“The Americans are between two fires,” declared Osama bin Ladin’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2004. “If they remain [in Iraq] they will bleed to death, and if they withdraw they will have lost everything.” Zawahiri’s grim prediction has proven correct. As the United States and its Iraqi allies falter, bin Ladin and the broader jihadist movement are emerging victorious.
Before the United States invaded Iraq, Al Qa’ida was on the ropes. The United States and its coalition partners had rousted it from Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban, while a global manhunt was steadily shutting down jihadist cells from Morocco to Malaysia. Perhaps equally important, many Islamists, including fellow jihadists, harshly criticized bin Ladin for having rashly attacked a super power and, in so doing, causing the defeat of the Taliban, the only “true” Islamic regime in the eyes of many radicals.
The invasion of Iraq breathed new life into the organization. On an operational level, the United States diverted troops to Iraq rather than consolidate its victory in Afghanistan and increase its chances of hunting down Bin Ladin. Today, Al Qa’ida is reconstituting itself in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Politically, Iraq vindicated bin Ladin’s argument that the primary enemy of the Muslim world was not the local Muslim autocrats, but the “faraway enemy,” the United States. Today, Al Qa’ida is again on the march.
It was not supposed to be this way. Toppling Saddam Husayn’s regime was meant to usher in an era of prosperity for Iraq and put Osama bin Ladin and his followers on the run. Instead, the tables have turned. Today, Iraq is torn by crime, plagued by a vicious insurgency, and devoid of competent government and basic services. Strife in Iraq continues without end in sight, while the human and financial costs to the United States and its allies mount. With each car bomb and kidnapping, critics urging the withdrawal of troops grow more and more vociferous.
Every additional day that the United States remains in Iraq is a boon for Al Qa’ida and the broader jihadist movement. On the other hand, Al Qa’ida and its allies would also exploit a U.S. withdrawal that left Iraq in chaos.
How then should the United States solve this conundrum? Victory in Iraq cannot be judged entirely or even primarily in light of U.S. efforts against Al Qa’ida. Added to the mix are the importance of a stable oil-rich region, the human costs of a massive civil war, and the moral burden that the United States must bear in the eyes of the world for the carnage it unleashed. But just as counter terrorism was an important justification for the war, so too is it an important criterion for judging the next steps with regard to this bloody challenge.
Iraq, as President Bush has declared, has indeed become a “central front” in the war on terrorism. This “central front” exists in no small part to administration policies, which have created a jihadist problem in Iraq where none existed. But that oft-repeated criticism does not solve the problem of where to go next in Iraq.
Developing a long-term Iraq policy is vital. From a counterterrorism point of view, the problem of Iraq does not go away if the United States abandons the country to strife. Indeed, in many ways it would get worse. By early 2007, the conflict had already generated over two million refugees who could spread instability and terrorism to neighboring states. In Iraq, jihadists from around the world are learning new skills, forging new networks, and otherwise training to fight the next war as well as defeat America and its Iraqi allies.
and the Sunni Jihadist Movement
Iraqi insurgents number at least 20,000—the number becomes well over 100,000 when various local militias are included—but they are far from a unified movement. Fighters include groups such as former regime elements, members of the Ba’ath Party angered by the loss of their perks and privileges, foreign Sunni jihadists, domestic Sunni jihadists, Iraqi nationalists opposed to foreign occupation, and various Shi’a groups. These groups are further divided by tribe and leadership divisions, as well as competition for a share of the black market.
Since the U.S. occupation of Iraq began in 2003, foreign jihadists have flocked to Iraq, making it a new center of jihad – and in the process, they have transformed the nature of the anti-U.S. Iraqi resistance. Iraq’s insurgency is concentrated in the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq, though much of the rest of the country outside the Kurdish regions is convulsed in civil war or confronting the problems of a de facto failed state.
Only a portion of the insurgency consists of jihadists who took up arms in the name of God, but over the years their numbers have grown. A 2006 National Intelligence Estimate found that “The Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” Foreign jihadists are capitalizing on, and exacerbating, the strife in Iraq. Between 1,000 and 2,000 foreign fighters are in Iraq, and they carried out most of the suicide bombings. Most are from Arab countries, with Saudi Arabia comprising the lion’s share of those killed. In recent months, however, the number of Iraqi jihadists has swelled. Indeed, this may be one of the most lasting effects of the U.S. invasion and occupation: the growth of a domestic jihadist movement in Iraq, where none existed before.
