Over the next few days, I want to raise a few questions that I think are worth exploring over four years into the Iraq war and almost six since 9/11. I raise them solely to ask whether we are pursuing the right strategy. I should say up-front what my assumptions are. I take as a premise that there is a group of religiously-motivated terrorists attempting to inflict massive damage on the West with minimal resources and maximal impact. I consider this, after 9/11, to be the pre-eminent challenge of the time. And the danger of their acquisition of very seriously destructive weapons is easily the most pressing threat we face. Regardless of their success in recruitment, getting WMDs leverages their fanaticism into a whole new paradigm.
The paradox is that their very strategy makes our response, for all our superior military might, extremely difficult. In many ways, al Qaeda is still basking in the success of 9/11. What they proved on 9/11 remains valid. It doesn't take much skill or resources to inflict massive damage. And an unwise response to that damage can hurt us more than it hurts them. Whom do we target? And how?
Consider Iraq and consider this May 4 story from the NYT about Zarqa in Jordan, where many of the murderers hail from:
"Most of the young people here in Zarqa, [Jordan], are very religious," an Islamist community leader said. "And when they see the news and what is going on in the Islamic countries, they themselves feel that they have to go to fight jihad. Today, you don't need anyone to tell the young men that they should go to jihad. They themselves want to be martyrs."
Iraq is their clear motivator. Yes, many would have entered Jihad anyway. But there can be no doubt that Iraq has increased Jihadist recruitment many times over. One failed suicidal mass murderer explains his hope to return to the fray:
"It is hard to leave our families," Abu Ibrahim said. "But it is our duty, and if we don't defend our religion who should do it? The old people or the children?" He spends his days now in Zarqa at work with his brothers, then evenings with friends who share his convictions. They visit Islamic Web sites, discuss the news from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. "I still have the same aim, fulfilling the rules of God," he said. "I wouldn't do the same mistakes the next time and hope that God would open the way."
The president now insists that Iraq is the front-line in the war on al Qaeda. That's true - but only because we chose to make it so. The gamble was that a massive military and reconstruction effort could so win over Iraqis that a democratic state in the region could be the antidote to growing radicalism. But the result of the botched war has been the opposite: a failed state with porous borders that has become a magnet for a new generation of Jihadists. Worse: the street battles against excellent U.S. soldiers have honed the Jihadist skills and made them smarter, better terrorists. Moreover, alliance between some terrorists and Iran could exponentially increase their destructive capability. And the war in Iraq has limited our ability to tackle Iran in profoundly dangerous ways.
If a war has ended up creating the problem it was designed to solve, only a fool would continue in it without serious and swift signs of new progress. I'm prepared to wait till September to give Petraeus and Maliki one last chance for some light at the end of the tunnel. But the longer the greatest superpower is essentially forced into a draw with Jihadists on territory the Jihadists know best, the more terrorism we are spawning, and the less security we have. What the war has done and is doing to the US military is another huge factor (and one I hope to address in a subsequent post this week).
But if we withdraw? No one should under-estimate the slaughter that will ensue. But it will not be a slaughter primarily directed by Muslims against the West. The narrative that bin Laden and Bush have jointly crafted for the past five years - the West vs Muslims - would be changed swiftly to Muslims vs Muslims. From the same, depressing piece about the Jihadist factory in Zarqa:
Mr. Salah counts Shiites among the non-Muslims. He joined the recent call for retribution against them, which gained fervor well beyond Zarqa after Shiite executioners were videotaped jeering as Saddam Hussein was hanged in December.
In his home he showed visitors a newly released video titled "The True History and Aims of the Shiites." It portrays Shiites deriding the first three caliphs, or leaders of the ancient Islamic world, and saying that the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Aisha, had been a prostitute. "You see, they hate our caliphs and they hate the Sunnis," Mr. Salah said. When the video showed scenes of Sunnis tortured and killed by a Shiite militia in Iraq, he added, "We didn't see the Shiites like that before, but now in Iraq they showed their real face."
We have to ask ourselves: at what point does staying in Iraq without measurable progress hurt us in the war on Islamist terror? And: what benefits to the West could accrue from a brutal Sunni-Shi'a war in the Middle East? Yes, I know a withdrawal from Iraq will lead to statements of victory from al Qaeda. That would hurt. But ask yourself: what does bin Laden fear more in private? A continuing stalemate in Iraq that brings new recruits to his cause, exhausts the U.S. military, divides the American people, and keeps the narrative as one in which the "crusaders" are slaughtering Muslims in their own lands? Or a chaotic regional war in which the Muslim world is rent apart by sectarian warfare and in which the US and Israel are mere bystanders?
(Photo: An Iraqi boy stands in front of a wall riddled with bullet-holes after a pre-dawn rain on the Baghdad Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, 6 May 2007. Iraqi police, as well as local eye witnesses, reported that there was at least one fatality and up to eight people wounded, and several houses were damaged in what they described as an "air strike". Clashes erupted in the hour-long operation that involved Iraqi special forces and appeared to be part of a series raids targeting members of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's powerful Mahdi Army militia who have been implicated in the sectarian attacks on Sunnis. By Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty.)