Winston Churchill once remarked that God protects drunks and the United States of America. Fortunately, the divine protection Churchill detected for the United States seems still in place — if we are wise enough to see and take advantage of it.
In the past month, America has been blessed by two events that ought to put us on a better path toward defeating our Islamic militant enemies. The spontaneous and worldwide Koran controversy — as discussed previously in this journal — focuses a bright light on the deep religious motivation of our foes and their supporters. If this episode begins to put paid to the idea that America and its actions are under attack only by Islam’s lunatic fringe of criminals and gangsters, the Koran-desecration issue will have provided us a hard-earned but invaluable lesson.
The second event is the wounding of al-Qaeda’s commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The aftermath of Zarqawi’s wounding provides two graphic, always available, but long-ignored lessons about how al-Qaeda works. First, the speculation that often emanates from Western officials and commentators that one or another major al-Qaeda leader is dead — be it bin Laden, Zawahiri, or someone else — and that the group is suppressing the news for morale reasons is, well, nonsense. From the most junior al-Qaeda fighter to bin Laden himself, their efforts are aimed at becoming martyrs while defending Muslims and fighting for Allah’s word. Achieving martyrdom is thus a cause for celebration and an occasion for issuing a sad but congratulatory message upon the death of a fighter. In this regard, al-Qaeda’s record bears irrefutable evidence: It has, to date, never sought to deny or disguise the death or capture of any of its leaders, from bin Laden’s military commander Muhammed Atef, to 9/11 planner Khalid Sheik Muhammad, to leading WMD-procurer Abu Hajir al-Iraqi.
The more important lesson to be drawn from Zarqawi’s wounding is the depth to which al-Qaeda plans for succession. Within 48 hours of Zarqawi’s wounding, al-Qaeda in Iraq had announced the event on its Web site and soon thereafter named a “temporary” commander to serve while Zarqawi is incapacitated. That announcement was followed quickly by a retraction of the naming of the temporary commander, but that action should not blur our view of what happened — al-Qaeda is prepared, today and tomorrow, to replace Zarqawi if he dies or requires a long convalescence.
This brings up a point that many U.S. officials and some commentators have missed; namely, that al-Qaeda is not structured as a terrorist group but rather as an insurgent organization modeled on the Islamist insurgent groups that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda is a linear (if far more sophisticated) descendant of those groups, and so is always planning to face a far more powerful enemy. Al-Qaeda clearly is not eager to lose leaders, but one of the prices for challenging a superpower militarily — as the Afghans learned in battling the Soviets — is the loss of significant numbers of leadership cadre. Thus, succession-planning becomes one of the most vital keys to survival; the organization must be able to survive the loss of key commanders more or less without missing a beat. The best Afghan insurgent groups did this, and al-Qaeda has done so in spades.
However the current Zarqawi episode works — will he die, will he be temporarily replaced, was the nature of his wound exaggerated, is he in place and stronger than ever, etc. — we have the correct lesson to be learned already in hand: al-Qaeda plans for leadership losses, has not yet hidden them when they occur, and has trained replacements who are waiting in the wings. If this lesson is taken to heart by U.S. policymakers, analysts, and pundits, they will realize that repeated claims that “We have killed two-thirds of al-Qaeda’s leadership since 9/11” are true but virtually meaningless. These casualties are of course a great plus for America, and the men and women who inflicted them deserve all praise and honor. But because we are working against an insurgent organization, we are not subtracting individuals from a finite list but rather killing or capturing quality leaders from a constantly growing organization, one that prepared for just the sort of cadre loss we have inflicted. We have an accurate body count, but given the attention al-Qaeda pays to succession, we do not have a measure of progress. To assume otherwise is self-deception, equivalent to the folly of al-Qaeda assuming that a U.S. Marine division makes no plans for succession and could be destroyed if its senior leadership is killed or captured. For al-Qaeda, as for our Marines, no individual is irreplaceable.
And so Churchill was right, God’s protection still prevails for the United States. In a mere month, He has willed America two key lessons about its enemies, lessons that are a grim reminder of the power and pervasiveness of the foe’s religious motivation and the carefully prepared depth of his leadership bench. Both lessons portend a long and bloody war, but if integrated into our understanding, thinking, and planning, they are ones that begin to make a strategy for victory possible.
Let us hope, then, that what the Washington Post on May 29, 2005, called “a high-level internal review” of the Bush administration’s terrorism policy, studies these lessons before, as the Post suggested, it heads off to attack a broader array of terrorist enemies. Al-Qaeda’s back is far from broken, it was and is prepared to absorb and replace leadership losses, and to assert, much less believe, otherwise is errant nonsense. Drunks and America God may protect, but self-deluding fools never.