Kenneth Pollack joined the Philadephia Inquirer’s Trudy Rubin to discuss the long-term impact of the Iraq war on al Qaeda and what the future involvement of the United States should be in the region.
Trudy Rubin: Ken, I would like to start by talking a little about the impact of the Iraq war on al Qaeda in the past five years. In early 2003, you wrote in The Annals that al Qaeda was on the ropes. So what was the impact of the invasion of Iraq on al Qaeda’s strength?
Kenneth Pollack: I think that in the early days of the reconstruction of Iraq, the problems, almost all of which were self-inflicted wounds by the United States of America, were an enormous shot in the arm for al Qaeda. Here was the United States manifesting every one of the traits that al Qaeda had been warning the people of the Muslim world about. An aggressive United States imposing itself on an Arab country, making war on an Arab government, no matter how illegitimate, attempting to impose its rule, what it called an occupation, in the heart of the Arab world. There are not too many things that the United States could have done that would have been more helpful to al Qaeda, especially given how incompetently the United States handled the reconstruction of Iraq, creating an absolute mess and enormous security vacuum that created the perfect playing field for an organization like al Qaeda to move in, set up shop, begin to have a new impact on the Middle East and on Iraq in particular, begin to demonstrate to the rest of the Arab world that it remained relevant to the goals and aspirations of the people of the Arab world, generate new recruits and once again demonstrate that it could be a major player in the Middle East.
Rubin: Let us lay out the basic question that has haunted this country for five years: Was Iraq a central front in the war on Islamic terrorists before we arrived?
Pollack: No, it was not. I believe that the first sentence in my book on Iraq prior to the invasion was that there was no link between 9/11 and al Qaeda. The simple fact of the matter is that, as I wrote in that book, on the long list of Sadaam Hussein’s crimes against humanity his support for terrorism was actually very far down the list; it was rather minor. There were some links between Iraq and various terrorist groups and there were some contacts between the government of Sadaam Hussein and al Qaeda, but they were minor, they were insignificant; in truth they were meaningless. If what you were trying to do was eradicate the Salafi terrorist threat symbolized by al Qaeda, Iraq was not the place to wage that war in 2002 or 2003.
Rubin: And it diverted men and material from the central front?
Pollack: That is right. It is one of the reasons why, although as I think many people are aware, I did believe that a war with Sadaam Hussein would be necessary, it is why I believe that doing it in 2003 was mistaken. Because the war against al Qaeda was clearly the most important issue and that had nothing to do with Iraq. And by shifting our focus, our troops, our intelligence and special forces assets, by diverting all of our diplomatic capital from trying to finally smother, to suffocate, the last elements of al Qaeda that were still in Afghanistan and some fleeing to Pakistan, and by shifting all of that to Iraq we allowed that critical seed, the al Qaeda leadership, to escape and allowed them to reconstitute themselves in Pakistan, and then, as I said, handed them an enormous boon, not just by invading Iraq but more importantly by so badly fouling up the reconstruction that it gave them an opportunity to rebuild their networks, rebuild their propaganda, rebuild their support in the Arab world and do it in the heart of the Arab world.