Al Qaeda in Iraq Defeated?

A huge operation to crush the 1,200 fighters who remained from a terrorist force once estimated at more than 12,000 began on May 10.  Operation Lion’s Roar, in which the Iraqi army combined forces with the Americans’ 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, has already resulted in the death of Abu Khalaf, the Al-Qaeda leader, and the capture of more than 1,000 suspects. The group has been reduced to hit-and-run attacks, including one that killed two off-duty policemen yesterday, and sporadic bombings aimed at killing large numbers of officials and civilians.

[…]

American and Iraqi leaders believe that while it would be premature to write off Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni group has lost control of its last urban base in Mosul and its remnants have been largely driven into the countryside to the south.  Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, who has also led a crackdown on the Shi’ite Mahdi Army in Basra and Baghdad in recent months, claimed yesterday that his government had “defeated” terrorism.

In a sidebar companion piece, Colvin explains how we got here:

The reversal of fortunes is attributed to the “surge” strategy of General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces, who targeted Al-Qaeda in Iraq above all else after securing an extra 30,000 troops last year. His officers exploited local resentment of the terrorists and promised to protect those who resisted them. Under Petraeus’s plan, they established awakening councils, or groups calling themselves concerned local citizens. These Sunni groups helped to drive Al-Qaeda from many of its bastions.

US and Iraqi forces were then able to retake large swathes of the country and complete the “clearing” of cities such as Ramadi and Falluja and large areas of Baghdad. The overall number of attacks in Iraq has fallen by 80% in the past year alone.

Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has gone on in recent months to reassert control over Basra in the south and Baghdad’s Sadr City, the two main strongholds of the Shi’ite Mahdi Army.

TigerHawk observes, “Notwithstanding the operation against the jihadis in Mosul, we have now gone nine consecutive days without an American KIA (which, if memory serves, is the longest stretch without a single KIA since [May 2003]). The implication is obvious: Iraqis, not Americans, are now at the tip of the spear. That is evidence of a successful counterinsurgency.”

Indeed it is.  It is not, however, sufficient evidence that the counterinsurgency is a success.

Most obviously, AQI and other foreign fighters have always constituted a tiny fraction of the anti-government forces.  Indeed, AQI barely existed when the insurgency started.  They were, however, the most violent and ruthless element.  Further, well-timed terrorist attacks such as the bombings of the Askariya shrine in Samarra escalated a relatively minor insurgency into a major sectarian conflict.

Even if AQI stays on the mat and the tide of replacements coming in from Syria and elsewhere remains stemmed, there’s still the domestic elements with which to contend.  Most significantly, does the Mahdi Army continue its cease fire?  If Muqtada al-Sadr and company decide to make another stand, violence could escalate dramatically.

Turning to US domestic politics, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays.  One could argue that this is good news for John McCain, one of the earliest and staunchest advocates of the Surge.  His argument that the war would have been far more successful if his calls for a larger force had been heeded years ago are buttressed. At the same time, however, Barack Obama can reasonably argue that, if AQI is defeated, the already tenuous relationship between the Iraq War and the global war on terrorism is ended.  These positive developments actually undermine the argument that his calls for rapid withdrawal amount to surrender to the terrorists and acceptance of American defeat.  If AQI is no more, then we’re left with a simple “nation building” operation.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan summarizes the “We’re winning, Vote Obama” position nicely:

[I]f someone had told me a year ago that fifteen of eighteen benchmarks had been reached, that all the parties were in negotiation over future politics, that al Qaeda was close to dead at the hands of the US and the Iraqis, and that oil contracts were being handed out amid four-year lows in violence, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Of course, this all makes Obama’s 16 month withdrawal timetable more and more feasible.

TigerHawk retorts, “If we are, as Andrew says, to judge the judgment of the two candidates, then the answer is clear. Eighteen months ago John McCain argued that the safest way out of Iraq was to win, then withdraw. Barack Obama, parroting the received wisdom of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, said that victory in any meaningful sense was not only unlikely, but that the presence of large numbers of American soldiers actually fed the insurgency and decreased the prospects for stability.”

Jim Hoft believes that this is “a huge blow to Democrats,” especially Obama, “Who was wrong about the surge, wrong about the US military, and wrong about turning Iraq over to its dangerous neighbors, and still flip-flopping like a wet noodle on where he stands.”

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds: “If you have to go to The Belmont Club to find out how it’s going, then it’s a success. Failure, the NYT has no trouble covering.”

