The Zarqawi Dilemma

This week, there was a brief glimmer of hope that U.S. forces might have killed the most wanted man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. For many, Zarqawi has come to represent the Iraqi insurgency. Indeed, his stature in the eyes of the Bush administration is equal to Osama bin Laden: the reward for Zarqawi’s capture now stands at $25 million, the same as the bounty on the head of bin Laden. But the propensity to explain the Iraqi insurgency as the result of a single cause – Saddam Hussein, Ba’athist dead-enders loyal to the former regime, militia followers loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, and now Zarqawi – has been misleading from the beginning. The insurgency has always comprised at least three different elements (in varying proportions over time): Ba’athists and other Sunnis who perceive they have the most to lose as a result of regime change; other Iraqis – including Shi’ites – opposed to the U.S. military occupation; and foreign terrorists seeking to sow the seeds of jihad (made easy by porous borders and an inviting target in their own neighborhood).

The current focus on Zarqawi seems to mirror the previous hunt for Saddam Hussein. U.S. forces may get lucky and kill Zarqawi in an air strike (al-Qaeda deputy Mohammed Atef was killed by a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan). But it’s more likely that Zarqawi will be found by boots on the ground, as Hussein was. That will require reliable actionable intelligence. Yet the more the U.S. bombs targets, however precisely, and kills Iraqis in the process (collateral damage is inevitable), the less willing Iraqis will likely be to cooperate with U.S. forces. And it certainly doesn’t help that the same week that U.S. soldiers thought they killed Zarqawi, they also mistakenly killed five unarmed Iraqi civilians, including three children, who were on their way home from a funeral.

The cruel irony is that Zarqawi may not have previously been an al-Qaeda threat, but now he cannot be ignored. In October 2004, Zarqawi’s group in Iraq declared its loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And in a December 2004 audio tape, bin Laden urged Iraqis to boycott the upcoming elections and showed his support for Zarqawi, calling him the emir of the al-Qaeda organization in the Land of the Two Rivers.

Unfortunately, the problem posed by Zarqawi is largely of the United States’ own making (just as bin Laden was a product of U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan). Zarqawi was originally thrust into the spotlight as the Bush administration’s evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was supporting al-Qaeda. Addressing the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants.” But as Powell himself acknowledged, Zarqawi and the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group were based “in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein’s controlled Iraq,” which begs the question of why – if Zarqawi was considered such a grave threat – the Bush administration did not take action earlier against an alleged al-Qaeda target inside the coalition-controlled no-fly zone.

It is clear that Zarqawi was not a threat to the United States prior to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, but the subsequent U.S. military occupation has given him the opportunity to make a name for himself. Indeed, beyond his direct involvement in planning and executing attacks, Zarqawi may be evolving into an inspirational figure in Iraq – much as bin Laden and al-Qaeda have inspired the wider radical Islamic ideological movement. And Zarqawi has created a cause on par with the Islamic resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In fact, according to a CIA assessment, Iraq may be a more potent training and breeding ground for Islamic terrorists than Afghanistan was in the 1980s because it is a real-world laboratory for militants to hone their tradecraft in an urban combat environment.

The dilemma for the United States is whether Zarqawi is more of a local rather than global threat. Some evidence of the former is that one of the points of contention between Zarqawi and bin Laden has been that Zarqawi wants to focus his efforts on attacking targets in the Middle East to topple apostate Muslim regimes, while bin Laden’s strategy clearly includes targeting America. Indeed, bin Laden has appealed to Zarqawi to aid in planning attacks against the United States – but the latter seems more interested in making a stand in Iraq. In fact, many analysts still see bin Laden and Zarqawi as independent of each other rather than allies who have combined their efforts.

But even if Zarqawi is evolving to become a threat outside of Iraq (his group has claimed responsibility for the suicide attacks in Jordan that killed 59 people), a large U.S. military presence in Iraq is not necessary for capturing or killing Zarqawi. Instead, special forces operating in small units are better suited to the task – and can be sent in when there is actionable intelligence to warrant a specific operation against Zarqawi. Moreover, the U.S. military presence in Iraq is counterproductive because of the anti-American sentiment it engenders, creating a common enemy that Zarqawi can capitalize on to generate sympathy and tacit support. Ending the U.S. military occupation would remove a strong reason for many Iraqis to support or join the insurgency. Rather than giving common cause to Zarqawi and Sunni Ba’athists to expel the American military occupation, the insurgents might be reduced to just the likes of Zarqawi, whose agenda and attacks would clearly be anti-Iraqi.

As such, instead of Iraqi popular opinion being anti-occupation, it might become anti-foreign fighters and terrorists. Such a phenomena is not unprecedented in the Muslim world. For example, many Muslim Bosnians welcomed foreign fighters in their struggle against the Serbs, but that did not necessarily mean that they were embracing the mujahideen‘s version of Islam.

Of course, President Bush claims that if the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq, Zarqawi and al-Qaeda would take over the country (such thinking is not confined to the administration and Republicans – according to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, an immediate exit from Iraq would be a “big mistake” and result in a country “where terrorists are free to basically set up camp and launch attacks against us.”) But it is worth noting that Iraq under Saddam was probably the most secular Muslim country in the Middle East, so many Iraqis would likely resist the extremist religious views of Zarqawi and his ilk. And even though both al-Qaeda and many Shi’ites want sharia law in Iraq, that does not make them natural allies. For example, in August 2005, Zarqawi’s “al-Qaeda in Iraq” group issued a communiqué threatening to kill the drafters of the new Iraqi constitution, which would include religious Shi’ites and the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Perhaps more importantly, the extremists represented by al-Qaeda embrace violent jihad and seek to reshape the Muslim world in their own mold. In contrast, Iraq’s Shi’ites are more concerned with exerting power and governing their own country.

Ultimately, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi represents a question of strategic choice for the United States. Bin Laden is clearly a direct terrorist threat to America. Zarqawi is a threat to the U.S. military and other Americans in Iraq. Going after the latter at the expense of pursuing the former (which is the current situation) is an unwise strategic choice. But – as is always the case in war – hard decisions must be made about which targets are more important and allocating resources accordingly. For example, as chief of the war plans division during World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower argued that Germany was the most dangerous member of the Axis and favored a “Germany first” strategy, even though Japan was more important to America for emotional reasons because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. This is the same kind of decision the United States must make about Zarqawi in Iraq. We must remember that bin Laden – thought to be hiding in Pakistan – was the man behind the 9/11 attacks, not Zarqawi, and our priorities must reflect that reality.

This does not mean that Zarqawi is unimportant. But we must realize that he represents the often overlooked fact that al-Qaeda’s struggle is first and foremost a battle for the soul of Islam. So the real war is within the Islamic world – it is an intra-Muslim ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world. Therefore, it is a war that must be waged and won by Muslims, and not a war in which the United States can prevail. In fact, the more the United States engages in the fight, the more it legitimizes the rhetoric of bin Laden, Zarqawi, and the radicals to give their insurgency greater popular support among Muslims.

So the United States must be willing to step aside and let the Iraqis – even as they are struggling among themselves for political control in their country – wage the war against the likes of Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda followers. And if Zarqawi is defeated, we must also be willing to accept that the outcome will not likely be the democracy sought by the Bush administration or even a government that is friendly to the United States.


Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.