Skip to comments.Crushing Al-Qaeda--Osama’s terror network is on the ropes in Iraq. Panel tells us how and why
Posted on 01/11/2008 5:23:59 AM PST by SJackson
Symposium: Crushing Al-Qaeda
By Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 11, 2008
Iraq's interior ministry spokesman recently revealed that 75% of Al-Qaeda in Iraq's network has been destroyed. This announcement corresponded with myriad other reports that have indicated that Osamas terror group is in serious trouble in Iraq. What accounts for this U.S. success and Al-Qaeda failure? To discuss this question, Frontpage Symposium has assembled a distinguished panel. Our guests are:
Michael Ledeen, a resident scholar at the American Enterprises Institute and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of Machiavelli on Modern Leadership and Tocqueville on American Character. His new book is The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots' Quest for Destruction.
Bill Roggio, the editor of The Long War Journal who has embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is the president of Public Multimedia Inc., a non-profit seeking to improve coverage and understanding of the Long War.
Andy McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He prosecuted the Blind Sheik and his organization for seditious conspiracy in 1995.
Daveed Gartenstein Ross, the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam, which documents his time working for the extremist Al Haramain Islamic Foundation.
FP: Daveed Gartenstein Ross, Michael Ledeen, Bill Roggio and Andy McCarthy, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Michael Ledeen, let me begin with you.
Anbar province, Fallujah, Diyala Province, Basra. . . all of these places are examples of U.S. success and Al-Qaedas failure in Iraq.
Part of the success story is that Sunni sheikhs have joined the U.S. Marines in the war against Al-Qaeda.
Can you talk about these developments a bit? What exactly is happening?
And where is this good news being reported in The New York Times and in the American mainstream media?
Ledeen: I don't read the New York Times, so I can't speak to that. I read Bill Roggio and Michael Yon and various miblogs to find out what's going on in Iraq, and from time to time I talk to 1st Lt. Gabriel Ledeen, who's with the 3/3 in Anbar Province. As usual in this complicated battle for Iraq, there are enormous variations from one area to another. That has been true all along, and has not been very well reported, by the way.
It's pretty much unanimous that al Qaeda has been defeated in Anbar, at least for the moment. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal a little while back, we simply applied the classic counterinsurgency strategy against the terrorists, and the Iraqi people shifted from neutrality or, in some cases, support for the insurgents, to support for us. When that happens, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the people are in a position to determine the outcome of the conflict. They provide intelligence--which leaves the terrorists exposed to our superior forces--and additional manpower, which proves fatal to the insurgents. This change on the battlefield is contagious, and we've seen it spread from Anbar to the other areas you mention. As it spreads, we expand our areas of operations and hunt down the terrorists from city to city, and from village to village. Some recently captured communications from terrorist leaders (to whom? and to where? one would like to know) reflect the mounting panic of the insurgents, as they realize they have fewer and fewer places to hide, and fewer and fewer Iraqis who will hide them, let alone support them. A happy story, obviously.
This does not mean, I hasten to add, that the battle for Iraq has been won. There are still lots of terrorists, and the Syrians and Iranians (plus at least a certain part of the Saudis) continue to send terrorists, materiel, money and leadership across their long borders with Iraq. Tehran and Damascus fear the defeat of the terrorists in Iraq, both because it will send a deadly message throughout the Muslim world (this is a losing fight, you can't beat the Americans, not even the 12th Imam can do that), and because it encourages their own people to fight the terror masters. So I imagine we will soon see desperate efforts to ratchet up the violence in Iraq, as well as in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. In other words, we are engaged in a regional war, of which Iraq is just one front. As Petraeus said in his testimony, you can't win in Iraq if you only fight in Iraq.
Roggio: First, I agree with Dr. Ledeen. We are applying a highly successful counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. I have seen this with my own eyes. I recently returned from Baghdad and southern Baghdad province, where I embedded with US forces. Numerous Iraq tribes and insurgent groups have turned on al Qaeda in Iraq and the Mahdi Army. You defeat an insurgency by getting it to lay down its arms or turn its guns on the extremists and join the political process. This is happening right now, on both the Sunni and Shia sides.
But it is far too early to declare victory against al Qaeda in Iraq. I am not sure there will be a definitive point in the near future where we can say "we have won." The exact time period when al Qaeda in Iraq may have been defeated won't be obvious until we look back some years from now and are able to study this more closely. We may very well be witnessing al Qaeda in Iraq's demise right now, but it is too early too tell.
There is no doubt AQI is on the ropes in Iraq. In his latest speech on Iraq, Osama bin Laden stated that in Iraq, "the darkness has become pitch black" while he chastised his leaders for failing to sway the Sunni tribes and insurgent groups. He also stated that al Qaeda IED emplacers were failing in their jobs to properly conduct attacks. These are serious charges raised by bin Laden, and reflect al Qaeda Central Command's dark view of the situation in Iraq.
Again, I agree with Dr. Ledeen. The battle for Iraq has not yet been won. It is premature to declare outright victory. US officers are very cautious about doing this, couching their words in terms such as 'on the ropes,' 'significantly degraded,' and 'on the run.' We need to remember that insurgencies are not like conventional wars, which end after armies lay down their arms and a treaty is signed.
At this time, AQI has suffered immensely on the political front. The rise of the Anbar Awakening in the province that formerly served as AQI's bastion was a serious blow to the terror group. Al Qaeda alienated itself from many Sunni tribes and insurgent groups by practicing brutal techniques on any Sunnis who differed in opinion or stood against al Qaeda's attempt to create its Islamic State of Iraq. Tribal and insurgent leader turned on al Qaeda and turned to the US military and Iraqi Security Forces for help in defeating al Qaeda, and this opened the door for the reconciliation process at the local level.
The spread of the Concerned Local Citizens, which are essentially auxiliary police raise from local tribes and former insurgent groups, is a major defeat for al Qaeda. Most of these groups have been inspired or directly supported by the Anbar Awakening, which has morphed into a political movement.
The Concerned Local Citizens and the Awakening have spread to 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces, and are comprised of both Sunni and Shia. The rise of the Sunnis is exactly what Zarqawi, Zawahiri, and bin Laden fear. Zarqawi stated back in 2004 that once Iraqis begin to join the security forces, the battle for Iraq would become hopeless. This has happened.
There is still a fight before us and the Iraqi people. A senior military intelligence official that closely tracks al Qaeda in Iraq recently told me al Qaeda in Iraq still remains "the most sophisticated insurgency on the planet." Al Qaeda in Iraq still maintains a significant military component. While it has been driven out of most of the major cities and crucial Belts around Baghdad, it has regrouped in the rural areas in the north and east. Al Qaeda is believed to have established bases in the north in the Hamrin Mountains, Tikrit, Sinjar, and Mosul have seen upticks in attacks. Al Qaeda still maintains a presence in Miqdadiyah in the east of Diyala province. Salahadin still remains dangerous.
Multinational Forces Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces are working hard to degrade AQI's military power in Iraq. The surge is not over; there are still havens to clear. Al Qaeda in Iraq is having a tough time of it, but we should not become complacent or underestimate its ability to regenerate, as it did after the 2005 election.
McCarthy: Jamie, thanks for once again inviting me into such august company.
Michael and Bill have incisively sketched the landscape, and theres not much for me to add on that score. To take our discussion in a slightly different direction, though, Id note that, unlike Michael, I do read the New York Timesat least as long as Ive had my Prilosec. As I wrote at NRO last week, it is simply astounding to me, after all the noise the Times and the rest of the Left has made about the war being a lost cause, to find the report that Qaeda has been routed in Baghdad consigned to page A-19, while page one is given over to more important stuff like running down a full-employment economy. Iraq sure seemed like news to the Times when it wasnt going so well for the U.S.
The war, as Michael has been saying for years, is a regional one. It cannot be won in Iraq alone. But it can be lost in America alone. The disconnect between the public and the war is alarming. I dont mean to suggest that the Times is a representative barometer of where the public isit is perfectly representative only of an ever narrowing, elitist, post-sovereign slice of the populace. Yet, I dont think we can ignore the glaring fact that the entire burden of this war is being borne by our men and women in uniform and their families. Well over half of the remaining 99 percent of the country is reportedly weary despite not having been asked to sacrifice anything. The war is something happening over there someplace that people are tired of, much the way they are bored by O.J. Simpsons latest arrestit's not that O.J. costs them anything other than their attention, but his last arrest exhausted that and they just don't care to hear about him anymore.
Most people dont know why were in Iraq. The administration obviously does not want to talk about it because that inevitably gets into a political hot-potato about purportedly manipulated intelligence. But you can't have a successful war effort (meaning public support) unless the President constantly reminds people that we are fighting for a cause they feel good about embracing. And though its a regional war against a transnational religious movement, we are not fighting it as a regional war and we dont like to talk about the religious motivation for fear of giving offense. This adds to the confusion and the resulting lack of a sense of purpose. I dont see how you can sustain a war for very long in those straitscertainly not for as long as this one will take.
Al Qaeda is on the run in Iraq; but it is on the rise elsewhere. I think we are seeing in Iraq a clearer illustration of the phenomenon that first nearly a decade ago, when the terror network bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Almost all of the nearly 230 people killed in those attacks were Muslims, and consequently bin Ladens support in the Islamic world flagged. But remember: this proved to be a fleeting setback. Qaeda bombed the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 and then pulled off 9/11direct, stunning hits against the United States that were very popular in the Islamic world. Bin Laden soared in the polls there, along with Hezbollahs Sheikh Nasrallah, who scores exceptionally well because he is seen as taking the fight to the Israelis, not against Muslims.
There are a couple of interesting things to take note of here. First, al Qaeda is ruthless but so fanatical it has failed to assimilate a pretty straightforward lesson: Killing Muslims, bad. Perhaps, as the late Zarqawi wrote back in 2004, Qaeda had to foment Sunni/Shiite strife in order to have any chance of winning in Iraq (which is to say, of driving us out of Iraq). But the organization has predictably gone overboard in killing Muslims, and has thus lost its base of supportthe Sunnisin Iraq.
Second, though, al Qaeda can probably recoup by going back to its bread-and-butter: targeting the U.S., Israel and the West. I take great comfort from our military success in Iraq, but I am not going up in a balloon over itnot yet, anywaybecause Im not sure I buy the narrative that Iraqis are rejecting Islamic extremism. Whats being rejected here is much more narrow, namely, al Qaedas killing of Sunni Muslims.
Im not convinced at this point that the Iraqis would be good allies for us against Iran, the prime mover of the enemy. The Iranians have been shrewd enough to paint themselves as the enemy of America, Israel and the West, not of other Muslims. They make alliances as needed with Syria, the Taliban and al Qaedasuggesting that they aspire to be the champions of Islam, not just of Shiites. While al Qaedas outrages and consequent rejection have been grabbing what little of our national attention seems to be focused on Iraq, the Iranians continue to spread their tentacles throughout Iraq and beyond. Thus, Iraqlike the wider warcontinues to be very volatile. I wonder whether we have the patience and sense of purpose necessary to see it throughwhich is to say, I wonder whether our society is worthy of our remarkable military.
Gartenstein Ross: My colleagues do an excellent job of outlining where we are now in the Iraq war: the remarkable gains the U.S. has made over the past year, the medias general unwillingness to report on U.S. successes, and the need to remain circumspect about the challenges that lie ahead. I would like to expand on these points and provide cautionary advice about tough choices that we are now confronting.