Much of the violence today in Iraq is a civil war between different Iraqi communities (and, frequently, within them as all the major communities have rivalries and tribal divisions). The jihadists are also at the forefront of efforts to foment a sectarian war between Iraq’s Shi’a and Sunni populations. They hate the Shi’a, and also believe that spreading sectarian violence is a way to undermine the government. The jihadists have attacked Shiite shrines, pilgrims, political leaders, and other civilian targets.
Shifting the direction of an insurgency by hijacking local grievances is a classic Al Qa’ida pattern. In Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, and now Iraq the organization has sent fighters and other forms of support to assist Muslim insurgencies that typically began for nationalistic or ethnic reasons. Overtime, the salafist jihadist strand of thinking crept in and began to shape the resistance — something well underway in Iraq, which had no domestic jihadist movement before the United States invaded.
The United States has tried to isolate the jihadists from other parts of theIraqi resistance in an attempt to divide the enemy. Director of National Intelligence Negroponte testified that the jihadists’ brutal actions and heavy-handed style have led them to conflict with their erstwhile allies, leading some Sunni tribal and nationalist groups to reach out to the government. Though this strategy is sensible, it has met with mixed results. On the one hand, many fighters who could initially be called Sunni nationalists or former regime elements are becoming more Islamist in their orientation. In a 2006 report, the International Crisis Group argues that “A year ago groups appeared divided over practices and ideology but most debates have been settled… For now, virtually all adhere publicly to a blend of Salafism and patriotism.” On the other hand, real divisions have appeared between the more radical groups linked to Al Qa’ida and other Iraqi groups. In 2007, vicious fighting broke out after an Al Qa’ida affiliate declared Iraq to be an Islamic state. Sunni Arab tribal groups and other Iraqis that opposed the U.S. occupationbut did not endorse Al Qa’ida’s goals and brutal methods confronted the jihadists.
As the insurgency coalesces around Iraqi nationalism and Islamic extremism, it has also become far more sophisticated in waging the war of ideas. In 2004 and 2005, the insurgents regularly fought openly amongst themselves. They also used such unpopular tactics as public beheadings and attacking voters, including Sunni voters supporting candidates who were sympathetic to resistance groups. Such gruesome attacks on civilians won them attention, but often revulsion as well. Today their public information campaign is much more coherent: they lambaste the United States and its local allies and deny sectarian violence. Videotaped beheadings have disappeared.
The U.S. war and occupation of Iraq has benefited Al Qa’ida in many ways. As long as the United States is in Iraq, Al Qa’ida has the best recruiting tool it could wish for. As Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Ladin unit, sarcastically notes, “If Osama was a Christian – it’s the Christmas present he never would have expected.” In the heart of the Muslim world, with over 100,000 U.S. troops occupying the country for a long period of time, Iraq has become the focus of the media throughout the world and especially the Middle East. Arab and Muslim communities are united in their belief that the U.S. intervention is an attack on Islam, and attempt to subjugate a powerful Arab state. A study by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank found that “the Iraq War has generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost” – and that figure includes not only a surge in attacks in Iraq itself, but also an increase in the rest of the world.
Not surprisingly, Iraq is at the center of the jihadists’ fundraising and recruitment efforts. Fighting the United States is tremendously popular among radical and even mainstream Islamist circles. Equally important for Al Qa’ida,it is proof of the “far enemy” theory it promulgates: for many Muslims, the conflict overshadows the misdemeanors or even high crimes of their own governments and convinces them that the proper focus for opposition should be faraway Washington.
Within the broader salafist community—the group of Muslims who endorse a puritanical interpretation of Islam, many of whom reject both violence and politics—Iraq has become an enormous public relations boon to Al Qa’ida. Many salafists condemn Al Qa’ida for being excessively violent and political, and in particular condemn its willingness to declare jihad at the drop of the hat. Even sheikhs critical of Al Qa’ida, however, see the struggle in Iraq as a legitimate defensive jihad. This is true even in countries that are close allies of the United States. In November 2004, 26 leading Saudi clerics wrote an “open letter to the Iraqi people” calling for a defensive jihad against the UnitedStates in Iraq.
Iraq has fostered a new brand of jihad. It has been transformed into a country where budding insurgents gain combat experience, and forge lasting bonds that will enable them to work together in the years to come, even if they leave Iraq. Former French defense official Alexis Debat contends that jihadists seek “to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was before autumn 2001: a public relations windfall for their ideologues, a training ground for their ‘rookies’, and even a safe-haven for their leadership.” And Iraq is becoming just such a haven. Indeed, it is no small irony that some of those who launched attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan appeared to have trained in Iraq.
