March 3, 2003 -- SO much for the argument that Uncle Sam can't walk and chew gum at the same time.
For months, supposedly hard-headed national-security types - including a coterie of former Clintonites - have been arguing against an invasion of Iraq on the grounds that the United States should concentrate its resources instead on al Qaeda. This contention never seemed particularly cogent for the simple reason that its proponents could never specify what exactly America would be doing to stop al Qaeda if it weren't preparing for war in Iraq - invading Pakistan instead?
The arrest this weekend of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, thought to be the mastermind of the 9/11 plot, gives lie to this argument. He was grabbed in an early morning raid in Rawalpindi by Pakistani forces acting on U.S. intelligence, and then swiftly "rendered" out of the country for interrogation at an "undisclosed location."
He is only the latest senior al Qaeda cutthroat to be neutralized in the past year:
* Abu Zubaydah, a top recruiter and trainer, was picked up in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
* Ramzi Binalshibh, part of the Hamburg cell, was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan.
* Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, organizer of the Cole bombing, was incinerated in Yemen by a Predator drone.
And all this while preparations for an Iraq war have been heating up.
It is clear that the covert U.S. war against an extraordinarily slippery foe is gaining momentum. Once they had escaped the initial onslaught at Tora Bora and Shah-i-Kot, al Qaeda's leaders went underground. Rooting them out is a slow, laborious process that requires piecing together small bits of intelligence and then waiting for a lucky break. But it gradually becomes easier over time - because the more bad guys you capture, the more intelligence you can extract from them.
This manhunt is a job for the U.S. intelligence community, the FBI and a small number of Special Operations troops. It is unclear how a war with Iraq, which would be waged by a different set of forces, would interfere with this mission.
Yes, certain surveillance platforms, such as satellites and Predators, which are in short supply, might have to be redirected toward supporting combat operations in Iraq, leaving fewer to keep watch on Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province. But this should be, at most, only a temporary disruption.
Sixty years ago, America was simultaneously fighting Italy, Germany and Japan. Surely today our much richer and larger country can fight both Iraq and al Qaeda, which have only a fraction of the combined combat power of the original "Axis of Evil."
The critics argue that deposing Saddam Hussein would alienate friendly governments whose help we need against al Qaeda, and would lead to more support on the "Arab Street" for the terrorists. Both are dubious propositions.
True, many U.S. allies, from France to Egypt, are skeptical about the invasion of Iraq. But it does not follow that they will cease to cooperate with the U.S. war against al Qaeda. They're not offering this cooperation as a favor to Washington: It is in their own self-interest to hunt down murderous fanatics who bear a deep hatred of the West and its allies in the Mideast.
Islamist terrorists haven't limited their activities to the United States. They have also attacked a French oil tanker, an Indonesian nightclub and numerous targets in Egypt. They've also plotted to crash an airliner into the Eiffel Tower and release ricin in Britain. No wonder that even Germany, which firmly opposes war in Iraq, has been offering active intelligence support in the struggle against al Qaeda.
Will invading Iraq lead to long lines at al Qaeda recruiting offices? Possible, but not probable. The sort of people who are willing to become "martyrs" for the cause are pretty far gone already. An invasion might push a few over the edge, but it also might give others second thoughts.
Remember: Al Qaeda flourished in the '90s - precisely when America was doing its utmost to appease the Arab world by sponsoring the Oslo peace process and limiting its response to terrorism to pinprick strikes. This only convinced the Islamists that America was ripe for attack.
And when the United States finally took firm action, by invading Afghanistan, there was no rejoicing in the Arab street and no sign of increased recruiting for al Qaeda. The prospect of spending the rest of their lives in Guantanamo Bay may even dissuade some of the more faint-hearted Islamists from taking up arms.
Whatever its impact on enemy morale, the conquest of Afghanistan definitely denied the terrorists an important base of operations. The ouster of Saddam Hussein will achieve the same purpose.
We must continue the slow, steady slog of hunting down terrorists and dealing with rogue regimes. It's not "either/or." Both are vital steps to ensure American security.
Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."