Another Dubious Turning Point

An incredible quantity of ink and electronic data points have been lavished on the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, supposedly the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq – though that was almost certainly an alliance of convenience rather than a close working relationship. While his death will undoubtedly have some tactical implications for whatever is left of his organization, which many intelligence agencies had put at about 5 percent of the insurgents now operating in Iraq, and undoubted symbolic significance, it is difficult to see it seriously changing the battlefield circumstances in Iraq. It could even make things worse from the American perspective.

Even President Bush, who is given to proclaiming tide-turning moments, was careful to note that "We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue." It is difficult to know what was going on inside a terrorist or insurgency movement, and this one has managed to keep its titular leader safe from American, "coalition" and Iraqi government efforts to kill him for three years, so it is likely it has secrets from those whose main activity in life is studying it. But it seems likely that it was convenient for those three years for several parties – al-Qaeda, the Americans, Iraqi Sunnis who wanted to distance themselves from a particularly brutal and detestable killer, al-Zarqawi himself – to make him the public face for most of the most brutal terrorist activities in Iraq. But it is likely that he was a less important figure than many analysts suggested.

There is a larger question nobody wants to touch and that I won’t attempt to resolve here, simply to raise – whether killing people, even bad people, is the best way to move toward a more stable, civil and orderly society. Does targeting a single leader with 500-pound bombs differ morally from the Israeli practice of targeting leaders of suicide-bombing outfits – or of those officially labeled as terrorists who assassinate key political leaders? Will it lead to less violence or simply feed a cycle of violence, perhaps even ratchet up the level of violence? There may be circumstances in which killing is the only alternative to being killed, but does that make it morally upright? War of course, whether declared or not, always blurs such moral calculations because winning can come to be seen as trumping all other moral considerations.

To be sure, the death of a terrorist like al-Zarqawi at the very least means there is one less person in Iraq planning violence and death for other Iraqis and for Americans. Whether it will have a significant impact on the insurgency and on the chances for relative stability in Iraq is a much more difficult and involved question.

In some ways, Zarqawi’s death is more important to ordinary Iraqis than it is to Americans. Although Zarqawi, a native Jordanian with a long history of bloody jihadist activity, renamed his group “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” and received a pro forma endorsement from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Zarqawi had his own agenda.

His goal of promoting civil war between Iraqi Sunni and Shia Muslims was not in line with al-Qaeda’s larger goals and even brought an apparent letter of rebuke from Osama bin Laden’s probable second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, last July – except to the extent that any chaos in a country not ruled by fundamentalist Islamists could be exploited by terrorists and revolutionists.

That letter points up another factor seldom considered – whether the overall al-Qaeda terrorist threat is as big as President Bush and others have portrayed it. As Robert Parry has recently pointed out the president "has sought to frighten the American people with apocalyptic visions of Islamic terrorists establishing an empire that ‘spans from Spain to Indonesia,’" a vision Osama bin Laden may have somewhere in his mind but that he and Western intelligence officials know is far from likely anytime soon. The only nation now ruled by fundamentalist Islamists is Iran, and it has been so ruled or misruled since 1979, so it is hardly a recent development. And those who rule Iran are Shia Muslims, while al-Qaeda is essentially a Sunni-based phenomenon.

Whether al-Qaeda is, as Parry suggests, "a largely dissipated force that now exists more as an inspiration to violence than an organized movement," it is hardly the global juggernaut that should suggest comparisons to Hitler or Stalin at the height of their power. It is increasingly acknowledged that the attacks in recent years in Spain, London, Indonesia and elsewhere were essentially local operations, perhaps inspired by al-Qaeda but unlikely to have been undertaken in close coordination with anything like an al-Qaeda central command, if such an entity exists.

The fact that there are pockets of alienated Muslims in countries throughout the world so discontent with their way of life and driven by anger, extremism, desperation or sheer illusion undertake murderous actions is hardly to be sneezed at. But while there are international connections, along with the ability of terrorists to use the media – Zarqawi may have been more a TV performer than an operational leader and planner – it is quite possible that al-Qaeda, which has not undertaken anything approaching the World Trade Center-Pentagon attacks since 9/11, is less than meets the eye.

Without the provocation of U.S. occupation of Muslim countries it might be increasingly difficult to recruit guerrilla fighters and suicide bombers. Indeed, Zawahiri, in his purported letter to Zarqawi last July, referred to the danger to al-Qaeda if the U.S. suddenly withdrew from Iraq; the foreign fighters might then be surrounded by Iraqis who did not wish them well and many jihadists might just quit. The letter also talked of a cash squeeze at al-Qaeda central (or whatever) and begged for $100,000 in funds to tide them over. This doesn’t sound like much of a juggernaut.

However important Zarqawi was in the larger Iraqi insurgency against the U.S. occupation and the still-emerging Iraqi government, his preferred recent targets have been Iraqis more than Americans. The celebrations by Iraqis at the news of his death were therefore appropriate. For the United States, however, as Charles Pena, author of the new book Winning the Un-War told me, Zarqawi was a less-direct threat, and his death is more symbolic than substantive. “It will resonate for a news cycle or two, and things will return to business as usual in Iraq,” Mr. Pena said.

I must confess to giving in to a temptation many other antiwar commentators could not resist – of arguing that Zarqawi’s death marks an ideal time for the U.S. to leave Iraq. You know the drill. Insofar as his presence symbolized the perception that Iraq had become the “central front” in the larger “war on terror,” his death not only demonstrates the ability of U.S. and Iraqi government forces to find him and kill him. It offers an opportunity to redirect the resources deployed against Zarqawi toward the larger goal of capturing or killing bin Laden and disabling or neutralizing the “network of networks” of al-Qaeda and other jihadist terrorist groups.

There is something to this argument, but there’s a bit of opportunism there too. It was a good idea for the U.S. to start withdrawing from Iraq before Zarqawi was killed, and it’s a good idea to start withdrawing in the wake of his death. It is a good idea for reasons that go well beyond the death of one terrorist leader. The U.S. war on Iraq was misbegotten from the outset, and is likely to go down as one of the more egregious strategic miscalculations of our time. Besides squandering countless resources and embroiling U.S. troops in an insurgency verging on civil war for which they are ill-prepared, the U.S. presence is more a recruiting tool for jihadists than a sound method of decimating their ranks.

You can make the argument that al-Zarqawi’s death, combined with the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Jamal al-Maliki has been able to get a new defense minister, an interior minister and a top national security official approved by Parliament, after a delay of several months, offers a moment of opportunity. But U.S. leaders must want to seize an opportunity, and to date there is little or no evidence they are inclined to want to do so. We must continue to make the argument, independently of particular circumstances, for immediate U.S. withdrawal until it becomes popular enough that even politicians can’t continue to ignore it.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).