Judging by what's on the news channels these days, there seem to be two hot-button, foreign policy issues agitating US politicians and the general public. The first is pulling American troops out of Iraq; and the second is capturing Osama Bin Laden. Let us, for the sake of argument, suppose that both these events do take place in the foreseeable future. What overall impact will they have of the 'war on terror'? Not much.
Let's start with Osama. The US government has recently doubled the bounty on his head to $50 million. If the previous reward of $25 million did not produce any tangible result, it is highly unlikely that $50 million will either. I don't think the Bush Administration gets it. They are applying Western logic to a Mid-Eastern problem. Money is not the issue here. The only feasible way to capture or kill Osama is if he is betrayed by one of his inner circle. That eventuality is highly improbable. To his followers, the Sheikh - as he is known among them - is a mystical figure; a Messenger of God, if you will. He commands the type of loyalty - and fear - that Western leaders cannot comprehend. Betrayal is not an option. It would be tantamount to condemning the perpetrator's soul to eternal damnation.
The most likely scenario is that Osama - who has been on dialysis for years - will die of natural causes. And then what? Will Al Qaeda be magically vanquished? It would be dangerously naïve to think so. To Al Qaeda and its affiliates, Osama is mostly a symbol, a rallying point. This jihad they have embarked upon is greater than any individual. In their minds, it has been ordained by Allah. If Osama dies, Allah will provide another leader. This has already been illustrated in the case of Al Zarqawi, the former Al Qaeda supremo in Iraq. His killing was touted as a great victory by the US; but it made no change to the situation on the ground. If anything, the terrorist violence has gotten worse since his elimination.
It is a similar situation with the US troops in Iraq. The reality is that the presence of American troops has become almost irrelevant. The different sectarian factions in Iraq are engaged in their own private war. The US troops have become, at most, a distraction. Whether they stay, or they leave, the killing will continue. It could be argued that the US soldiers are keeping a lid, of sorts, on the prevailing mayhem - a few thousand deaths instead of tens of thousands - and that is about all they can hope to achieve. There can be no 'victory', in the conventional sense, no matter how many 'surges' take place. 160,000 American soldiers cannot control a hostile population of 30 million. The math just does not work out.
So does that mean that the war on terror is unwinnable? Yes it does; in the foreseeable future, at least. History has shown that a war is won only when one side goes on a sustained offensive. An Allied victory in World War II would not have been possible without the Normandy invasion. And going on the offensive is precisely what the West cannot do. How can you attack an enemy you cannot even locate?
All America and its allies are doing - and can do - is being defensive; and trying to prevent the next attack. That is not the way to win a war. It does not mean that the terrorists are winning either. They do not have the military capacity to defeat the West. However, they can keep their 'enemy' in a constant state of vigil - and fear. They can make the enemy hemorrhage billions of dollars, with occasional pin pricks. They can make ordinary citizens look constantly over their shoulders; and be suspicious of those that do not 'fit in'.
It is already happening. The open society that the US has been justly proud of is being whittled away. America can no longer afford to welcome the 'toiling masses, yearning to be free'. Threat levels - and the Patriot Act - have taken the place of trust and generosity.
And it is only going to get worse. Al Qaeda and its cohorts have time on their side. They are not bound by artificial timetables. In their minds, they are fighting for God - and in the divine scheme of things - time is irrelevant. The victory promised by Allah may be decades in coming. They can wait. The question is; can the West? It may have no other choice.