In late August 2004, after shutting off the recorder, I asked the British general to tell me how Iraq and coalition forces should handle the complex ethnic, sectarian and security challenge presented by Shia “Mahdi Militia” leader Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr. That month, Sheik al-Sadr’s thugs had invaded Najaf’s Grand Mosque and attempted to bait the coalition into bombing the shrine.
The coalition chose to follow the advice passed on by an aide of Shi’ite Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani: “Let us deal with Sadr. We know how to handle him and will do so. However, the coalition must not make him a martyr.”
The British general shook his head. “Dealing with Sadr will appear indecisive, as the Battle of Najaf appears indecisive. But in the long run Iraq will be better off if Sadr withers, or defeats himself.”
Seven years ago, Osama bin Laden was a Big Man on the planet, a bearded stud with a Himalayan reputation among young Muslim militants from Morocco to Indonesia. Now, bin Laden hides in the Himalayas.
The Hollywood finale to Sept. 11, 2001, would have U.S. special forces dragging a chained bin Laden from his hideout, the frightened wannabe Caliph squinting in the harsh sunlight.
The Hollywood ending hasn’t happened. Bin Laden may yet be arrested and brought to trial and convicted - it should be done.
Bin Laden’s slow rot may be the “Sadr strategy” writ large, however. The slow rot certainly isn’t as emotionally satisfying as Hollywood’s denouement. It has political consequences. “Bush can’t get bin Laden” is a frequent taunt. But in terms of forwarding America’s long-range strategy for defeating Islamofascism and helping Middle Eastern Muslim nations address their long-term challenge, bin Laden’s slow rot - in lieu of ascent to martyrdom - may prove ironically useful.
Every war is a series of mistakes - bloody, expensive mistakes. France’s Georges Clemenceau provided a more elegant rendering of the terrible hell of it: War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory. Ultimately, winning any war, but especially this intricate, multidimensional war, demands perseverance and creative adaptation.
In war, the enemy makes mistakes as well, and al Qaeda has made numerous strategic errors.
Al Qaeda’s dark genius has been to connect the Muslim world’s angry, humiliated and isolated young men with a utopian fantasy preaching the virtue of violence. That utopian fantasy seeks to explain and then redress roughly 800 years of Muslim decline. Bin Laden concluded that attacking the United States and the infidel West was the way to energize these young Muslims - a physical demonstration of “violent virtue” and its history-shaping effects.
Attacking the United States and Europe would be so overwhelmingly popular the West would leave Muslim nations. Al Qaeda would then take control of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Bin Laden provided a sketch but few details. He would rely on anger and fervor - and his own iconic leadership.
Seven years later, it appears attacking the West was a huge strategic blunder by al Qaeda - and that’s not a solely “Western” opinion. Al Qaeda’s criminal record has wrecked its reputation in Muslim nations. We’ve had indications. StrategyPage.com noted on Oct. 27, 2005, that, “The Muslim media is less and less willing to be an apologist for al Qaeda, at least when it comes to killing Muslim civilians” and that the Iraqi media in particular “really has it in for al Qaeda.”
On Oct. 1, 2006, StrategyPage.com argued that “dead Iraqis were killing al Qaeda. … Westerners, unless they observe Arab media closely, and have contacts inside the Arab world, will not have noted this sharp drop in al Qaeda’s fortunes.”
Al Qaeda’s malignant message still dupes some young Muslim men. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century militant anarchist tracts still appeal to violent killers like the Unabomber. Rock music critics and late-night TV cable talk show hosts toy with anarchist tropes. Bin Laden still has “gangsta” appeal, but mere survival was not his goal.
If bin Laden had been killed in Afghanistan in 2001, the United States would be combating a myth and a legend. Instead of caliphate, bin Laden has produced his own catastrophe. The bin Laden icon is seriously fractured, if not quite shattered.
Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.