Recent Al Qaeda tape proves to be 5 years old
Geopolitical Diary: The State of the War(s)
A new al Qaeda tape is circulating; a sort of montage honoring the "fallen martyrs" of the Afghan war. Within the tape is a 50-second clip of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden discussing his thoughts on the subject.
The tape was first released July 14, but now news commentators aplenty are citing the video as proof of al Qaeda's strength in general, and of bin Laden's vitality in particular. However, judging from the camera angle, the clothing and what appears in the video's background, the tape is more than five years old and was filmed on the same reel used to assemble a video released in May 2002.
That means it has been more than a year since al Qaeda released any evidence indicating bin Laden is still alive, and roughly five years since the apex leadership of al Qaeda has been conclusively linked to any attack outside the Middle East or South Asia.
We certainly understand al Qaeda's effort to make its leader loom large; there are few organizations whose need to do something spectacular outweighs that of al Qaeda, and there is arguably no one who needs to prove he is a player more than bin Laden does. But barring a secret plan that, for some as-yet-undisclosed reason, necessitates hiding in Pakistani caves for years, bin Laden is either dead or incapacitated to the point that he cannot speak -- or his condition is such that his handlers prefer he does not.
So, whatever other axes one might have to grind with the U.S. administration -- and these days there seem to be enough to outfit an army of Vikings -- take this for what it is: Bin Laden is probably gone for good, and al Qaeda likely lacks the ability to strike in any strategically meaningful way.
But with the war against al Qaeda now disposed of, what of the other?
Stratfor has often written about what is really going on behind the scenes in Iraq: negotiations. The United States is looking for a way out of the war that does not upend its national interests -- something with which the average American is very familiar. But what most Americans do not realize is that, while Tehran is certainly pleased with this U.S. angst, the Iranians are not exactly doing line dances.
Historically, the traditional outcome of a change of politics in Iraq is an invasion of Iran. No matter how the United States leaves, rest assured that it will leave in a way that molds Iraq to its desires. And if Washington's top concern is an all-powerful Iran controlling the Persian Gulf, the United States will attempt to leave Iraq in a way that puts the Sunnis back in charge. Simply as a warning, the United States already has starting drip feeding weapons to Sunni Baathists -- specifically to fight Sunni jihadists; just imagine what materiel and intelligence Washington could dispense if it really wanted to shift the Iraqi balance of power.
True, the Shia make up roughly 60 percent of the Iraqi population, with the Sunnis comprising only 20 percent, but chew on this: The Shia have never ruled Iraq. Ever. It has always been under Sunni domination. Iran is well aware that its position rests on a population that has never once delivered. And of course, the Saudis have an interest in this mess as well, because both the Iranians and the Americans stand ready to pour oil on Iraq's flames if they fail to get their way. Their influence over many jihadists guarantees them a seat at the table. Ergo, U.S.-Iranian negotiations with a Saudi twist.
Events in the Persian Gulf took an interesting turn on Monday when Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie -- who, despite his nationality, is an Iranian ally -- told Al Arabiya television that nearly half of all foreign fighters detained in Iraq are, in fact, Saudis. Separately, Hussain Shariatmadari, president of the state-owned Kayhan media group, recently slipped and called the Gulf country of Bahrain -- a small archipelago off the Saudi coast -- "a province of Iran," while Iraqi Shiite daily Al-Bayyinah al-Jadidah accused Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan of writing checks to Sunni militants.
With the Americans, the Saudis and the Iranians all locked in peace talks, such comments seem decidedly unhelpful. Yet, after a second look, it all makes a great deal of sense.
Think of the negotiations over Iraq like buying a used car. For the salesman to get the highest price, he has to convince the potential buyer that he really does not need the sale. For the buyer, the same logic holds true. He must convince the salesman he can just walk away.
Warnings and accusations like the ones mentioned above -- specifically, the Iranian targeting of the Saudis, in this case -- are part and parcel of the back and forth between the major powers involved in the Iraq talks. Throughout history, just prior to any major Middle Eastern settlement, all sides tend to appear to be on the verge of war. That is what negotiations in this part of the world look like -- which means all the noise in the region right now is probably a very good sign.
The trick is telling the difference between war rhetoric that precedes a settlement and war rhetoric that precedes, well, a war. After all, sometimes negotiations fail. And since Iraq will certainly catch fire should one side not get what it wants, imagine the heat should both sides feel put out.