The Duck of Minerva

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The role of al Qaeda of Iraq

March 1, 2008

Some of the remaining presidential candidates are this week debating the role of al Qaeda in Iraq. Senator John McCain points to AQI to justify his pro-war position, Senator Barack Obama points out that al Qaeda would not be in Iraq if the US hadn’t invaded. It was not in Iraq before the US invaded.

If the US abandoned Iraq, McCain says, then AQI would not just be “establishing a base.” No, he says, “they’d be taking a country.” President Bush has been making this same point for years — though the point is even more misleading now than it was then, when Bush was using this a justification first to attack Iraq and then to “stay the course.”

Steve Benen succinctly shoots down McCain’s point:

the reality is AQI has no real allies in Iraq. The Kurds have no use for them, the Shiite majority has no use for murderous Sunni jihadists running around their country, and Sunnis have been rising up against AQI since before the “surge” even began. If we left, al Qaeda would “take” Iraq? Not in this reality, it won’t.

Marc Lynch pointed this out as an argument against the case against withdrawal way back in mid-2006.

Time’s Joe Klein thinks McCain “knows” better than to make this argument, but is pushing this line of attack against Obama to appeal to the uninformed Republican base.

They’d be taking a country? Last time I checked, Iraq has a Shi’ite majority. McCain thinks the Shi’ites–the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps (and yes, the Iranians)–would allow a small group of Sunni extremists to take over? In fact, as noted above, the vast majority of indigenous Iraqi Sunnis aren’t too thrilled about the AQI presence in their country, either….The sadness here is that McCain knows better. He knows the complexities of the world, and the region. But I suspect he’s overplaying his Iraq hand in order to win favor with the wingnuts in his party.


Maybe this calls for a quick examination of the thinking of some of the most eloquent war supporters. Let me take on two important claims in this debate.

1. First, hawks claim that Iraq will explode in new violence if the US departs. This will be according to al Qaeda’s plan.

Popular right-leaning blogger Engram argues that Iraq sectarian forces are currently aligned together against AQI, but worries that US withdrawal from Iraq would free AQI’s suicide bombers to again provoke civil war.

The Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds, together with 160,000 American soldiers are all united in an effort to quell al Qaeda’s suicide bombers, who remain very deadly. According to what fantasy can we simply withdraw American troops from Iraq and not have al Qaeda once again succeed in deliberately fanning the flames of sectarian violence? John McCain knows that Barack Obama does not have a sensible explanation.

For some time, Engram has been arguing that the situation in Iraq changed dramatically when al Qaeda bombed the Samarra mosque. AQI — particularly its “foreign fighters” — launched a campaign of suicide terror to provoke civil war, assure US withdrawal and presumably allow the eventual establishment of a Sunni Islamic state.

While Engram’s concerns are thoughtful, he fails to account for a number of realities:

First, the best research on suicide bombings demonstrates that it is a strategy uniquely situated to ending foreign occupation.

Pape is the director of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism, and has just published a book called Dying to Win, the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism….Pape says his research indicates that, every major suicide campaign has what he calls a secular and political goal, to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from areas the bombers view as their territory….He says the objective of compelling countries to withdraw military forces from territory the terrorists perceive as occupied has been the central goal of suicide campaigns in Lebanon, Israel, Sri Lanka and among separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya and the disputed region of Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan.

“Suicide terrorism is mainly a response to the presence of foreign military troops, that is mainly a response to the threat of foreign occupation, not Islamic fundamentalism,” he said. “This is a terribly important finding, because it means that the use of heavy military force to transform Muslim societies is only likely to increase suicide terrorists coming at us.”

If the US withdraws from Iraq, the underpinning logic supporting the suicide bomber strategy falls apart. Sadly, AQI has been able to recruit suicide bombers from throughout the region to expel the US — but who will be recruited for the more cynical strategic purpose of AQI? Even Engram acknowledges that the bombers themselves likely have very different goals than does al Qaeda strategists.

