Petraeus & the 'Central Front' Myth
As Gen. David Petraeus outlined plans for a long-term U.S. military occupation of Iraq, he relied heavily on two arguments favored by his civilian superiors in the Bush administration but not supported by the facts – that al-Qaeda views Iraq as the “central front” in the war on terror and is eager to drive American forces out.
Iraq “has been regarded by al-Qaeda senior leadership – AQSL – as the central front,” Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 11. “They’re trying to give us a bloody nose which would be an enormous shot of adrenaline in the arm of the international jihadists.”
To support his position, Petraeus cited the views of senior U.S. intelligence officials based on captured al-Qaeda documents. However, those documents actually present a much more complicated picture, suggesting that al-Qaeda leaders see Iraq as an important diversion that they want continued, not a “central front” where they expect to deal the Americans some decisive blow.
In one of the key captured communiqués, a senior aide to Osama bin Laden, a Libyan identified as Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, urged the now-deceased Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to move more cautiously and more patiently in building an al-Qaeda base of operation in Iraq.
In a Dec. 11, 2005, letter, Atiyah told Zarqawi that “the most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day. Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest.” [Emphasis added.]
[To view this excerpt in a translation published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, click here. To read the entire letter, click here. ]
The Atiyah letter represented the second known warning to Zarqawi from al-Qaeda leaders. An earlier intercepted letter attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri also urged Zarqawi to recognize the fragility of his position and the harm that an early U.S. withdrawal could inflict on al-Qaeda’s goals.
The “Zawahiri letter,” which was dated July 9, 2005, said a rapid American military withdrawal could cause the foreign jihadists, who had flocked to Iraq to battle the Americans, to simply give up the fight and go home.
“The mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal,” said the “Zawahiri letter,” according to a text released by the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence.
The “Atiyah letter,” which was discovered by U.S. and Iraqi authorities at the time of Zarqawi’s death on June 7, 2006, also stressed the vulnerability of al-Qaeda’s position in Iraq and the need to mend fences.
“Know that we, like all mujahedeen, are still weak,” Atiyah told Zarqawi. “We have not yet reached a level of stability. We have no alternative but to not squander any element of the foundations of strength or any helper or supporter.”
Though the Bush administration has sought to credit the U.S. troop “surge” for causing Sunni tribes in Anbar province to reject al-Qaeda, the letters revealed that many Sunni traditionalists were hostile to al-Qaeda’s foreign jihadists and Zarqawi’s brutal excesses long before President George W. Bush announced the troop “surge” in January 2007.
The Atiyah letter lectured Zarqawi “against attempting to kill any religious scholar or tribal leader who is obeyed, and of good repute in Iraq from among the Sunnis, no matter what. …
"The long and short of the matter is that the Islamic theologians are the keys to the Muslim community and they are its leaders. This is the way it is, whether you like it or not. … If you appear before the community in the guise of a pariah to the class of religious scholars, contradicting them, disrespecting them, and insulting them, then you will lose the people and you will fail in any call [to religion] or political act. …
“It is highly advisable to be polite and to show complete respect, regret, compassion, and mercy and so forth. You must incline yourself to this, and be humble to the believers, and smile in people’s faces, even if you are cursing them in your heart, even if it has been said that they are ‘a bad tribal brother,’ and what have you.”
The two letters also suggest that one of al-Qaeda’s biggest fears has been that the United States would pull out of Iraq before the terrorist organization had built the necessary political infrastructure to turn the country into a future base of operations.
The “Zawahiri letter” was so concerned about the possibility of mass desertions after a U.S. withdrawal that it suggested that al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq talk up the “idea” of a “caliphate” along the eastern Mediterranean to avert a disintegration of the force.
Yet, even with the two fretful al-Qaeda letters in hand, President Bush told Americans that al-Qaeda wanted a U.S. withdrawal so it could transform Iraq into a launching pad for a vast Islamic “empire” that would spell the strategic defeat of the United States.
For instance, in a Sept. 5, 2006, speech, Bush declared, “This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia,” Bush said. “We know this because al-Qaeda has told us.”
Some of Bush’s neoconservative advisers have referred to this conflict with militants among the world’s one billion Muslims as “World War III.”
Bush also has rejected the argument that the Iraq War has spurred the growth of Islamic terrorism.
“My judgment is, if we weren’t in Iraq, they’d find some other excuse, because they have ambitions,” Bush said on Sept. 26, 2006. “They kill in order to achieve their objectives.”
But a growing body of evidence, including the intercepted al-Qaeda letters, appears to undercut Bush’s conclusions about both the prospects for “a totalitarian Islamic empire” and a lack of connection between the continuing Iraq War and terrorism.
According to a National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community in April 2006, “the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse.” [Emphasis added.]
The NIE also concluded that the Iraq War – rather than weakening the cause of Islamic terrorism – had become a “cause celebre” that was “cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”
Military and intelligence experts estimate that foreign jihadists in Iraq constitute only about 5 percent of the armed opposition to the American occupation.
Still, while the Iraq War may have helped raise the tide of Islamic militancy, the “Zawahiri” and “Atiyah” letters suggested it had done little to lift al-Qaeda’s boats.
The letters depicted a foundering movement whose only real hope for success was that the United States continued to overreact to the terrorist threat and thus generate more recruits to al-Qaeda’s cause.
The “Zawahiri letter” asked if the embattled al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq might be able to spare $100,000 to relieve a cash squeeze facing the group’s top leaders in hiding, presumably in remote Waziristan province inside Pakistan.
The “Atiyah letter” also referenced the weaknesses of the al-Qaeda leadership. Atiyah claimed it was easier for Zarqawi to send an emissary to Pakistan than it was for al-Qaeda leaders to dispatch someone to Iraq.
Yet, Gen. Petraeus and the Bush administration have chosen to draw the opposite conclusions from the evidence.
Instead of citing this intelligence as reason to begin pulling American troops out of Iraq, they have used it to justify both the escalation that lifted U.S. troop levels from about 130,000 in January to around 170,000 now – and Petraeus’s plan to return to the 130,000 troop level next July.
But the facts seem to point the other way – that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 relieved pressure on al-Qaeda leaders in hiding and gave them hope by attracting a new generation of young Muslims to the extremist cause. Now, by extending the U.S. occupation of Iraq indefinitely, Bush appears to be continuing to play into al-Qaeda’s hands.
Or, as Atiyah observed, “prolonging the war is in our interest.”
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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