The growing signs of success in Iraq include security improvements, such as the recent report that American forces have driven al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) from Baghdad. Iraqis are beginning to move with greater freedom around Baghdad. And there are signs of political reconciliationsomething that advocates of quick withdrawal argue is not occurring. One example of this is a fatwa against violence issued jointly by Sunni and Shia clergy in an attempt to foster reconciliation between the factions. I find that public perception tends to lag considerably behind developments in Iraq. This is true of both positive and negative developmentsbut particularly true of positive developments, as the press does not seem eager to give prominent coverage to improvements.
Those improvements are indeed occurring, but as my colleagues capably point out, it is too early to declare AQIs defeat. I spoke with a military intelligence officer who recently returned from Iraq, and spoke of AQIs resilience. Part of the reason for this is that AQI draws its support from a broader transnational movement: AQI can be completely crushed inside Iraq yet still regenerate based on the support it draws from beyond the countrys borders. Recent events clearly demonstrate the links between AQI and the broader al-Qaeda movement. For example, the recently captured Khalid Al Mashadani, who was considered the most senior Iraqi in AQIs network, had served as an intermediary between AQI leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Key al-Qaeda leaders have made it clear that they view Iraq as a central front in their war against the U.S. And when U.S. and Iraqi forces recently killed an al-Qaeda financier named Muthanna (described as the emir of the Iraq and Syrian border area), they uncovered a list of 143 al-Qaeda fighters who were en route to Iraq. These fighters came from all over, including Algeria, Belgium, Egypt, France, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, and Yemen. This emphasizes the human resources that AQI can draw upon to replenish its ranks.
Finally, we need to be cognizant of the hard questions we face in Iraq moving forward. Engaging the local tribes through the Awakening movement model was brilliant strategically, and critical to our success over the past year. But how widely should this model be applied? Already we can see some areas whereif we havent made the wrong decisions in selecting our new alliesthe decisions at least entail extremely close calls. One of our new friends, Hajji Abu Abed, was described as having the methods of a mafia don by the Guardian, a description that is not off the mark. While Abu Abeds men, the Ameriya Knights, were raiding the house of a suspected AQI commander, a man (not the suspect) protested that these tactics were worse than those of AQI. In response, Abu Abed dragged him into a car and threatened him with a BKC machine gun. After releasing the man, Abu Abed changed his mind:
[Abu Abed] stopped in mid-stride and turned to charge with his men back into the house. They pushed the gate open and ran inside firing their weapons in the air. In the dark kitchen, they grabbed the man again, pushed him to the floor and kicked him. The women were screaming and crying. One of them pulled away her headscarf and wailed, holding on to the mans ripped shirt as Abu Abed and the gunmen dragged him out, kicking and slapping him. Other fighters fired their Kalashnikovs in the air. The man was shoved into a car, as was his brother.
Abu Omars gunmen, thinking Abu Abed was there for an inspection, took away the coils of razor wire and opened the gates. Then Abu Abeds Knights charged for the third time that day, this time accompanied by gunfire. Bullets whizzed in their confused way and red tracers flashed against the dark blue sky. Abu Omars men were rounded up. Some were put in pick-up trucks, others were squeezed in car boots. By the light of headlamps, Abu Abeds men looted weapons, ammunition boxes and radios. One terrified child was brought for questioning. Where are Abu Omars sniper rifles? Abu Abed asked him. I dont know, replied the boy. Look, this head of yours, I will cut it off and put it on your chest if you don't tell where the guns are by tomorrow. He tried to put his shotgun in the boy's mouth but his men restrained him.
Do we need allies like this? Perhaps the answer is yes for military reasonsbut we need to ask hard questions about whom we should ally with as this model expands.
In short, I believe the situation in Iraq is looking brighter. The U.S. has won some decisive victories against AQI in the past year, and we need to continue to keep the group on the run. But, to ensure continued success, we must also understand the difficult questions that we face.
Ledeen: Great points all around, as you'd expect. I think we are still quite far away from the happy moment when we will be able to answer some of these "big questions." We are still at a relatively early stage in the broad war, the real war. At the moment our Syria "strategy" seems to be to issue engraved invitations to a tea party in Annapolis, which is not serious. We still have no Iran strategy, and seem destined to arrive at a day when we have to choose between Iran with the bomb, or bombing Iran. Neither alternative is attractive, at least to me.
I worry less than Daveed does about unsavory "allies" at this stage. As he knows, our troops know they have to stop this sort of behavior, and they are getting better at doing just that. But we also have to focus on the urgent questions of the moment, such as getting a better grip on border security vs. Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia. That's not easy, and if we can pull it off we ought to use the same template on our own national borders.
I don't really know how to improve the domestic political situation in Iraq except by supporting better leaders. Just like here, you might say.
Finally, and while this is a bit off topic it seems logically part of this discussion: the commonplace that we have lost a lot of foreign support is less and less convincing, isn't it? France and Germany have improved, for example, and Australia is solid, no matter the outcome of the elections this week. I think this sort of thing will increase as the world begins to grasp the import of the defeat of al Qaeda in much of Iraq.
Roggio: We all wisely agree that while al Qaeda has suffered a significant setback in Iraq, and one it may not be capable or recovering from, it is far too soon to call it defeated. We must never underestimate this enemy, which as Daveed so well described shows a capacity for regenerating. We must not allow ourselves to become complacent in Iraq or elsewhere. There are strong currents in the conservative media that are all too eager to declare victory against al Qaeda in Iraq.
I completely agree with Andy regarding our capacity to fight an information war. Al Qaeda has been light years ahead of us in using the media and internet to spread its message, while we struggle with press releases that can take days to write.
