The Bush Administration never saw the war in Iraq as either a stand-alone operation or as distinct from the generalized war on the Islamist movement that al Qaeda was part of. As clumsy and, at times, devious the public presentation of the war was, it had a clear logic. Despite ongoing tactical problems in and around Baghdad, the broad strategic goals of the Iraq campaign are being realized. Therefore, the question now is: What will the next stage of the U.S.-Islamist war look like?
In order to project forward, it is important to recall the strategic purpose of the Iraq war. This was two-fold. First, the United States had to establish its ability to carry out extensive military operations to the conclusion, despite casualties. The perception in the Islamic world -- a perception that al Qaeda attempted to systematically exploit -- was that the United States was unwilling to undertake the level of effort and endure the level of pain needed to impose its will on the region. The war in Afghanistan, rather than proving American will, was seen as the opposite -- another demonstration that the United States is averse to casualties and unable to bring a campaign to a definitive conclusion.
The second goal was geopolitical. The United States knew it could not defeat al Qaeda on the retail level. They were too well dispersed, too few and too secure. Defeating al Qaeda meant inducing several enabling countries -- particularly Saudi Arabia. These countries had little interest in the internal destabilization that engaging al Qaeda would entail, and in some cases, they sympathized with al Qaeda. The United States had no direct means for inducing these countries to change their behavior. Iraq -- bordering on Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran -- was the single most strategic country in the region, and a base from which to exert intense pressure throughout the region.
The occupation of Iraq was intended to solve both problems. By invading, occupying and pacifying Iraq, the United States would be able to reverse the perception of American weakness. In addition, U.S. forces based in the Iraqi pivot, would force fundamental reconsiderations of national strategies in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria -- and in other countries also.
The strategy ran into a major challenge with the discovery that the Iraqi government had planned an extended resistance after the collapse of Iraq's conventional forces and the fall of Baghdad. The United States miscalculated the extent and intensity of Iraqi resistance and the extended difficulty in suppressing that resistance. This created a situation, starting in the summer of 2003, and reaching its greatest intensity during the October-November offensive, in which the United States appeared to have failed to achieve either of its strategic goals. It appeared unable to bring the conflict to closure, and its forces appeared incapable of threatening any neighbor.
The perception had a kernel of truth to it, but only a kernel. Most of Iraq was not involved in the guerrilla war. Neither the Kurdish nor the Shiite regions were involved. The war was confined to the Sunni regions and, when compared to guerrilla wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan, was neither particularly intense nor particularly effective. Its significance was magnified by the Bush administration's consistent and curious inability to manage public perception of the war's status. The loss of credibility the administration suffered over weapons of mass destruction and its inability to express a coherent strategic sensibility made benchmarking the war impossible for the administration.
In spite of this, the behavior of regional powers began to shift. Saudi Arabia began shifting its behavior before the Iraq war began, once it realized it could not longer prevent it. Iran began shifting its behavior by the fall, when it became apparent to it that the United States was prepared to create a Shiite-dominated government. All of these processes accelerated in December 2003, when the United States succeeded in penetrating the Baathist guerrillas' security system and began making headway in shutting down that segment of the insurrection. Attacks today are, in spite of headlines, a small fraction of what they were in October-November 2003.
The situation in January 2004 is startlingly different than it was in November. The guerrilla movement is contracting, and the core problems in Iraq have become primarily political, involving the transfer of power. The Saudis are intensely involved in an internal conflict with Islamists and are paying a significant price to wage the war. The Iranians are discussing the public price of reconciling with the Americans while privately collaborating. The Libyan government has reversed policies dramatically, while the Syrians have also begun to search for a path to policy reversal, having massively miscalculated the course of the Iraq war in the summer of 2003.
Finally -- and this may be the single most important fact -- threats that an explosion in the Islamic world would follow a U.S. invasion of Iraq proved to be in error. The single most important fact is that the genuine anger in the Islamic street has not had any political repercussions. Rather than trending away from the United States, the political behavior of Islamic states has been toward alignment. This tendency has accelerated since the decline in guerrilla activity until it is difficult to locate an Islamic state that overtly opposes the United States. When even Syria is asserting its desire to cooperate with the United States, the situation is utterly different than what some expected in February 2003, before the war began.
The situation, therefore, is much better than the administration had any right to expect last fall and substantially better than the general perception. It might be put this way. Even while the tactical situation in Iraq deteriorated, the strategic situation in the region improved. Once the tactical situation in Iraq improved, the improvement in the strategic situation accelerated.
The United States is in the process of securing -- to the extent anything in the Middle East can be called secure -- the Middle East from the Nile to the western reaches of the Hindu Kush. All of the states on this line are aligned with the United States or in the process of aligning to the extent that they are no longer willing to facilitate al Qaeda in any way, and are prepared to act against the Sunni Islamist movement. That is an extraordinary achievement, but is not in itself sufficient.
