Perhaps you have to hand it to some of the more creative war supporters. A few people in the blogosphere and the oped world are trying to spin the ongoing troubles with guerrilla attacks and truck bombs at the UN headquarters into an advantage for the United States. The fact that radical Islamist and Arab nationalist terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective I guess) are streaming (perhaps not actually streaming) into Iraq to look for mostly but not solely American targets is supposed to be a big break in the Holy War on Terror.
The theory is the "flypaper" thesis. It is presented perhaps most blatantly by Ralph Peters in the New York Post. The fact that Iraq has become a "magnet" for terrorists is not a problem, Peters avers. "On the contrary. We’ve taken the War Against Terror to our enemies. It’s far better to draw the terrorists out of their holes in the Middle East, where we don’t have to read them their rights, than to wait for them to show up in Manhattan again.
"In Iraq, we can just kill the bastards. And we’re doing it with gusto."
Give Peters this much. He’s accomplished a clever inversion of the situation that might just persuade some people who desperately want to believe that the Iraqi war they supported is really turning out for the best, despite the superficial evidence of disaster they might receive from the daily news reports.
In fact, what’s happening in Iraq is a validation of at least one aspect of the criticism the more thoughtful war critics made before the war.
One of the ways the administration tried valiantly to justify the war was to maintain there was a link or a potential link that even if it had not become fully operative yet was in serious danger of becoming more dangerous between Saddam Hussein and the international radical Islamic terrorists bunched together in the public mind as al Qaida or "linked to" (marvelously evocative but imprecise word) al Qaida.
Thus they spun the long-acknowledged fact that Saddam, like other Arab leaders, had offered rewards to families of Palestinian suicide bombers, and gave refuge in Baghdad to an old, tired Hamas leader, as evidence of a close operational link between Saddam and world terrorism. They spun evidence that an al Qaida-linked outfit that had probably fled Afghanistan was operating in the northern Kurdish territory which everybody acknowledged was out of Saddam Hussein’s direct control and operating as a virtually autonomous polity! as further evidence of a close link between Saddam and al Qaida.
Dear, dear, said the war-whoopers. What if Saddam decided to supply anthrax or other nasty weapons perhaps even nukes! to various terrorists, to be unleashed on the United States with no Saddamite fingerprints? The argument that Saddam would have to know that if such an attack happened on U.S. soil or against U.S. "interests" broadly understood (remember, this was when the administration was pretending it was still deliberating but was obviously eager for a pretext to attack Iraq) it would guarantee an instant American attack was simply ignored.
Perhaps the most effective spin, from a propaganda perspective, when confronted with arguments that Saddam ran a secular regime that most militant Islamists despised, was the fright-phrase: "Do you want the smoking gun to be a nuclear bomb in Manhattan?" It was a rhetorical preemptive strike.
CRITICS WERE RIGHT
Well, as it has turned out, the evidence for any ongoing link between Saddam and international terrorism was slender at best, pathetic as a middle ground, and based on either severe credulousness or outright falsehood at worst. War critics argued, however, not perhaps as a central theme but as a minor subtheme, that a U.S. attack on Iraq could well make the terrorist problem worse. Not only would it divert U.S. resources from the ongoing search for al Qaida, but the confusion of war and its aftermath could well give terrorists a target-rich environment in which to do their dirty work.
War-critic prognosticators might not have gotten all the details right, but that’s not a bad description of the situation in Iraq now. CNN terror analyst Peter Bergen said last week after the UN headquarters bombing that "A half-dozen U.S. officials who investigate or analyze al Qaeda … say that Iraq has become an important battleground … The officials use words such as ‘magnet’ or ‘super-magnet’ to describe the attraction that Iraq has for al Qaeda and other ‘jihadists.’"
(Sorry if there’s spelling confusion. I choose to spell it al Qaida when I’m writing, but Bergen uses al Qaeda, and it seems appropriate to do the same in a direct quote. Both are transliterations from Arabic and neither is thoroughly satisfactory, but that’s what happens when you transliterate.)
To be sure, it is almost impossible for somebody who is not on the ground to be certain and it is prudent to take on-the-ground observers, especially those who have flown in for the whirlwind three-day tour, with numerous grains of salt. But the reports from various sources of various persuasions seem to agree that at least some militant Islamic fighters, probably mostly but not solely from Saudi Arabia, but coming in through Syria, have made their way to Iraq to pester Americans and those they perceive as American allies and/or stooges.
Thus the predictions of the critics are borne out. We suggested that invading Iraq would make the problem of active terrorism worse, and might even inspire new terrorists into action. Unless all the reports are wrong and I confess that I’m skeptical of analysts who claim they know for sure that indigenous resistance forces use only roadside bombs while only al Qaida terrorists use RPGs or truck bombs there has been an increase in terrorist activities, and especially terrorist activities directed against U.S. troops, since we "won" the war in Iraq.
