April 18, 2008

Al Qaeda Declares Victory in Iraq

NPR is reporting (podcast) that al Zawahiri, the Egyptian strategist from al qaeda has released a new recording, claiming victory in Iraq. Five years have passed, the recording, still unsubstantiated by US intelligence, says, and the US is still bogged down. He mocks Bush as a failure, remaining in Iraq only because he does not want to be the one who has to withdraw.

Now you may recall that one of the reasons we are given by president, and now John McCain, is that if the US withdraws, it will be tremendous propaganda victory for al qaeda. It looks like remaining in an indefinite quagmire is also a tremendous propaganda victory for al qaeda.

This is deeply ironic. It's, of course, ironic because the pretext for remaining turns out to come about as a result of the policy. But it's also ironic because it is just what happened in Afghanistan when the Soviets were defeated. As in Iraq, al qaeda played a trivial role in the defeat of the Soviet Army. US and Saudi supplies of Stinger missiles to other, more effective native rebel forces. Al qaeda played little to no role in the victory of the Afghan opposition. Bin Laden greatly exaggerated the role of al qaeda in that war, propagandizing his role, while ingratiating himself with the Taliban, which is discussed in detail in Steve Coll's Ghost Wars.

In Iraq, US policy has actually enhanced the reputation of al qaeda by relentlessly exaggerating the role of al qaeda in the opposition to the occupation, and its role in inter-faction fighting. There not only aren't that many of them:

"They'll just say al-Qaida," Venzke said of the U.S. command, "and the media frequently simplify it to that level because they think nobody thinks there are other groups."

Terrorism analyst Lydia Khalil, of Washington's Jamestown Foundation research group, said something more complex may also be going on.

"I talked to a lot of guys over there (U.S. officials in Iraq) and they are aware that the majority of fighters are not al-Qaida," said this former U.S. political adviser in Baghdad.

Bush's warning about al-Qaida and Iraq "serves mostly to buttress the administration's claim that Iraq's problems are the work of outsiders, and not the result of the administration's mismanagement of the occupation and internal Iraqi factionalism," said Steven Simon, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But they are also not closely affiliated with bin Laden's group:

The University of Michigan's Juan Cole questions how strong the links are between international al-Qaida and the local Iraqi variety, which he describes as Salafists — fundamentalist Sunnis — "who style themselves al-Qaida."

Just as bin Laden found it in his interests to endorse Bush before the 2004 election, Bush has found it in his interest to inflate the risk that al qaeda represents, both in Iraq and in the rest of the world.

Now that particular collection of lies and distortions has, as so many other failed policies have, backfired on the Bush administration.