Thoughts On Iraq: January 2006



I just read a translation of bin Laden's January, 2006 videotape, and I was struck (as I have been in the past) by what a shrewd enemy he is, and by how well he understands the U.S. The small excerpts published in the press don't do justice to the whole two page diatribe (available at which shows a virtuoso command of propaganda and psychological warfare. Basically, this guy has our number. We'd better get his.

Bin Laden's pitch is that we are going to lose in Iraq and Afghanistan for the same reason that the Russians lost - because the Mujahideen have more will to fight than we do. "Don't let your strength and modern arms fool you. They win a few battles but lose the war. Patience and steadfastness are much better."

He then goes on to display a very nice grasp of hot button U.S. political issues. He says that the "unlucky quartet of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz" are headed for defeat, and cites "the results of your polls which show that an overwhelming majority of you want the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq." (Probably an exaggeration, but hey - this is propaganda.) He says that the American occupation has reached "a point where there is no difference between this criminality and Saddam's criminality", and cites the allegations of torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo . He points out that American casualties are much higher now than they were "when Bush announced the end of major operations in that fake, ridiculous show aboard the aircraft carrier." He says that the war has resulted in "the wasting of billions of dollars which have gone to those with influence and merchants of war who have supported Bush's election campaign with billions of dollars." He also says "it would be useful for you to read the book Rogue State." (I haven't read the book, but it purports to discuss various ways in which the U.S. has been high handed or hypocritical in the past few decades.)

Bin Laden concludes by "offering you a long-term truce." The terms aren't spelled out, except that al Qaeda would get to "build Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been destroyed in this war." He also cites terrorist successes in Europe and says "the delay in similar operations happening in America has not been because of failure to break through your security measures. The operations are under preparation and you will see them in your homes the minute they are through."

Ok. You've got to admit that wasn't bad for a guy living in a cave in a remote tribal region of Pakistan. This guy reads our press, looks at our opinion polls, reads our books and has a pretty good grasp of how to push our buttons. Do you think we have anything like the same understanding of him?

Anyway, on reading this, I decided to resurrect an essay about Iraq that I wrote a few months ago. I shied away from putting it on the website originally, but Osama's latest piece made me reconsider. My essay seems pretty middle of the road to me, but I guess everybody feels that way about their own views.


When we got back to the US this June (2005), after having been out of touch with daily news reports for almost eleven months, I was struck by how discouraged most Americans had become about Iraq. Although I had been dubious about attacking Iraq in the first place, the current situation actually doesn't look that bad to me. Anyway, I think that my status as an exile has given me a valuable perspective that was worth writing down before we took off again.

I have three observations. First, although Iraq probably had nothing to do with 9/11, and the invasion of Iraq was a diversion from our war against al Qaeda, the current fight in Iraq now has everything to do with 9/11. Because al Qaeda has entered Iraq to fight us, we now have an important stake in this war. Second, despite the obvious parallels to Vietnam, Iraq differs from the Vietnam war in one key respect - unlike Lyndon Johnson, George Bush managed to back the side that is going to win. Third, despite the unending litany of death and destruction, I think the situation actually has turned substantially for the better over the past year and a half. In August 2004, a comparison to Vietnam wouldn't have been too far off. Now, whatever else happens, this thing cannot end like Vietnam. In fact -- if you look closely - you can see that the war has probably started to hurt al Qaeda's standing in the Muslim world.

Is This Our Fight?

Democracies don't like war, and they need good reasons to fight long and costly wars. Popular support for the Vietnam war fell apart because we just didn't have a strong enough stake in the outcome -- Ho Chi Minh just wanted Vietnam and wasn't interested in attacking Pearl Harbor or New York City. If you don't think motivation matters, consider that we quit Vietnam in defeat after losing about 50,000 soldiers, whereas we suffered over 300,000 dead in WWII without even a thought of quitting. Democracies fight hard when they have a powerful reason, and not otherwise.

Personally I was dubious about invading Iraq because I didn't think we had a strong enough motivation to support the war if things became difficult, and because I thought the cost to our popular legitimacy throughout the world was too high. (I felt this way, even though I believed firmly that Saddam had WMD.) But that was then and this is now. Questions of whether the administration behaved cynically or acted in good faith make reasonable issues for a political campaign but they can't determine what we should do next in Iraq . Basically we only have two choices - we either persist until "our side" has the situation under control and asks us to leave, or we get out before that. So should we persist or should we get out?

I think we have to persist as long as we have a reasonable hope of victory. Once "al Qaeda in Iraq", in the form of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers, got in and began to direct a major part of the insurgency, we developed a stake in this fight. Saddam probably had nothing to do with 9/11, but al Qaeda certainly did. We have a legitimate beef with these folks. So why, exactly, should we back away from this fight with al Qaeda unless Zarqawi beats us militarily, which he has not done?

It's tempting to argue that our presence in Iraq helps al Qaeda's recruitment, and that we would be better off getting out. The first part of this argument is probably right - the presence of Christian soldiers in Iraq has given bin Laden a great PR tool in the Muslim world, and Zarqawi's effective resistance has enhanced al Qaeda's mystique and ability to recruit. (Not to mention the wonderful propaganda created by the Abu Ghraib scandal.) Since progress in the war on terror revolves around reducing Islamic extremists' ability to recruit new fighters, these developments have been very bad for the U.S.

But do you think things would get better if we let bin Laden defeat us? Victorious armies attract recruits. We've already paid a high propaganda cost for our war in Iraq , but that's mostly water under the bridge. Handing bin Laden a huge victory in a head to head fight with the biggest military power on earth would have morale and propaganda costs that would dwarf his current gains. And how could we let al Qaeda have Iraq, or part of Iraq, as an unmolested staging area to train the new recruits that would come in after such a victory?

For better or worse, the U.S. and al Qaeda have both voluntarily staked their prestige in Iraq, and both our fortunes in the larger war on terror will rise or fall depending on the outcome there. Maybe it would have been smarter not to get into this fight, but here we are. And unlike Ho Chi Minh, these guys are not going to let us alone if we admit defeat and leave. (Unless you buy bin Laden's January 2006 offer of a truce if we let him have Afghanistan and Iraq!)

Bin Laden stated his view about how to defeat the U.S. in a 1998 interview with Al Jazeera, well before the 9/11 attacks "We believe that America is weaker than Russia and from what we have heard from our brothers who waged jihad in Somalia, they found to their greatest surprise the weakness, frailness, and cowardliness of the American soldier. When only eight of them were killed they packed up in the darkness of night and escaped without looking back. "

And he said it again in January 2006 "Don't let your strength and modern arms fool you. They win a few battles but lose the war. Patience and steadfastness are much better ."

He's right about how to win wars, but I'm hoping he's wrong about Americans.

Can We Win In Iraq?

So do we have a reasonable hope of victory in Iraq anytime in this century? Yes, absolutely, despite our present discouragement. In fact we almost can't lose this thing to al Qaeda except by quitting prematurely.

By design or by accident, we are fighting al Qaeda (along with a large number of Sunni Arab insurgents) in one of the few Muslim countries where neither al Qaeda nor the Sunnis radicals have any hope of widespread popular support. That fact makes Iraq very different from Vietnam.

Al Qaeda is a Sunni organization that views the Shia Muslims as "apostate" -- meaning heretics. In September 2005 Zarqawi actually declared "all out war" against the Shia. Not against the army, or the police, or the government - but against Shia Muslims, period. And he has delivered on that threat by slaughtering many thousands of Shia civilians. But the Sunni Arabs represent only about 20 percent of the Iraqi population. The Shia comprise about 60 percent, and the Kurds roughly 17 percent. (The Kurds are Sunni, but were brutally oppressed (gassed) by the Arab Sunnis under Saddam, and are hostile to the insurgents.) So even if Zarqawi could bring all the Sunni Arabs in on his side, he would still face four to one odds.

And unlike the South Vietnamese, many of whom viewed Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist hero, and who never really had their hearts in the fight, the Shia and Kurds will fight. South Vietnam couldn't draft new soldiers as fast as they deserted. (And even the U.S. is now having trouble with recruitment at home.) But the new Iraqi armed forces have no shortage of volunteers. The Shia and Kurds may not love the U.S. , but they have no illusions about their fate under al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents. They will win because we are helping, because they are fighting for their homes and families and because there are a lot of them.

Are Things Getting Better Or Worse?

When we returned to the States in the summer of 2005, (after a year away from the daily news reports) I was really surprised that most of my friends - Republicans, Democrats, whatever - saw the situation in Iraq as much worse than it had been a year earlier. The insurgents have made brilliant use of the media to discourage us with a daily grind of death and terror. But I think the big picture actually looks a lot better now than in August 2004.

When we left Chicago in August 2004, the Iraqi government had exactly as much popular legitimacy as the Thieu regime used to have in Saigon - both were appointed by Americans and kept in power by the American military. If the US had pulled out, the Iraqi provisional government under prime minister Allawi probably would have collapsed for lack of popular support.

Also in August 2004 we were engaged in a bloody shootout with the militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, a fundamentalist Shia cleric whose influential father died heroically resisting Saddam, and who has inherited a large popular following among the Shia Iraqis. Our tanks were shooting up Najaf, which is the holiest Shia city in Iraq, with some of its most important shrines.

And Zarqawi and the other insurgents were killing lots of Americans.

All of this was very bad. We would certainly lose in Iraq if we alienate the Shia - we would have Vietnam again, with most of the people against us and no strongly committed allies other than our appointed government. By imposing a non-democratic government for two full years of occupation, and by getting into a shooting war with a popular Shia cleric, we were skating on the thin edge of disaster.

Now fast forward to January 2006. Iraq has an elected government which unquestionably represents the will of the majority and which has solid popular legitimacy among the Shia and Kurds, as well as grudging participation by the Sunnis. The Bush administration had favored the secular, pro-western party of former Prime Minister Allawi, but the Shia and Kurds elected an Islamic government. Maybe that sounds like a bad thing for the U.S., but it's not - this government has legitimacy precisely because it wasn't supported by the Americans.

And we also negotiated a cease fire with Moqtada al-Sadr, who subsequently has limited himself (mostly) to peaceful political action.

Meanwhile Zarqawi and the other insurgents have gone off the deep end. Their attacks over the last year and a half have killed probably ten times as many Muslim civilians as Christian soldiers. And Zarqawi declared war on democracy (in January 2005), and on the Shia in general (in September 2005).

Zarqawi has gone much farther in his violence against the Shia than the more cautious (and probably smarter) bin Laden ever did, a development which is not good for al Qaeda. The more Zarqawi turns his bombs against Iraqi Muslims, the more he discredits al Qaeda in the larger war for Muslim popular support. A poll of Muslim countries by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, taken in July 2005, showed substantial declines in support for violence against civilians, when compared to results from earlier years, among Muslims in Lebanon, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Morocco. (Jordan went the other way.) It's hard to know exactly how much weight to give this sort of data, but it's encouraging. If we are going to win the war on terror, we have to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world against bin Laden and his allies. Remember, there are over a billion Muslims, only a few of which are committed terrorists. We want to persuade the rest, not fight them.

But Zarqawi doesn't have much choice about whom to fight, and his options will only get worse over time. He has to attack the Shia before they get strong, build an Iraqi army and come after him. He might love to kill Americans instead, but the Americans are harder targets and they will become increasingly irrelevant as Iraqis carry more of the fight. So he must try to stop the Shia before they can get their act together, even though he probably can't succeed and even though the effort hurts al Qaeda in the larger fight. And, given his dogmatic performance so far, he's unlikely to admit defeat and back out. Quagmire goes both ways.

What Happens Now?

If we were to leave today, the Shia and Kurds might still come out on top, following a bloody civil war in which the half trained Iraqi army would take on the insurgents in what would probably become a nightmare of sectarian violence. In all likelihood Iran - the largest and most powerful Shia country in the Middle East - would take our place in supporting the Iraqi government, and it's possible that the surrounding Sunni nations would step in to protect the Sunni minority. We would take (and deserve) the blame for this mess. And we would have confirmed bin Laden's view that the best way to handle Americans is to kill as many as you can, to make the rest run away.

If we stay, Iraq may still have a bloody civil war, but there is some reason for hope that the Iraqis will find a compromise solution. The Shia leadership has so far shown restraint - offering the Sunnis a disproportionate role in the interim cabinet and avoiding any calls for violence against the Sunni minority. (Although the Interior Ministry has probably deviated from this policy of tolerance.) Also the general Shia population has also been pretty restrained. (Imagine what would happen in the US if an ethnic minority declared war on the majority and began a systematic campaign of killing civilians, blowing up churches and assassinating local political leaders, teachers and religious leaders.)

In addition, a civil war would be so bad for the Sunnis that cooler heads might prevail. Zarqawi wants a civil war (he said as much in an intercepted letter to bin Laden in 2004), but the Sunni Iraqis have a lot to lose. It's certainly encouraging that the major Sunni parties decided to participate in the elections for a final government. Also, Zarqawi's forces recently assassinated a prominent Sunni, Nasser Abdul Karim, apparently for negotiating with the U.S. A split between Zarqawi and the Sunnis would spell the end for al Qaeda in Iraq. So maybe the Sunnis will find a way out. But it's hard to say - if cooler heads always prevailed, there would never be any wars.

With or without a war, an independent Iraq will not be a docile ally for the U.S. (Nor will any other Islamic government as long as the Israeli/Palestinian fight continues unresolved.) Also the Iraqi Shia probably will maintain cordial relations with their Shia neighbors in Iran. These facts may explain why the Bush administration tried to avoid early elections, in the hopes of installing a pro-American government. But if you bring democracy to an Islamic, Shia country, you are going to get an Islamic, Shia government.

For better or worse, once George Bush makes up his mind about something he doesn't quit. So my guess is that we stay and this thing pretty much resolves itself by the next presidential election. Independent Iraq will not be a staunch ally for us, but it will not be a sworn enemy either, and the Iraqis will carry the fight to our mutual enemy, al Qaeda. The Shia and Kurds will end up better off than they were under Saddam, as might the Sunnis if they don't insist on losing a civil war. Iraq might or might not succeed long term as a democracy. But, if it does succeed, an Iraqi democracy just might help us in the war on militant Islamic extremism. It takes an idea to beat an idea, and democracy is about the only idea we have to sell.

"Patience and steadfastness," like the man said.