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Time to talk to Al Qaeda?

AS THE WAR between the United States and Al Qaeda enters its fifth year, the nature of the armed, transnational Islamist group's campaign remains misunderstood. With the conflict viewed largely as an open-and-shut matter of good versus evil, nonmilitary engagement with Al Qaeda is depicted as improper and unnecessary.

Yet developing a strategy for the next phase of the global response to Al Qaeda requires understanding the enemy -- something Western analysts have systematically failed to do. Sept. 11 was not an unprovoked, gratuitous act. It was a military operation researched and planned since at least 1996 and conducted by a trained commando in the context of a war that had twice been declared officially and publicly. The operation targeted two military locations and a civilian facility regarded as the symbol of US economic and financial power. The assault was the culmination of a larger campaign, which forecast impact, planned for the enemy's reaction, and was designed to gain the tactical upper hand.

Overwhelmingly centered on the martial aspects of the conflict, scholars and policymakers have been too focused on Al Qaeda's ''irrationality," ''fundamentalism," and ''hatred" -- and these conceptions continue to color key analyses. The sway of such explanations is particularly surprising in the face of nonambiguous statements made by Al Qaeda as to the main reasons for its war on the United States. These have been offered consistently since 1996, notably in the August 1996 and February 1998 declarations of war and the November 2002 and October 2004 justifications for its continuation.

Since the attacks on New York and Washington, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have delivered, respectively, 18 and 15 messages via audio or videotape making a three-part case: The United States must end its military presence in the Middle East, its uncritical political support and military aid of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, and its support of corrupt and coercive regimes in the Arab and Muslim world.

Al Qaeda believes that the citizens of the states with whom it is at war bear a responsibility for the policies of their governments. Such democratization of responsibility rests, it has been argued by bin Laden, in the citizens' ability to elect and dismiss the representatives who make foreign policy decisions on their behalf.

Al Qaeda is an industrious, committed, and power-wielding organization waging a political, limited, and evasive war of attrition -- not a religious, open-ended, apocalyptic one. Over the past year, it has struck private and public alliances, offered truces, affected elections, and gained an international stature beyond a mere security threat.

It has implemented a clearly articulated policy, demonstrated strategic operational flexibility, and skillfully conducted low-cost, high-impact operations (Riyadh 1995, Dhahran 1996, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam 1998, Yemen 2000, New York and Washington 2001, Bali 2002, Istanbul 2003, Madrid 2004, and London 2005). Of late, this versatile actor has exhibited an ability to operate amid heightened international counter-measures.

No longer able to enjoy a centralized sanctuary in Afghanistan after 2002, Al Qaeda's leadership opted for an elastic defense strategy relying on mobile forces, scaled-up international operations, and expanded global tactical relationships. It encouraged the proliferation of mini Al Qaedas, able to act on their own within a regional context.

Consequently, and aside from the war in Iraq, between 2002 and 2005 the United States and seven of its Western allies were the targets of 17 major attacks in 11 countries for a total of 760 people killed. In 2001, Ayman al-Zawahiri had explained the cost-effective rationale of these measures, namely ''the need to inflict the maximum casualties against the opponent, for this is the language understood by the West, no matter how much time and effort such operations take." Last month, he reiterated that commitment and announced new attacks against the United States.

How can the war be brought to an end? Neither side can defeat the other. The United States will not be able to overpower a diffuse, ever-mutating, organized international militancy movement, whose struggle enjoys the rear-guard sympathy of large numbers of Muslims. Likewise, Al Qaeda can score tactical victories on the United States and its allies, but it cannot rout the world's sole superpower.

Though dismissed widely, the best strategy for the United States may well be to acknowledge and address the collective reasons in which Al Qaeda anchors its acts of force. Al Qaeda has been true to its word in announcing and implementing its strategy for over a decade. It is likely to be true to its word in the future and cease hostilities against the United States, and indeed bring an end to the war it declared in 1996 and in 1998, in return for some degree of satisfaction regarding its grievances. In 2002, bin Laden declared: ''Whether America escalates or deescalates this conflict, we will reply in kind."

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is associate director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University.

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