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POLITICS: U.S. War on al Qaeda Widely Viewed as a Bust

Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Sep 28 2008 (IPS) - The U.S. is failing to rein in its primary target in the “global war on terror” – al Qaeda – according to a new poll of 23 countries across the globe.

Conducted for the BBC World Service by the University of Maryland’s Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and Globescan, the poll reveals that in every country surveyed but one, respondents think that the U.S.’s actions have failed to weaken the international terror group.

It was al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington on Sep. 11, 2001 which sparked the U.S.’s international war. Al Qaeda’s then-refuge, Afghanistan, has been engulfed in a war of varying intensity since then. The U.S. opened a second front in its war on terror in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq, which apparently had no ties to the al Qaeda terror network.

“Despite its overwhelming military power, America’s war against al Qaeda is widely seen as having achieved nothing better than a stalemate and many believe that it has even strengthened al Qaeda,” PIPA director Steve Kull said in a statement that accompanied the release of the report.

Averaged across all the nations surveyed, only one in five respondents think that al Qaeda has been weakened, 29 percent think the war on terror has had no effect, and fully three in 10 think that the effort has made al Qaeda stronger.

Nearly half of the respondents think that neither side is winning the war on terror.

Over the past year, top Pentagon brass and the U.S. intelligence community have expressed concern that al Qaeda, despite having been initially put on the run by the U.S. offensive, is gaining strength and that the greatest terrorist threat to U.S. soil will likely come from al Qaeda strongholds in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Taliban, the al Qaeda-sympathisers who initially gave the terror organisation safe haven when they controlled Afghanistan ahead of the late 2001 U.S. invasion, is attributed with increasing violence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Particularly in Afghanistan, the Taliban has stepped up its anti-government and anti-U.S. insurgency.

Even in the U.S., according to the BBC poll, only a third of those surveyed think that al Qaeda has been weakened and a third said that the U.S. war on terror has made al Qaeda stronger. Slightly over a quarter of U.S. respondents think that it has had no effect on al Qaeda.

Notably, many U.S. allies think that the war on terror has been ineffectual or actually strengthened al Qaeda.

“Together with the French, Mexicans have the highest number (nearly half) saying that the U.S.-led ‘war on terror’ has made al Qaeda stronger, and the largest number rejecting the idea that it has weakened al Qaeda,” said the report announcing the poll results.

Other allies with the perception that the war on terror has strengthened al Qaeda include Italy, with 43 percent; Australia, with 41 percent; and Britain, with 40 percent.

Nearly three quarters of respondents in U.S.-allied Australia, Canada, Mexico, Britain, Italy and France think that “neither side is winning” in the conflict between al Qaeda and U.S.

While 15 countries said that the conflict is a stalemate, in only three countries, the most widespread view was that the U.S. is winning. Nearly half of Kenyan respondents, a third of Nigerian respondents, and nearly four in 10 respondents in Turkey held this view.

The poll also considered respondents’ views of al Qaeda.

“On average, 61 percent of those in countries surveyed say their feelings about al Qaeda are negative, 8 percent say they are positive, and 18 percent say they are mixed,” said the BBC report.

In 15 of the countries surveyed, a clear majority of respondents holds a negative view of al Qaeda. In five other countries, China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and the Philippines, negative views of al Qaeda were most common, but not held by majorities.

Nigeria, despite having 42 percent of respondents with a negative view of al Qaeda, had the largest number saying that they hold a positive view toward the group – a quarter of respondents felt this way.

Egypt is the only country where a clear majority holds either positive or mixed views about al Qaeda.

Turkey was among the largest majorities with negative views of al Qaeda, and the largest of countries polled with “predominately Muslim publics”.

In the U.S., an unsurprising 84 percent of respondents had negative views of al Qaeda, but nine percent had mixed feelings and two percent held positive views of the group.

Broken down worldwide by this preference, just over half of those with a positive view of al Qaeda said that the war on terror has made the group stronger, whereas a third of those with negative views on al Qaeda felt the same way.

Of those who thought that the war on terror had made al Qaeda weaker, the spread between those with positive and negative views of the group was significantly less (22 to 28 percent, respectively). There was also a smaller spread for those who thought the war on terror has had no effect – 21 percent of positive views on al Qaeda and 31 percent of negative ones.

The largest percentage of respondents who think al Qaeda is winning its conflict with the U.S. is in Pakistan, where the terror group – likely including its leader Osama Bin Laden – is given safe haven by an increasingly assertive Taliban. Pakistan and Egypt are the only publics where the most common response to the preference question was not to admonish al Qaeda with a negative view.

The BBC World Service poll used responses from 23,937 adults in 23 countries. Globescan did the fieldwork between Jul. 8 and Sep. 12.

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