Don't Get Cocky, America

Al Qaeda is still deadly without Osama bin Laden.

Osama bin Laden's death is a significant blow for al Qaeda, removing a figurehead who had evaded the largest manhunt in world history for almost a decade, and who seemingly managed to remain operationally relevant up until he was killed. In the torrents of commentary that will follow his announced death, many will agree with the puzzling proclamation that analyst Peter Bergen made on CNN last night that this marks the end of the war on terror.

In fact, bin Laden's death does not close this chapter in history. Two points are worth bearing in mind. First, bin Laden's strategic ideas for beating a superpower (which U.S. planners never fully understood) have permeated his organization, and are widely shared by al Qaeda's affiliates. Second, one critical lesson of 2001 is that we should not allow bin Laden's death to cause us to lose sight of the continued threat that al Qaeda poses.

Bin Laden's paradigms for fighting against a superpower foe were forged during the Afghan-Soviet war. Multiple factors prompted the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, including an Islamist insurgency that threatened the country's pro-Soviet regime and infighting among Afghanistan's communists that culminated in bloody internecine clashes. Although the Soviet general staff opposed the invasion, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev insisted that operations in Afghanistan would end successfully in three to four weeks. But the war didn't turn out as he predicted: The Soviets would withdraw after nine years of costly occupation, experiencing stiff resistance from Afghan mujahidin backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

Bin Laden traveled to Pakistan in the early 1980s, soon after the war began. Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former CIA officer, notes in his book The Search for al Qaeda that once he arrived, bin Laden became "a major financier of the mujahidin, providing cash to the relatives of wounded or martyred fighters, building hospitals, and helping the millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to the border region of Pakistan." But it was his first trip to Afghanistan's front lines in 1984 that left a lasting impression on young Osama, and gave him a thirst for more action.

When bin Laden and his fellow Arab comrades-in-arms unexpectedly held their ground in the face of several attacks by Russian special forces (spetsnaz) near Khost, Afghanistan, in the spring of 1987, the skirmish launched bin Laden to prominence in the Arab media as a war hero. In reality, that battle was insignificant to the outcome of the Afghan-Soviet war -- and though bin Laden subsequently emphasized his own role in the conflict, every serious history concludes that the "Afghan Arabs," fighters from the Arab world who traveled to South Asia to join the war against Soviets, were not a military factor in Russia's defeat. Nonetheless, bin Laden's time on the Afghan battlefield was a formative experience for him, one that shaped the approach he would later bring to running al Qaeda.

One lesson bin Laden learned from the war against the Soviets was the importance of his enemy's economy. The Soviet Union didn't just withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominious defeat, but the Soviet empire itself collapsed soon thereafter, in late 1991. Thus, bin Laden thought that he hadn't just bested one of the world's superpowers on the battlefield, but had actually played an important role in its demise. It is indisputable that the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan did not directly collapse the Soviet Union; the most persuasive connection that can be drawn between that war and the Soviet empire's dissolution is through the costs imposed by the conflict.

Indeed, bin Laden has spoken of how he used "guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for ten years, until it went bankrupt." He has compared the United States to the Soviet Union on numerous occasions -- and these comparisons have been explicitly economic. For example, in October 2004 bin Laden said that just as the Arab fighters and Afghan mujahidin had destroyed Russia economically, al Qaeda was now doing the same to the United States, "continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy." Similarly, in a September 2007 video message, bin Laden claimed that "thinkers who study events and happenings" were now predicting the American empire's collapse. He gloated, "The mistakes of Brezhnev are being repeated by Bush."

A second aspect of bin Laden's experience in the Afghan-Soviet war that influenced his strategic understanding of his fight against America was the breadth of the anti-Russian resistance. The Soviet invasion outraged the Muslim world, including heads of state, clerics, the Arab media, and the man on the street. In January 1980, Egypt's prime minister called it "a flagrant aggression against an Islamic state." By the end of the month, the foreign ministers of 35 Islamic countries, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization, passed a resolution through the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) holding the invasion to be a "flagrant violation of all international covenants and norms, as well as a serious threat to peace and security in the region and throughout the world." The Soviet-installed regime in Afghanistan was expelled from the OIC, the delegates of which urged all Muslim countries "to withhold recognition of the illegal regime in Afghanistan and sever diplomatic relations with that country until the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops." On Jan. 30, 1980, the Christian Science Monitor described this condemnation of Soviet actions as "some of the strongest terms ever used by a third-world parley."