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2008, Iraq War, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Cernig says:

    Colvin at the Times is a veteran war correspondent and a very brave lady, but she tends to be biased in her reporting. Just like her puff-pieces of the Iraqi army filed from Basra, she’s now being given the dog-n-pony show in Mosul. What she neglects to mention is that the Mosul operation was telegraphed by two months and even the US military admits that most of the AQI bad guys melted away before it began. She also neglects to mention that US military estimates put AQI numbers in Mosul before that at around 600, not 1,200. Reports from other correspondents in Mosul say that most of the 1,000+ detained are simply non-violent Sunni critics of Maliki’s government.

    I’d agree, James, that there’s no threat of AQI taking over Iraq – but then again, there never was. The idea that we couldn’t leave Iraq in case AQ took over, even in Sunni areas, was always ridiculous. The danger was that they could help heat up the cold civil war between the various Iraqi factions, but there’s also ample evidence that the Iraqi factions are capable of doing that on their own.

    Right now, Iraq wonks are watching deep disagreements between the Awakening and the members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which show signs they might flare into violence akin to the feud between the Sadrists and ISCI/Dawa Shiite factions. Kirkuk, a powderkeg issue for Sunni/Kurd confrontation, also bears watching.

    If “victory” was ensuring AQI wouldn’t control even Anbar, then it was accomplished a long time ago – even before the Surge. If “victory” is policing a multi-sided simmering civil conflict with the objective of keeping the current green Zone elite of exiles in power, then I’m not at all sure that mission can ever be accomplished. Either way, withdrawal is indicated.

    Regards, C

  2. vnjagvet says:

    Let’s assume Colvin is a biased optimist, Cernig. What is your explanation for the substantially improved casualty numbers for both Iraqis and coalition troops since December 2007?

  3. jeff b says:

    Textbook strawman fallacy. We invented the enemy “AQI” out of whole cloth. We pumped them up to be almost the entire reason for the Iraq war. Then, we claim to have defeated them. Strawman warfare.

  4. IanY77 says:

    Most obviously, AQI and other foreign fighters have always constituted a tiny fraction of the anti-government forces. Indeed, AQI barely existed when the insurgency started.

    Thank you. This is why I read blogs rather than watch the news these days. I have yet to hear the talking heads say this.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I’d agree, James, that there’s no threat of AQI taking over Iraq – but then again, there never was.

    Quite true. A 4GW force like Al Qaeda doesn’t seek to take over the governments of countries. Rather such forces seek to undermine and discredit the countries’ governments so that they can have a free hand for their activities. Al Qaeda never took over Afghanistan. There was the Taliban for that.

    I’m not sure what the relevance of this line of reasoning is either for supporters of withdrawal from Iraq or opponents of such a withdrawal. The question is more if we can afford to allow Iraq to fall into total chaos whether the chaos is fomented by Al Qaeda or other opponents of the government of Iraq.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Its worth noting that, but for George Bush, AQI would never have existed…

  7. “C” likes to cut and paste his dissents, but hey, even NYT reports how desperate AQ’s become (look for some cheering at the female suicide bombers over at Newshoggers).

    “Despair Drives Suicide Attacks by Iraqi Women.”

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Its worth noting that, but for George Bush, AQI would never have existed…

    Might well be true. I have no way of knowing whether it’s true or not. Do you?

    Why is it worth noting?

  9. anjin-san says:

    Well Dave, how do we really know if anything is true? Did the moon landings really happen? Some people think it was all a fraud. What do you think and how can you prove it?

    Saddam & Al Qaeda were natural enemies. I think we can say, with reasonable certainty, that Saddam would have ruthlessly crushed any attempt by AQ to organize or function within Iraq under his rule.

    By deposing Saddam and creating a power vacuum (a situation execrated by going in with insufficient manpower to control the country) Bush created a situation which allowed AQI to come into existence.

    I think it is also safe to say that, upon our departure, the usefulness of AQI to various warlords in Iraq will be at an end , and that they will quickly and brutally wipe it out.

  10. Bithead says:

    Dave;

    How does he ‘know’ they didn’t exist prior to our invasion? AQ was quite active in Iraq prior to that time, and had training facilities in Iraq, with the full understanding and support of Saddam, as we know now from Saddam’s own meticulous record keeping.

    The bottom line here is Anjin’s quip is a half-hearted attempt to justify his months and months of non-stop calls for our premature withdrawal from Iraq, his trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. NOw that we’re actually winning the thing, he’s getting rather lost in his own excuses.

  11. Bithead says:

    Saddam & Al Qaeda were natural enemies. I think we can say, with reasonable certainty, that Saddam would have ruthlessly crushed any attempt by AQ to organize or function within Iraq under his rule.

    Dead wrong. His own documents prove he’d been supporting them, and knew of their training centers within Iraq.

