Zarqawi and al Qaeda Conceding Defeat in Iraq?

Given the daily reports of terrorism in Iraq and the resultant sense among a majority of Americans that we are losing in Iraq, could it possibly be that Abu Musab Zarqawi and his Al Qaeda in Iraq are conceding defeat? It hardly seems possible.

Yet, the commanding general of the XVIIIth Airborne Corps says they have.

Al Qaeda in Iraq and its presumed leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi, have conceded strategic defeat and are on their way out of the country, a top U.S. military official contended yesterday. The group’s failure to disrupt national elections and a constitutional referendum last year “was a tactical admission by Zarqawi that their strategy had failed,” said Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who commands the XVIII Airborne Corps. “They no longer view Iraq as fertile ground to establish a caliphate and as a place to conduct international terrorism,” he said in an address at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Gen. Vines’ statement came as news broke that coalition and Iraqi forces had killed an associate of Osama bin Laden’s during an early morning raid near Abu Ghraib about two weeks ago. Rafid Ibrahim Fattah aka Abu Umar al Kurdi served as a liaison between terrorist networks and was linked to Taliban members in Afghanistan, Pakistani-based extremists and other senior al Qaeda leaders, the military said yesterday. In the past six months, al Kurdi had worked as a terrorist cell leader in Baqouba. Prior to that, he had traveled extensively Pakistan, Iran and Iraq and formed a relationship with al Qaeda senior leaders in 1999 while in Afghanistan. He also had ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, formed while he was in Iran and Pakistan, and joined the jihad in Afghanistan in 1989, the military said. He was killed March 27.

Gen. Vines said the foreign terrorists had made a strategic mistake when they tried to intimidate and deny Iraqis a way to vote. “I believe Zarqawi discredited himself with the Iraqi people because of his willingness to slaughter Iraqi people,” he said. Huthayafa Azzam, whose father was seen as a political mentor of bin Laden, told reporters in Jordan in early April that Zarqawi had been replaced as head of the terrorist fight in Iraq in an effort to put an Iraqi at the head of the organization. Azzam said Zarqawi had “made many political mistakes,” including excessive violence and the bombing last November of a Jordanian hotel, and as a result was being “confined to military action.”

While there have been some scattered reports that Zarquawi had been ousted from power, the rationale given usually had to do with having alienated fellow Muslims by his indiscriminate murder of Iraqis.

Edward Wong, who covers the war for the NYT, has a strikingly different report.

Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant has released an Internet video calling on Iraqi insurgents to remain strong in the fight against Americans and praising the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who directs Al Qaeda’s operations in Iraq. An introductory title on the video indicates that the lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recorded the message last November, months after he is believed to have written a 6,000-word letter asking Mr. Zarqawi to refrain from slaughtering Shiites. In recent months, perhaps in response to the letter, Mr. Zarqawi has not personally taken responsibility for any major attacks in Iraq. “The Nation of Islam, I ask you to support your brothers, the mujahedeen in Iraq, and our brother, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, about whom I didn’t see anything but good things the whole period I knew him,” Mr. Zawahiri said in the video, as translated by the SITE Institute, an organization that tracks terrorists’ messages. “I know him to be true, and how he is defending Islam with all his powers.”

In the video, Mr. Zawahiri wears a white turban and gray robes and has a thick beard, while an automatic rifle leans against a brown backdrop. A former physician from Egypt, he is believed to be hiding in the mountainous area that straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan. “You, my brothers in Iraq, stay firm, stay firm, be ready, be ready,” he added. “Your enemy is now dizzy, and do not stop fighting until he is defeated by the grace of God.”


This video appears at a time of conflicting reports about whether Mr. Zarqawi and his band of foreign fighters are closing their rift with some Iraqi insurgents who reportedly see them as interlopers. Some American officials here and sheiks from Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency, say the divisions, which emerged over the winter, seem to be fading. Other officials say the split persists.

