Al Qaeda In Iraq. How to understand it. How to defeat it
por Frederick W. Kagan, 17 de septiembre de 2007
(Published in The Weekly Standard, September 10, 2007)
Al Qaeda In Iraq is part of the global al Qaeda movement. AQI, as the U.S. military calls it, is around 90 percent Iraqi. Foreign fighters, however, predominate in the leadership and among the suicide bombers, of whom they comprise up to 90 percent, U.S. commanders say. The leader of AQI is Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian. His predecessor, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was a Jordanian.
Because the members of AQI are overwhelmingly Iraqis--often thugs and misfits recruited or dragooned into the organization (along with some clerics and more educated leaders)--it is argued that AQI is not really part of the global al Qaeda movement. Therefore, it is said, the war in Iraq is not part of the global war on terror: The 'real' al Qaeda--Osama bin Laden's band, off in its safe havens in the Pakistani tribal areas of Waziristan and Baluchistan--is the group to fight. Furthermore, argue critics of this persuasion, we should be doing this fighting through precise, intelligence-driven airstrikes or Special Forces attacks on key leaders, not the deployment of large conventional forces, which only stirs resentment in Muslim countries and creates more terrorists.
Over the past four years, the war in Iraq has provided abundant evidence to dispute these assertions.
Al Qaeda Worldwide
Al Qaeda is an organization pursuing an ideology. Both the organization and the ideology must be defeated. Just as, in the Cold War, the contest between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its captive nations was the real-world manifestation of an ideological struggle, so today, the global war on terror is a real-world contest between the United States and its allies and al Qaeda and its enablers. We can hope to defeat the ideology only by defeating its champion, al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda's ideology is the lineal descendant of a school of thought articulated most compellingly by the Egyptian revolutionary Sayyid Qutb in the 1950s and 1960s, with an admixture of Wahhabism, Deobandi thought, or simple, mainstream Sunni chauvinism, depending on where and by what group it is propounded.
Qutb blended a radical interpretation of Muslim theology with the Marxism-Leninism and anticolonial fervor of the Egypt of his day to produce an Islamic revolutionary movement. He argued that the secularism and licentious (by his extreme standards) behavior of most Muslims was destroying the true faith and returning the Islamic world to the state of jahiliyyah, or ignorance of the word of God, which prevailed before Muhammad. The growing secularism of Muslim states particularly bothered him. According to his interpretation, God alone has the power to make laws and to judge. When men make laws and judge each other according to secular criteria, they are usurping God's prerogatives. All who obey such leaders, according to Qutb, are treating their leaders as gods and therefore are guilty of the worst sin--polytheism. Thus they are--and this is the key point--not true Muslims, but unbelievers, regardless of whether they otherwise obey Muslim law and practice.
This is the defining characteristic of al Qaeda's ideology, which is properly called 'takfirism' (even though al Qaeda fighters do not use the term). The word 'takfir' designates the process of declaring a person to be an unbeliever because of the way he practices his faith. Takfir violates the religious understanding of most of the world's Muslims, for the Koran prescribes only five requirements for a Muslim (acknowledgment of the oneness of God, prayer, charitable giving, the fast, and the pilgrimage to Mecca) and specifies that anyone who observes them is a Muslim. The takfiris insist that anyone who obeys a human government is a polytheist and therefore violates the first premise of Islam, the shahada (the assertion that 'There is no god but God'), even though Muslims have lived in states with temporal rulers for most of their history. The chief reason al Qaeda has limited support in the Muslim world is that the global Muslim community overwhelmingly rejects the premise that anyone obeying a temporal ruler is ipso facto an unbeliever.
Today's takfiris carry Qutb's basic principles further. Some pious Muslims believe that human governments should support or enforce sharia law. This is why Saudi Arabia has no law but sharia. But to Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, it is not enough for a state to rule according to sharia. To be legitimate in the eyes of these revolutionaries, a state must also work actively to spread 'righteous rule' across the earth. This demand means that only states aligned with the takfiris and supporting the spread of takfirism--such as the Taliban when it was in power--are legitimate, whereas states aligned with unbelievers, like Saudi Arabia, are illegitimate even if they strictly enforce sharia law. Some takfiris, particularly in Iraq as we shall see, argue in addition that all Shia are polytheists, and therefore apostates, because they 'worship' Ali and Hussein and their successor imams. This distorted view of Shiism reflects the continual movement of takfiri thought toward extremes.
These distinctions are no mere theoretical niceties. The Koran and Muslim tradition forbid Muslims from killing one another except in narrowly specified circumstances. They also restrict the conditions under which Muslims can kill non-Muslims. Takfiris, however, claim that the groups and individuals they condemn are not really Muslims but unbelievers who endanger the true faith. They therefore claim to be exercising the right to defend the faith, granted by the Koran and Muslim tradition, when they endorse the killing of these false Muslims and the Westerners who either seduce them into apostasy or support them in it. This is the primary theological justification for al Qaeda's terrorism.
