Last week’s violent clashes in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra reverberated all the way to Washington, where suddenly, the Iraq war was thrust back into the limelight just as the 2008 primary season enters its final stretch.
On Monday at the Washington think-tank the Brookings Institution, foreign policy advisers from the major campaigns sought to fit the Shia-on-Shia armed power struggle into their plans for Iraq with Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama advocating a phased withdrawal, and Republican John McCain arguing for a continued high level of troops in the country.
Built into all three narratives was the persistent question of what is the central front in the so-called "global war on terror" whether the most important battle with Islamic extremism is in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan and its border regions with Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s central leadership is based, and how the two theaters stand to affect each other.
McCain’s advisor and the Democrats both said that their respective plans would bolster the effort in Afghanistan.
Randy Scheunemann, the top advisor in McCain’s foreign policy apparatus, echoed the George W. Bush administration’s longtime rationale that a withdrawal from Iraq amounts to a defeat that would embolden global terrorists.
"We learned in the 1990s that we needed to take al-Qaeda at its word," he said. "They have said themselves that Iraq is the central front in the war they are fighting with the West. I don’t see how we are going to better address our goals in Afghanistan if we are defeated in Iraq."
How a withdrawal from Iraq would help US efforts in Afghanistan was clear to the Democratic advisors it would make some of the over 100,000 troops in Iraq available to pursue global terrorists where they are based, and free up billions in treasure to address that conflict.
"Defeat is staying in Iraq for 100 years because that will have very, very serious consequences for us in Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Clinton adviser Lee Feinstein, adding that in Afghanistan, "al-Qaeda is as strong as any point since 9/11."
McCain has said that he has no issues with staying in Iraq for over 100 years. And while he describes that length of time as a Korea-like plan for permanent bases, it is unclear when and how that shift from a hot war to that sort of peacetime military presence would be possible.
"What is in America’s broadest strategic interests? For example, if we maintain an indefinite commitment to Iraq, are we going to be able to address the forgotten frontline in Afghanistan?" said Feinstein.
Calling operations in Iraq a "diversion from our effort in Afghanistan and to the principal front in this fight against al-Qaeda," Obama adviser Denis McDonough said that despite the requests of commanders in southern Afghanistan for more troops to quell rising violence in the region, those troops are not available and "on the shelf" because of the massive commitment in Iraq.
Last week, as reported by IPS, the president of the Army War College, Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, said that the way US troop levels stand now is already unsustainable, noting that the math simply does not work.
"You can’t take a 43 brigade force, and have 23 of those 43 brigades deployed, and have a one-to-one exchange for time at home and time in the theater," he said.
In Iraq, insurgent militias are organized by religious identities, but their religious extremism is not directed at the US generally or the US homeland, but rather against US occupation.
While foreign jihadis do exist there, Sunni fighters associated with the al-Qaeda spin-off group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, have since drawn close to the US as part of the Sawa movement, otherwise known as the Sunni Awakening, spurning al-Qaeda in Iraq and marginalizing them.
"McCain is certainly lying when he says that Iraq will become an al-Qaeda state if the US leaves," said Nir Rosen, a journalist who has spent extensive time in Iraq. Rosen told IPS that insofar as the "global war on terror" has any coherent meaning, it is certainly not taking place in Iraq.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al-Qaeda’s central leadership has been regrouping and allegedly retraining for further attacks on the US.
Feinstein said that in the border regions between the two countries, the US faces "really serious problems with people who want to attack and hurt the United States and plan for it every single day."
In February, the US director of national intelligence, retired Adm. J. Michael McConnell, said that the greatest threat to the US is posed from the rejuvenated al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But some experts like Rosen contend that the both narratives on the war on terror are deeply flawed.
With regards to Iraq, University of Michigan professor and blogger Juan Cole said that no US advantage is to be gained through the war in Iraq and that it could serve to bolster the weakened global jihadi groups.
"The real al-Qaeda is using Iraq as a recruiting tool," he said. "[The US is] playing into the hands of bin Laden. To the extent that the US is involved in the military occupation of an Arab-Muslim country, they’re playing by bin Laden’s script."
Cole sees no connection between foreign al-Qaeda fighters and the struggle in Iraq.
"We have 24,000 prisoners in Iraq. Just about 150 of them are foreigners," said Cole. "So what that tells me is that we’re fighting Iraqis. If the foreign fighters the al-Qaeda types are a significant group, we should have more of them in prison. What, do they run faster? It’s not possible given that statistic that Iraq is the central front in any war on terror."
But Cole also cautioned that the war in Afghanistan and the struggle to contain groups in Pakistan also play a minimal role in the fight against terror threats to the US
"The idea that the United States faces a mortal threat from Waziristan in northern Pakistan also doesn’t make any sense to me," said Cole. "There are a handful of al-Qaeda types who are there, but I don’t think there is very much left of the group that was in Afghanistan. I don’t understand what they can do to us from Waziristan. 9/11 wasn’t launched from rural Afghanistan, it was launched from Hamburg, Germany."
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