Item: In June, The New York Times published an extraordinary article on its front page—extraordinary, because it featured a series of anonymous government officials making the kind of statements previously found in pacifist journals and isolationist Web sites. As a result of the Afghan campaign, they argued, Osama bin Laden's semi-centralized terror network was now more dispersed, more decentralized, and more deadly. It was active "from North Africa to Southeast Asia," and was probably responsible for recent terrorist attacks around the world, including a car bomb that exploded outside the U.S. embassy in Karachi, Pakistan.
"Al Qaeda at its core was really a small group, even though thousands of people went through their camps," one official told the Times. "What we're seeing now is a radical international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come."
Item: In July, after six months of close collaboration between American and Philippine troops, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced that Abu Sayyaf—a Moro Muslim rebel group allegedly linked to bin Laden and undeniably responsible for a series of kidnappings and brutal killings—had been defeated. The U.S. echoed this assertion, declaring the operation a success and announcing that it would be pulling out most of its troops.
A month later, one unit of the allegedly defeated army kidnapped three Indonesian sailors. Another band seized six Filipino salespeople, beheading two of them and holding the others for ransom. In the town of Patikul, the heads of two Jehovah's Witnesses were left in a public market, next to a bloodstained note. "This is what will happen to those who do not believe in Allah," it read.
Item: Here in the U.S., FBI boss Robert Mueller has declared that suicide bombings on American soil are "inevitable." Vice President Dick Cheney has said that terrorists "will inevitably" acquire weapons of mass destruction, and "will not hesitate to use them." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have issued similarly fatalistic warnings.
The Fog of War
Wars aren't the sort of thing you can tally up on a scorecard, especially wars whose ultimate goals are more political than military, wars fought against a dispersed group rather than a state, and wars with no easily recognized markers of victory. It gets worse when you consider how tough it is to get reliable information about what's going on in the field—a hard enough problem for America's military and intelligence agencies, but worse still for ordinary civilians who must contend with the deliberate disinformation flooding in from both sides.
It doesn't help that the enemy is so poorly defined—not just by those who claim we are fighting terror itself or some comparably unfathomable abstraction, but even by those who attempt to speak clearly about just whom American soldiers are meeting on the battlefield. The prisoners detained indefinitely at Guantanamo, for example, are regularly described as "Al Qaeda and Taliban," as though the two groups were identical and their partisans interchangeable. To this day, hardly anyone—maybe no one—knows how many of the men locked up in the Pentagon's Cuban enclave were in on terrorist plots like 9/11, how many merely fought for the former Afghan government, and how many are tribal soldiers who happened to be allied with the Taliban on the wrong day. And these are captives taken in the theater of the War on Terror that looks the most like an actual war: the invasion and partial conquest of Afghanistan. Elsewhere, fierce arguments rage over whether Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are allies in the struggle or our craftiest enemies, if not both. Even the phrase "Al Qaeda" is misleading: It properly refers to Osama bin Laden's operation to finance Islamist groups, but now seems to encompass an entire network of terrorists who received his money. These cells are not a hierarchy with Osama, or anyone, at their head, and thinking of them that way dangerously misstates the problem.
Given all that, it may seem foolhardy to try to say just who might be winning this global melee. But I'll stick my head in the guillotine and hazard an answer:
1. The terrorists aren't necessarily winning, but
2. neither are we.
In fact, if we limit our analysis to the war goals that most Americans share—destroying the Islamist terror network and protecting the homefront against further attacks—we're in pretty bad shape.
Destroying Al Qaeda
The enemy in this war has been defined so broadly as to take in everyone from Colombia's coke-trafficking guerillas to the starving Stalinists of North Korea. But the chief goal is to break up the network that actually appears to have been responsible for the attacks of last fall. In September 2001, bin Laden's forces were based in Afghanistan. In September 2002, they are widely believed to have regrouped in Pakistan, though this—like all factual claims about the war's progress that cannot easily be checked by an English-speaker living in North America—has been hotly disputed, as has the question of whether bin Laden has survived with them.
Set that aside. The most important question is not whether Al Qaeda has more or fewer training camps, more or fewer fighters, more or fewer channels of communication—not unless "fewer" means "virtually no." From the terrorists' point of view, the question is whether they have captured the allegiance and imagination of the Muslim world. Almost certainly, 9/11's demonstration of American vulnerability has vastly increased the confidence and popularity of fanatics around the globe, and the subsequent overthrow of a stone-age government did little to settle the score.
That doesn't mean the legendary Arab Street, or its counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia and the Far East, is more willing to rise up against insufficiently Islamic overlords and install a Taliban-style theocracy. On that level, bin Laden's crew has mostly failed. For all the sympathies they've mustered in parts of the Muslim world—in sections of Afghanistan, pilgrims visit the graves of Al Qaeda fighters for their reputed healing powers—the Revolution is clearly behind schedule.
The trouble is, there's a difference between being unable to convert a fifth of the world to your cause and being unable to muster further operations against the West. Al Qaeda is more a loose network than a single corporate entity; in the annals of officially designated enemies, it is more akin to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy than to the Communist Party. Furthermore, its operations do not necessarily require a lot of manpower.
We also know that its defeat in Afghanistan has not been matched by similar losses in the Philippines and elsewhere—and for that matter, that the fall of the Taliban has in no sense meant that Afghanistan itself is subdued. The new "coalition government" has little authority outside the cities, and within them it is contending again with fundamentalists hostile to Western liberties.