The stream of Arabs who flocked to South Asia to help the Afghan cause -- about 10,000 in total, according to Mohammed Hafez, an associate professor in the Naval Postgraduate School's National Security Affairs Department -- was a testament to the widespread outrage caused by the invasion. Hafez has written, "They included humanitarian aid workers, cooks, drivers, accountants, teachers, doctors, engineers and religious preachers. They built camps, dug and treated water wells, and attended to the sick and wounded." There was of course also a contingent of Arab fighters, of which bin Laden became a part. But the volunteers who went to the theater were not the only Arabs to support the Afghan resistance. The Afghan jihad was also aided by a donor network known as the "golden chain," whose financiers came primarily from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states.

Essentially, bin Laden sat at the top of a major multinational organization during the Afghan-Soviet war. Its members included fighters, aid workers, and other volunteers. It enjoyed a significant media presence, external donors, and widespread support. And when al Qaeda later engaged in a global fight against America, bin Laden and his companions similarly understood the media and the struggle for sympathy and allegiance throughout the Muslim world as crucial battlefields. In a 2005 letter to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, bin Laden's deputy Ayman al Zawahiri noted that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media." Zawahiri said that when it comes to attaining the caliphate, one of al Qaeda's overarching goals, "the strongest weapon which the mujahidin enjoy, after the help and granting of success by God, is popular support from the Muslim masses."

Had American strategists understood from the outset these twin strategic perceptions, they might have been able to avoid some early costly blunders. But it is not apparent that American planners clearly saw the link between al Qaeda's war and the U.S. economy even after bin Laden boasted of it on the world stage. Moreover, had U.S. officials understood al Qaeda's goal of broadening its fight against the United States, they might have raised more objections to the invasion of Iraq, which created a far broader battlefield for America.

These twin pillars of al Qaeda's strategy have not died with Osama bin Laden. Rather, they permeate the organization and its affiliates. To comprehend this, one need look no further than Inspire, the English-language magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP), the group's Yemen affiliate. A special issue of the publication released in November 2010 commemorated a plot that managed to place pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) bombs inside printer cartridges that were flown on FedEx and UPS planes. The issue outlined the great disparity between what the plot cost the terrorists and what it cost their enemies -- a $4,200 price tag for AQAP versus, in the magazine's estimation, a cost of "billions of dollars in new security measures" for America and other Western countries.

In fact, Inspire warned that future attacks would be "smaller, but more frequent," an approach that "some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts." In this strategic vision, the fact that the ink cartridge plot killed nobody did not mean that it had failed: Rather, AQAP's ability to get the disguised explosives aboard planes, and thus significantly drive up the West's security costs, made the plot a success. This illustrates AQAP's embrace of bin Laden's vision of economically undermining America, as he thought he had done to the Soviet Union.

This raises a second critical point: We should neither declare al Qaeda dead nor declare the fight against jihadi militancy over. In 2002, as America was preparing for war with Iraq, many observers wrongly believed that the war in Afghanistan had been won, and al Qaeda significantly degraded.

Former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney, speaking at the Air National Guard Senior Leadership Conference in December 2002, described the Afghanistan war as "America's most dramatic victory in the war against terrorism," and claimed that "the Taliban regime and the al Qaeda terrorists have met the fate that they chose for themselves." Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst who then directed the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote a March/April 2002 article in Foreign Affairs entitled "Next Stop Baghdad?" In it, he wrote, "[T]he key to victory in Afghanistan was a U.S. air campaign that routed the Taliban combat forces." Advancing the theme that the Afghanistan war was won, he warned that "too much delay" in invading Iraq "could be as problematic as too little, because it would risk the momentum gained from the victory over Afghanistan."

As a result of this flawed perception, a significant amount of military and intelligence assets were diverted from Afghanistan to the Iraq theater. Robert Grenier, a former director of the CIA's counterintelligence center, has noted that from late 2002 to early 2003, "the best experienced, most qualified people who we had been using in Afghanistan shifted over to Iraq," including counterterrorism specialists, as well as Middle East and paramilitary operatives.

At the same time, preparation for Iraq caused such units as Delta Force and Navy Seals Team Six, as well as aerial surveillance platforms like the Predator drone, to be shifted into the Iraq theater. The result of this shift in resources was predictable: It weakened American efforts in Afghanistan and allowed an insurgency to thrive. Iraq would continue to cause resources to be diverted from the Afghanistan campaign not just as America and its allies geared up for the new war, but also years later.

