WASHINGTON, July 19 (UPI) — King Frederick the Great of Prussia famously said, “He who tries to defend everything ends up defending nothing.” Another way to formulate this classic military principle would be, “He tries to attack everything ends up winning nothing.”
U.S. General of the Army George C. Marshall and British Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, the operational heads of the U.S. and British armies in World War II, both relentlessly preached the concentration of forces on decisive fronts. Alanbrooke in particular repeatedly opposed British War Premier Winston Churchill’s passion for costly and usually disastrous “sideshow” military operations in secondary theaters like Greece, Crete, West Africa, Madagascar and the islands of the Dodecanese in the eastern Aegean Sea.
The latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the unclassified conclusions of which were leaked to the U.S. media this week, confirmed those classic principles of strategy. The NIE, the product of the input of all 16 U.S. intelligence organizations, warns that the core al-Qaida movement has effectively regrouped and reconstituted itself as an operational force capable of projecting its power around the world and even once again posing the capability to carry out terrorist attacks with the United States.
In fact, the implication of the NIE is that al-Qaida must be much more professional and potentially dangerous than it was six years ago before it launched the attacks that destroyed four U.S. airliners, mauled the Pentagon, and destroyed the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City.
For as exhaustive investigation has shown, al-Qaida’s operations then were still extremely amateurish, and if current U.S. domestic security, surveillance and intelligence coordination procedures had been in place then, they would never have gotten close to mounting their attacks. They were helped by dark good luck, by a host of outmoded restrictions on U.S. domestic security surveillance and intelligence cooperation and the complacency and incompetence in different federal agencies and at the highest level of the Bush administration.
The NIE conclusions reported in the U.S. press were extremely explicit that the possible renewed threat to the U.S. mainland was posed by the core al-Qaida organization, the direct successor and survivors of the group led by Osama bin Laden that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities that killed more than 2,800 Americans. This group, the NIE made clear, has reconstituted itself within a very specific geographical location — along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and on both sides of it.
The U.S. military and security services have certainly not been blind to this development, and they have not neglected either operational activities or intelligence gathering there. The war against the resurgent Taliban continues in Afghanistan, and as well as the United States, major, longstanding allies like Britain, Germany, Canada and Australia have significant military or support contingents operating there to this day.
But for the U.S. military and intelligence services, the hard, ineluctable truth remains that the scale of resources devoted to Afghanistan and neighboring areas over the past four and half years has been miniscule compared with those that remain bogged down in Iraq.
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, recognized last week when he defended his legislative proposal — certain to be vetoed by U.S. President George W. Bush — to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq according to a fixed timetable on the grounds that U.S. military resources urgently needed to be redirected and focused against al-Qaida instead.
Today, precisely because of the increasing chaos in Iraq, that is far easier said than done: Any U.S. course of action from dramatically increasing current troop levels to pulling all of them out as fast as possible can be shown to have likely very negative repercussions. While the arguments for a rapid unilateral pullout are very strong, so are the ones for trying to stabilize conditions there first.
But what is clear is that even though U.S. forces in recent months in Iraq have been able to achieve far more effective penetration and destruction of al-Qaida cells and leadership cadres in that country, these successes have not damaged the original core al-Qaida operation in the very Central Asian heartlands in Afghanistan where they first planned the horrors of Sept. 11.
The latest NIE therefore confirms the wisdom of those old truths of war as formulated by Frederick of Prussia and reiterated by Marshall and Alanbrooke. The opening of the Iraq theater of war in March 2003 was an enormous distraction from remaining focused on the guilty parties who actually perpetrated the Sept. 11 atrocities — the core al-Qaida movement in Afghanistan. And as the Sunni insurgency escalated and continued over the past four years, confounding the predictions of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top lieutenants who never had anticipated it would do so, the U.S. armed forces were forced to remain primarily committed to bloody, exhausting and unending operations in Iraq.
As a result, the primary focus of the U.S. “war on terror” was diffused in Iraq while the core primary threat to the American people, the original al-Qaida group in Afghanistan, was able to survive and rebuild its strength. This is the underlying message of the NIE conclusions reported this week.