Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Big Bad Wolf

Praktike recently flagged a somewhat curious comment from our lexically enigmatic Secretary of Defense the other day. Rumsfeld was discussing the prospect of setting a firm and immediate timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

If you put yourself in the shoes of the terrorists, if they get to believe that all they have to do is wait, because we're going to pull out precipitously, then something enormously valuable has been lost. If that country -- think of that country being turned over to the Zarqawis, the people who behead people, the people who kill innocent men, women, and children, the people who are determined to re-establish a caliphate around the world, the people who are looking for a safe haven. That would be a terrible thing for our country, for the safety of our people.
While Praktike was correct in noting that no one of influence is really recommending a "precipitous" withdrawal from Iraq, and that perhaps Rumsfeld is creating room for a "non-precipitous" version of such an extraction, I wanted to focus on another aspect of Rumsfeld's statement: the likelihood that the possible future outlined by Rumsfeld would ensue even if such a precipitous retreat were undertaken.

Before I go any further, I want to state for the record that I am opposed to the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq according to any firm timetable that ignores the reality on the ground. I believe that we should remain in Iraq as long as the government requests our presence, and as long as our presence can in some way stave off the eruption of a full blown civil war. I hold the view that through our misguided invasion, and utterly bungled occupation, we have assumed a moral obligation and responsibility to the Iraqi people not to simply wash our hands of their messy little affair. This view is contingent on the assumption that our presence in Iraq is doing more good than harm in terms of the pursuit of these goals. I will admit that I am becoming less convinced of the truth of such an assumption. Nir Rosen writing in The Atlantic offers a pretty compelling counterargument.

Regardless, most can agree that too hasty a retreat, or one that does not take pains to fortify the proper institutions, could very well lead to an even bloodier, more prolonged conflict than what is currently besieging Iraq. One that might require a massive redeployment to Iraq by our military within the next five to ten years. That should be avoided at all costs.

That being said, if the satements emerging from the Cairo national reconciliation council are any indicator, the Iraqis could be shuffling us off to the exits regardless of what our ultimate designs might be. We should comply with the directives of the Iraqi government if and when they are expressed in a formal manner. It should be noted, however, that all indications are that even the statement insisting on a timetable for withdrawal still contemplates our presence in country at least through most of 2006. (See also: Haggai with links to a theory that this "statement" was coaxed by a Bush administration eager for the exits but wanting to hide its intentions).

Back to Rumsfeld's notion of leaving Iraq in the hands of Zarqawi. The first point that should be made is that Rumsfeld greatly exaggerates the power, influence and capacity of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He is a convenient bugaboo for many of the region's players (more on this here), and can be evoked for many disparate purposes, including to inspire fear and uncertainty in the listener - as I am sure Rumsfeld intended. For events to unfold as Rumsfeld prophesied, though, Zarqawi would have to be able to usurp and dominate the majority Shiites and their highly motivated and sizable militias as well as the Kurds and their rather potent peshmerga. To accomplish this, Zarqawi would have to command a unified Sunni front, with considerable outside support and aid, and even then - victory would be far from certain or even likely.

Taking a step back, even the aforementioned recipe for victory assumes too much. Zarqawi is not a sufficiently popular figure in Iraq to command such allegiances from the broader Sunni insurgencies - especially when you factor in Iraqi nationalist sentiment which bristles at the thought of a foreigner leading the country and the significant differences in the long term goals held by Zarqawi's followers compared to most typical insurgents. Whereas Zarqawi is a foreigner and relies primarily on foreign fighters, the insurgency in Iraq is primarily composed of ex-Baathists and other Sunnis who are reacting to their loss of power and the intrusion of American forces in their country and their daily lives. They seek to regain their control of the government, their influence and the wealth in Iraq. These Sunnis are not chasing the same goals as Zarqawi, who is looking to initiate a broader uprising in the Muslim world which would lead to the overthrow of countless regimes in order to re-establish a quasi-mythical caliphate in their stead. Some numbers from Anthony Cordesman shed some light on the demographical breakdown of the insurgency.

Non-Iraqi militants made up less than 10 percent of the insurgents' ranks -- perhaps even half that -- the study said.

Most were motivated by "revulsion at the idea of an Arab land being occupied by a non-Arab country."
As Dan Darling pointed out in the comments section to Praktike's post, these numbers don't tell the whole story. There are also Iraqis that have thrown in with Zarqawi that have been indoctrinated with a broader Islamist purpose, and there were indigenous groups in Iraq like Ansar al-Islam that were already friendly to Zarqawi's ideology. Not all Iraqis are or were hostile to Zarqawi's ideology. Christ Albittron talks of the notion of "conversion" to the Islamist cause (via Swopa).