I'm going to respectfully disagree with Andy's statement that "what's being rejected here is much more narrow, namely, al Qaeda's killing of Sunni Muslims." My direct experience in Iraq tells me this is not true. Iraqis have been disgusted by al Qaeda's attacks on all sects of Iraqis. I've met a former Sunni insurgent commander of the Jaish Mohammed named General Mustaffa who now runs the Concerned Citizens group in Arab Jabour. His wife is Shia, his son's name is Ali, a Shia name, and he recruited Shia to be members of his local police force. He expressed disgust at both al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army's tactics, and railed against both Syria and Iran for their involvement in the insurgency.
I have run into this sentiment from several different across Iraq. In East Rashid, I met Sunnis who were horrified how al Qaeda ran out their Christian neighbors. In the mixed town of Haswa south of Baghdad, which sits along a sectarian fault line, Sunni and Shia banded together to fight both al Qaeda in Iraq and the Mahdi Army. In Anbar, US Army Captain Travis Patriquin is mourned as a martyr for his support of the tribes' fight against al Qaeda.
The Western media has over generalized and in many cases manufactured the "Sunni-Shia divide." In fact, this situation is what both al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army strived to create. They wanted Iraqis to be dependent on each group as the defenders of their sect, while it wants the U.S. public to conclude Iraq is in the middle of a sectarian civil war, a war we should not be involved with.
Concerning Hajji Abu Abed, the commander of the Ameriya Knights, in my experience he is the exception rather than the norm for commanders of the Concerned Local Citizens. Daveed is correct that we need to be careful who we ally ourselves with, but we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Ameriya was one of the worst neighborhoods in Baghdad, al Qaeda ran rampant there. We didn't have the luxury of choosing perfect allies.
Abed, however, is outside the Awakening movement. There are plenty of commanders in the Awakening and the Concerned Local Citizens (such as General Mustaffa) that work hand in hand with the Shia-dominated Iraqi Army in Anbar province. Their stories are not as interesting as Abed's; therefore their stories are not told.
In a country the size of Iraq where violence has been raging for years, we shouldn't be surprised that men like Abed have risen to positions of power. As the violence subsides, there will be less need for men like him. And given his proclivities to fits of violence and rage, the likelihood is he will meet his demise at the hands of his own men.
Finally, Dr. Ledeen raises an interesting point regarding the wider war and international support. I've never bought the argument we've "lost support" from our European. The case in point is Afghanistan. While NATO has deployed forces in Afghanistan, their support of the mission has been half hearted at best. The European countries combined have a greater GDP and larger military combined, yet they struggle to field 20,000 troops in Afghanistan. And many of the countries there operate under caveats that prevent their forces from engaging the Taliban in the hot zones in the south and east. Canada and Holland are considering withdrawing troops. Afghanistan is supposed to be the good war.
McCarthy: Well, I'm going to defer to Bill, who knows the Iraqis far better than I do. I should have chosen my words more carefully. Obviously, swaths of the Iraqi populace have rejected al Qaeda for a long time, beginning of course with the Shia whom Qaeda targeted in a transparent effort to foment sectarian fighting (I've always thought it hyperbolic to call it a "civil war"). The point I was trying to make was that Qaeda needs a base of operations to be successful and they had it in some of the Sunni areas. By being so ruthless with their hosts, however, they seem to have lost that. Maybe better than "what's being rejected" I should have said that Qaeda's killing of Sunni Muslims was the tipping point here in anti-Qaeda resentment.
Jamie, if you'll indulge me here, readers should know that my three colleagues -- all of whom have very good information from having either embedded in Iraq or spent a lot of time with people who have been in the fray -- know more about what is actually happening over there than anyone I can think of. Aside from admiring them all, I'd like to capitalize on their collective knowledge. It seems to me that whether I am right about al Qaeda's prospects for recouping support, and, far more importantly, whether history will ultimately judge the Iraq chapter in this war as an American success, hinges on the crucial matter of what Iraqis really think of Americans. If Qaeda figured out a way to take the battle directly to Americans with minimal Iraqi carnage, would the Iraqis applaud that? If our disputes with Iran boiled over, will Iraq be an ally of ours?
Plainly, a lot of this depends on whether there really is an Iraqi body politic, as opposed to various enclaves each of which may feel differently about us. But when it gets down to brass tacks, is Iraq going to be our friend? I'm skeptical -- especially given my research on Maliki and on how pervasively the Iranians have been permitted to insinuate themselves. But I know less than these gents do.
Gartenstein-Ross: I agree with Bill that Hajji Abu Abed is the exception rather than the rule for our local allies in Iraq, including both the Awakening movement and the Concerned Local Citizens (CLCs). At the same time, my sources strongly suggest that Abu Abed is not the only example of violent excess among our local allies. Some analysts are too quick to group all of our nominal friends in Iraq under the banner of good guys, a mistake that others would be well advised to avoid. (Incidentally, Bill is correct in classifying Abu Abed as part of the CLCs rather than the Awakening movement. In my earlier remarks I connected the two because the momentum to create the CLCs came from the success of the Awakening movement: without the results we achieved by allying with Awakening, we might not have CLCs today.)
Bill is also correct that we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good when it comes to our allies in Iraq. My mention of Abu Abed was not meant even to condemn our decision to work with him: I conservatively stated that these decisions at least entail extremely close calls. In Iraq, we often do not have the luxury to sit back and wait for perfect allies to emerge, and Bill aptly notes that Ameriya was one of Baghdads most dangerous neighborhoods prior to Abu Abeds rise. But a well-established counterinsurgency principle is that counter-insurgent forces need to win local support. Thus, the questions I raise about men like Abu Abed are far from mere academic exercises: one aspect of our long-term success is being seen as an upholder rather than a subverter of human rights. Perhaps, as Bill suggests, Abu Abed will not last long. But at the very least, others like Abu Abed will surely remain influential in parts of the country, and at some point the U.S. will need to scrutinize which local leaders are long-term partners and which are not.