    I mean, I hate to burst your bubble with mere facts…

  12. Rick DeMent says:

    How does he ‘know’ they didn’t exist prior to our invasion? AQ was quite active in Iraq prior to that time, and had training facilities in Iraq, with the full understanding and support of Saddam, as we know now from Saddam’s own meticulous record keeping.

    Complete, utter, unsupported bull dung …

  13. Bithead says:
  14. Bithead says:

    You want more? Fine.

  15. Bithead says:

    Yet more

    Get the idea, yet?

  16. Bithead says:
  17. anjin-san says:

    One thing we should keep straight here is that we are discussing AQI, a group that did not exist prior to the war, and who’s existence is an outgrowth of the war.

    As for Saddam & AQ.. did Saddam have contacts with terrorists and would he be willing to use them towards his own ends? Probably, it would not be out of character. Would Saddam & AQ have been willing to set aside their natural enmity (secular v. fundamentalist) and cooperate on occasion? Perhaps. Enemies do sometimes get in bed together for a perceived advantage.

    Would Saddam allow AQ to operate independently in Iraq or gain their own power base? No chance. Saddam was a man who stayed in power by slaughtering anyone who he thought might present the slightest challenge to his rule.

    Before we do too much slobbering over a possible Saddam/AQ link, let us remember that, when it suited us, America armed Saddam. We also provided him with WMD. We also armed Mujahedeen when it suited our purpose. Later, the law of unintended consequences kicked in and Al Queda was born.
    Saddam was indeed a murdering bastard, but our own hands in this part of the world are far from clean…

  18. James Joyner says:

    AQI, a group that did not exist prior to the war, and who’s existence is an outgrowth of the war.

    That’s only technically and partly true, respectively.

    Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had a terrorist organization operating in Iraq well before our invasion which he subsequently rebranded as Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia subsequent to our invasion to help attract foreign support. But, no, it wasn’t a particularly large force until that point.

  19. Dave Schuler says:

    anjin-san, you didn’t answer either of my questions other than with more unsubstantiated assertions of opinion. I thought they were both perfectly reasonable questions and deserving of more than snark.

  20. andrew says:

    It’s hilarious how the Left continues to pretend that al-Qaeda is not an international organization. As if al-Qaeda cares about borders and only exists in one place. It’s embarassing.

  21. Bithead says:

    AQI, a group that did not exist prior to the war, and who’s existence is an outgrowth of the war.

    That’s only technically and partly true, respectively.

    Correct. Anjin is implies disparity where none exists.

    Admittedly it’s a neat rhetorical trick, but only until someone notices.

    Before we do too much slobbering over a possible Saddam/AQ link, let us remember that, when it suited us, America armed Saddam.

    First off, stating fact isn’t slobbering. Secondly, we armed Argentina, as well. Does this mean we support Crazy Uncle Hugo? Third, that makes it of greater import, not less that we respond to the situation.

    We also provided him with WMD

    So, you’re admitting now he had them?? Great news! It’s amazing how this admission floats out when pressured from other matters.

  22. anjin-san says:

    Dave,

    I think my snark has some relevance. Most of what goes on in here is fairly bright, fairly well informed people giving opinions. People offer up all sorts of documentation, some of it pretty reliable, some, obvious nonsense. Most argue to support a partisan political viewpoint, which undermines objectivity.

    I do not offer up my opinions as any kind of “truth”. I have read history and been interested in politics all my life. I read less now, as the demands of career and family increase (I am working on Grant’s autobiography at the moment, an easy and fascinating read), I think my opinions have some merit, but I certainly lay no claim to ownership of the truth. I am certainly willing to be informed by people who have shown some commitment to scholarship & objectivity, even if they occasionally falter.

    justify his months and months of non-stop calls for our premature withdrawal from Iraq

    Bit can you show us some of these calls? I think the war was a mistake of historic proportions, but, once joined, I am at a bit of a loss to really know what the best way forward is. I think our presence may well be causing more problems that it solves. I think the war is certainly harming our country, in degradation of military readiness, in loss of focus on Al Qaeda, in lives lost and in hemorrhaging of money badly needed at home. I do not think I have been making “non-stop calls” for us to pull out at once. I am also inclined to think the “victory is at hand” line is one that has been created to bolster the GOP in the upcoming election.

    Bush has remedied one of the many foolish mistakes he made early in the war, and that has reaped some benefits. I hardly think that makes him the second coming of Patton.

  23. anjin-san says:

    So, you’re admitting now he had them?? Great news! It’s amazing how this admission floats out when pressured from other matters

    No one disputes that Saddam had WMD at one time. GHW Bush resolved that problem.

    Secondly, we armed Argentina, as well. Does this mean we support Crazy Uncle Hugo

    I think you have Argentina confused with Venzuala.

