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Lost in the “surge” debate is the unfortunate reality that escalation in Iraq, just like the invasion itself, plays into al-Qaida’s ultimate strategy to eliminate America. As revealed in a 2005 strategy document, al-Qaida hopes to repeat Osama bin Laden’s victory over the Soviet empire in Afghanistan by eliminating the chief obstacle in the way of establishing an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. The goal is not, as Bush administration and right-wing pundits proclaim, to conquer or directly destroy America. Osama bin Laden wants to provoke the United States into destroying itself.
The game plan owes at least part of its inspiration from Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In his investigative report The Secret History of Al-Qaeda, Abdel Bari Atwan writes that top al-Qaida ideologist Ayman Al-Zawahiri is a reader and “great admirer” of Kennedy’s book. The New York Times Book Review’s Michael Howard summarized the book’s insights in a manner that must have clicked with budding jihadists observing the Soviet Union’s fall at the time: “Power can be maintained only by a prudent balance between the creation of wealth and military expenditure, and great powers in decline almost always hasten their demise by shifting expenditure from the former to the latter.
According to Atwan’s analysis of al-Qaida’s “20-year plan,” the organization aimed to bring about the fall of the American empire by first provoking with the September 11 attacks — Washington into irrationally invading Muslim lands in pursuit of revenge. Al-Qaida’s grand strategists calculated that the invasion would propel the umma, the Muslim community, into joining the jihad. Following the fall of the secular socialist Hussein regime, Iraq has indeed become a training ground for limitless waves of foreign jihadis.
In this context, George W. Bush was a great boon to their efforts. Not only did he invade Iraq, which did not have a thing to do with 9/11, but he did almost everything possible to isolate America from its allies. This policy gave bin Laden ample room to target unpopular pro-American regimes from Madrid to Riyadh. Compared to the Southwest Asian battleground of Afghanistan, Iraq is a more congenial base for al-Qaida, since the language, culture, and terrain are more familiar to most Arabs. The jihadis’ strategy is to get America to throw all of its resources into fighting a losing battle against Iraq’s lethal patchwork of warring factions.
Bush’s “surge” only throws more meat to the jackals, who gain strength and popularity with each web-broadcasted beheading or roadside bomb explosion. Like Afghanistan, Iraq gives would-be jihadis watching the conflict from their computer screens the hope of destroying the military might of the West. The jihadis also hope to expand the conflict to create what Atwan calls a “Triangle of Horror” connecting Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria.
Just as they infiltrated Iraq in the wake of American destruction of the hostile Hussein regime, al-Qaida operatives would follow American or Israeli invasions elsewhere in the region such as Iran or Syria. The attendant destabilization of the Middle East would facilitate infiltrating the Shiite bastion of Lebanon and the secular U.S. ally Turkey. While America wages a doomed war of attrition on many fronts, al-Qaida can hit targets across the world with attacks aimed at throttling the U.S. economy.
One obvious aspect of the economic war will be a cut-off of the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf through terror attacks on pipelines and oil facilities. Bin Laden inflicted $500 billion worth of economic damage on 9/11 for the paltry cost of $500,000. Every terror attack inflicted by al-Qaida’s worldwide network has had similar economic consequences. Oil prices have spiked because of constant Mideast instability. And the German magazine Der Spiegel reports that, by the end of 2007, America will have spent $670 billion fighting the “war on terror,” more than Washington spent on the Vietnam War or the first two years of World War II. Linda Bilmes of the American Economic Association puts the cost even higher in the trillions by the end of 2007 — taking into account indirect costs such as wounded soldiers and the price of oil.
Al-Zawahiri’s plan may also include Paul Kennedy’s final step, in which an economic rival such as India and China defeats the United States commercially. Al-Qaida’s strategists hope that, like the Soviet Union, America will spend itself to death fighting on numerous fronts before succumbing to competition from a rising power. Then, the way will be free to destroy the Arab “apostate” regimes that survive due to American patronage.
All of this time, al-Qaida’s master strategists have manipulated Bush like a marionette. Instead of cutting his losses and withdrawing from Iraq or critically re-examining the failures of the American intervention in Afghanistan — Bush continues blindly to throw more resources into battle, believing that the United States simply lacks “a will to win.” Ironically, he may be partially correct. An Iraqi fighting for his country or an Arab fighting for his umma against foreign occupiers will likely show a good deal more resolve than American soldiers fighting a guerilla conflict thousands of miles away from home.
Americans have little knowledge about Mideast culture or international politics but feel strongly that they have been misled and betrayed by their superiors. This was true as well in Vietnam. Yet the horrors of both wars will be paltry in comparison to the horrors unleashed if we escalate in Iraq and attack Iran. The only voices aside from Bush’s calling to “bring it on” are those from al-Qaida itself.