Al Qaeda Near Defeat?

Here's hoping:

The sense of shifting tides in the terrorism fight is shared by a number of terrorism experts, though some caution that it is too early to tell whether the gains are permanent. Some credit Hayden and other U.S. intelligence leaders for going on the offensive against al-Qaeda in the area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where the tempo of Predator strikes has dramatically increased from previous years.

But analysts say the United States has caught some breaks in the past year, benefiting from improved conditions in Iraq, as well as strategic blunders by al-Qaeda that have cut into its support base.[…]On Iraq, he said he is encouraged not only by U.S. success against al-Qaeda’s affiliates there, but also by what he described as the steadily rising competence of the Iraqi military and a growing popular antipathy toward jihadism. “Despite this ’cause célebrè’ phenomenon, fundamentally no one really liked al-Qaeda’s vision of the future,” Hayden said. As a result, the insurgency is viewed locally as “more and more a war of al-Qaeda against Iraqis,” he said.

Pete Wehner infers:

We do have the capacity to influence things in some arenas–and Iraq is, right now, a central battlefield in the war against jihadists. To undo what we have put in place would be unwise, reckless, and–given events of the last year–indefensible as well.

I'm not sure this formulation works. It seems true to me at this point that a careful, staged withdrawal from Iraq now seems much less likely to provoke a catastrophe than we once feared. But figuring out precisely how to sustain the good trends in Iraq without a permanent open-ended presence will require finesse and prudence. Sustaining in a straight line what we have been doing  does not necessarily follow. Both Obama and McCain will have to find a path between indefinite occupation and precipitous withdrawal. But it does seem to me that al Qaeda's self-defeating nihilism, a more effective Iraqi army, some smart maneuvers by Maliki and the knowledge of a looming end to the US occupation at its current levels have led to a better prospect than almost anyone imagined two years ago. Obama has more adjustment to do on this than McCain at this point.

Know hope.