In an Oct. 6 speech aimed at rallying U.S. public
support for the Iraq War, Bush painted a harrowing picture of the
consequences that would follow an American withdrawal. Bush warned of “a
radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia” and the
strategic isolation of the United States.
Bush’s alarmist vision, however, clashes with both
recent intelligence assessments on the significance of foreign fighters
to the Iraq War and fears expressed in an intercepted letter purportedly
written by al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri to al-Qaeda’s
chief in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi.
The “Zawahiri letter” cautions that an American
withdrawal might prompt the “mujahedeen” in Iraq to “lay down their
weapons, and silence the fighting zeal.” To avert this military
collapse, the letter calls for selling these foreign fighters on a
broader vision of an Islamic “caliphate” in the Middle East, although
nothing nearly as expansive as the global empire that Bush depicted.
But the “Zawahiri letter” indicates that even this
more modest “caliphate” is just an “idea” that he mentioned “only to
stress … that the mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the
expulsion of the Americans from Iraq.”
In other words, assuming U.S. intelligence is
correct that the letter was written by Zawahiri, al-Qaeda sees promoting
the dream of an unlikely “caliphate” as a needed sales pitch to keep the
jihadists from simply returning to their everyday lives once the
Americans depart Iraq.
Bush also appears to be exaggerating the
significance of the foreign fighters.
Though their spectacular suicide bombings have
garnered headlines and killed hundreds of Iraqis, recent intelligence
assessments put the size of this foreign jihadist force at only a few
thousand, or around 5 percent of the overall Iraqi insurgency.
A recent report by the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, a conservative Washington-based think tank, said
the number of foreign fighters is “well below 10 percent, and may well
be closer to 4 percent to 6 percent.” [See CSIS’s “Saudi
Militants in Iraq,” Sept. 19, 2005]
A former U.S. official with access to intelligence
on the Iraqi insurgency cited similar numbers in an interview with the
New York Times, estimating that 95 percent of the insurgents are Iraqis.
The former official added that U.S. military
officers returning from Iraq have complained that “the senior commanders
are obsessed with the foreign fighters because they are easier to deal
with. … It’s easier to blame foreign fighters instead of developing new
counterinsurgency strategies.” [NYT, Oct. 15, 2005]
There is also the historical fact that Muslim
nations have succeeded, again and again, in suppressing Islamic radical
movements as long as Western powers have not gotten too directly
In his Oct. 6 speech, Bush inadvertently
underscored this point when he noted that “over the past few decades,
radicals have specifically targeted Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
and Jordan for potential takeover.” Algeria also faced a radical Islamic
But the bottom line to all these cases is that the
radicals were defeated, explaining why so many of al-Qaeda’s leaders are
exiles. Osama bin-Laden is a Saudi; Zawahiri is an Egyptian; Zarqawi is
a Jordanian. In the late 1990s, bin-Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders
were even banished from the Sudan, forcing them to flee to remote
This history also suggests that a policy shift in
which U.S. and British forces withdraw from Iraq might not be nearly as
catastrophic as Bush suggests.
Indeed, by removing the chief lure for foreign
suicide-bombers – the American and British troops – the Iraqis
themselves might have a much easier time eliminating Zarqawi’s depleted
Many in Iraq’s Sunni minority have tolerated the
bloody presence of the foreign jihadists only because they share mutual
enemies in the Americans and the Shiite majority. If the Americans were
gone and many of Zarqawi’s fighters left, too (as the “Zawahiri letter”
fears), the Sunnis would find Zarqawi of little continued use.
Indeed, some critics of the Iraq War see a twisted
symbiotic relationship between Bush’s policies and al-Qaeda’s interests,
with Bush using the memory of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to
justify the continued U.S. presence in Iraq and al-Qaeda citing the U.S.
occupation of Iraq as a way to recruit thousands of new jihadists. [See
Bush al-Qaeda’s ‘Useful Idiot?’”]
Without doubt, Bush has found it to his political
advantage to play up the al-Qaeda connection in Iraq and downplay the
indigenous aspects of the Iraqi insurgency.
By blurring the lines between an insurgency, led
largely by Iraqi Sunnis, and the presence of a relatively small al-Qaeda
contingent, Bush has persuaded many Americans to see Iraq through his
prism of choice: as the most important front in the global War on
This strategy is similar to the Bush
administration’s pre-war success in linking Iraq’s secular dictator
Saddam Hussein with the Islamic fundamentalists who make up the core of
al-Qaeda – even though the two sides were bitter enemies within the Arab
Counting on the lack of U.S. sophistication about
the intricacies of Middle East politics, Bush convinced large numbers of
Americans – a majority in some polls – that Hussein was somehow behind
the Sept. 11 attacks. This supposed linkage to al-Qaeda, in turn, made
Bush’s claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction far more powerful.
Since the March 2003 invasion, however, Bush’s
pre-war case has collapsed. No WMD stockpiles were discovered and the
supposed evidence of an al-Qaeda link evaporated. Even some of the
biggest promoters of the case for an invasion have acknowledged that the
earlier assertions were wrong.
“We are heroes in error,” influential Iraqi
dissident Ahmad Chalabi said almost a year after the invasion. “As far
as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is
gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not
important. The Bush administration is looking for a scapegoat. We’re
ready to fall on our swords if he wants.” [London
Telegraph, Feb. 19, 2004]
Instead, Bush brushed aside the discredited
rationales and moved on to new ones. The president reprised his case for
continuing the U.S. military operation in Iraq in his Oct. 6 address,
arguing that failure to “stay the course” would give the Islamic
terrorists a base to build a global empire and corner the United States.
“With greater economic and military and political
power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to
develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate
Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government
into isolation,” Bush said.
Instead of heeding advice that a phased U.S.
withdrawal might defuse the conflict in Iraq and deny al-Qaeda a key
recruiting tool, Bush declared, “We will never back
down, never give in, and never accept anything less than complete
In effect, Bush appears to have
latched onto this exaggerated threat of the foreign jihadists in Iraq as
his new justification for continuing the military policies that he
initially justified by exaggerating the threat from Saddam Hussein.
Rather than encouraging a precise
analysis of what’s behind the Sunni-led insurgency, Bush has opted for
comparisons that liken the danger from Islamic radicals to the threats
posed by Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.
Yet, a close reading of the
“Zawihiri letter” –
as posted at the Web site of the U.S. director of
national intelligence John Negroponte – reveals al-Qaeda to be a
movement struggling with financial crises and lacking even a reliable
means to get its messages out. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “‘Al-Qaeda
Letter’ Belies Bush’s Iraq Claims.”]
Viewed from the perspective of this
al-Qaeda weakness – and from the evidence that the Iraq War is
overwhelmingly an indigenous struggle – Bush’s new arguments look like
they may be just the latest in a long string of Iraq lies and