The PWB staff is in Los Angeles this week where we’ve camped out in a suitably trendy hotel.

The plan is to spend time discussing a book project and companion documentary that will hopefully be enjoyed and possibly cherished by dozens, if not hundreds, of readers and viewers. Unfortunately, my slacker staff seems more interested in ogling the uber hip, occasionally attractive guests parading through the lobby. This got my mind to wandering.

Many of the guests are working very hard to display their uniqueness and special individuality... often times by sporting tattoos (mostly the ladies), goatees/soul patches (mostly the men) or trying to effect an air of complete indifference and boredom.

I have a teenage kid...I know complete indifference and boredom...these trendy trendsetters need to work harder to get the authentic look.

All this ogling leads me to ponder the tattoo explosion in this country, particularly among young women. I have been very clear with my own daughter about the issue of tattoos...if you want to display how cool, unique and individual you are, don’t do what all the other kids are doing. That’s called lemming-like behavior. Lemmings are not known for their uniqueness.

At some point, way back when, it would have been a statement of individuality to be a girl and sport a freshly inked tattoo just above one’s plumber's butt line. But after more than a million others did the same thing, it does get a bit predictable. Which, of course, runs counter to the concept of tattoo as individual statement.

Not to mention how a tattoo tends to age, stretch and/or sag due to the inevitable march of time. It would be a public service if someone would produce a coffee table book of before and after tattoo photos… here’s the picture of the young thing just after the tattoo is drilled, and here’s the picture 10 years later.

What was initially a hip line of Chinese script is now a somewhat downward slanting, unreadable longer line of faded purple scribble. The cute single rose morphs into a droopy, out of focus rose bush. The adorable Chihuaha puppy face ages into something resembling a big, puffy and somewhat angry Shar-Pei. Time is not the tattoo’s friend.

Years ago, in my own effort to be a tad bit cooler, I grew a goatee. I was living overseas at the time, back in the early 90’s, and the facial hair as art trend was just starting to energize. Through a combination of good genes and human growth hormone I managed to sprout a goatee in record time. Mission accomplished… man, I was looking very cool, very unique. I was definitely not like all the others. Individuality was mine.

Then one morning I stepped onto the subway in some distant foreign capital city and found myself in a train car where seven out of the 10 men in that car were sporting goatees in varying shapes, styles and degrees of growth. I felt like I’d entered a secret meeting of the Goateed Justice League. I went straight from the subway to a barbershop and had some 80 year old guy named Vitas shave off my badge of individuality.

On to the topic of the day…

Have you started to suspect that common sense is on permanent holiday? The reason I ask is due to a story that surfaced over the past couple of days.

Several senior U.S. military commanders seem to be getting all giddy over the notion that perhaps we’ve delivered a fatal blow to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) as a result of military operations during the past three months or so. Some, including Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of the Joint Special Operations Command operations in Iraq, are promoting the idea that we should declare victory over AQI.

These military commanders are very intelligent, driven and courageous people. They are absolutely correct when noting that we’ve had significant successes recently against AQI, particularly in Anbar Province and Baghdad. AQI operatives and leaders have been killed or captured, leading to better intelligence on their personnel, operations and support structure.

Suicide bombings are down in areas where we have increased our troop presence alongside Iraqi personnel, and there has been success where Sunni leaders have turned against AQI.

But issue a declaration of victory? Entertain the notion that we’ve all but eliminated AQI? I know that we don’t often learn from history, but honestly, it’s only been a few short years since the president stood on the carrier deck in front of the "Mission Accomplished" banner. Would that not qualify as a cautionary tale for anyone looking to declare victory against anything or anyone?

Here’s a thought: Let’s issue a declaration saying that we’ve had some very good success recently against AQI, and we believe we’re on the right track. Our declaration could go on to say that we know it’s a tough and resilient enemy, but our resolve is unshakeable and we will continue the war on terror to the best of our abilities, whether it be against AQI or its parent company, Al Qaeda, Inc.

That’s a good declaration. That’s a declaration not likely to bite you in the ass.

The military commanders promoting the idea of a victory declaration, in my respectful opinion, are thinking like military strategists and not counter-terrorism officers. You can deliver a death blow to a foreign army or military force. You can degrade their operations, supply lines and infrastructure to the point where a victory declaration is inevitable. That’s all well and good.

But AQI, like Al Qaeda itself, is not a foreign army or military force. It is a terrorist organization unlike anything we’ve faced before in the world of counterterrorism. Back in the day, there were old school terrorist groups like Bader-Meinhoff or the Japanese Red Army. They were, for the most part, small inbred groups of anarchists bent on violence, anarchy and the pursuit of hot, communist chicks. The end-game in fighting these groups was that you either killed or captured all the members, or eventually they grew old and became more interested in retirement than rebellion.

Al Qaeda, and by association AQI, is a different beast. Not because they’re more clever, more sophisticated or more organized than old-school terror groups, but because Al Qaeda espouses and preaches a twisted, bloodthirsty religious load of crap with a zeal that speaks to potential recruits in ways that we can’t understand.

They have shown an ability to draw in new recruits and expand their voice through new technologies. They have shown themselves to be absolutely ruthless, devoid of concern for human life and more than willing to kill countless of their own (Muslims) who get in the way of their pathological goals.

Aside from their ability to recruit, their global presence and proven resilience, they have the advantage of being a terrorist organization. Talk about setting the bar low. Trust me when I say, there are no rocket scientists in Al Qaeda or AQI. You do not need to be Lex Luthor to be a successful terrorist. You don’t even need to be his henchman Otis. That in part is why they are resilient.

Yes, there are leaders more important than others and less replaceable. Unfortunately those leaders aren’t in Iraq where we’ve been having success against AQI recently. In the world of Al Qaeda and AQI, parts is parts. Kill or capture one, and, for the most part, they are replaceable.

I’m not trying to be negative here. By the way, there have been grumblings in the past from some military commanders that the CIA is far too negative or harsh in their assessment of the fight against AQI. I prefer to think of it as being realistic in assessing the fight and quantifying the capabilities of the enemy. Negative? Not at all. I’m encouraged and very impressed by the work our soldiers and commanders are doing on the ground to disrupt, root-out and minimize AQI elements.

But declare victory against AQI? Suicide bombings are down… but still averaging about 30 per month. Recently, as our focus has been on restoring order to Anbar and Baghdad, there has been an increase in bombings in the northern part of Iraq, much to the unease of the Kurds in that region.

Here’s some questions to ponder before we ink that declaration:

Do you think there’s a chance that AQI is simply adapting to our military strategy and shifting their efforts to where we ain’t?

Do we believe that Syria and Iran have seen the light and decided to crack down on foreign fighters trying to enter Iraq from their countries?

Do we think that Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Al Qaeda’s other senior psychos are willing to give up on AQI and all that is at stake in Iraq?

Is there a chance that we can kill or capture numerous AQI personnel, but the recruiting pool hasn’t dried up and personnel being trained in the camps around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region are being given travel itineraries for Iraq?

By all means, the successes should be highlighted and applauded. But declare victory? Where’s the common sense in that? Let’s save the declaration of victory for when we’ve finally created an environment in Iraq that allows the Iraqi military, police and government to stand up for themselves and hold the country together in some semblance of order, relative peace and stability. As far as I can tell, there’s still a ways to go on that one.

Meanwhile, common sense tells me the fight against terrorism, whether AQI or Al Qaeda, will go on much longer than that.

That’s just my opinion. Let me know your thoughts.

Till next week, stay safe.

Respond to the Writer

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.