Those days, if they ever existed for-real-for-real, are done, according to this Guardian piece reporting that al-Qaeda is pretty much in a tailspin. I couldn’t have asked for much else from such a charming group of people, except for Usama bin Laden to die in the Hague. For a more fulsome series of questions from me prompted by the Guardian piece, see here:

But even if the Guardian is only 50 percent right, is it necessary to pursue, for instance, a second escalation of combat troops this year in Afghanistan, if the goal is to destroy safe havens across the Pakistani border for a handful of dudes who can’t attract competent recruits any more? So much of bipartisan U.S. strategy has rested on the presumption — and committed such overwhelming blood and treasure — that these people are an overwhelming security threat. Now they just look pathetic. Will our habits force us to implicitly inflate their danger?

Now, remember: the danger from al-Qaeda was that the AQ network was metastacizing and becoming a global movement, franchising and mutating and entrenching itself. I can’t find the quote, but I remember Richard Clarke saying something like hitting al-Qaeda in 2001 was like smashing a seed pod — it actually spread the seeds outward, allowing them to germinate. 

But what if it turns out that the soil just isn’t fertile any longer? (Presume for the sake of argument that it ever was.) My friend Eli cautions me that people said al-Qaeda in Iraq was done after Zarqawi was killed. But I think the example undermines his point. AQI could sustain itself beyond any leader, even Zarqawi*. What it couldn’t survive was Iraqis rejecting it and foreign fighters ceasing to join its cause. And that’s the precise phenomenon we’re talking about here. The demand for al-Qaeda is, if the Guardian piece is halfway correct, drying up. And that’s what al-Qaeda can’t survive. I’m not hanging any banners on any Abraham Lincolns, but, you know, shit…

*OK, so this is actually a pet curiosity of mine. I would love to see a rigorous assessment of how Zarqawi’s death exacerbated AQI’s downward-turned fortunes, post-Awakening. Call it a contrarian impulse, but I’m a little skeptical — probably because I’ve accepted this argument for so long myself — that the capable AQI leader’s death didn’t have any significant impact on AQI. Don’t get me wrong. The demand is the most important thing in an insurgency. But, you know, stuff that happens in the world is rarely mono-causal, etc.