With his earlier war rationales shattered, George W. Bush now says the Iraq War must be continued indefinitely because of the presence of foreign Islamic fighters – even though they are estimated to represent only a tiny fraction of the Iraqi insurgency and might well quit the struggle if U.S. troops were to leave Iraq.
In an Oct. 6 speech aimed at rallying U.S. public support for the Iraq War, Bush painted a harrowing picture of the consequences that would follow an American withdrawal. Bush warned of “a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia” and the strategic isolation of the United States.
Bush’s alarmist vision, however, clashes with both recent intelligence assessments on the significance of foreign fighters to the Iraq War and fears expressed in an intercepted letter purportedly written by al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri to al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi.
The “Zawahiri letter” cautions that an American withdrawal might prompt the “mujahedeen” in Iraq to “lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal.” To avert this military collapse, the letter calls for selling these foreign fighters on a broader vision of an Islamic “caliphate” in the Middle East, although nothing nearly as expansive as the global empire that Bush depicted.
But the “Zawahiri letter” indicates that even this more modest “caliphate” is just an “idea” that he mentioned “only to stress … that the mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq.”
In other words, assuming U.S. intelligence is correct that the letter was written by Zawahiri, al-Qaeda sees promoting the dream of an unlikely “caliphate” as a needed sales pitch to keep the jihadists from simply returning to their everyday lives once the Americans depart Iraq.
Bush also appears to be exaggerating the significance of the foreign fighters.
Though their spectacular suicide bombings have garnered headlines and killed hundreds of Iraqis, recent intelligence assessments put the size of this foreign jihadist force at only a few thousand, or around 5 percent of the overall Iraqi insurgency.
A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative Washington-based think tank, said the number of foreign fighters is “well below 10 percent, and may well be closer to 4 percent to 6 percent.” [See CSIS’s “Saudi Militants in Iraq,” Sept. 19, 2005]
A former U.S. official with access to intelligence on the Iraqi insurgency cited similar numbers in an interview with the New York Times, estimating that 95 percent of the insurgents are Iraqis.
The former official added that U.S. military officers returning from Iraq have complained that “the senior commanders are obsessed with the foreign fighters because they are easier to deal with. … It’s easier to blame foreign fighters instead of developing new counterinsurgency strategies.” [NYT, Oct. 15, 2005]
There is also the historical fact that Muslim nations have succeeded, again and again, in suppressing Islamic radical movements as long as Western powers have not gotten too directly involved.
In his Oct. 6 speech, Bush inadvertently underscored this point when he noted that “over the past few decades, radicals have specifically targeted Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Jordan for potential takeover.” Algeria also faced a radical Islamic threat.
But the bottom line to all these cases is that the radicals were defeated, explaining why so many of al-Qaeda’s leaders are exiles. Osama bin-Laden is a Saudi; Zawahiri is an Egyptian; Zarqawi is a Jordanian. In the late 1990s, bin-Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were even banished from the Sudan, forcing them to flee to remote Afghanistan.
This history also suggests that a policy shift in which U.S. and British forces withdraw from Iraq might not be nearly as catastrophic as Bush suggests.
Indeed, by removing the chief lure for foreign suicide-bombers – the American and British troops – the Iraqis themselves might have a much easier time eliminating Zarqawi’s depleted forces.
Many in Iraq’s Sunni minority have tolerated the bloody presence of the foreign jihadists only because they share mutual enemies in the Americans and the Shiite majority. If the Americans were gone and many of Zarqawi’s fighters left, too (as the “Zawahiri letter” fears), the Sunnis would find Zarqawi of little continued use.
Indeed, some critics of the Iraq War see a twisted symbiotic relationship between Bush’s policies and al-Qaeda’s interests, with Bush using the memory of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to justify the continued U.S. presence in Iraq and al-Qaeda citing the U.S. occupation of Iraq as a way to recruit thousands of new jihadists. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Is Bush al-Qaeda’s ‘Useful Idiot?’”]
Without doubt, Bush has found it to his political advantage to play up the al-Qaeda connection in Iraq and downplay the indigenous aspects of the Iraqi insurgency.
By blurring the lines between an insurgency, led largely by Iraqi Sunnis, and the presence of a relatively small al-Qaeda contingent, Bush has persuaded many Americans to see Iraq through his prism of choice: as the most important front in the global War on Terror.
This strategy is similar to the Bush administration’s pre-war success in linking Iraq’s secular dictator Saddam Hussein with the Islamic fundamentalists who make up the core of al-Qaeda – even though the two sides were bitter enemies within the Arab world.
Counting on the lack of U.S. sophistication about the intricacies of Middle East politics, Bush convinced large numbers of Americans – a majority in some polls – that Hussein was somehow behind the Sept. 11 attacks. This supposed linkage to al-Qaeda, in turn, made Bush’s claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction far more powerful.
Since the March 2003 invasion, however, Bush’s pre-war case has collapsed. No WMD stockpiles were discovered and the supposed evidence of an al-Qaeda link evaporated. Even some of the biggest promoters of the case for an invasion have acknowledged that the earlier assertions were wrong.
“We are heroes in error,” influential Iraqi dissident Ahmad Chalabi said almost a year after the invasion. “As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We’re ready to fall on our swords if he wants.” [London Telegraph, Feb. 19, 2004]
Instead, Bush brushed aside the discredited rationales and moved on to new ones. The president reprised his case for continuing the U.S. military operation in Iraq in his Oct. 6 address, arguing that failure to “stay the course” would give the Islamic terrorists a base to build a global empire and corner the United States.
“With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolation,” Bush said.
Instead of heeding advice that a phased U.S. withdrawal might defuse the conflict in Iraq and deny al-Qaeda a key recruiting tool, Bush declared, “We will never back down, never give in, and never accept anything less than complete victory.”
In effect, Bush appears to have latched onto this exaggerated threat of the foreign jihadists in Iraq as his new justification for continuing the military policies that he initially justified by exaggerating the threat from Saddam Hussein.
Rather than encouraging a precise analysis of what’s behind the Sunni-led insurgency, Bush has opted for comparisons that liken the danger from Islamic radicals to the threats posed by Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.
Yet, a close reading of the “Zawihiri letter” – as posted at the Web site of the U.S. director of national intelligence John Negroponte – reveals al-Qaeda to be a movement struggling with financial crises and lacking even a reliable means to get its messages out. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “‘Al-Qaeda Letter’ Belies Bush’s Iraq Claims.”]
Viewed from the perspective of this al-Qaeda weakness – and from the evidence that the Iraq War is overwhelmingly an indigenous struggle – Bush’s new arguments look like they may be just the latest in a long string of Iraq lies and distortions.
Robert Parry, Consortium News