According to President Bush, al-Qaida regards Iraq as its central front.
That's probably true.
However, simply because Iraq is a central front for al-Qaida does not
necessarily mean that it is, or should be, a central front for the United
States in the effort to protect the country against terrorist attacks.
The current al-Qaida strategy in Iraq appears to be to foment sectarian
violence leading to a situation in which it can establish an expansionary
caliphate for its vision of militant Islam.
There was, at one point, doubt about the strategy, if not the goal.
Attacking Shiites as the primary strategy was outlined in an appeal for
help from al-Qaida by Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before he
formally pledged loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
A subsequent letter from al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri,
seemed to take issue with this tactic, suggesting instead that an alliance
should be sought with the Shia against the Americans.
After Zarqawi's death, al-Qaida loyalists were sent in to run things.
Foreign jihadists are responsible for the overwhelming majority of suicide
bombings aimed at mass killings, targeted virtually exclusively at the
Shia. So, it is fair to assume that al-Qaida's senior leadership has fully
accepted Zarqawi's strategy.
In a speech Tuesday, Bush attempted to demonstrate that the al-Qaida the
United States is fighting in Iraq is the same al-Qaida that attacked the
United States on 9/11.
That wasn't initially true. However, it is a fair description of the
Bush then goes on to say that if the United States withdraws in Iraq,
al-Qaida will succeed in its goal of establishing a safe haven from which
it can launch attacks against the United States.
That is highly unlikely.
Bush talks about Iraq as though it is a fight only between the United
States and al-Qaida. If we leave, in Bush's limited view, al-Qaida wins.
There are, however, 26 million Iraqis who have a stake in the outcome as
There are a few thousand al-Qaida fighters in Iraq, at most. The
Shia-dominated Iraqi government has 353,000 armed troops and security
forces. The most lethal indigenous fighting forces remain the Shiite and
If Iraq were to become a free-for-all, the Shia would pursue al-Qaida with
a vengeance, since its principal activity has been to kill as many Shiite
civilians as possible.
With the current configuration of forces, the assumption has to be that the
Shia and the Kurds, whose relative independence al-Qaida also threatens,
would prevail in the event of an armed fight for power.
Even the Sunni Baathist revanchists have no enduring natural alliance with
their co-religionists among the al-Qaida foreign jihadists. Their goal is a
return to control of the nation's spoils, not a jihadist caliphate.
In his speech, Bush stressed the foreign nature of the leadership of
al-Qaida in Iraq to strengthen the case that it is, indeed, an affiliate of
the al-Qaida that attacked the United States. That, however, undermines his
assertion that, absent U.S. forces, al-Qaida wins in Iraq. There is no
local force of any substance that wants to live under a foreign-led strict
Sunni caliphate. Unlike in Afghanistan with the Taliban, al-Qaida has no
natural indigenous allies in Iraq.
Now, it should be U.S. policy that there are to be no safe havens for
al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations that target the United States.
And in the unlikely event that Iraq were to become one, the United States
would need to intervene once again and clear it out.
However, the lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq is that the U.S. military is
highly effective and efficient in doing that. What the United States is not
particularly good at is policing and managing the internal politics of
other countries, which is what we are principally now doing in Iraq.
There is al-Qaida in Iraq. However, there are better ways of protecting the
United States against terrorist attack than having 160,000 American troops
chasing after a thousand or so foreign jihadists in a country the size of
Iraq at a cost of $10 billion a month.
The current surge, having been undertaken, should be given a chance to work
through next spring or summer. It increases the odds of more stable
governance in Iraq, which is in the best interest of the United States and
consistent with the moral obligation taken on when we assumed
responsibility for post-war reconstruction.
After that, it's time to clear out and leave Iraq to the Iraqis.