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Bush's Catch-22 on Al Qaeda in Iraq

October 15, 2007

In a double-edged sword for the Bush administration, Monday's Washington Post reports that the Pentagon believes it has dealt "devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent months." But with the good news surrounding Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), responsible for only a small fraction of the attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians, comes the Catch-22 for President Bush: the very dissipation of the Al Qaeda threat in Iraq removes his primary rationale for extending the American presence there.
As Karen de Young and Thomas Ricks (author of Fiasco, perhaps the defining military analysis of the invasion of Iraq) detail, the drop-off in Al Qaeda attacks (down from 60 in January to 30 in July) and the improving alliances with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province are leading some American military leaders to advocate a "declaration of victory":

Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of the Joint Special Operations Command's operations in Iraq, is the chief promoter of a victory declaration and believes that AQI has been all but eliminated, the military intelligence official said. But Adm. William J. Fallon, the chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, is urging restraint, the official said. The military intelligence official, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity about Iraq assessments and strategy.
Senior U.S. commanders on the ground, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, have long complained that Central Command, along with the CIA, is too negative in its analyses. On this issue, however, Petraeus agrees with Fallon, the military intelligence official said.

But as de Young and Rick suggest, the controversy may be less one of intelligence assessments or military strategy, but instead politics. "Such a declaration," they write, "could fuel criticism that the Iraq conflict has become a civil war in which U.S. combat forces should not be involved."
The polling data certainly supports that assessment. An ABC New/Washington Post poll conducted at the end of September found that 54% of respondents wanted U.S. troops to leave in Iraq even if civil order had not been restored. 56% said that deployment of 30,000 additional American troops under the Bush surge strategy made no difference to the security situation in Iraq, with 15% more claiming it had made it worse. A CBS survey two weeks earlier found that 49% of Americans wanted U.S. troops to leave within one year, with additional 23% calling for withdrawal within 24 months.
Behind those numbers is a growing awareness that Al Qaeda, the principal American enemy in Iraq, constitutes only a sliver of the violence targeting U.S. forces there. While President Bush mentioned Al Qaeda 95 times in a single speech in July, a study by the Congressional Research Service just days before General David Petraeus' surge progress report found that "most of the daily attacks are carried out by Iraqi Sunni insurgents." General James Jones, lead author of the September Jones Report on the security forces of Iraq, concurred with the assessment of Democratic Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) that "98 percent or more [of the attacks] are Iraqis fighting amongst Iraqis for the future of Iraq."
As the Washington Monthly's Andrew Tilghman wrote convincingly in "The Myth of Al Qaeda in Iraq," the false perpetuation of Al Qaeda's responsibility for the carnage in Iraq serves several purposes for President Bush and the supporters of open-ended engagement. Al Qaeda not only provides a smoke screen for former regime elements behind much of the violence, it serves the political purposes of Prime Minister Al Maliki and the U.S. occupation as well. Al Maliki can deflect attention away from the threat posed by his own allies among the Shiite militias, while giving air cover to the government's few Sunni allies. Meanwhile, the Bush administration can continue to claim that AQI triggered the civil strife with the 2006 bombing of the 2006 Samarra mosque, making Iraq the "central front in the war on terror."
So while General Petraeus in May called AQI "public enemy number one" in Iraq, a host of other analysts conclude otherwise. Alex Rossmiller, who served as a DoD intelligence officer, highlighted the peril of assigning responsibility for attacks to Al Qaeda. "It was kind of a running joke in our office," said. "We would sarcastically refer to everybody as al-Qaeda." Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq, called AQI a "a microscopic terrorist organization" and believes its 850 fighters constitute no more than two to five percent of the Sunni insurgency. Former CIA officer Larry Johnson put it simply, "Once people look at everything through that lens, al-Qaeda is all they see."
Especially President Bush. By last September, 65% of Americans believed that Iraq was embroiled in a civil war. But even in the wake of the devastating assessment by the Iraq Study Group in December, the administration could not accept any change to its narrative. President Bush, who complained in August 2006 that "I hear people say, well, civil war this, civil war that," by February would allow only "It's hard for me, living in this beautiful White House, to give you an assessment." By July, Al Qaeda made its 95 appearances in Bush's speech on Iraq.
It's no wonder the Bush administration doesn't want to declare victory against Al Qaeda in Iraq. It's too busy brokering deals with Sunni sheiks, who oppose the Al Maliki government in Baghdad. While Al Maliki enjoys the support of the United States, his coalition partners and their militia allies also enjoy the backing the Iran. And while President Bush, General Petraeus and the United States Senate keep up the pressure against Tehran for providing weapons and training to Shiite militiamen, the majority of American casualties come at the hands of Sunni insurgents. That ongoing civil war in Iraq is what the American people want no part of.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda continues to operate largely unhindered in its safe haven - in Pakistan.

2 comments on “Bush's Catch-22 on Al Qaeda in Iraq”

  1. Exactly. And while Bush/Cheney agitate for war with Iran Bin Laden/Al Qaeda in Pakistan (the REAL Al Qaeda) are inching ever close to obtaining a nuclear weapon.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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