United States, possibly with WMD. These strategies could be — and likely will be — used together.
In Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda could build on its string of bombings and attacks to such a degree that the survival of the current regime in Riyadh is in doubt. The U.S. would be forced to intervene, using the military hardware it has and will have in Iraq once the March rotation is in motion. (Riyadh is already on high alert for terror attacks during the hajj.) If al Qaeda can bog down the United States by causing it to stretch its already thin forces in Iraq into Saudi Arabia, it will strengthen its hand in Pakistan, too.
By destabilizing Pakistan — the two recent assassination attempts against Musharraf are probably just the first of many to come — al Qaeda makes the United States’ war infinitely more difficult. With Musharraf in control, the U.S. can cut backroom deals that allow it to operate in Pakistan to attack al Qaeda positions with relative freedom, as discussed above. With a militant Islamist _junta_ ruling from Islamabad — a nuclear-armed _junta_, mind you — that’s no longer an option. Can the United States occupy Afghanistan, Iraq _and_ Pakistan? No.
Finally, al Qaeda may attempt another massive attack on the scale of 9/11. Would massive American casualties sap the will of the United States? Possibly. Or maybe not; Sept. 11 didn’t cause the United States to cut and run. Instead, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon propelled the United States into a war with militant Islamists and the fallout — Iraq, most notably — has divided the West internally and pitted the United States against the Muslim world. This may have been bin Laden’s main goal all along. What would be the result of another massive attack? The answer depends on how much sympathy the U.S. could garner from a world that may have exhausted its supply of goodwill toward America. Instead of a replay of 2001’s season of solidarity, would the United States be seen as reaping what it has sown? The Axis of Evil 8-Ball on this one says, “Sources cloudy; ask again later.” If its any consolation, bin Laden probably doesn’t know either. What is known is that _nothing_ would stop an enraged and wounded America from hellish retaliation.
So for the moment, that’s where all the players stand. Al Qaeda has to demonstrate its effectiveness before the United States starts its offensive this year to preemptively stall any momentum Washington may gather. It also has to show its members and supporters that it still has the capability to lead the jihad against the West. I predict intense attacks in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, the United States will attack in Pakistan and al Qaeda likely will be dealt a death blow and bin Laden captured or killed. That would be a stunning setback for militant Islam, what with its spokesman and folk hero felled by the infidel.
That won’t spell the end of militant Islam of course, nor will it mean the end of the terror threat against the United States and the West. Al Qaedaism is more than just the group and it’s more than bin Laden. Smaller groups will continue to exist, operate and network. But without the charisma of bin Laden — and his web of financing — terror groups affiliated with al Qaeda can be reduced to a chronic, but manageable, problem.