While the Ba'athists can command great sums of cash through old accounts in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere, the jihadis can call on equal funds from the oil-rich sympathizers in the Gulf states....

The jihadis gain influence within the insurgency by initially providing money and materiel to smaller nationalist groups, but then start lobbying for their new-found beneficiaries to starting being better Muslims. More help, more preaching follows, and soon enough, a group of nationalists have grown their beards, stopped drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and start praying five times a day.
It should also be noted that even many of the foreigners who have come to Iraq were not necessarily aligned with Zarqawi's worldview prior to departing on their mission of jihad. Also from Cordesman:

It said Saudi Arabia had interrogated dozens of Saudi militants who either returned from Iraq or were caught at the border. "One important point was the number who insisted that they were not militants before the Iraq war," it said.

"The vast majority of Saudi militants who entered Iraq were not terrorist sympathizers before the war, and were radicalized almost exclusively by the coalition invasion," the study said.

Backing up their claim, 85 percent of those interrogated were not on any watch list of known militants, the study said. Most came from the west, south or center of Saudi Arabia, often from middle class families of prominent conservative tribes.
Not only has the Iraq invasion radicalized Iraqis and converted more to the ranks of the Salafist camp of jihadist ideology, so too has the invasion radicalized many citizens of Iraq's neighbors. As I have mentioned before this has been an extremely counter-productive endeavor when placed in the context of the larger war on terrorism. Whereas Iraqis were, relative to many other people in the region, less inclined toward Islamist jihadism before the invasion, that situation has been changing as a result of our actions.

But despite the conversion of some Iraqis to his cause, and despite his control over elements of the foreign fighters in Iraq, Zarqawi is still a stranger in a potentially very hostile land. Nir Rosen sheds some light on the dynamic.

The foreign jihadi element—commanded by the likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—is numerically insignificant; the bulk of the resistance has no connection to al-Qaeda or its offshoots. (Zarqawi and his followers have benefited greatly from U.S. propaganda blaming him for all attacks in Iraq, because he is now seen by Arabs around the world as more powerful than he is; we have been his best recruiting tool.) It is true that the Sunni resistance welcomed the foreign fighters (and to some extent still do), because they were far more willing to die than indigenous Iraqis were. But what Zarqawi wants fundamentally conflicts with what Iraqi Sunnis want: Zarqawi seeks re-establishment of the Muslim caliphate and a Manichean confrontation with infidels around the world, to last until Judgment Day; the mainstream Iraqi resistance just wants the Americans out. If U.S. forces were to leave, the foreigners in Zarqawi's movement would find little support—and perhaps significant animosity—among Iraqi Sunnis, who want wealth and power, not jihad until death. They have already lost much of their support: many Iraqis have begun turning on them. In the heavily Shia Sadr City foreign jihadis had burning tires placed around their necks. The foreigners have not managed to establish themselves decisively in any large cities. Even at the height of their power in Fallujah they could control only one neighborhood, the Julan, and they were hated by the city's resistance council. Today foreign fighters hide in small villages and are used opportunistically by the nationalist resistance.

When the Americans depart and Sunnis join the Iraqi government, some of the foreign jihadis in Iraq may try to continue the struggle—but they will have committed enemies in both Baghdad and the Shiite south, and the entire Sunni triangle will be against them. They will have nowhere to hide. Nor can they merely take their battle to the West. The jihadis need a failed state like Iraq in which to operate. When they leave Iraq, they will be hounded by Arab and Western security agencies.
I would disagree with Rosen's assessment in one area. If and when US forces depart, if the Sunni insurgents decide that they wish to press on with armed conflict, they will likely remain amenable to, and even encourage, the presence, cooperation and assistance of Zarqawi and the foreign fighters. The foreign/Zarqawi element will continue to be useful in terms of providing money and bodies for any ongoing or impending clash with the Shiites and/or Kurds.

Thus, if Iraq descends into civil war, the Sunni regions will likely remain a fertile training, staging, indoctrination and recruiting ground for Zarqawi and his allies. This would be a severe strategic blow to our security interests in the region and beyond and should be avoided to the extent possible. Nevertheless, it remains highly unlikely that Zarqawi would ever be able to take over Iraq. The suggestion is borderline preposterous. But that doesn't mean that our withdrawal will necessarily be a bad thing for Zarqawi either. That will likely depend on the withdrawal method (Nadezhda has more on said method and the implications).

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