Iraqi and coalition forces tracked down and killed Abu Azzam, the second-most-wanted Al Qaeda leader in Iraq. This guy is a brutal killer. He was one of Zarqawi's top lieutenants. He was reported to be the top operational commander of Al Qaeda in Baghdad."
Those who heard President Bush make this claim in the Rose Garden on Wednesday could be forgiven for feeling that they were suffering from a case of déjà vu.
It was just over two months ago that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Myers announced the capture of Abu Abd Aziz, whom he described as Abu Musab Zarqawi's "main leader in Baghdad."
And it was only three months ago that Pentagon officials announced the arrest of Mohammed Khalif Shaiker, a.k.a. Abu Talha, of Mosul, which they described as "a major defeat for the Al Qaeda organization in Iraq."
In May, Amar Zubaydi, a Zarqawi lieutenant responsible for an assault on Abu Ghraib prison and a series of car bombings in Baghdad, was arrested. In January, Abu Umar Kurdi, who was said to be the architect of three-quarters of the car bombings in Baghdad, was captured.
A very quick LexisNexis search shows that at least a dozen top Zarqawi lieutenants have been apprehended or killed since early last year. The "Groundhog Day" quality of this routine might not matter if our opponents' litany of accomplishments during the exact same period were not so awful. Consider these facts:
According to the Brookings Institution's "Iraq index," September had more multiple-fatality bombings than any other month since the invasion 38 even before three car bombs killed more than 60 people Thursday. And on Sept. 14, Baghdad had its single worst day of bloodshed since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The number of suicide attacks has skyrocketed, with more in April alone than in the entire previous year, and more still in May, when the monthly total of 90 roughly equaled the total number of Palestinian suicide attacks since 1993.
Military leaders are now acknowledging what intelligence community analysts have been saying for nearly a year: Zarqawi and the jihadists have become the dominant element in the insurgency, eclipsing the former Baathists and old-regime loyalists.
In light of all this bad news, it is not particularly surprising that Washington would showcase each capture and kill as a sign of progress. Senior officials have used the same approach in discussing the broader war on terror in the past and, between early 2003 and the final stages of the presidential campaign in 2004, Bush and others claimed that the number of top Al Qaeda operatives who had been taken out of action rose from one-third of the most wanted to three-quarters.
These numbers cannot be confirmed, and counterterrorism experts in various agencies refer to the three-quarters figure as a "White House number" that they had nothing to do with.
But more important as bombings in Madrid, London and Sharm el Sheik, and a broad consensus among counterterrorism experts, indicate these figures cannot be interpreted as a reduction in the terrorist threat.
The same is true in Iraq. When the U.S. military invaded Iraq, the message was sent loud and clear that, in the words of Gen. Tommy Franks, "we don't do body counts." But the frequent announcements of captures and kills have become the contemporary equivalent of the body count an illusion of progress that, like the daily numbers served to the nation during the Vietnam War, distracts from indicators that genuinely count: the level of violence, the continuing flow of recruits into our opponents' camp and the amount of territory in which relative peace has been established.
It seems evident that to defeat the insurgency in Iraq and the global jihadist challenge the United States must have a story of its own to counter the one told by opponents, who argue that we are an occupier with designs to steal the country's wealth and suppress its faith. Despite the increasingly frequent avowals from Bush and his aides that we are fighting, in his words, a "hateful ideology," the sad fact is that the United States still has not provided that opposing narrative. Indeed, it is still fighting against individual men and measuring progress accordingly. By doing so, it continues to foster the notion that our opponents are finite in number and destructible and that, on a good day, we will wipe them out.
Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we do not have a story to counter the insurgents' narrative, which, however benign our intentions, appears to many to be supported by facts on the ground.
"Our strategy is clear in Iraq," the president remarked on Wednesday. "We are hunting down high-value targets like Azzam and Zarqawi."
A true strategy, however, would apply the full range of our diplomatic capabilities to win allies among moderates in the Muslim world and lead non-Muslim countries to resolve the disputes in Kashmir, Indonesia, Chechnya, Palestine and Thailand to name the most famous that fuel militancy. It would put our financial might to work with assistance on a scale that would make it far more difficult for regimes to evade real political and economic reform.
Such a course would be based on an understanding that public diplomacy adorning current policies with the window dressing of listening tours, such as the one Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes was on will not change any of the fundamental dynamics underlying terrorism today. It may be too late to do this in Iraq, but as the jihad widens, the urgency of a strategic approach only grows.
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon are the authors of "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right."
© 2005 Los Angeles Times