Andy raises some interesting questions about Iraqis perceptions of the United States when he queries what they would think [i]f Qaeda figured out a way to take the battle directly to Americans with minimal Iraqi carnage. Fortunately, this is not the al-Qaeda that we face in Iraq. The terror group is theologically invested in imposing draconian rule at a local level, and has done so wherever it has gained power. Writing from the Diyala region, Michael Yon recently reported about how AQIs brutal enforcement of hudud punishments has undercut its support:
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had tarnished its name here by publicly attacking and murdering children, videotaping beheadings, all while imposing harsh punishments on Iraqi civilians found guilty of violating morality laws prohibiting activities like smoking. The AQI installed Sharia court had sanctioned the amputation of the two smoking fingers for those who violated anti-smoking laws.
The harsh rules imposed by fundamentalist movements that share al-Qaedas theology mirror those adopted by AQI. The Talibans rule in Afghanistan prior to the U.S. invasion was notorious for its totalitarian brutality. Religious minorities faced grave persecution and Shias were slaughtered en masse on numerous occasions; women had no rights; men could be imprisoned if their beards werent long enough; music and all forms of light entertainment were banned. When journalist Peter Bergen asked Osama bin Ladens London contact Khaled al-Fawwaz in the late 1990s what present government most resembled his vision of an ideal Islamic state, al-Fawwaz replied that the Taliban were getting there. In Somalia, the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic Courts Union (ICU) attempted to regulate basically every facet of Somali citizens lives in areas it controlled, infamously shooting and killing citizens for watching soccer matches in 2006. The ICU also conducted mass arrests of Somalis watching videos, cracked down on live music at weddings, and arrested a karate instructor and his female students because the lessons constituted mixing of the sexes.
While were fortunate that AQI isnt likely to confine its brutality to U.S. forces anytime soon, Andys question is relevant. What do Iraqis really think of Americans? If the U.S.s conflict with Iran boils over, who will Iraqs government support? The opinion polling data that has come out of Iraq is not promising. In some recent polls, a majority of Iraqis have endorsed attacks on U.S. and coalition forces: For example, 51% described such attacks as acceptable in a March 2007 ABC News poll. I dont particularly trust opinion polls coming out of Iraq for a number of reasons, including my belief that they do not reach a representative sample of the population and the fact that respondents may not be completely forthcoming under extant circumstances. But neither are the polls worthless, and like Andy I believe there may be reason for pessimism in this regard.
Finally, I would like to echo Bills comments about the insufficient support the U.S. has received from its European allies in the larger war against terror. Regardless of our differences over the Iraq war, the Europeanswho have been the target of a great number of terrorist plotsderive no less benefit than we do from keeping militant Islam at bay. Even as the U.S. carries a disproportionate burden in the fight against Islamic extremism, other major challenges are emerging. China is ascending in power, as is a Russia that drifts ever closer to a new totalitarian rule. The world is hurtling toward an energy crunch likely to affect all aspects of life. Our nation faces an aging infrastructure, ecological challenges, and possible crises in entitlement spending. Put simply, we need resourcesfinancial and otherwiseto successfully address these issues. We therefore need to work out more equitable burden sharing for the global war on terror.
Ledeen: Well, I don't think we need worry too much about Iraqi reactions to an American attack against Iran; I don't see any sign of that happening. And so long as the mullahs rule in Tehran, Iraqi leaders are going to have to cater to their whims, because the Iranians can blow them up. At the moment, most Iraqi leaders know we will leave the area sometime fairly soon, but the Iranians are long-termers. Most Iraqis--whether Sunni or Shi'ite--dislike the Persians, but the issue is not personal preference. It's survival.
There's a tendency to see the Middle East as far more corrupt, and Middle Eastern leaders are far more opportunistic, than elsewhere, and no doubt compared to Europe, Australia and North America, that is true, but I don't think Middle Easterners are more corrupt than some Latin Americans, or some Africans, or, for that matter, some Asians. It all depends on your real options. As we are discovering in Iraq, it's possible to rent some Iraqis for a while, but they are not really for sale. At the end of the day, most of them would prefer to throw in with us, but if that leads to death, they'll join with out enemies.
So what else is new? If we want to impose our ethical standards on the region, we have to win the regional war. But we're not even waging that war; we're limited to Iraq and Afghanistan, and in each case our enemies have considerable initiative.
Yes, our allies are feckless, just as they were during the Cold War. Several European countries contribute "troops" to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, but they aren't fighters. They aren't permitted to shoot, they deliver pizza and medical supplies, which is a good thing but not enough. And Daveed is right when he says we have even bigger fish to fry, and we must be ready to cope with China (if it turns out to be inclined to come after us militarily or economically) and Russia. We also have to have some sort of Iran strategy, especially as the mullahs are now allied with unsavory tyrants in South America and of course with Fidel.
Yet to say they are feckless is only part of the story. It is unreasonable to expect them to enthusiastically join with us unless we have a strategy to win the real war, the big war, just as it is unreasonable to expect Iraqi leaders to enthusiastically join with us unless we have a strategy to defeat Iran and Syria (and grab the Saudis by the throat and make them shut down their global assembly line of new terrorists).
Roggio: Andy is correct; al Qaeda in Iraq was able to make inroads in some Sunni communities. And we should remember support still exists in some areas. The key is the vast majority of Iraqis recognized what al Qaeda had to offer and, with our help, turned on them. I will defer to Daveed on this issue as he certainly understands the internal issues of the Muslim world and Islam far better than I do, but in my mind this war will be won or lost within the Muslim community. The Iraqis by and large have passed this test.
