Is U.S. losing war on terror?
The threat from Islamic extremists is changing and growing.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Five years ago, the United States fired its first shots in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror here in Afghanistan, evicting al-Qaida and toppling the Taliban regime that hosted Osama bin Laden's network.
Today, the United States and its allies are struggling to halt advances by a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in large swaths of this still desperately poor and unstable country.
"Things are going very badly," admitted an official with the allied military forces, who asked not to be identified because the issue is so sensitive. "We've arrived at a situation where things are significantly worse than we anticipated."
The trends in Afghanistan appear to mirror the global war on terror a half-decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Bush administration and allied governments have won battle after battle, but appear to be in danger of losing the war.
Indeed, a growing number of analysts, many of them former top government counterterrorism officials, argue that the very notion of a "war" on terrorism is the wrong strategy.
In relying overwhelmingly on bombs and bullets, they say, the United States has alienated much of the Muslim world, driving away even moderates who might be open to Western ideas. The West has largely failed to offer a positive vision or deal with the root causes of Islamic extremism.
The "tactical firefighting" of disrupting terrorist cells and stopping attacks "works pretty well," said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College. "But it's not resolving the strategic problem. The ranks keep on coming."
The "war" on terrorism "is something that has outlived its usefulness as a concept," said Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman.
A global counterinsurgency strategy would put "more emphasis on political reform, economic development, information operations, and less emphasis on the kinetics -- the killing and capturing," Hoffman said. "I'm not saying we shouldn't be killing and capturing terrorists. But ... we've had a disproportionate emphasis on that as a solution."
On the ground, the good news is that bin Laden's al-Qaida network, which executed the Sept. 11 attacks, has been badly damaged, perhaps even crippled, by a multi-pronged international assault by soldiers, spies, policemen and bankers, according to senior U.S. officials and private analysts.
But the threat from anti-Western Islamic extremists has rebounded, mutated and grown.
Bin Laden's warped message of violent jihad has spread, with help from the Internet, like a contagious virus. The ranks of potential terrorist recruits -- while still representing a small, embittered minority of the Muslim world -- appear to be swelling.
To them, round-the-clock TV images of the war in Iraq and the U.S.-backed Israeli bombardment of Lebanon are proof of bin Laden's contention that the West is waging war on Islam.
Enemies gain strength
With the United States bogged down in Iraq, some specialists say they worry that America's enemies feel emboldened. Some of the early gains after Sept. 11 -- when al-Qaida was ousted from Afghanistan and countries from Iran to Libya avoided confrontation with Washington -- may be dissipating.
A new report by the respected British research group Chatham House concludes: "There is little doubt that Iran has been the chief beneficiary of the war on terror in the Middle East."
In Lebanon, Iranian proxy Hezbollah is resurgent after Israeli bombs failed to dislodge it. Hezbollah has outpaced the Lebanese government in rebuilding villages, and its teams bring along TV cameras to record the effort for its propaganda value.
Islamists control ever-larger swaths of lawless Somalia, while in nuclear-armed Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf walks a tight-rope between counter-terror cooperation with the West and appeasing his own Islamists.
In Afghanistan, which has been viewed as one of the enduring successes against terrorism, the Taliban appear stronger than at any time since Sept. 11.
Despite successions of offensives and airstrikes more intense than those in Iraq, the Taliban and their sympathizers now operate freely in six southeastern provinces and control pockets of them, said officials from the U.S. and Afghan governments and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.