Al-Qaeda in Iraq

by Matt

I’m posting this mainly in response to a conversation I had on Easter with a relative who is a gentle, intelligent retired physician living a few dozen miles outside Washington, DC. Like some conversations on such topics don’t, our dialogue remained friendly. He mentioned he’s likely to vote for McCain in November, which led to my observation that McCain disturbs me because I think he’s unnecessarily bellicose and, among other things, he doesn’t know the difference between Shias and Sunnis, an ignorance particularly disturbing as it pertained to Iraq. This then led, a few sentences later, to said relative — a man whom I very much care for and respect — observing that, if the presumptions under which we invaded Iraq were unsound, then how come we’re now fighting al-Qaeda on a daily basis there?

As I understand it, al-Qaeda has become a franchise, a brand that can be adopted by whosoever fits the al-Qaeda mold — or for that matter, whosoever just wants to use the name. The Iraqi group even distinguishes itself from Bin Laden’s group by their full name, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Scratching around for some more information, I found a short article from the BBC that talks about the franchise model. It turns out the idea is older than I realized — old enough to even be included in assessments prior to the Iraq invasion.

I also came across a really interesting piece that Andrew Tilghman wrote about al-Qaeda in Iraq for Washington Monthly last October (2007).

The Myth of AQI

Tilghman divides the Iraqi insurgency into three main groups: loyalists from Saddam’s army, Sunnis wanting a religious-based government in Iraq, and al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose interests are not in Iraq per se, but the creation of a far larger Islamic caliphate.

That last one sounds like the guys who would be the target of the expressed US mission, right? However, the group did not exist until 2003, after US troops invaded and, as Tilghman notes, although founder Musab al-Zarqawi may have had ties to Osama Bin Laden (that’s “hotly disputed”) and much of the power structure of al-Qaeda in Iraq is from outside the country, intelligence indicates the “rank and file” of the group are mostly radicalized Iraqis. That is, radicalized Iraqis who were radicalized by the invasion of their country by a foreign military.

One could say, then, that the purpose of the US invasion of Iraq was to thwart the group whose creation was a direct result of the invasion.

Offhand, I can think of a simpler way to have done all that thwarting. But I’m not the President.

Here’s the kicker, though. Tilghman also reports that al-Qaeda in Iraq is thought to be responsible for only eight to fifteen percent of the violence in the country, and may comprise only five percent or so of the overall insurgency. Although Tilghman cites sources who say that widely divergent assessments indicate nobody has a crystal clear idea of what’s going on, Tilghman himself puts his money behind the assessment of Malcolm Nance, author of The Terrorists of Iraq. According to Tilghman, Nance has twenty-years of intelligence experience, proficiency in Arabic, and has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq.

Nance says that al-Qaeda in Iraq is probably about 850 people, fewer than attend my high school at any given time. Nance calls it “a microscopic terrorist organization.”

Meanwhile, the other night, I caught a blurb of an interview with a US soldier deployed in Iraq, talking about a victory against al-Qaeda.

I had to wonder exactly what that meant, and whose idea it was that he say it the way that he did.

Tilghman’s article comments broadly on the processes by which al-Qaeda in Iraq gets blamed for stuff. I recommend it highly. You can read it side by side with the article on McCain, and see that his Sunni/Shia gaffe arose from the assertion that “al-Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they’re moving back into Iraq.” I think Tilghman offers material that’s worth having booted up in one’s mind as one listens to our leaders, and even our soldiers, on the news.

And you know, if you have friends or relatives who believe that the main thing that’s going on over there is us versus Bin Laden, maybe it’s worth having booted up in their minds, too.