I do recognize the concerns Andy and Daveed raised, and agree they are valid. However, I think we would be mistake to define success or failure in this war by demanding that they 'like' us, which in my mind is essentially what we are asking if they would celebrate or condemn an attack on the US. I would argue that Iraqis and Afghanis I have spoken to recognize that you can't have one without the other - or, in other words, once al Qaeda is finished attacking the US, it is inevitable that the terrorists will turn on them. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, they've experienced this first hand. In the case of Afghanistan, as Daveed mentioned, it happened long before we ever invaded.
The majority of Iraqis and Afghanis are our allies in this war. Allies aren't always perfect. As we've discussed, our European allies have been far from helpful. What we need to do is to help Muslims root out extremists in their midst. They do this on a day in and day out basis. Iraqi and Afghani police, soldiers, and civilians die at rates far greater than our own. We must not forget this.
We must put ourselves in Iraqi's shoes concerning the Iran question. Iraq fought a brutal eight year war against the Iranians. The scars from this war run deep; millions were killed on both sides combined. Iraqis will not be easily swayed to go to war with Iran, and rightfully so. But that being said, there is no love lost among the Iraqis for Iran, even among the Shia. Iran has been stirring the Shia Special Groups, which have terrorized Iraqis of all stripes.
Finally, Dr. Ledeen is correct: until we create a unified strategy to tackle our enemies, be they al Qaeda and its allies or Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, it will be difficult for our allies to fully stand behind this. This war is complex and the battlegrounds vast. The locales of this war span the globe: from the jungles of the Philippines, the cities of Indonesia, the southern provinces of Thailand, the vast subcontinent of Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh, the Persian gulf and Iran, the greater Middle East, Africa, the tri-border region in South America, and inside our communities in the West.
Until we define who the enemy is and how to tackle them, we will continue to plod along. This is not an easy thing to do. For us to define our enemies, our allies -- and the US -- must face up to some unsettling facts about extremism, political correctness, and a host of other issues I am sure are a topic for another Symposium.
McCarthy: Respectfully, I'm not interested in anything so trite as whether the Iraqis like us -- I don't particularly care whether they do. I want to know where those who lead them will stand if the time comes when we need them -- which side of the battle they will join. Michael is, of course, correct that there is no imminent prospect of an American military action against Iran -- the specious NIE recently released by the Intelligence Community merely elucidates the obvious on that score. But it is (at least) a regional war, Iran is behind it, and -- starry State Department eyes notwithstanding -- the regime there will have to be dealt with at some point.
I am pessimistic that, when that time comes, the Iraqi regime will choose our side -- assuming what emerges from Iraq is a single, unified country. As we've seen again and again in this part of the world, regimes can be terrible thorns in our side regardless of whether the populations they dominate despise them. That's why, for example, I'm less impressed by the enmity Iraqis in general may have for Iran than I am by the inroads the Iranian regime has made with Iraq's new government (and, for that matter, Afghanistan's new government). The issue is an important one because it goes to the question whether our enterprise in Iraq is one worth repeating or whether we will need to develop some strategy other than nation-building (I won't say democracy-promotion because that's a different subject) for confronting the threats we face in the Islamic world.
On this score, I'd add that one of the things we need to define is "extremist." To be sure, as Bill says, Muslims in Iraq are rooting out a certain militant element of extremists in their midst. But that hardly means they are rooting out -- or have a desire to root out -- all elements that are extreme, at least in the Western conception of the term. I, for example, think Ayatollah Sistani is a fairly extreme fellow. The administration, however, regards him as a "moderate," as do many admirers of our nation-building project in Iraq. If his brand of moderation -- which prominently features the dehumanizing of non-Muslims, assertions that homosexuals should be killed, etc. -- is moderation with which we are comfortable, I think we need to ratchet down significantly how much and how quickly this part of the world will be favorably disposed toward our interests -- and how inhospitable it will be toward militant Islam in the future. To be honest, I am not concerned about Iraq except to the extent important American interests are at stake. I don't pretend to care about whether Iraq becomes a democracy as opposed to some other form of decent government, and I believe the nurturing of attitudes that lead to Islamic terrorism -- which is the thing I do care deeply about -- has more to do with what Sistani is teaching than with the absence of democracy. So, yes, we can drive AQI out of Iraq, but I am pessimistic about the larger, long-term war, and that is more important.
Gartenstein-Ross: As I said in my previous contribution, I think there may well be reason for pessimism when we consider Andys question about what Iraqis really think of Americansand, consequently, where they would stand if and when we need them. As Andy writes, this will have an impact on whether history will ultimately judge the Iraq chapter in this war as an American success. There are, of course, more important factors than this in determining how the Iraq war will be judged. As James Fallows notes in his book Blind Into Baghdad, at the beginning of 2002 the U.S. had tremendous resources to draw on and almost unlimited options from which to choose in pursuing the global war on terror. Fallows continues, Its federal budget was still running a surplus; its military had barely been strained by its combat in Afghanistan; the sympathy and support of most of the world gave it soft power reinforcement for its exercise of hard, military power. Anybody remember those days? I do not think history will remember the Iraq war as one of our better ideas.
But if we remove our future historian hats and put on our policymaker hats, these questions were relevant when we were debating whether to go to war. They are less relevant now that American forces are in Iraq for the simple reason that even an Iraq that does not stand with the U.S. in our time of need would be better than the alternative of an Iraq left in chaos with terrorist safe havens, an Iranian sphere of influence, and a U.S. reputation in tatters. All the panelists seem to agree that the surge has been a success to date, and I believe this will be historys judgment as well. One of the key indicators to watch in 2008 is what happens to the levels of violence in Iraq, and to the insurgency, as American troops draw down to pre-surge levels. Can Iraqi security forces help to provide stability? Can we keep insurgent groups on the run? The political questions that Andy raises are important, but in my mind the need to provide security comes first.
