Monday, December 12, 2005

Caliph-ornia Dreaming

A couple of weeks back, I wrote a post which sought to refute the clumsy scare tactics hauled out by Rumsfeld (and later Cheney) regarding the potential for Zarqawi, Bin Laden and Zawahiri to take over in Iraq if we were to withdraw our troops prematurely. As I wrote then, Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda brethren do not enjoy the popular support needed to secure the mantle of leadership of Iraq. For the most part, the various strains of the Sunni insurgencies have been tolerating Zarqawi because of his usefulness (read: the money and cannon fodder garnered from Zarqawi's foreign fighter network) in pushing their disparate agendas - for the former Baathists, regaining control of Iraq through destabilization of the current regime, and for the nationalists, lashing out at the occupying power and its accomplices .

There is, no doubt, more synergy to be found with Iraqi Salafists who buy into Zarqawi's manichean vision of a Muslim caliphate (and some previously non-Salafist Iraqis have been radicalized and converted by the Zarqawi group), but their numbers are still comparatively small when viewing the proclivities and aspirations of the overall Sunni insurgency and broader population (more on this below). More likely, the Sunnis will find common cause with Zarqawi until he is of no more use to them, and/or their goals diverge, and then be done with him.

Juan Cole discusses some recent reports that indicate a growing trend toward the marginalization of Zarqawi and his chosen tactics among Sunni insurgents:
Al-Hayat's sources say that several changes have occurred in the arena of guerrilla action in 2005, which have benefited the Iraqi nationalist groups that reject attacks on civilians and the practice of "excommunicating" (takfir) other Muslims. The method of "national resistance" has instead gained advantages over the bloody tactics of the jihadis, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam. More than 50 guerrilla bands, including "Phalanges of the 1920 Revolution," "the Army of Islam," "The Army of Holy Warriors", "Holy Warriors of the Armed Forces," are actually led, despite their Islamist names, by officers of the former Iraqi military. They have decided to unite their ranks and will soon announce a Front for the Iraqi Resistance, which will comprise all these guerrilla groups. They will adopt joint military and political stances. This front will be led by a "Consultative Council" that includes former officers, clerics and clan elders. It will be charged with working to prevent attacks on civilians and with promoting dialogue for the purpose of "expelling the occupiers."
My American Footprints blogmate, Brian Ulrich, cites an article that highlights the rift between the various Sunni insurgent groups in the context of the upcoming round of elections:

"In a move unthinkable in the bloody run-up to the last election, guerrillas in the western insurgent heartland of Anbar province say they are even prepared to protect voting stations from fighters loyal to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaida in Iraq.
Ulrich also cites a study that predicts that Zarqawi's group (composed of foreign fighters and Iraqi co-Salafists) makes up little more than 14% of the total insurgent pool in Iraq. A further indicator of his comparatively muted strength and ability (even if the study is off by five-ten percentage points). Some have argued that Saddam/the Baath Party was able to control Iraq from a minority position and thus Zarqawi might do the same. But this ignores the fact that Saddam was an Iraqi, with extensive knowledge, contacts and expertise in the local political terrain. Zarqawi (a Jordanian), less so. Saddam also had, and used, a vast arsenal of heavy weaponry including tanks, air power and artillery to maintain control. Zarqawi has none of those, and will not likely be securing any in the near future. While the Shiites and Kurds are not exactly awash in the aforementioned weaponry, they do have the United States which would likely extend air power to the Shiite-Kurdish side if threatened by a Zarqawi-led insurrection. This would be true even if our troops have been withdrawn from that nation.

For Zarqawi, successful elections that foster cooperation between the warring factions are incongruent with the goal of establishing a Muslim caliphate. Instead, destabilization and chaos in Iraq are the short-term desired outcomes in order to create conditions conducive to a potential coup of Islamists and/or to foster the cultivation of an epicenter of destabilization (complete with terrorist training facilities) capable of emanating outward and toppling the apostate regimes that rule the nations that would become the new caliphate. The majority of Sunni insurgents, on the other hand, are more interested in power, money and influence in Iraq - not some broad vision of a quasi-mythical pure Islamic state. Hence the tension and potential clash over the elections which most Sunni insurgents seem inclined to use in order to attempt to meet their needs.

It should be noted, however, that if the Sunnis do not secure sufficient money, power and influence after the upcoming round of elections, there is a very strong possibility that the violence plaguing Iraq will continue and the civil war escalate. In such a scenario, Zarqawi would likely be seen as useful again, and thus his insurgent "visa" extended. So unless there is a political solution that can tamp the insurgencies and exploit the underlying rift between Zarqawi's group and the other insurgent groups, al-Qaeda in Iraq could still come out winners in the sense that they will be able to maintain their training ground for future terrorists, as well as exacerbate the potential destabilizing influence of an Iraq thrown into internal chaos. Too hasty a withdrawal of US troops under such circumstances could be detrimental to many of our goals in the region and the GWOT more generally. Even if we'll never see Emir Zarqawi atop the throne. That is, once again, why finding a political solution to the insurgency is of paramount importance and why pushing through the Constitution on schedule, despite that document's obvious flaws in this regard, was such a mistake. As I said back then, the Constitution was being fixed around the timetable.

[UPDATE: For more on the problems with the Iraqi Constitution and their interplay with the issues confronting that nation, read Kanan Mikaya's recent op-ed in the New York Times (h/t to Belgravia Dispatch). Here's a teaser:

WASHINGTON and Baghdad will be tempted, with the adoption of a new Constitution and the election on Thursday for a four-year government, to declare victory in Iraq. In one sense, they are right to do so. The emerging Iraqi polity undoubtedly represents a radical break not only with the country's past but also with the whole Arab state system established by Britain and France after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

But in the larger sense, such optimism is misguided, for none of the problems associated with Iraq's monumental change have been sorted out. Worse, profound tensions and contradictions have been enshrined in the Constitution of the new Iraq, and they threaten the very existence of the state.
The rest is, as they say, well worth the read. Keep in mind, this is the same Iraqi ex-pat Kanan Mikaya who was firmly in the pro-invasion camp. In fact, I believe he is attributed with the infamous quote that we would be greeted as liberators with "flowers and candies." So if anything, this might give his not-so-rosy assessment some extra credence - or at least reduce the likelihood that his opinions are overly influenced by his political biases.]

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