First, the situation throughout this line remains fluid and can deteriorate. Second, the Arabian Peninsula has not stabilized and is likely to remain a battleground in which al Qaeda will seek to reverse its fortunes by destabilizing the Saudi regime and, if possible, bringing it down. Third, the situation in the Hindu Kush is, from the U.S. point of view, entirely unsatisfactory. Al Qaeda remains embedded in that region, particularly in the Pakistani Northwest Territories, and the war cannot be concluded until al Qaeda loses its Pakistani sanctuaries -- as well as whatever footholds it retains on the Afghan side of the border. Indeed, the situation in Afghanistan itself appears to be deteriorating.
From the U.S. point of view, therefore, the next steps are obvious. First, having changed regime behavior in Saudi Arabia, it is now in U.S. interests to stabilize the situation there and prevent the fall of the Saudi government, or facilitate a shift to a more favorable regime. Since the latter is unlikely in the extreme, it follows that the next step must be a change in policy that is more supportive of the current regime but still rigidly opposed to al Qaeda. This will be difficult to achieve.
Second, the United States must, at some point, liquidate the remnants of al Qaeda in the Afghan-Pakistani theater of operations. Ideally, the Pakistani army will bear the burden of moving into the tribal areas in the northwest and will do the job for the United States. In reality, it is extremely unlikely that the Pakistani military will have the ability or motivation to undertake that mission. Therefore, it is likely that the United States will try to close out the war with a final offensive into northwestern Pakistan, preferably with the approval of a stable Pakistani government, but if that is impossible, then on its own.
We would be very surprised if the United States launched this offensive prior to its elections. The administration has no appetite for another military campaign until the election is finished. Therefore, we would expect the United States to be in a defensive mode until November 2004. It will seek to consolidate its position in Iraq and in the Egyptian-Iranian line. It will work to assist the Saudi government, while carrying out covert operations throughout the region to mop up identified remnants of al Qaeda. This could include increased operations in northeastern Africa and in Afghanistan. Until then, the task of General John Abizaid, head of Central Command, will be to focus on developing a plan for moving into al Qaeda's homeland, if you will, and terminating the war by liquidating the final command centers. Assuming that the preference is not to launch this campaign during the winter -- not necessarily a fixed principle -- the offensive would take place in spring 2005.
Al Qaeda's mission is to prevent this end game. It has three potential strategies, all of which can be used together. The first is to intensify its operations in Saudi Arabia to such a degree that regime survival is in doubt and the United States is forced to intervene. We cannot help but note that in the rotation of forces into Iraq, an excessive amount of armor for the mission remains there. It is excessive for Iraq, but not if U.S. forces should be forced to move into Saudi Arabia. If al Qaeda can bog the United States down on the Arabian Peninsula, it might by time for itself in its redoubt.
The second strategy is to completely destabilize Pakistan. It is no accident that two attempts have been made on President Pervez Musharraf's life. There will be more. There are powerful forces within Pakistani intelligence and military that oppose Musharaf's alliance with Washington and sympathize with al Qaeda. You can add to this number those who would oppose any American intervention in Pakistan under any circumstances. Invading the northwest while Musharraf is nominally in control of the country is one thing. Invading in the face of a hostile government or total chaos is another. The United States does not have the forces to occupy and pacify Afghanistan or Pakistan. It has what it needs to execute a large-scale raid against al Qaeda. Therefore, it is al Qaeda's strategy to protect its redoubt by intensifying operations in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.
Finally, al Qaeda might seek to break U.S. will by conducting extreme operations in the United States, obviously focusing on weapons of mass destruction. Al Qaeda's initial read of the United States was that it didn't really have the stomach for this war. It is unclear how al Qaeda reads the current political situation in the United States. Indeed, that situation is not altogether clear. However, if al Qaeda determines that the United States lacks the will to prosecute the war in the face of massive U.S. civilian casualties, it might try to carry out an extreme attack. Certainly, Sept. 11 did not achieve what al Qaeda wanted. Therefore, another attack on the order of Sept. 11 is unlikely. It is not clear if al Qaeda can carry out a more extreme operation, or if it views such an operation as helpful, but the strategic possibility remains.
We would, therefore, expect that between now and the U.S. elections, it will appear that Islamist forces have the initiative. They will press hard in both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and the United States will appear to be in a passive and defensive mode. In fact, during the next nine months, in our opinion, the United States will be engaged in intense preparations, coupled with defensive actions designed to shore up the Saudi and Pakistani regimes.
The fundamental issue now is what al Qaeda and its Islamist allies can achieve between now and November. This is their open window and the period in which they must reverse the direction the war has taken. If the current trend continues, and the Saudi and Pakistani regimes survive, the United States will attack in Pakistan; Al Qaeda, an organization that took a decade to create, will be shattered. The Islamist movement will become a widely held sentiment rather than an effective politico-military force. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not really that easy to construct a group such as al Qaeda, which is effective and resistant to intelligence.
Therefore, the United States has had an extremely good few months. It has recovered from its imbalance in Iraq -- and although the resistance has not been destroyed, it is in the process of being contained. The U.S. strategic position has improved markedly, to the point that it is actually possible to begin glimpsing the end game. But between the glimpse of the end game and the end, there is al Qaeda, which must move vigorously now to reverse its losses and regain the initiative.
(*) Dr. George Friedman is chairman and founder of Stratfor.com