For now, the jihadists are focused on victory in Iraq, which they define not only as ousting the Americans but also as destroying the Iraqi regime and either murdering or subordinating Iraq’s Shi’a majority. In a media description oftheir Iraq strategy, jihadists note that their immediate goal is to drive a wedge between the American army and its local allies. Soon afterwards, they say, the American occupiers will flee with their tails between their legs, and the jihadists will make Iraq a true Islamic republic. Jihadists would then launch the second part of their plan where Iraq would serve as base for attacking the country’s neighbors, such as Jordan and Syria. With that stage of the war complete, the final war will be waged on both the United States and Israel.
The views of Abu Musabal-Zarqawi, whom U.S. forces killed in June 2006, offer a fascinating but troubling glimpse into the future of the jihadist movement. Zarqawi founded and led the Monotheism and Jihad group, which in October 2004 became the Al Qa’ida Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers (or Al Qa’ida in Iraq). A Jordanian by birth, Zarqawi traveled to Afghanistan in 1989 to fight the Soviets. He truly became radicalized, however, when he returned to Jordan in the 1990s to organize a jihadist cell and was quickly put in prison. In the book Al-Zarqawi: The Second Generation of Al Qa’ida, Jordanian writer Fu’ad Husayn notes that jail was a formative experience for Zarqawi.
Though he detested the United States, Zarqawi never fully accepted bin Ladin’s focus on the far enemy. Much of Zarqawi’s efforts were directed toward fomenting dissent against other Muslims. Husayn notes that the group’s prison leader regularly “excommunicated everyone who failed to rule in harmony with the Islamic shari’ah.” Zarqawi also viewed local regimes, particularly those near his home country of Jordan, as top targets. Although released from prison in 1999, Zarqawi quickly returned to terrorism. Al Qa’ida helped provide start-up money for Zarqawi’s organization in Jordan, which tried to bomb various hotels and tourist sites during the Millennium celebrations in 2000. Zarqawi himself went to Afghanistan to escape and continue to plot attacks. After the Taliban fell, he went to Iraq, where he correctly surmised that the Americans would strike next.
In Iraq, Zarqawi stood out from other leaders, in part because of the brutality of his tactics. Zarqawi may have personally beheaded his American hostage, Nicholas Berg, who had been working in Iraq. Al Qa’ida leaders pushed Zarqawi to abandon this and similar tactics unpopular even among many Islamists. Inadvertently, however, U.S. condemnations placed Zarqawi into the world’s eye, which reaped dividends for him as a leader. His formerly obscure activities became front page news, and thus drew the attention of the U.S. government. Husayn claims that because of U.S. attention, “Every Arab and Muslim who wished to go to Iraq for jihad wanted to join al-Zarqawi.”
Though Zarqawi worked with Al Qa’ida for many years, he did not formally join the organization until October 2004. Then he changed the group name to Al Qa’ida of Iraq to reflect its new orientation. Zarqawi was an independent operator, and by personality did not fit in well with Al Qa’ida, which stressed teamwork. In addition, he held different views on appropriate targets, believing that local regimes were more important targets than the United States. He also saw the Shi’a as apostates and a priority target. Husayn notes that Zarqawi claimed that “Shiism had no connection with Islam whatsoever” and in September 2005 reportedly declared “all out war” on them.
For Al Qa’ida,the merger with Zarqawi proved to be a lifeline. Al Qa’ida was essentially gaining a franchise in the hub of the global jihad at a time when the organization was weak around the world. “Al Qa’ida’s operations and military activities were intermittent,” Husayn contends. “However, following the pledge of allegiance of Abu-Mus’ab [Zarqawi] and his group, Al Qa’ida is there every day and every hour.” Al Qa’ida also gained access to more recruits from the Bilad al-Sham area (Jordan,Syria, and Palestine) that Zarqawi drew from, in contrast to its traditional links to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt.
For Zarqawi, the merger also had many benefits. Afterwards, Zarqawi obtained access to both Al Qa’ida’s recruiting networks and, perhaps more important, received financial and logistical assistance, particularly from the Persian Gulf. The link with Al Qa’ida also legitimated Zarqawi, allowing him to associate his cause with that of bin Laden, a hero for many in the militant community.
