Thursday, March 09, 2006

Less Strange Bedfellows?

One of my occasional debate partners from right-blogistan, Marc Schulman, links to Thomas Joscelyn's take on this story in the London Times that was also flagged by Stygius in the sidebar on American Footprints last week. Joscelyn describes the article thusly:

The piece is excerpted from Abdel Bari Atwan's [book,] The Secret History of al Qaeda. Atwan is the editor in chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a paper which is anything but friendly to the U.S. And that's putting it mildly.
Atwan's US-hostile bona fides are cited by Joscelyn as something that may lend extra credence to some of his scholarship - which might indeed be the case. Though, as Joscelyn admits, he doesn't agree with all of Atwan's findings. Presumably, this tidbit on Ansar al-Islam (the Islamist terrorist organization operating out of northern no-fly zone Iraq) doesn't resonate with Joscelyn (not that I would disagree necessarily):

Ansar al-Islam is an important footnote to the invasion of Iraq. Much has been made of a possible connection between it and Al-Qaeda in the course of US intelligence efforts to link Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden.

I met its leader, Mullah Krekar, in Oslo last year and he vigorously denied Al-Qaeda had helped it in any way. He said he had personally asked Bin Laden for financial help and had been turned down.
But what does catch Joscelyn's eye is this passage:

Like Zarqawi, many Arabs fleeing American retaliation in Afghanistan after 9/11 found refuge with Ansar al-Islam. But then came an unexpected development. According to Dr Muhammad al-Masari, a Saudi specialist on Al-Qaeda's ideology, Saddam established contact with the "Afghan Arabs" as early as 2001, believing he would be targeted by the US once the Taliban was routed.

In this version, disputed by other commentators, Saddam funded Al-Qaeda operatives to move into Iraq with the proviso that they would not undermine his regime. [...]

According to Masari, Saddam saw that Islam would be key to a cohesive resistance in the event of invasion. Iraqi army commanders were ordered to become practising Muslims and to adopt the language and spirit of the jihadis.

On arrival in Iraq, Al-Qaeda operatives were put in touch with these commanders, who later facilitated the distribution of arms and money from Saddam's caches.
Joscelyn then goes on to cite those findings as evidence to counter various memes most popular in anti-war circles regarding Saddam's connections (or lack thereof) to al-Qaeda. Here we have, ostensibly, evidence of Saddam working with al-Qaeda in the months leading up to the invasion. While Atwan inserts the caveat that this description of events is "disputed by other commentators," let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the above account is essentially correct. If so, what conclusions can be drawn?

In a strictly literal sense, Joscelyn would be right in saying that this revelation would upset the claim that "Saddam had no relationship with the al Qaeda operatives on Iraqi soil prior to the war." But I would ask to what extent such an observation would be germane regardless. Yes it would undermine some oft-repeated slogans and provide nuance to certain rhetorical short-hand, but what this story reveals is also consistent with the view that despite contact, and even perhaps some sort of assistance, the nightmare scenario of Saddam equipping al-Qaeda with a nuclear device remained as implausible as ever. And that was the real danger - not that Saddam could be motivated by fear of invasion to enlist al-Qaeda as a buffer. On the contrary, this narrative may even reinforce certain attributes of Saddam's character that many point to in arguing that such a WMD-infused collaboration was highly improbable.

Masari's account, as quoted by Atwan, shows that Saddam was willing to welcome al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq in order to use them as an asset to repel an American attack and/or wear-down the subsequent occupation. His desire for self-preservation led him to accept these potentially destabilizing forces inside his borders (and may have led him to use Ansar prior to this as a proxy force), and those same survivalist instincts show up in his demand for the "proviso" that they not "undermine his regime." He recognized the danger, but calculated the benefits as outweighing the risks.