In February 2011, I interviewed Andrew Exum, an Arabic-speaking counterinsurgency expert at the Center for a New American Security who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger officer. When I asked him why U.S. efforts in Afghanistan have been so uneven, he replied without hesitation, "One word: Iraq. I remember in 2002 coming back from Afghanistan and being immediately forgotten. We had just fought the largest set-piece battle since the Persian Gulf War, Operation Anaconda, and it was the first time our regiment had been in battle since Vietnam. But the focus was on Iraq." The U.S. had been in Afghanistan for more than nine years at the time we spoke, but because of the focus on Iraq he felt that the military hadn't really been there for nine years. "It's been an economy of force mission, really since 2002," Exum said. "The vast majority of our efforts and our resources -- not just military but also intelligence assets -- have been focused on Iraq."

Bin Laden's death is a blow to al Qaeda. Will America again celebrate prematurely, and provide its enemies an opportunity to regroup? That remains to be seen.


Is Ahmadinejad Islamic Enough for Iran?

Why the Iranian president's latest fight with the supreme leader could be his last.

While most of the Middle East region has been risking life and limb for the sake of a democratic future, in Iran, different factions in the regime have been busy debating the virtues of the ancient Persian King Cyrus the Great. Neither side brings any new historical insight, but it hasn't been an exercise in mere navel-gazing -- in Iran, debates on ancient history have been a high-stakes affair. Today, the question is whether the Islamic Republic should pay closer attention to the country's pre-Islamic Iranian heritage; the answers recently offered by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten the collapse of the current regime.

The dispute itself is nothing new. For decades, if not centuries, the twin enigmas of Iran's identity and the nature of Islam in Iran have bedeviled Iranian scholars and politicians alike. Iranian identity is bifurcated, split between the pre-Islamic traditions of Zoroastrian and Manichean millennium before Islam, and the Islam-influenced developments of the last 1,300 years.

But there has never been a consensus about which side of this bifurcation should be privileged. Even in the first centuries after the arrival of Islam in Iran, though Iranians had a decisive role in formulating Islamic laws, governance, and literature, there was considerable tension between Arabs and Persians: The former routinely referred to the latter with the pejorative moniker Ajam. Some Arabs (and some Iranians) even questioned whether Shiism -- the dominant sect in Iran today -- qualifies at all as a legitimate branch of Islam, arguing that it was actually a thinly disguised form of Iranian nationalism. Indeed, many scholars have pointed out that key ideas singular to Shiism in the Islamic world -- like the concept of a messiah (mahdi), and millenarian optimism -- are in fact a reincarnation of pre-Islamic Iranian ideas and concepts drawn from Zoroastrian and Manichean philosophies.

Negotiating these tensions has long been a requirement for any Iranian regime. The shahs of the Pahlavi era, seeking to blunt Islam's role in public life, accentuated the pre-Islamic age. The grandest example of that campaign came in 1976, when the shah spent several hundred million dollars to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian monarchy in a tent-city he specially erected outside Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia. He even changed the national calendar for the occasion, away from one of Islamic origin to one that claimed to have its genesis in the age of Cyrus, the ancient Persian king praised in the Old Testament for freeing Jews from their Babylonian captivity (though the change lasted only two years).

But when the Islamic regime came into power in 1979, it attempted to obliterate the Persian pre-Islamic past and emphasize only the Islamic component. It was an agenda that required some heavy cultural lifting, to say the least, in a country where people still routinely decried the "Arab invasion" of a millennium past, and practiced with pride and care a language that had survived the era of Arab imperialism. Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic's founder, made Iran's pre-Islamic Persian holidays a special target: He derided Nowruz, the Iranian New Year celebration held on the first day of spring, as a "pagan" festivity.

Iranians, for the most part, resisted the regime's ambitions in this regard. The popular response has been to insist on even more ostentatious celebrations of traditional Persian festivities and support for campaigns to "purify" the language of any Arabic words and names. And just a few years ago, during the days of Mohamad Khatami, Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, an Iranian scholar published a five-volume treatise chronicling the two centuries of fierce fighting by Iranians before they accepted Islam, contradicting the regime's official history that Iranians accepted Islam eagerly and as soon as they had heard its message.

It is this sort of national pride that Ahmadinejad and his closest advisor, Esfandiar Mashaei, have been tapping into with their recent calls for an "Iranian Islam." They have made Iranian nationalism a pillar of the Ahmadinejad government, repeatedly and profusely praising pre-Islamic Iranian grandeur.

Rather than neglect Nowruz, Ahmadinejad marked the occasion this year by inviting 20 heads of state to Persepolis -- once so reviled by Shiite clerics that in the early days of the revolution Sadegh Khalkhali, a hard-line judge, tried to have it bulldozed (he was stopped by angry locals). Though Ahmadinejad gave in to heavy criticism and decided against having his celebration at the ancient site, he refused to heed the threats and advice of conservatives and held it in Tehran. It was rightly seen as a direct challenge to the clerical authorities.

Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, pointedly refused to meet with any of the invited guests and even left town during the festivities. Ahmadinejad and Mashaei also played a key role in the much-celebrated temporary return to Iran from its permanent home in London's British Museum of the Cyrus Cylinder, a small clay cylinder inscribed with words considered the first declaration of human rights in history. Ahmadinejad has openly praised Cyrus on numerous occasions, including when the cylinder first arrived in Iran.

The actions of Ahmadinejad and his alter ego may seem innocuous enough, but they have deeply angered the conservative clergy. In any country, such faint praise for a past ruler of international, even Biblical, stature would have been normal. In Islamic Iran, it is considered something akin to sedition. In the first days of the Islamic revolution, key clerical figures in the regime, particularly the infamous Khalkhali -- a favorite disciple of Khomeini, who appointed him head of the revolutionary courts -- went on to call Cyrus a "Jew boy" and a "sodomite." Now, Ahmadinejad was spending millions to bring the Cyrus Cylinder back to Iran and praising its value and singularity. Meanwhile, in spite of an increasingly louder chorus of critics, some from the highest echelons of clerical power in Iran, Mashaei continued to wax eloquent about Cyrus, Iranian nationalism, and Iranian Islam.

What appeared as cause for a minor irritation has now morphed into one of the biggest challenges facing Iran's leaders since June 2009's contested presidential election. This new rift within the Islamic regime has appeared while the leaders of the Green Movement continue to be under house arrest and show no sign of compromise. Even Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful cleric, has refused to fully rejoin Khamenei's camp. Every indication is that serious economic hard times are ahead for the regime. There is open talk of Ahmadinejad's impeachment; Akbar Ganji, the well-known and usually reliable dissident journalist now residing in the United States, has alleged that the Ahmadinejad team worked with European Union to prepare the list of Iranian officials banned from travel for complicity in human rights abuses -- a list he alleges is composed only of Khamenei's allies, and includes no one from the Ahmadinejad team. According to Ganji, the president has sent a team of reliable aides to open secret negotiations with the United States and the EU. Other sources inside Iran allege  that the president's team was trying to steal documents from the Intelligence Ministry to blackmail other leaders.

The crisis came to a boil about 10 days ago when Ahmadinejad fired the minister of intelligence --the second cleric he has fired from that position in less than two years -- and Khamenei resisted the move. A few weeks earlier, Ahmadinejad had fired the foreign minister, another Khamenei ally. Instead of trying to solve the crisis behind closed doors, as has been his wont in the past, this time Khamenei wrote a letter, pointedly not to the president, but to the dismissed minister, and reappointed him to his post. There is absolutely no constitutional provision that allows him to unilaterally appoint a minister.

Although a majority of members of the parliament have written an open letter to Ahmadinejad asking him to comply with Khamenei's egregious breach of the constitution, the president has hitherto refused to accept the leader's interference. He has refused to attend cabinet meetings and has yet to make a public comment about the decision. Either Khamenei must cave and allow Ahmadinejad to fire the minister -- yet another major blow to his authority -- or Ahmadinejad might have to go, creating a political crisis just when the regime least can afford it. Of course, if Ahmadinejad caves, he will be more vulnerable to his many foes, and that can only add to the political instability in the regime.

So what kind of game is Ahmadinejad playing? Why the sudden surge of Iranian patriotism? And why the public fight over the Intelligence Ministry? Some see the moves as part of his calculated effort by to prepare for the upcoming elections by creating some distance from Khamenei and the clerical regime. According to this theory, Ahmadinejad knows how reviled the clergy are in Iran and is keen on either challenging them or at least distancing himself from them. His decision to dismiss the minister of intelligence simply brought what had been a mere confrontation to the point of explosion.

Another key question is why Khamenei and his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have decided to pick this fight now. On the one hand, Khamenei and the IRGC have been increasingly tightening the political screws, and ruling more and more through brazen force. But more crucially, with the economy heading toward a crisis -- the central bank just announced that the inflation rate for foodstuffs is 25 percent, another official announced the real unemployment to be near 30 percent and an influential member of the parliament declared that government economic statistics are either kept secret and those made public are all unreliable -- and with the continued winds of democracy blowing in the region, Khamenei seems to be preparing to sacrifice the president and blame him for the financial calamities faced by the country. But will Ahmadinejad go down without a fight?