Zarqawi had come under considerable fire in jihadist circles for his indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the Shi’a in particular. Maqdisi, who was with Zarqawi in jail and was seen by many jihadists as a learned man, issued statements praising Zarqawi’s goals but criticizing him for killing non-combatants in Iraq, noting that “It is better to leave a thousand atheists than to shed the blood of one Muslim.” To make his point even clearer, he calls on Zarqawi to recognize “Mujahedin should discriminate between Shiite citizens and fighters.”
Several memos to Zarqawi from Ayman Zawahiri — bin Ladin’s second-in-command — suggest the tension in the relationship. Zawahiri both chastised Zarqawi for beheadings and other unpopular tactics while asking him to send money. While Zarqawi toned down some of his most horrific tactics, he — and with him the most important jihadist franchise in the world — are still marching to their own drummers.
U.S. efforts against Zarqawi’s followers are bound up in the broader campaign to bring peace and good government to Iraq. This allied campaign has suffered frustration after frustration and at this point appears unsustainable.
Since conventional military operations ended in May 2003, the United States and its allies have conducted direct operations against Sunni (and, less frequently, Shi’a) insurgents and militias and foreign jihadists as part of an overall program to provide security for Iraq. The U.S. strategy appears as follows: Once Iraq enjoys a modicum of security, the United States can pass much of the responsibility for running the country to a legitimate civilian government duly elected by the Iraqi people – a process the Bush administration contends has taken several important steps forward as Iraq has moved toward an elected government. While the legitimate government is being established, coalition forces are training Iraqi security forces. As these forces become larger and more capable, the United States hopes they will increasingly take responsibility for policing, counterinsurgency, and border security missions. If all goes well, in several years the United States wouldbe able to withdraw.
The U.S. failure to achieve these goals is multidimensional: the scale of the violence is wide and growing, the government of Iraq lacks legitimacy, democracy is troubled, and jihadists are flourishing. Communal violence escalated significantly after the bombing of the “Golden Mosque” in Samarra: the long-feared civil war became manifest to all. By the fall of 2006 (and by many measures much earlier), Iraq had plunged into a brutal civil war that was far more lethal than the anti-U.S. insurgency.
Insurgent violence was particularly concentrated in Sunni areas, but almost all of Iraq’s cities have been affected by communal strife. Shi’a militias are now taking revenge on Sunnis for attacks by Sunni insurgents, evenwhen these Sunnis have nothing to do with the fighting. Outside experts warn that currently peaceful Kurdish cities may erupt. Mosul, Kirkuk, and other cities with a mix of Arabs and Kurds may suffer communal violence due to property disputes and rising ethnic tension.
Concurrent with the insurgency in parts of Iraq are problems of a “failed state” in other regions. For decades, Iraqis had learned to turn to Saddam Husayn’s regime for food, medical care, law enforcement, and other basics. When the regime collapsed, Iraqis turned to local warlords or tribal leaders. The organs ofthe state, never strong, declined further. Civil violence further undercuts the credibility of the state.
High on the list of Iraqi concerns is crime. Crime in Iraq has soared, and U.S. government polling of Iraqis consistently shows street crime to be of much higher concern than terrorist or insurgent violence. Many Iraqis are afraid to leave their homes to go to work and to send their children (particularly their daughters) to school. Stopping crime requires a government that can be trusted, a large and competent police force, and a broader criminal justice system of courts and prisons: all three are lacking in Iraq today. To fill the void, local tribal leaders, militia groups, or others who claim to offer security are assuming control. 
So far, U.S. efforts to train Iraq’s army and police force have met with at best limited success. Insurgents recognize this weakness and focus their attacks on Iraqis who serve in the police, the army, and as translators. In other words, the insurgents pursue anyone who assists coalition forces or enables the new government to establish itself. So long as the United States assumes the burden for these functions, the Iraqis have little incentive to act on their own.
The government of Iraq also lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis, particularly Sunni Arabs. Once favored by Saddam’s regime, in a democracy, the Sunnis have become an ethnic minority voting bloc. Some Sunnis resent their loss in influence. The insurgents appear to enjoy the support, or at least the tolerance, of much of the Sunni Arab population of Iraq. Although the Sunni Arabs comprise only 20 percent of the population, they can thwart any peace Iraq might hope to enjoy. The rampant crime and communal violence demonstrate the government cannot protect its citizens. As key ministries and portfolios are often controlled by one community or even one militia, the government is often seen as tool for rival groups rather than an impartial arbiter that helps all citizens equally.