Mr. Zarqawi has adopted a lower profile in recent months. He has renamed his group the Mujahedeen Shura, or Council of Holy Warriors; it was called Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and before that, One God and Jihad. The new group supposedly includes leading Iraqi insurgents. Mr. Zarqawi also has not put out any Internet messages signed by himself and has not released any beheading videos, a staple of the war in 2004. In his voluminous earlier letter to Mr. Zarqawi, dated July 9, Mr. Zawahiri advised him to avoid beheadings and warned him that the mass killings of Shiites would amount to “action that the masses do not understand or approve.” The letter was released by Bush administration officials in October.

Jeff Goldstein thinks the retired generals lambasting Don Rumsfeld will have to eat their words. Kim Priestap writes, “If this is true, I will watch with glee John Murtha, Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean and the rest of the anti-war, America surrender first crowd squirm as they try to spin this as another defeat for America.”

Ed Morrissey, Bryan Preston and Dan Riehl are also encouraged. Morrissey concludes,

We have already seen some evidence of this climbdown. Deaths of American troops in Iraq have dropped considerably over the past months. Deaths for civilians, however, have risen. Whether that relates to AQ or to the sectarian conflicts between the militias cannot easily be seen. However, General Vines has been on the ground in that theater and has a vital perspective, in which he obviously believes progress has been made and that AQ in particular has decided that further effort in Iraq is no longer worth the risk.

If true, it will demonstrate that the US has the will and the strength to face down terrorists. We will have gone some distance in reversing the damage done in retreats from Somalia, Beirut, and Teheran over the past three decades as well as our unwillingness to engage terrorists after attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers blast, the demolition of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the USS Cole. We should all hope that General Vines’ analysis proves correct in the coming weeks.

While I certainly hope Vines is right, intellectually the Wong report certainly strikes me as much more plausible.

I have been predicting for years that the Muslim-on-Muslim violence would backfire. Yet, while that tactic violates the basic premises of guerrilla warfare, it had not seemed to matter. Clearly, though, even Zawahiri was concerned by it. Still, in the time honored spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the insurgents who were alienated by these actions could quickly be brought back into the alliance given assurances that the killings would be more strategically targetted. That may well have happened.

John at OPFOR (formerly Officers’ Club) is similarly skeptical, too, noting, “This is fantastic news if it’s true, but I wouldn’t unfurl any Mission Accomplished banners just yet. Zarkman and the boys are a large part of the insurgency, but not the only part of the insurgency. There’s still a sizable former Sunni-Ba’athist contingent that needs to tickets on the midnight train to Allah, and let’s keep in mind that the mooj fought for almost a decade in Soviet Afghanistan.”

In truth, I’m not at all sure how one knows they’re winning a counter-insurgency. The nature of mobile-guerrilla warfare is that small bands of relatively poorly trained, poorly equipped, poorly disciplined men can do a lot of killing and inflict damage disproportional to their military capability. Indeed, that is the very essence of assymetrical warfare.

Vines is almost certainly right that the terrorists are discouraged that, despite their success at creating violence, fear, and disruption that the Iraqi people lined up to vote in staggering numbers. On the other hand, they have to be encouraged that, months later, a government has not been formed. Further, they have to be ecstatic that both George W. Bush and Tony Blair are doing poorly in the polls and even minor Coalition leaders like Italy’s Silvio Burlesconi have been defeated by their own electorate.

The bottom line remains that, as in all wars, the ultimate measurement is the achievement of one’s political objectives. So far, neither side has done that. Given that our goal is much more ambitious–the establishment of a functional, unitary democracy in a state that is neither unified nor possessed of any history of popular sovereignty–we likely won’t know that we’re winning until we have actually won. And even then, since this is not a game with a clock, the enemy could reemerge months or years down the line for another round.

So, while any news about dissarray within the enemy camp is heartening, we should heed the wise counsel of Mr. Wolf: “Well, let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks quite yet.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    they have to be ecstatic that both George W. Bush and Tony Blair are doing poorly in the polls and even minor Coalition leaders like Italy�s Silvio Burlesconi have been defeated by their own electorate.