The bombers are anti-American occupation, not pro-civil war.

Likewise, Engram ignores the best evidence about civil war. As James Fearon and David Laitin of Stanford have explained, civil war is NOT a result of ethnic or religious conflict. Thus, Engram’s logic about AQI reigniting civil war is seriously flawed:

Rather, The factors that explain which countries have been at risk for civil war are not their ethnic or religious characteristics but rather the conditions that favor insurgency. These include poverty—which marks financially and bureaucratically weak states and also favors rebel recruitment—political instability, rough terrain, and large populations.

The US created a failed states in Iraq, a country geographically and demographically suited to civil war, which perhaps inevitably triggered internal war.

Moreover, Fearon’s research on civil war demonstrates that civil wars are typically not ended by temporary strategic moves by foreign allies. Fearon testified to Congress in September 2006, the US troop presence in Iraq is NOT contributing to long-term stability:

The historical record on civil war suggests that this strategy is highly unlikely to succeed, whether the US stays in Iraq for six more months or six more years (or more). Foreign troops and advisors can enforce power-sharing and limit violence while they are present, but it appears to be extremely difficult to change local beliefs that the national government can survive on its own while the foreigners are there in force. In a context of many factions and locally strong militias, mutual fears and temptations are likely to spiral into political disintegration and escalation of militia and insurgent-based conflict if and when we leave.

Thus, ramping up or “staying the course” amount to delay tactics, not plausible recipes for success as the administration has defined it.

…Congress and the Bush administration have to ask what the long-run point is. The militia structures may recede, but they are not going to go away (absent some truly massive, many-decade effort to remake Iraqi society root and branch, which would almost surely fail). Given this, given myriad factions, and given the inability of Iraqi groups to credibly commit to any particular power- and oil-sharing agreement, ramping up or staying the course amount to delay tactics, not plausible recipes for success.

Since Engram refuses to define the Iraqi conflict as a genuine civil war born of political instability and poverty, it is not surprising that he ignores this research in his writing.

2. McCain’s fellow war supporters are also claiming (again) that the 2002 presence of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq proves that al Qaeda had pre-war ties with Iraq. It was already part of their grand design.

I’ve debunked related claims many times before, when they were expressed by Vice President Cheney and President Bush.

Here’s Engram, repeating the point on Thursday

Zarqawi, the evil genius who later spearheaded al Qaeda’s incredibly successful campaign to incite sectarian violence, was in Iraq before the invasion.

Engram is somewhat agnostic as to exactly why Zarqawi was in Iraq.

Last night, on Bill Maher’s HBO show, writer Christopher Hitchens said that Zarqawi was in Iraq before the war and he “didn’t get in by accident.” I suppose these guys want the innuendo to speak for itself, eh?

How about letting Hitchens refute himself?

Hitchens, June 8, 2006:

Colin Powell was wrong to identify Zarqawi, in his now-notorious U.N. address, as a link between the Saddam regime and the Bin-Ladenists. The man’s power was created only by the coalition’s intervention, and his connection to al Qaida was principally opportunistic.

While I think Hitchens mumbled “Baghdad” when talking about Zarqawi’s pre-war presence in Iraq, he was actually in the Kurdish area — practically an independent entity even before the war. The BBC:

He is believed to have fled to Iraq in 2001 after a US missile strike on his Afghan base, though the report that he lost a leg in the attack has not been verified.

US officials argue that it was at al-Qaeda’s behest that he moved to Iraq and established links with Ansar al-Islam – a group of Kurdish Islamists from the north of the country.

He is thought to have remained with them for a while – feeling at home in mountainous northern Iraq.

The Kurds have been informal US allies for more than 15 years — though some PKK membership (Turkey’s main enemy in Iraq this past week) is apparently aliged with Ansar al-Islam in the Kurdish region.

Sorry for the length of this post.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.