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Al-Qaida's numbers were grossly exaggerated by the Bush administration and U.S. media. Hardcore al-Qaida members never numbered more than 200-300. Claims that there were 5,000-20,000 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan were nonsense. -- Eric Margolis

June 23, 2002

Anti-U.S. militants showing up all over


Contributing Foreign Editor

ZURICH -- According to a secret government report revealed last week by the New York Times, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan not only "failed to diminish the threat to the United States," but actually complicated the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign by dispersing its radical foes across the Muslim world.

The small, tightly-knit leadership of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida has been succeeded by a group of younger militants who have formed ad hoc alliances with other anti-U.S. groups from Morocco to Indonesia. These groups now pose the most serious danger to the United States and will remain a potent threat for years to come.

This dismaying report confirms what this writer has been saying in columns and on CNN since 9/11. A full-scale military invasion of Afghanistan would prove futile; the correct response was intelligence and police work, not brute force.

Al-Qaida's numbers were grossly exaggerated by the Bush administration and U.S. media. Hardcore al-Qaida members never numbered more than 200-300. Claims that there were 5,000-20,000 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan were nonsense. These wild exaggerations came from lumping Taliban tribal warriors with some 5,000 Islamic resistance fighters from Kashmir, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the Philippines and Chinese-ruled Eastern Turkistan, none of whom were part of al-Qaida.

The reason 12,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops operating in Afghanistan can't find al-Qaida - a campaign that has so far cost over US$10 billion - is that there were few to begin with; by now, most have slipped away through Pakistan. Instead, the U.S. is getting mired in Afghan tribal politics by trying to maintain a regime in Kabul that will take orders from Washington.

Last week's much ballyhooed grand tribal council, or loya jirga, that "elected" CIA "asset" Hamid Karzai as national leader was a wildly expensive charade conducted under the guns of U.S. and British troops. Karzai's "election" has cost Washington $5 billion in bribes and payoffs to Afghan warlords. As soon as U.S. and British occupation troops decamp, Afghanistan will again dissolve into tribal chaos or fall under the control of Russia, which continues to arm and direct the Northern Alliance.

Fury over Palestine

It's also becoming painfully clear that Afghanistan was never the true epicentre of anti-U.S. militancy, as Washington initially believed. The real hotbeds of Islamic resistance to the United States lay in Egypt, Arabia, North Africa and Europe. According to the leaked report in the Times, a loose network of anti-American groups has surfaced in these regions, united mainly by their fury over events in Palestine, America's impending invasion of Iraq, and opposition to America's political and economic domination in the Muslim World.

Osama bin Laden, be he dead or alive, and his al-Qaida movement have become irrelevant. In truth, they were never much more than a symbol of hatred and defiance. But their message, propagated by 9/11, has reverberated around the world. The torch of anti-Americanism is being taken up by the "jihadi" movement - Muslim veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s - and by a younger generation of militants.

Sizeable numbers of anti-American militants have been uncovered in Europe and arrested by local police and intelligence forces, the only major success, to date, of the "war on terrorism." But more hostile groups are springing up faster than they can be identified or neutralized.

Call this the privatization of warfare. Many young Muslims despair their own feeble, corrupt, U.S.-dominated regimes will ever bring justice to the Palestinians, save Iraq from invasion by the U.S., or end what they view as oppressive American influence over their nations. They are taking matters into their own hands by waging a personalized war against the United States and Israel, two nations that have become one in the eyes of the Muslim world.

Forty years ago, the Islamic world regarded the United States as its best friend and saviour. Today, the two are on a collision course. There is growing fear across the Muslim world that the Bush administration is being driven by backers of Israel and fundamentalist Christians into a modern anti-Islamic crusade.

Powell sidelined

The leaked report in the Times likely originated from Colin Powell's Department of State. Powell is widely respected abroad as the administration's most intelligent and ethical member, but he has been almost totally sidelined because of his opposition to invading Iraq and waging a wider war against the Muslim world. Foreign policy - particularly towards the Mideast and South/Central Asia - has been taken over by a hardline, ardently pro-Israel faction in the Pentagon and the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. Powell may soon resign in disgust.

President Bush's National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, should provide balance and nuance. But she has shown herself a rigid ideologue with poor judgment and very limited understanding of the outside world. She is in way over her head. Bush is not getting the sound advice he needs. As a result, he has been vacillating and contradicting himself for months.

Afghanistan, billed only last fall as a triumph for America and President Bush, is now looking less and less like a victory and more each day like the beginning of a long, bloody struggle that could and should have been avoided.

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