IN THE NEWS
When you have the initiative, you can execute your own strategy, instead of reacting to the enemy's. Here's an example:
- Al Qaeda in Iraq loses its leader, Abu Musad al-Zarqawi.
- After selecting his replacement, the group decides to send a message that it is still a force to be reckoned with.
- Al Qaeda in Iraq announces that it has kidnapped two American soldiers.
As I argued earlier, Zarqawi's death amounts to a victory only if the US and Iraqi governments can follow up quickly to dismantle his organization. While that process may be ongoing, the signs are somewhat mixed. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in Iraq continues to hold the initiative, for all the familiar reasons (the general difficulty preventing terrorist attacks, the weakness of population control in Iraq, etc.).
The death of any single individual--Al Qaeda in Iraq's leader, or one of the hostages they hold--is not the measure of victory in terrorism and counterterrorism. The political consequences of these events are.
So far, Al Qaeda in Iraq is in a stalemate with its American and Iraqi enemies. Al Qaeda in Iraq is not a popular organization, and it's perhaps surprising that someone had not passed along the operational information needed to locate Zarqawi earlier. (Or perhaps they did, and US/Iraqi forces missed earlier opportunities.) Everyone in Iraq itself knows that Al Qaeda in Iraq is not representative of other portions of "the insurgency." Meanwhile, Americans constantly confuse Al Qaeda in Iraq with the larger insurgency, and with Al Qaeda as a separate terrorist organization.
In other words, the exuberance that American news anchors didn't even bother to contain when they reported Zarqawi's death is a dangerous emotion for the American public to adopt. In just a few days after Zarqawi's death, his organization has sent a strong, clear message to American and Iraqi audiences: We're still here, and we do what we like. Another Al Qaeda-backed attack in another country would communicate a different, but just as frightening, message: We're still here, too, and nothing that happens in Iraq can stop us from hurting you. The US government and news media should be inuring the public from the power of these messages, not helping terrorist groups magnify the intensity of fear and disappointment manufactured through terrorist attacks.