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Sunday
Jul292007

Looking for victory in all the wrong places

Dueling headlines last week in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal got me thinking about how we should realistically define victory in this long war against radical extremism. Most people think it’s killing terrorists and incapacitating their networks, but to me it’s less about draining the swamp than about filling that space with something better. The only exit strategy I recognize is local job creation.

On July 18, the Times led with “Bush Advisers See a Failed Strategy Against Al-Qaida.” Here’s why I don’t find that headline particularly surprising or disheartening.

In operational terms, the entire history of al-Qaida, which emerged from Islamic resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, has been one of moving from one center of gravity to the next. Not welcome in Saudi Arabia following the Soviet withdrawal, al-Qaida was effectively stood up in its modern form in Sudan in the mid-1990s.

Driven out by the Sudanese government in 1996, al-Qaida returned to Afghanistan, later to be evicted by the U.S.-led invasion following 9/11. To no one’s surprise, al-Qaida next slipped into Pakistan’s ungoverned northwest tribal areas, reconstituting itself there along with the ousted Taliban.

Success or failure?

If al-Qaida resorts to hiding in one of the most off-grid locations on the planet, I would call it a success. If Web-enabled al-Qaida can effectively coordinate terrorist attacks in the West from there, then we’re back to the pre-9/11 standoff.

That means America and the world retain a high incentive to continue tightening up security practices, but since this is highly desirable for all sorts of reasons relating to globalization’s rapid expansion, al-Qaida’s historical function here is both useful and invariable: its continued efforts simply force more resiliency from us.

Then again, so do tainted Chinese products, avian flu and global warming. Al-Qaida may grab headlines occasionally, but in global terms, its impact rarely rises above the white noise generated by globalization’s skyrocketing transaction rate and its associated mishaps.

Al-Qaida clearly profits from Iraq’s dissolution, but quite frankly, al-Qaida will always have some cause celebre. As a fundamentalist movement combating globalization’s creeping embrace of its sacred places, it will always have infidels worth driving out. Nothing short of complete civilizational apartheid satisfies al-Qaida’s agenda, and even that would simply expand its geographic ambition.

So if al-Qaida’s resurgence is hardly remarkable and its ideological profiteering in Iraq is simply a function of President Bush’s “big bang” strategy, then neither outcome adds up to a loss in this long war, even as neither points out the path to victory.

As America’s combat role in Iraq diminishes, with most remaining troops pulled back to Kuwait and Kurdistan, our definition of progress must inevitably broaden beyond simply killing weeds to growing some lawn. As the guy who cuts my grass likes to say, you can’t do both at the same time.

Now we get to the Journal’s headline from July 19: “Boom in Investment Powers Mideast Growth: Despite Wars, Capital Pours Across Borders.” Key statistic: foreign direct investment flows to the Middle East and North Africa have quadrupled since 2000.

Thanks to Asia’s growing energy thirst, higher oil prices provide the initial trigger, but what’s truly important this time around is that the region’s oil-rich economies are choosing to invest in energy-poor neighbors in desperate need of outside capital, like Morocco and Egypt. Instead of governments leading the way, this time its private investors. Instead of white elephants, this time we’re seeing bold forays into all sorts of infrastructure and networks that link this region more effectively to the global economy.

For now, it remains primarily the elites who benefit, with the big question being how much of this expanded economic opportunity in coming years makes its way into the hands of the masses, for there lies the youth bulge that Arab governments must manage lest idle hands be seduced by radical ideologies.

My point is this: In security terms, it’s always going to feel like we’re losing this war or — at best — achieving an operational stalemate. The real victory won’t come on any battlefield but rather in boardrooms.

In the end, we can’t kill bad guys faster than our enemies can grow them. Instead, we must offer them a more attractive recruitment package.

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