Al Qaeda’s Role in Iraq
Michael Gordon and Jim Rutenberg argue in today’s NYT that the Bush administration has consistently exaggerated the role of al Qaeda in Iraq for propaganda purposes. That’s undeniably true. “Al Qaeda” is a powerful buzz word and both the terrorists and politicians play it up for effect.
In the case of the administration, they made too much of some rather tenuous ties between al Qaeda leaders and Saddam Hussein in making the case for the invasion. Subsequently, they pretended that foreign jihadists in general and al Qaeda in particular were much more important in the insurgency than they actually were. Perhaps more critically, they are over emphasizing al Qaeda in their strategic plans for achieving our goals in Iraq, making it even less likely that they will be achieved.
That’s pretty damning stuff. Nonetheless, Gordon and Rutenberg have managed to vasty overstate their case, making numerous critical errors in the process.
Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not exist before the Sept. 11 attacks. The Sunni group thrived as a magnet for recruiting and a force for violence largely because of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which brought an American occupying force of more than 100,000 troops to the heart of the Middle East, and led to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Not exactly. It’s true the the group didn’t take the name “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” until after the insurgency got underway. They did so to take advantage of the propaganda value of the name. It’s also true that the presence of American troops served as a major recruiting magnet and made the group vastly more significant than it was previously.
But Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was operating in Iraq long before the war. Indeed, his presence in Iraq was cited by Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in his now infamous UN speech laying out the rationale for the war.
Further, while the group did not call itself al Qaeda, al-Zarqawi was trained by Osama bin Laden and has ties with him going back to their days together in Afghanistan at the end of the Soviet occupation there in 1989. They met up again during the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
[W]hile American intelligence agencies have pointed to links between leaders of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the top leadership of the broader Qaeda group, the militant group is in many respects an Iraqi phenomenon. They believe the membership of the group is overwhelmingly Iraqi. Its financing is derived largely indigenously from kidnappings and other criminal activities. And many of its most ardent foes are close at home, namely the Shiite militias and the Iranians who are deemed to support them.
That’s all true but irrelevant. It’s organizing leader, al-Zarqawi, was Jordanian and part of the global jihadi movement. More importantly, al Qaeda has always been an umbrella organization which organized existing state-based terrorist groups together in a loose affiliation to achieve common goals. That was the genius of bin Laden’s plan: leveraging existing animosities and resources while avoiding the vulnerabilities that come from a hierarchical structure. See Michael Scheuer ‘s books, especially Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, for a detailed history.
“The president wants to play on Al Qaeda because he thinks Americans understand the threat Al Qaeda poses,” said Bruce Riedel, an expert at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former C.I.A. official. “But I don’t think he demonstrates that fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq precludes Al Qaeda from attacking America here tomorrow. Al Qaeda, both in Iraq and globally, thrives on the American occupation.”
Indeed, if Michael Chertoff’s gut is any indication, it won’t. Bush and the neo-conservatives believe that victory in Iraq and establishing a democratic foothold there will ultimately get to the root causes of jihadist sympathy. It doesn’t look like we’ll find out whether they were right, unfortunately, since their vision for Iraq’s future seems exceedingly unlikely.
Mr. Zarqawi did have support from senior Qaeda leaders, American intelligence agencies believe, and his organization grew in the chaos of post-Hussein Iraq.
“There has been an intimate relationship between them from the beginning,” Mr. Riedel said of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the senior leaders of the broader Qaeda group.
That seems right. While there was significant reason to suspect that Saddam was harboring Zarqawi in 2003, mostly on the assumption that nothing of consequence was going on in Baghdad without his allowing it, there’s no evidence of active support. But, rather clearly, Zarqawi and al Qaeda were intertwined before the war.
But the precise relationship between the Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and other groups that claim inspiration or affiliation with it is murky and opaque. While the groups share a common ideology, the Iraq-based group has enjoyed considerable autonomy. Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, questioned Mr. Zarqawi’s strategy of organizing attacks against Shiites, according to captured materials. But Mr. Zarqawi clung to his strategy of mounting sectarian attacks in an effort to foment a civil war and make the American occupation untenable.
Again, though, that’s the nature of al Qaeda. Indeed, as John Robb argues persuasively in Brave New War, that’s the nature of the global guerrilla phenomenon generally.
The heated debate over Iraq has spilled over to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia as well. Mr. Bush has played up the group, talking about it as if it is on a par with the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. War critics have often played down the significance of the group despite its gruesome record of suicide attacks and its widely suspected role in destroying a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 that set Iraq on the road to civil war.
Exactly right. It seems undeniable that AQM/AQI is “on par” with the cell that perpetrated 9/11 in terms of its present danger to the U.S. Just as obviously, though, that’s entirely a consequence of our invasion of Iraq. That we enabled the monster’s creation, though, doesn’t change the reality that it’s a monster.
The broader issue is whether Iraq is a central front in the war against Al Qaeda, as Mr. Bush maintains, or a distraction that has diverted the United States from focusing on the Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan while providing Qaeda leaders with a cause for rallying support.
This is a false dichotomy. While it’s true that our desire for support in waging the war in Iraq has limited our leverage in Pakistan, it strikes me as incredibly unlikely that critics of the war — including the vast majority of congressional Democrats — would sanction going to war in Pakistan to root out al Qaeda, given the consequences that it would entail. Remember: Pakistan is a nuclear state.
Military intelligence officials said that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s leaders wanted to expand their attacks to other countries. They noted that Mr. Zarqawi claimed a role in a 2005 terrorist attack in Jordan. But Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, said that if American forces were to withdraw from Iraq, the vast majority of the group’s members would likely be more focused on battling Shiite militias in the struggle for dominance in Iraq than on trying to follow the Americans home. “Al-Masri may have more grandiose expectations, but that does not mean he could turn Al Qaeda of Iraq into a transnational terrorist entity,” he said.
My guess is that Hoffman’s right on that score, although an expert guess is still a guess. Presumably, however, the removal of American troops from the picture would create a vacuum that others — Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and others — would be tempted to fill. As bad as things are in Iraq now, they could quite easily get worse if we leave.
Regardless, Gordon and Ruttenberg have hit on the right question. The debate should focus on the future rather than the past: Given where we are now, what are our options? What’s the best path toward maximizing American security interests in the region? And, frankly, what are our moral obligations to the Iraqi people given that we created the situation that allowed the current chaos to be created?
That’s not to say that there should be no political recriminations for the past, simply that we can not run a foreign policy as part of a never-ending political campaign. There is plenty of room for points scoring on the campaign trail, where it’s fair game. But that should take place alongside an honest dialog about the best way forward.