Iraq War Strengthened Al-Qaida, Intel Expert Says

In his recent article for Foreign Affairs magazine, intelligence expert Bruce Riedel contends that by going into Iraq instead of finishing the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Washington unwittingly helped al-Qaida.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

A new State Department report on global terrorism is out today. The news is grim. Terrorist attacks jumped 25 percent in the last two years, and 40 percent more people were killed.

CHADWICK: One intelligence expert says al-Qaida - the terrorists behind 9/11 -are stronger than ever now. Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His article, "Al-Qaida Strikes Back," is in this month's issue of "Foreign Affairs" magazine. When we spoke earlier, I asked Bruce Riedel how he came to his conclusion.

Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Senior fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution): Well, I think if you look at the breadth of attacks that al-Qaida and its supporters have carried out in the five years since September 11th, it's truly staggering. This is an organization of movement that has struck in Algiers, in Casablanca, in Madrid, in London, in Istanbul, in Karachi, in Bali, in Mombassa - literally all over the world. It's not just the breadth, though. It's also the audacity of these attacks against government offices, against significant oil targets, against tourism targets - literally, around the world, carnage and mayhem.

CHADWICK: You say that al-Qaida had propaganda goals to become the focus of Islamic fervor against the West, that it has succeeded in achieving those goals. Has it been more successful over the last five years than this country has?

Mr. RIEDEL: I think in the war of ideas, al-Qaida has been able to succeed in some important ways. They have painted the United States and its allies as intending to occupy Muslim countries, and - as al-Qaida puts it - plunder their wealth, particularly Iraq. That message has resonated very powerfully in much of the Muslim world.

CHADWICK: You talk about Osama bin Laden's goals, but also his strategy. Describe that for us, would you?

Mr. RIEDEL: Bin Laden's strategy - which he's made very clear on numerous occasions - is to draw the United States into wars in various Muslim countries, much as the Soviet Union was drawn into the occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. And then, as in Afghanistan of the 1980s, he hopes to slowly bleed the United States, wear down its resolve and undermine our willingness to come to the defense of our friends and allies in the region.

For Osama bin Laden, the American occupation of Iraq was a dream come true, a trap where American forces could be slowly dragged into a civil war and a quagmire.

CHADWICK: But the real battleground - you write for much of your piece in Foreign Affairs - is Afghanistan, continues to be Afghanistan. This is where the U.S. and the West must win.

Mr. RIEDEL: The head of the beast of al-Qaida is in South Asia, on the Afghan-Pakistan border. That's where the organization has thrived for the last decade, and that's where we need to devote heavy resources, both military and economic, in order to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida.

CHADWICK: Iraq - you can see that if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, al-Qaida is going to claim a great victory. It will be a huge propaganda victory for them. And then you conclude, well, let them.

Mr. RIEDEL: Well, I think the situation in Iraq is a very catastrophic one for the United States. Al-Qaida is already claiming victory there, and that claim, I think, resonates very powerfully around the Islamic world. I think the proper course of action in Iraq now is a phased, orderly withdrawal, a withdrawal done in a manner in close coordination with the Iraqi government and which tries to give the Iraqi government as much legitimacy and credit as it can for ending the occupation.

CHADWICK: One thing that you write here does surprise me. You say that you think that killing or capturing Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, this would be very, very important. You also write that al-Qaida now is highly decentralized, a lot of independent cells. What difference does it make if you get these particular leaders?

Mr. RIEDEL: I think decapitating the al-Qaida leadership is very important. For more than five years now, these men have been on the run, continuing to carry out operations. They've established a mystique, a myth about themselves, a "Robin Hood" of the Islamic world that they are beyond the reach of the United States government. We've allowed that mystique and myth to go on far too long. We should take action to bring them to justice or to see that they're no longer capable of carrying out their operations as quickly as possible.

I would acknowledge that having let five years go by while they're still out there - it won't have the impact that it would have had five years ago, but that's not a reason for giving up. Simply saying that it's good enough that Osama bin Laden is somewhere in a cave is a recipe for failure.

CHADWICK: It's "the long war" - you quote that phrase and say people talk about the long war - it doesn't have to be that long a war, another surprise at the conclusion of your article. You seem to think that there are goals - clear goals - if the United States pursues them, if the West pursues them, we could actually achieve triumph over al-Qaida within a reasonable amount of time.

Mr. RIEDEL: Well, I find it interesting to note that Cencom, which created the phrase "the long war" a week or so ago, also abandoned using that phrase because calling it a long war is only a recipe for suggesting that victory is nowhere in sight.

CHADWICK: Cencom - that's the central command of the U.S. military. It oversees the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. RIEDEL: That's correct. I think that a concentrated strategy that focuses on winning the battle in the Pakistani-Afghan badlands, decapitating al-Qaida and the Taliban leadership, and winning the war of ideas against al-Qaida can bring us real results in a relatively short period of time.

CHADWICK: How does it seem to you the Bush administration is doing in confronting al-Qaida?

Mr. RIEDEL: I think the tragedy is that more than five years after September 11th, the al-Qaida organization is more dangerous, more diffuse than it has been beforehand. The opportunity to destroy this organization existed in 2002 and 2003, and I wish the administration had kept its eye on the ball instead of going off for a new war in Iraq, which was unnecessary.

CHADWICK: Bruce Riedel's article in the current issue of "Foreign Affairs" is "Al-Qaida Strikes Back." Bruce Riedel, thank you for speaking with us again on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. RIEDEL: My pleasure.

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