  24. anjin-san says:

    AQI, a group that did not exist prior to the war, and who’s existence is an outgrowth of the war.

    That’s only technically and partly true, respectively.

    So this means I am partially correct. I can live with that, and try to become better informed as I go along.

  25. Bithead says:

    I think you have Argentina confused with Venzuala.

    Yeah, prolly. But if I recall, we’ve sent arms to both of them over the years. Wherein lies the very point; We’ve had relationships with other nations sour in the past, as the leaders of those other nations’ loyalties change. That’s not a fault of the US, that’s a fault of the leaders of the nation in question. In this case, Saddam.

    No one disputes that Saddam had WMD at one time. GHW Bush resolved that problem.

    Actually, no, he didn’t.

  26. Bithead says:

    Bit can you show us some of these calls?

    No need to look farther than this thread.
    After all, what have you been arguing for in this thread?

  27. anjin-san says:

    The bottom line here is Anjin’s quip is a half-hearted attempt to justify his months and months of non-stop calls for our premature withdrawal from Iraq,

    No need to look farther than this thread.
    After all, what have you been arguing for in this thread?

    Just show me where I argued for premature withdrawl from Iraq, por favor. Clearly, that is not the subject of discussion in this thread.

    Actually, no, he didn’t.

    You mean the yellowcake that he had leagally that the UN inspectors knew all about? Sure, just go up a few threads.

    Later, U.N. inspectors documented and safeguarded the yellowcake, which had been stored in aging drums and containers since before the 1991 Gulf War. There was no evidence of any yellowcake dating from after 1991, the official said.

    Bit, we know Red State has already told you what you think, but perhaps your time would be better spent with a geography primer. Get a really easy one.

    That’s not a fault of the US, that’s a fault of the leaders of the nation in question. In this case, Saddam.

    Right. Because nothing is ever our fault. Unless Democrats are involved…

  28. G.A.Phillips says:

    It’s hilarious how the Left continues to pretend that al-Qaeda is not an international organization. As if al-Qaeda cares about borders and only exists in one place. It’s embarassing.

    lol well said.

  29. Bithead says:

    Right. Because nothing is ever our fault. Unless Democrats are involved…

    The thing you ignore is, they were.

  30. Bithead says:

    Later, U.N. inspectors documented and safeguarded the yellowcake, which had been stored in aging drums and containers since before the 1991 Gulf War. There was no evidence of any yellowcake dating from after 1991, the official said.

    Again;

    “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa .”

    Is that statement disproven by yours?

    We’ll wait.

  31. anjin-san says:

    These have been disproven. All it has cost us is 4000+ dead, half a trillion dollars, and the support and respect of most of the world…

    Dick Cheney August 26, 2002

    Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.

    George Bush March 18, 2003

    Well, there is no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical particularly . . . all this will be made clear in the course of the operation, for whatever duration it takes.

    Ari Fleisher March 21, 2003

    There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. As this operation continues, those weapons will be identified, found, along with the people who have produced them and who guard them.

    Gen. Tommy Franks March 22, 2003

    We know where they are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad.

    Donald Rumsfeld March 30, 2003

  32. anjin-san says:

    Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.

    Dick Cheney August 26, 2002

  33. Bithead says:

    Actually, no they ahve not been disproven.
    Also, you seem to foget who else was saying the same thing. Do I really have to break out the quotes from most of the Democrats in congress and the Clintons, or are you willing to stipulate to it?

  34. anjin-san says:

    Do I really have to break out the quotes from most of the Democrats in congress

    Oh, I am not giving the Democrats a pass. Its one reason I did not support Hillary.

    The Democrats may have been craven weenies during the run up to the war, but Bush was the president. He led us into this mess…

  35. anjin-san says:

    Actually, no they ahve not been disproven.

    Ok. show us documentation of the WMD Saddam had at the start of the war. And please, no more yellowcake blather or nonsense about what he “wished” he had.

    Put up or shut up…

  36. Bithead says:

    But that’s not the issue, is it?
    You keep trying to duck the idea that every intel agency on the planet was working on the same information we were. Which is why even the Democrats signed on. And that info was why we reacted; We were forced to react because of his documented, and stated intent, and the ability he had according to our understanding and that of the rest of the world… which by the way has yet to be proven wrong.

    As for the WMD, I suggest Syria as a current location for it.

  37. anjin-san says:

    You keep trying to duck the idea that every intel agency on the planet was working on the same information we were.

    We have seen how this administration handles intel. Don’t like what you are hearing? Ignore it. Cherry pick. Pressure relevant agencies to come to the conclusions you want to hear.

    We were forced to react

    No, were were not. The PNAC crowd that was behind starting the war was hot for war with Iraq years before 9/11.