DOES FLYPAPER WORK?
What about the theory of some commentators although not, interestingly enough, any official administration or military spokespeople just yet that even if this was unplanned it is really a blessing. Have we attracted all the terrorists and potential terrorists in the Middle East to Iraq where getting rid of them will be like shooting fish in a rain barrel?
No doubt the situation will lead to some terrorists who might have stayed underground or been ineffectual in their home countries but posed a potential threat in the future will be captured or killed by American forces in Iraq. But the administration and the "coalition" honchos seem convinced as of now that the influx of foreign fighters constitutes a grave security concern.
The flypaper thesis, however, rests on the unstated assumption that the number of terrorists is finite and more or less fixed so every terrorist killed in Iraq is one more we won’t have to worry about later. But it’s more likely that the ongoing struggle, including perhaps even the very act of killing some foreign terrorists in Iraq, will produce more terrorists in the near future.
NOT HOPELESS BUT DARK
I talked to Graham Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA about this and other matters. He agreed that the Iraqi-terrorist nexus is more troubling and concrete in the wake of the war than it was before the war. He also says that even though he was skeptical he had some hope that the U.S. would be able to restore the Iraqi infrastructure fairly quickly, thus securing enough Iraqi support for the next phase of establishing at least a nominally independent Iraqi regime. But the momentum, from the U.S. perspective, is now all in the wrong direction.
Some military spokespeople have taken something resembling solace in the fact that the guerrilla/terrorist/resistance/whatever attacks of recent weeks at least up to the UN bombing don’t seem to reflect a strong central command-and-control structure on the occupation-disruptive side. Mr. Fuller agreed with me that the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a central command ordering a coordinated series of attacks could be a much more dangerous situation than if there were an identifiable central command.
Pardon me if I analogize to the Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, but vandals using the ELF initials have recently torched some SUVs and an apartment building in Southern California, so I’ve been looking into them a bit. The beauty or horror of ELF is that the "media representatives" who run the Web site can disavow direct participation in violent attacks even as they celebrate them. The contention by the "organizers" is that ELF is not hierarchical or very organized at all, but consists of small cells of one or more people who don’t know about any other cells or people, but operate independently. That makes them very hard to track down or arrest, as has proven to be the case.
If there are several factions of guerrillas or terrorists operating in Iraq, perhaps at cross-purposes sometimes but always with most of the focus on U.S. or U.S.-related interests or people, it could present a much more difficult and dangerous problem for the "coalition" forces. Insofar as the American forces were trained for straightforward combat rather than counterguerilla, counterterror or policing operations, the problems could be multiplied.
HOW MANY FACTIONS?
Graham Fuller believes there are surely multiple groups operating against U.S. forces in Iraq and warns there could be more. So far we can be reasonably certain there are remnants of the old Saddamite Baath party, who may or may not be coordinating with former military people. There are also almost certainly some of the foreign terrorists people and organizations, as well as some Sunni clerics.
So far, Mr. Fuller believes, the majority Shiites have stayed relatively quiet and some have even cooperated with U.S. forces. They believe that if a democracy ever is established, they will rule Iraq by sheer force of numbers (Shiites are 54 percent of Iraqi population) when the Yankees leave. But if attacks from Sunni elements continue, the Shiites will have an incentive not to let the Sunnis be perceived as the only Iraqi forces pestering the Americans and eventually, perhaps, being largely responsible for driving the Americans out.
"Saddam Hussein, whether he is really in control or not now, is fighting the war he wanted against the Americans," Graham Fuller told me. "He always knew he would lose a bombing war waged from 10,000 feet, but he probably thought he had a better chance in a guerrilla war waged on his turf. So far the guerrilla tactics have been effective." Even if Saddam isn’t in charge, the Americans are taking heavy hits, and the bombing of the UN headquarters will probably be a deterrent against other countries sending significant quantities of troops, because they know troops of every nationality will be considered targets.
Mr. Fuller thinks the administration doesn’t have enough troops on the ground now to do the job the administration says it wants to do. The UN bombing, the continued attacks, and the sabotage against oil pipelines and the power grid are evidence enough. But sending in more troops will also be sending in more targets. It’s a classic dilemma.
If I were in charge of American forces in Iraq I would not be encouraged at the influx of foreign terrorists. The fact that some sofa samurai (thanks to Taki for the phrase, if he was the one who originated it) see it as a chance to kill more terrorists in a convenient manner suggests a strategic blindness and moral obtuseness that should be staggering.