    This is debatable, no? If you believe the war in Iraq is helping the war on terror, then you probably agree. If you think it is hurting, then keeping Bush/Blair in power helps the terrorists.

  2. Jon Henke says:

    Maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t. Maybe this is good, maybe it isn’t. I don’t know.

    But I’m curious to see how the “flypaper strategy” people will react. I mean, if our goal was to attract Al Qaeda to Iraq so we could fight them there — and achieving that was a “good thing” — then wouldn’t this be a big setback? I mean, assuming they actually believed what they said about the flypaper strategy.

  3. mike says:

    Didn’t Westmoreland say something similar about winning right before the Tet offensive? I am not sure if I want to believe these politicians, I mean Generals (or is there a difference anymore)

  4. Jim Henley says:

    Joyner works blue! I like it! (I wrote about this yesterday, noting the flypaper angle and also the vagueness of Vines’ language. That is, he doesn’t even say that Zarko and the Terror Tourists are physically departing Iraq. It seems, essentially, to be ore Last Throes talk.

    Maybe some day it really will be the last throes. And whoever is saying “last throes” right at that moment will look really smart. I don’t think this is that moment.

  5. McGehee says:

    Didn�t Westmoreland say something similar about winning right before the Tet offensive?

    Militarily, Tet was a disaster — but for the VC, not for us.

  6. McGehee says:

    But I�m curious to see how the �flypaper strategy� people will react.

    As long as a strategy works, it’s a good one. As soon as it ceases to work effectively, you adopt a new one. That’s — you should pardon the expression — reality-based strategy.

    If the bad guys are leaving Iraq, that’s good for Iraq. If they avoid going to other places we might be headed in the GWOT, that simplifies those missions.

    If the terrorists come here and start blowing up Americans in America, well, it wasn’t exactly good for them in 2001…

  7. Jim Henley says:

    Shorter McGehee: It’s all good!

  8. legion says:

    Vines is almost certainly right that the terrorists are discouraged that, despite their success at creating violence, fear, and disruption that the Iraqi people lined up to vote in staggering numbers.

    Well, I’m sure the terrorists/insurgents/whatever would be thrilled that people were voting, if they were voting for the right people. Curiously, this is also the position of the Bush administration. Don’t oversimplify these people’s motivations – they’re not simple 2-dimensional cutouts, frothing at the mouth and waving sticks of dynamite.

  9. James Joyner says:

    legion: It’s not as if they were running candidates. Their goal seems to be disruption rather than governance.

  10. legion says:

    But ‘disruption’ by itself isn’t a viable goal. Disruption of what? Of the formation of a vaguely-democratic Iraqi gov’t? Or just one that’s friendly to the west?

    And for how long? Until we leave? We keep saying we won’t leave until the gov’t is running itself.

    I agree with your conclusion about achieving political objectives, but those objectives must first be _defined_, and I don’t think either side has done a good job of that yet. We _say_ we want Iraq to have freedom and a western-style democracy, but in _private_, we hint that it better be pro-US. But they continue to declare Sharia as the basis of law, which throws a big monkey-wrench into that. The various insurgents can’t be against _any_ form of gov’t in Iraq; they just want one that benefits them & their interests, and they’ll keep bombing their fellow muslims (and us) until they get one they like.

    Neither side has a firm grasp on what they want Iraq to look like when they’re through, and until that happens, there can be no ‘dick sucking’ 🙂

  11. James Joyner says:

    legion: I don’t disagree that our desired end state is a little murky. It’s an occupational hazard of nation building and a prime reason why Realists tend to oppose that enterprise.

    Still, I think we have the rough outlines of a desired policy: 1. A democratic government in the true sense of the word, which includes limited government and protections for the rights of the minority. That precludes sharia, to be sure, although not a nod to Islam as the basis for all law. (Indeed, our own founding docs have plenty of nods to a Creator.) 2. An Iraqi government and security apparatus capable of maintaining a reasonable level of law and order.