The refocusing of the United States military effort on Afghanistan highlights the role of the Iraq war in training a new generation of jihadi operatives.
In mid-November 2001, a little over seven years ago, the war to terminate the Talib n regime in Afghanistan was nearing its end. The Taliban militias ha vacated Kabul almost overnight and most of them were dispersing across the south and east of the country, as well as across the border into western Pakistan.
The George W Bush administration was, only two months after the 9/11 atrocities, on the brink of claiming its first scalp in the "war on terror". Even at that stage, as a number of columns in this series noted, attention was already turning to the regime that had really been in the sights since Bush came to office: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq…
But if the Afghan campaign witnessed what seemed to be a lightning victory, the failure to kill or capture al-Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban figurehead Mullah Mohammad Omar left a bitter taste. It is worth recalling that these were "public enemies one and two", meaning that Mullah Omar at the time far exceeded bin Laden’s own deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in importance. It may be largely forgotten today, when the Egyptian ideologist offers the western media rich pickings for his propaganda statements, but in late 2001 and for some time after Mullah Omar was the person most wanted for leading the Taliban and sheltering al-Qaida.
This is especially relevant in the week that Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, has offered Mullah Omar safe conduct and protection if he agrees to engage in negotiations to help bring the bitter war to an end..
It now looks, pending a vote in the Iraqi parliament, as though the status-of-forces agreement (Sofa) signed on 17 November 2008 will be completed between the United States military in Iraq and the Nouri al-Maliki administration. If implemented, this could lead to the withdrawal of all US combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 (though other elements could remain). A degree of conflict in Iraq might in any event persist, but such an outcome would involve the focus of the war on terror moving nearly 1,500 kilometres eastwards to Afghanistan.
That, to the al-Qaida strategists, is eminently satisfying. Their original expectation was of a slow and steady build-up to a guerrilla war in Afghanistan that would stretch over at least a decade. What they got instead was a diversion into a long war in the heart of the middle east that increased worldwide support for their movement and infused them with thousands of dedicated paramilitaries (see "Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge", 28 August 2008).
How that will play out over the next two decades is impossible to say. It is clear that many of the insurgency methods developed in Iraq have been introduced into Afghanistan and Pakistan to considerable effect. There is also evidence that paramilitaries from a number of countries are now aiding the rapid Islamist resurgence in Somalia, which may see the collapse of the current weak government in Mogadishu in weeks rather than months.
Beyond that, all is speculation at this stage. All that can be concluded for now is that Iraq has already served its purpose. Even if Iraq does achieve the near impossible and make some sort of transition to a more peaceful country, the war has already had its value for the al-Qaida movement.
In January 2000, during an early phase of the campaign for the presidential election in November that year, George W Bush described the post-cold-war environment in his inimitable style:
"…it was a dangerous world and we knew exactly who they ‘they’ were. It was us versus them and we knew exactly who them was. Today we’re not so sure who the ‘they’ are, but we know they’re there."
One of the enduring achievements of his presidency is that there are now a lot more of "them" there.