I disagree with Andys analysis of Sistani. He is no doubt correct that Sistani is a fairly extreme fellowSistanis dehumanization of non-Muslims and assertions that homosexuals deserve death, as mentioned by Andy, are not signs of moderation. But Andy also wrote that he is not concerned about Iraq except to the extent important American interests are at stake. To that extent, Sistani has been a force for stability. And in the Middle Eastern milieu, which is full of theocrats and would-be theocrats, it is easy to misunderstand Sistanis religious leanings, which are best labeled Shia quietism. In his definitive study The Shia Revival, Vali Nasr notes that Sistani sees the ulama [Islamic legal scholars] mainly as teachers and defenders of the faithroles that are filled not by an Islamic government but by protecting and promoting Shia piety under whatever government Shias may happen to have. Thus, Sistani has not been clamoring for Iranian-style clerical rule, as Nasr makes explicit: Nor was [Sistani] a Khomeini-style would-be theocrat or a fundamentalist dreaming of the Quran as constitution, as Sunni extremists are wont to do. He limited the role of Islam to providing values and guidelines for social order (nizam al-mujtama). The quietist position actually mounts a credible challenge to the fundamentalist desire for theocratic government. This does not make Sistanis views on non-Muslims or homosexuals any more acceptable, but it means that there is seemingly not a great clash between Sistanis views on government and the American interests that Andy would like to protect.
Nor do I think Sistanis frequently intolerant views should be at the forefront of our concerns when it comes to Islamic terrorism. No doubt, xenophobia within various Islamic traditions (Wahhabism, to pick an obvious example) has been a major contributing factor to why people become terrorists. But Sistani has done a fairly good job of preventing his followers from turning to violence. In November 2004, he dissuaded Shia politician Muhammad Bahrul-Uloum from agitating for violence against the Sunnis in response to terrorist attacks. Sistani was a primary reason that Shias showed restraint after an August 31, 2005, stampede killed more than a thousand Shia pilgrims who were on a bridge over the River Tigris: the stampede was triggered by a rumor that there was a suicide bomber in their midst, and many Shias believed that Sunnis deliberately spread the rumor. Even following the devastating February 2006 bombing of the al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, Sistani urged restraint through his network of representatives in neighborhoods, mosques, seminaries, and bazaars. After every bombing, Nasr writes, Shia mosques associated with Sistani would tell their congregations that it was not their Sunni neighbors who were killing them but foreign Wahhabis.
Andy is right that the larger, long-term war is more important. But some things in Iraq are not as bad as they might appear on the surface, as is the case with Sistani. And the long-term war has not been lost yet.
Ledeen: I agree with just about everything Daveed says about Sistani, including his embrace of Andy's reservations about Sistani's 'moderation,' which i think is not a term that can be usefully used about any of the current generation of Middle Eastern Muslim leaders. I don't have much left to add to this terrific discussion, except to say once again that we are involved in a regional war--at the least, as Andy rightly says--and the outcome of many of the issues we're talking about will depend on the denouement of the big war, the real war. If we win that war, and Iran and Syria have free governments, I would expect those governments to be pro-Western in the broadest sense, and even pro-American. Iraq would sing from the same hymnal. And I will be fascinated to watch the effect on Turkey, about which I worry quite a lot.
If we lose the big war, it will come to us, probably a lot sooner than most people think.
Roggio: I also agree with Daveed's comments about Sistani. Concerning which side Iraqis are choosing, I would argue the Iraqi government has begun to side with us in the covert war against Iran. The US, with the help of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, has worked to dismantle the networks established by the Qods Force's Ramazan Corps. Iraqi Special Operations Forces fall under the direct command of the Prime Minister. There are also rumors of special forces raids inside Iran, launched from the Iraqi side of the border. The senior leadership of the Iraqi government and military are no doubt aware of these raids.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), has recently dropped the "Revolution" from its name in a clear rejection of Iran and turned away from following Iran's Supreme Leader for religious guidance and to Sistani. Iraqi Shia are beginning to form Awakening councils to combat Iranian influence in the South.
These are watershed moments in the Iraqi Shia community and we need to recognize them as such. We're building inroads in both the Shia and Sunni communities inside Iraq. We must be patient and let the relationships develop.
McCarthy: There is much to respond to here for a discussion that is supposed to be winding down. Im not as impressed as Daveed appears to be by James Fallows assessment. As of 9/11, the American budget surplus was a mirage owing to the ill-conceived project, then over a decade in the making, to enjoy a post-Cold War peace dividend by gutting military and intelligence resourcesleaving us, at the first crisis, in parlous straits that remain to this day. And we may, fleetingly, have had sympathy and support from much of the world, but in the parts we needed it most, jihadists and 9/11 were quite popular.
In any event, whether Iraq is remembered as one of our better moves does not have much to do with Fallows points. It is a function of whether the justification for war is borne out by history. In hindsight, Saddam is gone, and that is a significant net-plus: Those who harp on the failure to find WMD in the quantities anticipated, conveniently ignore that the regime was going to get out from under the sanctions if we did not act and would have been extremely well positioned to restock; and there remains an intriguing record of al Qaeda collaboration with Saddam, regardless of whether the media and the Left acknowledge it. No matter how Iraq turns out, I dont see that we could reasonably have left Saddam in place in the post-9/11 environment. My beef, like Michaels, is that Iraq was not the only the only thing that had to be changed.
Unfortunately, our modern political attention span stretches back about a day, which makes the great success of ousting Saddam in 2003 ancient history at this point. In the interim, the administration apparently decided that reminding people of the just cause for the war was a political loser given the intelligence-manipulation allegations flowing from the lack of WMD and the inexplicable failure, before the war, to develop the public case for Qaeda/Iraq connections. In this posture, and without the compelling case for the wider war having been made, we were thus left with nation-building as a major justification (if not the major public justification) for our expenditure of blood and treasure. Nation-building is not, per se, a cause Americans would ever have supported going to war over, and thus there was a low threshold of tolerance for its mismanagement. General Petraeus is paying the price for that nowas are all of us when the 2006 elections are factored in.
