A month later, the major insurgent group Islamic Army of Iraq issued an online communiqués condemning aqi. It is worth quoting in some detail:
"These people became insolent against us and wrongly and hostilely killed some mujahideen brothers from this group, more than 30 to date...Indeed, Sunnis in general have become a legitimate target for them, especially the wealthy.... Anyone who criticizes them or goes against them and demonstrates their error in such actions they try to kill...[We] appeal to Shaykh Osama Bin Laden, may God Almighty preserve him... Let him vindicate his religion and honor and take legal and organizational responsibility for the Al Qaeda organization."
By this summer, various insurgent groups had formed the Jihad and Reform Front to combat aqi, and fierce fighting between insurgent and aqi forces was raging in several Baghdad neighborhoods.
Nowhere has this schism been more evident than in Al Anbar province, the Sunni-dominated region to the west of Baghdad whose population centers of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Haditha serve as gateways to the western desert. By the summer of 2006, aqi had become, according to a U.S. Marine intelligence report authored by Colonel Peter Devlin and obtained by the Washington Post, "the dominant organization of influence" in the province, more powerful than the Iraqi government and U.S. troops "in its ability to control the day-to-day life of the average Sunni." It was, he wrote, "an integral part of the social fabric of western Iraq," so deeply entrenched that there was no longer the option of defeating it with a "decapitating strike."
To counter this dangerous reality, Devlin proposed creating a local paramilitary force to protect Sunnis and strengthen the police. In the months that followed, the U.S. military did just that, persuading or paying the region's tribes to work with them in fighting aqi. They gained a crucial ally in Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, whose father had been assassinated by aqi and who subsequently helped organize the Anbar Salvation Council, a coalition of tribal leaders opposed to aqi. (Sheikh Sattar himself was killed on September 13, with aqi taking credit.)
A number of offensives in November by U.S. and Iraqi troops weakened aqi and helped convince the tribes that the tide was turning; the U.S. has also promised to funnel some $300 million in aid into the region, likely through tribal sheikhs. The sheikhs in turn instructed their followers—many of them former insurgents—to join the police force, swelling its number from a paltry 3,500 in October 2006 to more than 20,000 in June of this year. Today, the "Anbar Awakening" has become Exhibit A in the Bush administration's argument for why the war is winnable (see "Miracle in Ramadi?"); in other words, by shooting itself in the foot, aqi has handed the White House its sole pr victory in Iraq.
As history shows, this kind of self-defeating behavior by radical Islamists is not uncommon. In Algeria during the 1990s, a collection of Islamist groups battled the military regime. But the radical gia soon broke away from the more moderate fis and began to target anyone who disagreed with its hardcore "takfiri" ideology, helping to precipitate a civil war that left more than 100,000 dead. By 1997 the Islamist insurgency was so fractured and unpopular that it imploded—a process accelerated by the termination of its key mouthpiece, the London-based journal Al Ansar, whose editors could no longer keep up with the infighting.
Yet Algeria only offers so many parallels. aqi's pioneering manipulation of the Internet means that it is in no danger of losing its ability to issue communiquÃ©s. Unlike the Algerian gia, aqi seems to be waking up to the fact that violent excesses such as executing ice cream vendors (because there were no sorbets at the time of the Prophet) might not be good for their cause. In a July video, Al Qaeda Central's al-Zawahiri pointedly reminded aqi that "unity is the gateway to victory."
But the most crucial difference between Iraq and Algeria is the role of sectarian conflict, which was largely nonexistent in Algeria. In Iraq, Shiite on Sunni violence legitimizes Al Qaeda's hardline approach, and it is no coincidence that wherever sectarian conflict rages, aqi remains strong. Unfortunately, the civil war is likely to provide fuel for aqi for some time, saving it from collapsing under the weight of its own mistakes.
could an american withdrawal help starve Al Qaeda of oxygen? Some have argued that pulling the troops would automatically weaken the terrorist group's power by erasing its main raison d'être. And clearly, Al Qaeda and other jihadists have benefited enormously from the occupation, which has increased their recruiting exponentially.
In a study published in Mother Jones in March, we found that the global rate of fatal jihadist attacks had increased by 265 percent outside Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Four months later, the administration's National Intelligence Estimate concluded that aqi "helps Al Qaeda energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks." aqi seems to have, among other things, developed into an effective fundraising apparatus for Al Qaeda Central, using kidnappings, oil smuggling, and other criminal activities; insurgent groups as a whole are raising up to $200 million each year, according to the U.S. military. (The 9/11 operation cost only $500,000.)
A rapid and total withdrawal from Iraq, however, is not going to deflate jihadist energy around the world anytime soon, whereas it will strengthen Al Qaeda in Iraq immediately, removing its top military adversary and potentially increasing the sectarian violence that drives Sunnis into its arms. Colonel Pat Lang, a former top official at the Defense Intelligence Agency who is a critic of the Bush administration (and an Arabic speaker), argues that to counter that threat the United States should leave at a minimum a force of around 30,000, including a reinforced division of around 20,000 soldiers, thousands to handle supply and logistics, and around 500 Special Forces. Others argue for an even larger contingent, in the high tens of thousands, or for accelerating U.S. aid to Sunni tribes.
Whatever the strategy ultimately chosen, there is no doubt that the bomb-making and urban-warfare skills developed by veterans of a jihad against the most effective fighting force in history will help sustain terrorist groups for at least a generation. This fact alone makes the Iraq War perhaps the largest strategic blunder in recent American history. But it also makes it even more vital for the United States to now pursue the right policies.
Miracle In Ramadi?
The Bush administration says the recent "Anbar Awakening" heralds a new way of winning in Iraq. The truth is more complicated.
|Anbar is evidence of the surge's success and that of General David Petraeus. ||Bush benefited from lucky timing. Sunni tribes fed up with Al Qaeda's extremism began an anti-AQI campaign in September 2006, 4 months before the surge was even announced. As things improved, the White House eagerly took credit.
|The Anbar model is being replicated all over central Iraq, including Baghdad. ||It's only working in places where a majority of both residents and police are Sunni; in other areas, Sunnis view the mostly Shiite police as death squads in uniform. |
|Sunni tribes are on our side now. ||Maybe, but there's no guarantee they won't switch back. 93 percent of Iraqi Sunnis think attacks on U.S. forces are justified.
|Defeating Al Qaeda is the start of pacifying Iraq.||AQI makes up no more than 5 percent of the Sunni-led insurgency. And while the group did its best to stir up sectarian violence, the conflict now has momentum of its own.
|Anbar is a model province.||Parts of Ramadi and other major cities lie in ruins; municipal services and local governments are almost nonexistent.
|Changed military tactics won the day.||In General Petraeus' words, "What happened in Anbar is politics."