Five years after the September 11 terrorist tragedy, unprecedented global police and intelligence cooperation has thwarted dozens of potential terrorist attacks in Western states, including the early August plot to bomb as many as 10 passenger jets flying out of London.
Even so, the bastions of radical Islam Pakistan-Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East show no signs of capitulating. If anything, Islamic extremism appears to be gaining strength, due in large part to the West's policy failures and refusal to allocate sufficient troops and resources to these regions.
The recent turn of events in Afghanistan underscores the United States' and Great Britain's failure in the war of ideas. Almost five years since the US-led coalition marched into Kabul, the Taliban not only has survived, but it has grown increasingly bold to the point now that instances of hand-to-hand combat are being reported between coalition forces and the Islamic militants. On September 10, the radicals demonstrated their rising strength by assassinating Hakim Taniwal, the governor of Paktia Province, which borders Pakistan. To put an exclamation point on their ability to sow terror, a suicide bomber killed six police officers at Taniwal's funeral September 11.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's political support is dwindling because the massive Western assistance needed to turn the war-ravaged country around has not been forthcoming, and he thus has little to show his people. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Afghanistan's catastrophic increase in opium production, which is fueling the Taliban war effort, is a direct consequence of the West's failure to revive the Afghan economy.
US commanders in Kabul characterize the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as "terrorism central." It is on the Pakistani side of the frontier that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to have found sanctuary, and where dozens of radical groups from Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East have reportedly gathered to prepare for future militant actions.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has just signed a controversial cease-fire with the Afghan-Pakistani Taliban operating in the country's tribal region after his army took a beating over the past three years, loosing roughly 800 soldiers. Musharraf has no strategy for where he wants to take Pakistan, and is prepared to flip-flop on all policy issues, as long as he and his military regime survive. Musharraf's policy options seem to be dwindling and his domestic political support has eroded. Yet, the United States has appeared reluctant to abandon the status quo and throw its support behind democratic change in Pakistan. As a result, Washington is incurring the anger of a growing number of Pakistanis.
Given the quagmire in Iraq, and the recent US-British support for the inconclusive Israeli thrust into Lebanon, there exists a far greater level of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world than ever before. This mood could end up hampering intelligence cooperation in the future, especially between Western states and moderate Islamic nations.
In addition, the West's capacity to negotiate regional disputes is being starkly undermined by the poor policy decisions of recent years. Senior US diplomats admit privately that it may take decades to turn around America's image in the Muslim world.
A recent poll co-sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, an American think tank, indicates that a majority of Americans and Europeans see the greatest threats to global stability as emanating from the Islamic world. If this is so, why have Western states done so little to win the battle for hearts and minds in those heartlands deemed vital by al Qaeda?
The failure in the battle for hearts and minds extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Somalia, for example, an extremist Islamic movement has conquered the country while the Americans were busy backing discredited and now defeated warlords. Al Qaeda is now free to build a major base in Somalia from where it can undermine other parts of Muslim Africa.
In the Middle East there is a new phenomenon at work, in which radical Islamic movements, rather than secular resistance groups or states, are capturing public support. Indeed, Hamas and Hezbollah have succeeded in expanding their support base by developing social and political components with a strong populist Islamic agenda.
Elements from these parties could become the cutting edge of a revamped al Qaeda in the Middle East, just as al Qaeda was able to lay down roots among the once nationalist and secular anti-American resistance in Iraq.
In these dangerous heartlands where al Qaeda still roams, unless the West backs democratically elected governments and then provides the resources to secure them, the war of ideas will never be won.
Editor's Note: Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and author of the book "Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia."