Update On Iraq: December 2007

By now most Americans probably would agree that invading Iraq was a mistake. And most would also agree that things have gotten better in the last few months. But most people do not appreciate the full significance of what has happened in Iraq -- namely that al Qaeda has begun to suffer a major strategic defeat there. We need to take account of this development as we think about what to do next. Iraq was a US mistake, but in war both sides make mistakes.

The US Mistake

The invasion of Iraq was a strategic blunder for several reasons. First, it got a lot of people killed. Second, it allowed al Qaeda jihadis to enter Iraq and bog us down in a protracted war in a Muslim country -- something Bin Laden had expected to do in Afghanistan -- while isolating us from our allies and bleeding us economically. Third, it allowed al Qaeda to exploit our greatest military weakness -- that the American public can't stomach a fight if they don't know why they're fighting. (Some people would consider that a strength rather than a weakness.) Fourth, it gave Bin Laden an issue around which to recruit jihadis and rally the international Muslim community. Fifth, it empowered Iran, by removing their major enemy, Saddam Hussein, and by bogging our army down in a country with a large Shiite majority, where Iran has great influence. Sixth, it diminished our standing throughout the world.

But, in any fight, you have to remember that the other guy has problems too.

Al Qaeda's War

Al Qaeda entered Iraq as a powerful ideological force in the Islamic world. Bin Laden and the other jihadis in Afghanistan had given Muslims their only strategic military triumphs against the West in centuries, first by defeating the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and then by handing the US a stinging setback on 9/11. They also offered disillusioned Muslims a religiously "pure" alternative to the hypocritical, corrupt and decadent leadership in most Muslim countries.

If you want to understand why their movement has "legs," try thinking of al Qaeda -- with their criticisms of the corrupt Muslim establishment and their call to religious fundamentals -- as a kind of parallel to the Protestant Reformation, albeit a bloodthirsty and militaristic one. They are not so much a centralized terrorist organization as a religious and political movement which seeks to rally the Muslim world against what they view as Western influence and oppression. They may sound crazy to us, but their message strikes a chord with lots of Muslims.

Such movements can unleash powerful passions -- at least 7 million Europeans died in the religious wars following the Reformation. If even a small proportion of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims become radicalized, we could be in for a long century.

Since al Qaeda has failed to strike inside the US since 9/11, it can be tempting for some Americans to dismiss the "war on terror" as a lot of hype. But our war with the Muslim fundamentalist jihad is quite real, and it isn't over. Think about Pakistan, teetering on the edge with its nuclear weapons. (This morning, as this blog was going to press, al Qaeda -- probably al Qaeda anyway -- assassinated Benazir Bhutto.)

We can't stop Bin Laden's ideas just by killing jihadis, because there are hundreds of millions of potential jihadis. We can only win by discrediting al Qaeda's ideology, so that it loses its force as a popular movement. In other words, we have to win the propaganda war. We don't have to make Muslims like the US (a patently hopeless task), but we need them to stop wanting to join, or live under, al Qaeda's brand of violent, fundamentalist Islam.

Now there isn't a lot we can do about the propaganda war directly -- it isn't a job for Madison Avenue. But oddly enough, even though the Bush administration has had about the most miserable public relations imaginable, al Qaeda may be doing even worse in Iraq.

Al Qaeda's Mistakes

Iraq hasn't been kind to al Qaeda. Their first leader there, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was a heavy handed terrorist with a pathological hatred of the Shiite Muslims. Bin Laden (who is much smarter than Zarqawi), views the Shiites as heretics, but he never made a priority of war against them. Killing fellow Muslims just doesn't have the propaganda value of killing Christian "crusaders."

But Zarqawi felt differently, and he launched a bloody civil war against the Shiites, slaughtering civilians in their markets and Mosques. Almost 4000 US troops have died in Iraq, but around 80,000 Iraqi civilians have also died. The US has to take the blame for the invasion, but the vast majority of these civilians have actually died at the hands of other Muslims, in the civil war sponsored by al Qaeda. And al Qaeda has typically been involved in the bloodiest attacks on civilians.

We killed Zarqawi in June, 2006, thereby improving al Qaeda's leadership in Iraq . But the civil war had already developed its own momentum. So the Muslim world gets a daily dose of Muslims killing Muslims at the behest of al Qaeda, all broadcast on al Jazeera.

In the meantime, al Qaeda's greatest weakness has begun to surface -- in practice, their totalitarian, utopian, anti-democratic ideology makes people miserable. Just as ordinary Afghanis chafed under Taliban rule, the Sunnis living in al Qaeda-controlled areas of Iraq have started to rebel.

This rebellion against al Qaeda started in Anbar province, of all places -- the heart of the Iraqi insurgency -- and has led to widespread fighting between former Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda "foreigners."

Al Qaeda has fought back hard, using threats and assassinations to intimidate Sunni leaders, and concentrating their forces to destroy Sunni strongholds. The rebelling Sunnis, in turn, have sought help from the US military, leading to a strange cooperation between insurgents and Americans who were trying to kill each other a few months ago. The enemy of my enemy.

In September 2007, al Qaeda assassinated Abu Reesha, a prominent anti-al Qaeda rebel and a Sunni tribal leader. The assassination was a blow to the rebellion, but the funeral was a horrible propaganda disaster for al Qaeda. Thousands of Sunnis and former insurgents marched through Anbar province in the funeral procession, chanting a modified version of the usual Muslim prayer. Instead of "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet," they chanted "There is no god but Allah and al Qaeda is his enemy." Al Jazeera broadcast that news around the Muslim world.

Meanwhile the revolt has greatly reduced al Qaeda's ability to take the war to the US and the Shiites. Unlike the US and the Shiite government, the Sunnis know who the foreign jihadis are, and where they live. Also, al Qaeda's stream of new recruits into Iraq has diminished in the past few months and there is at least anecdotal evidence that potential jihadis are turned off by the prospect of killing other Muslims. (See "Where Boys Grow Up to Be Jihadis," NYT Magazine, November 25, 2007, for example.)

So right now, today, al Qaeda hangs on by its fingernails in Iraq , desperately trying to avoid public rejection by its own Muslim allies and public defeat by a coalition of Sunnis, Shiites and Americans.

What Now?

I don't think the Bush administration ever planned to discredit al Qaeda by allowing them to control and oppress large groups of Iraqis.

Furthermore, the Sunni revolt didn't happen because of the US "surge" -- it happened because al Qaeda alienated the Iraqi Sunnis. Without the revolt I'm not convinced the surge would have made a long run difference. But the extra American strength may have encouraged the revolt, and it has absolutely, definitely improved our ability to support the Sunni rebels.

In other words, George Bush got lucky, because al Qaeda made mistakes and because his own last ditch, double or nothing gamble walked into a big change in Sunni attitudes. I would like to remind everyone that this is a GOOD thing. Our war with al Qaeda is real, and persistence and luck help to win wars. (Shrewd planning and foresight would also help -- maybe the next administration can supply those.)

I don't see how we can walk away from Iraq just now. We have to help this revolt succeed, and we have to leave Iraq in a way that makes absolutely clear that al Qaeda, not the US, suffered the defeat. This isn't stupid pride -- we cannot allow Bin Laden to recoup his propaganda disaster by claiming the enormous prestige (and recruiting power) of chasing the mighty US army out of Iraq. Can you imagine how invincible Bin Laden would look once he had defeated both the Russian and American superpowers? We should not let that happen. The fates of war have given us a chance to win here, and we have to take it.

None of this will turn Iraq into a peaceful democracy, although removing al Qaeda's malevolent influence will certainly help. But we don't necessarily have to stay until the Iraqi political scene looks like Switzerland . Once the foreign jihadis are well and truly defeated, we could have a sensible discussion about getting out. But not now.

In other words, I think that Barack Obama is the only major candidate who was right about whether to go into Iraq , but I think he is dead wrong about what to do next.

I will close by returning to something Bin Laden said in his January 2006 videotape, when he argued that we are going to lose in Iraq and Afghanistan for the same reason that the Russians lost in Afghanistan -- because the Mujahadin 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."

Like the man said, patience and steadfastness.