This is the relevance of my focus on Sistani. I am not claiming that Sistani, speaking very relatively, is not a force for stability. I am saying that if you are going to make nation-building (and, more to the point, democracy-buildingas in the Western conception of liberal democracy) a key metric of your success, Sistani is a good indicator of how far you have to goand of how unreasonable it is to expect the sustained public support necessary for a successful war effort, even allowing for the spectacular achievements of our peerless troops in imposing stability this past year.
Nasrs analysis gives me less comfort than it does my colleagues. Weve long known that Sistani is importantly different from Khomeini. He wants a sharia state, but he wants the ulama merely to influence it, not to run it. That might be fine if there was a strict separation of religion and politics in the government and if the officials running it were not themselves fundamentalists of varying stripes. As it is, however, the new Iraq is a committed Islamic state (enshrined as such in the constitution we helped draft), and the jury is very much out on whether top Shia officials Maliki and Hakim will move in the direction of fundamentalism or liberalism once Americans are gone. On that score, I respectfully disagree with Daveeds suggestion that what I dread, an Iraq that does not stand with the U.S. in our time of need, would be better than the alternative of an Iraq left in chaos with terrorist safe havens, an Iranian sphere of influence, and a U.S. reputation in tatters. This is a false alternative. An Iraq that is an Iranian sphere of influence is an Iraq that will be a haven for terrorists (al Qaeda has had few better life-lines than the mullahs, and we need not belabour Iran s prodigious record of supporting other jihadist groups). If thats what develops our reputation will be in tatters.
Id like to end on a more hopeful note, and I think there are at least two: Daveeds point that Sistani managed to tamp down on the violence by contrasting Iraqi Sunnis from foreign Wahhabists, and Bills report of signs that the Iraqi military may be taking our side in skirmishes with the Iranians. The post-Saddam emergence of Iraq will be remembered as an American success if the country develops a real, stable national identity that is resistant to Iranian influence. (I see no reason, by the way, why that identity has to be cultivated from the top down by the central government; I have far more faith in Petraeus and our troops, building it from the ground up.) Whether the glimmers of hope continue once were gone remains to be seenI am less impressed than Bill is by SCIRIs name change, which I regard as more cosmetic than substantive. But I am genuinely reassured by the fact that my superb co-panelists, who know Iraq intimately, see reasons for optimism.
Gartenstein-Ross: Andy and I evidently disagree on a few points, beginning with how to evaluate the wisdom of the decision to launch the Iraq war. I wont spend too much time on this issue, since its quite a bit beyond the scope of this symposiumwhich is focused on the U.S.s successes, and al-Qaedas failures, over the past year in Iraq. I will say, however, that Fallowss book (which compiles a number of articles he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly) was quite prescient in its analysis and warnings. It is far from an exercise in blind partisanship. Perhaps the wisdom of the invasion would make an interesting FPM symposium at some point in the future, but for now I will stick to the issue at hand.
Andys elucidation of his fears concerning the future of Iraq is directly relevant in that regard. If Andys fears prove correctthat the political processes in Iraq will inevitably produce an Iranian sphere of influence that serves as a terrorist haven and shatters the U.S.s foreign policy reputation in a manner comparable to losing Iraq to al-Qaedathen there is little reason to continue the war at all. We would be better served by cutting our losses in blood and treasure and withdrawing our troops now.
In addressing these fears, it is worth recalling T.E. Lawrences memorable line from the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia: Nothing is written. That is, the future is not inevitable: the actions we take now can change it. And Bill makes a number of important points about why that particular future is not written, why we should not write off Iraq as inevitably becoming another Iranian proxy. Iraqi special operations forces have helped us dismantle the Qods Forces Ramazan Corps; Iraqs government has apparently approved of U.S. special operations forces raids inside the Iranian border; and other developments give some cause for hope. Andy states that the SIICs name change (from SCIRI) seems more cosmetic than substantive, but its too early to write off this development. As Andy has stated, there is an important difference between Sistani and Irans religious leaders: the fact that the SIIC has stopped looking to Irans supreme leader for guidance and has instead turned to Sistani is the kind of development that may have enormous implications down the road. I would like to echo Bills suggestion that [w]e must be patient and let the relationships develop.
As long as were on the subject of Sistani, Ill mention that I think Andy still misapprehends him in stating that Sistani wants a sharia state, but he wants the ulama merely to influence it, not to run it. Vali Nasrs analysis, quoted in my previous entry, makes clear that this is not Sistanis position. The Shia quietist position is that the ulama will defend Islamic morals regardless of what kind of government is in place. This is expressly not a prescription for a sharia state. Yitzhak Nakash, an expert on Shia politics and the Shias of Iraq, reinforces this point in his important work Reaching for Power: Sistani has accepted the political reality of a modern nation-state led by lay politicians. He sees Irans theocracy as a departure from centuries of Shii thought and does not advocate that clerics should be the final arbiters of state affairs. Nakash notes that Sistani does not call for a council of guardians to scrutinize the bills that would be introduced in the assembly.
The bottom line is that U.S. troops accomplished a great deal in Iraq over the past year. Andy and I agree that there are momentous challenges ahead; Im sure that every panelist agrees on that point. But there is enough reason for hope politically that we should continue the military efforts that have met with such success of late.
FP: Daveed Gartenstein Ross, Michael Ledeen, Bill Roggio and Andy McCarthy, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.
Yeah, it’s a lot to consume for us busy people.
That's not JYHO.
They are very admirable people.
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