The failure to deliver economic stability has furthered weakened the legitimacy of the United States and the interim government. Unemployment is between 30 and 40 percent, and malnutrition rates have doubled since the war began. Foreign capital is understandably reluctant to invest in a strife-torn and politically turbulent country. The unrealistic expectations of most Iraqis compounded these problems, as they hoped that Saddam’s removal would quickly usher in an era of economic renewal despite the vast structural problems of Iraq’s economy and the years of devastation that sanctions wrought under Saddam.
Although the elections represent dramatic progress over Iraq’s dictatorial past, democracy’s future is unclear. Major factions disagree over many core issues such as the extent of power sharing, the role of women, the proper powers of the federal government, and the pace of elections. Sunnis readily cry foul, claiming that the system is stacked against them. The new leadership has yet to tackle knotty questions related to minority rights and the degree of power sharing among Iraq’s major groups (or, in the case of the Shi’a, which faction will emerge dominant) – questions that fuel much of the strife. The country’s pervasive insecurity has further hindered efforts to build apolitical system. The new regime also still depends on the United States for security, diminishing its standing among nationalist Iraqis.
The cost of this mixed record is considerable, though it is far from unsustainable. Over 3,500 Americans have died so far, with far more wounded. Iraqi casualty figures, data for which are often limited and conflicting, are conservatively over ten times as high, even excluding those being killed by street crime. Many estimates put the figure at well over 100,000 Iraqi deaths, and one, published in the medical journal The Lancet, puts the number at over 600,000. In dollars, the United States has spent several hundred billion on the war and occupation so far, with the U.S. effort in Iraq running close to $100 billion a year at current levels. This excludes the long-term but indirect costs of health care for those wounded in Iraq, lost productivity from reservists sent to Iraq, and other important but less measurable costs that put the total dollar figure over a trillion.
For the U.S. military, particularly the U.S. Army, the strain is enormous and possibly unsustainable without significant changes. The United States has deployed well over 100,000 troops to Iraq since the end of conventional hostilities in May 2003, with troop levels at times as high as 150,000. Military readiness for other missions has suffered, as regular forces spend much of their time deployed in Iraq rather than training for high-intensity combat. The United States has resorted to a host of methods to keep the momentum going. It has called up the Individual Ready Reserve, requiring troops to stay deployed even after their term of service is done. It has halted individual reassignments outside of Iraq until the unit as a whole is ready to leave. Such measures and extended deployments pose challenges for recruitment and retention, particularly for the National Guard and Reserves.
The cost of all this goes beyond Iraq. Diplomatically, world opinion of the United States is at its nadir. The U.S. occupation of Iraq and ongoing counterinsurgency has fostered an image of the United States as an oppressive power bent on killing Muslims. Polls indicate opinion of the United States ranges from poor in many Western European countries to abysmal in most countries in the Muslim world. Arab world satellite television stations regularly juxtapose footage of Americans fighting insurgents in cities such as Fallujah with Israeli soldiers attacking Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The unpopular war and the less popular occupation have lessened trust in the United States around the world. Thus, extradition and renditions and other tools of counterterrorism that depend on allied cooperation, are much harder to employ. Lamenting the effects of this disaster on the war on terror, Scheuer declared “America remains bin Ladin’s only indispensable ally.”
The Consequences of a
Withdrawal for Counterterrorism
The case fo rleaving Iraq appears strong on the surface. If the United States is already failing despite its large-scale presence today, is there value in continuing these sacrifices? By withdrawing, the hemorrhaging of lives and dollars would stop – at least on the American side. The legitimacy of the new regime might also grow initially, as it would no longer be viewed as a quisling government, propped up only by American power. Muslims who object to the U.S. occupation of one of the historic centers of the Muslim world would also be appeased, removing at least one source of opposition to the United States. Resources in Iraq could be used to fight bin Ladin and affiliated jihadists in Afghanistan,Pakistan, and elsewhere, while the constant irritation in the relationship between the United States and its European allies would be removed. If victory cannot be attained, leaving may be justified: but it is important to factor in the costs to the U.S. struggle against Al Qa’ida into this equation.
Outside of the counterterrorism dimension, Iraq itself would also suffer tremendously from a U.S. withdrawal. Iraqi government forces would find themselves outgunned and cooperation with government opponents or wholesale defection would be likely. Already the lack of security has led local communities to turn to warlords for protection and revenge: without the presence of U.S. forces, this trend woul