This is vastly different than the notion that Saddam would spend over 25 years and tens of billions of dollars acquiring a nuclear weapon only to, upon finally attaining it, hand it off to a terrorist organization so that such organization could use it against the United States. Saddam's raison d'etre was not the destruction of the US in the same way that a group like al-Qaeda might espouse that goal (at least as a means of achieving it's other caliphate-inspired ends). Saddam's weltanschauung and strategic goals were not incompatible with the continued existence of the United States. Nor were Saddam's motives in acquiring nuclear weapons consistent with the belief that he would readily give them away once obtaining them. Take this, for example, from the Duelfer Report (warning: pdf) [emphasis mine]:

Throughout the 1990s and up to OIF (March 2003), Saddam focused on one set of objectives: the survival of himself, his Regime, and his legacy. To secure those objectives, Saddam needed to exploit Iraqi oil assets, to portray a strong military capability to deter internal and external threats, and to foster his image as an Arab leader. Saddam recognized that the reconstitution of Iraqi WMD enhanced both his security and image. Consequently, Saddam needed to end UN-imposed sanctions to fulfill his goals. [...]

Iran was the pre-eminent motivator of this policy. All senior level Iraqi officials considered Iran to be Iraq's principal enemy in the region. The wish to balance Israel and acquire status and influence in the Arab world were also considerations, but secondary. [...]

Iraq Survey Group (ISG) judges that events in the 1980s and early 1990s shaped Saddam's belief in the value of WMD. In Saddam's view, WMD helped to save the Regime multiple times. He believed that during the Iran-Iraq war chemical weapons had halted Iranian ground offensives and that ballistic missile attacks on Tehran had broken its political will. Similarly, during Desert Storm, Saddam believed WMD had deterred Coalition Forces from pressing their attack beyond the goal of freeing Kuwait. WMD had even played a role in crushing the Shi'a revolt in the south following the 1991 cease-fire.
Again, we see the themes of self-preservation, asserting regional power and the need to counter his neighbor and nemesis, Iran, appearing again and again. Not to mention his perception of the efficacy of WMD as a deterrent to invasion and regime change. He clearly recognizes the value of WMD in securing each of these objectives. With those motivations in mind, why would Saddam willingly gift the means to achieve his long term goals to a terrorist organization that he only shared common mission with in tangential and contingent settings? This while knowing how much time and effort goes into acquiring those elusive guarantors of power.

It's one thing to recognize, as Saddam might have, that certain al-Qaeda foot soldiers could be useful if and when the US invaded Iraq (which, not surprisingly, he realized was a likely scenario) and quite another to form some unholy alliance of WMD delivery for the sake of....what exactly? Especially if you consider that such a joint-operation would ensure that Saddam and his regime would vanish forever. A monumentally self-defeating exercise for one concerned with the preservation of his regime and, relatedly, acquiring the means fordeterringg potential US aggression.

So, to the extent that Atwan's article shows that there was some level of collaboration between Saddam and al-Qaeda operatives prior to the invasion, I say, fine. But that doesn't justify the pre-invasion scare tactics used in the run up, nor the dubious connections drawn by the Bush administration and its supporters talking up "mushroom clouds" and Saddam's "allegiance" to al-Qaeda. Nor does this story prove that Saddam posed a particularly greater risk for which invasion was needed in order to neutralize. Knowledge of this would not have changed my cost-benefit analysis significantly, nor would it have materially altered my outlook on the dangers posed by Saddam's rule.

Along those lines, could you imagine how an accurate statement would have been concerning these events in the run-up to war? Instead of the war-supporters' all too frequent distortions, we would get something like this:

"There is evidence that our threats to invade Iraq are leading Saddam to allow al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq as a layer of defense against our invasion."

When faced with that description, I suppose an observer might quip: "Aren't our actions, then, bringing about a self-fulfilling prophecy?"

Which of course is assuming Masari's account is accurate. And even then, there's that stubborn and uncomfortable fact that Saddam didn't even have a nuclear program, let alone a nuclear weapon - as most intelligence agencies (including the IAEA and the State Dept.'s INR) were saying before the war. Which sort of renders Masari's claims related to Saddam's possible use of al-Qaeda operatives as a defensive measure relatively innocuous (in terms of catastrophic outcomes from terrorist attacks). Still, the story is worth considering in terms of forming a better understanding of the complete picture, and notice should be paid to corroborating (or contradictory) evidence should it appear in the future.

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