Takfirism is a radical reinterpretation of Islam that discards over a thousand years of Islamic scholarship and cautious tradition in favor of a literal reading of the Koran and Hadith that allows any layman--such as Osama bin Laden, who has no clerical standing--to usurp the role of Islam's scholars and issue fatwas and exercise other such clerical prerogatives. Interestingly, 'takfirism' is what the Muslim enemies of this movement call it. Iraqis, for example, commonly refer to the members of AQI as 'takfiris.' This term has a strong negative connotation, implying as it does the right of a small group to determine who is a Muslim and to kill those who do not practice their religion in a particular manner. (Iraqis also sometimes call the terrorists 'khawaraj,' a reference to the Kharajites of early Muslim history that is extremely derogatory, implying as it does that al Qaeda members are schismatics, well outside of the mainstream of Islam.)
While takfirism is the primary theological justification for the actions of al Qaeda, it is not the only important component of the terrorists' ideology. Western concepts are deeply embedded in the movement as well, primarily Leninism. Qutb was familiar with the concept of the Bolshevik party as the 'vanguard of the proletariat'--the small group that understood the interests of the proletariat better than the workers themselves, that would seize power in their name, then would help them to achieve their own 'class consciousness' while creating a society that was just and suitable for them. Qutb thought of his ideology in the same terms: He explicitly referred to his movement as a vanguard that would seize power in the name of the true faith and then reeducate Muslims who had gone astray.
Bin Laden underscored this aspect of the ideology in naming his organization 'al Qaeda,' which means 'the base.' Qutb and bin Laden envisaged a small revolutionary movement that would seize power in a Muslim state and then gradually work to expand its control to the entire Muslim world, while reeducating lapsed Muslims under its power. Al Qaeda's frequent references to reestablishing the caliphate are tied to this concept. The goal is to recapture the purity of the 'Rashidun,' the period when Muhammad and his immediate successors ruled. This was the last time the Muslim world was united and governed, as bin Laden sees it, according to the true precepts of Islam.
Leninism (along with the practical challenges faced by revolutionaries in a hostile world) has informed the organizational structure as well as the thinking of al Qaeda. The group is cellular and highly decentralized, as the Bolsheviks were supposed to be. It focuses on seizing power in weakened states, as Communist movements did in Russia and China, and on weakening stronger states to make them more susceptible to attack, as the Communist movement did around the world after its triumph in the Soviet Union. Al Qaeda's center of gravity is its ideology, which means that individual cells can pursue the common aim with little or no relationship to the center. It is nevertheless a linked movement, with leaders directing the flow of some resources and ordering or forbidding particular operations around the world.
These, then, are the key characteristics of al Qaeda: It is based on the principle of takfirism. It sees itself as a Muslim revolutionary vanguard. It aims to take power in weak states and to weaken strong states. It is cellular and decentralized, but with a networked global leadership that influences its activities without necessarily controlling them. How does Al Qaeda In Iraq fit into this scheme?
Al Qaeda in Iraq
AQI is part of the global al Qaeda movement both ideologically and practically. Ideologically, it lies on the extreme end of the takfiri spectrum. It was initially called the 'Movement of Monotheism (tawhid) and Jihad,' referring to the takfiri principle that human government (and Shiism) are polytheist. From its inception, AQI has targeted mainly Iraqis; it has killed many times more Muslims than Americans. Its preferred weapon is the suicide car-bomb or truck-bomb aimed at places where large numbers of Iraqi civilians, especially Shia, congregate. When the movement began in 2003 it primarily targeted Shia. Zarqawi sought to provoke a Shia-Sunni civil war that he expected would mobilize the Sunni to full-scale jihad. He also delighted in killing Shia, whom he saw as intolerable 'rejectionists,' who had received the message of the Koran and rejected it. Even worse than ignorance of the word of God is deliberate apostasy. The duty to convert or kill apostates supersedes even the duty to wage war against the regular unbeliever--hence -Zarqawi's insistence that the Shia were more dangerous than the 'Zionists and Crusaders.'
Bin Laden's associate Zawahiri remonstrated with Zarqawi on this point in a series of exchanges that became public. He argued that Zarqawi erred in attacking Shia, who should rather be exhorted and enticed to join the larger movement he hoped to create. Zawahiri's arguments were more tactical and strategic than ideological. He has no objection to killing unfaithful Muslims, but he has been eager to focus the movement on what he calls the 'far enemy,' America and the West.
Zarqawi too pursued attacks on Western targets, of course. He was implicated in the 2002 murder of USAID official Lawrence Foley in Jordan, and in the bombing of the United Nations office in Baghdad on August 19, 2003. But Zarqawi concentrated on attacking Iraqi Shia. A blast at the end of August 2003, for example, killed 85 Shia in Najaf, including Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim (older brother of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the largest Shia party in the Council of Representatives), and a series of attacks on Shia mosques during the Ashura holiday in March 2004 killed over 180. He finally succeeded in provoking a significant Shia backlash with the destruction of the golden dome of the Shia al-Askariyah Mosque in Samarra in February 2006. Zarqawi was killed by coalition forces shortly thereafter, but his successors continued to attack Iraqi Shia, even as they began to attack Iraqi Sunnis. In this regard, AQI has always been even more extreme in its takfirism than the global al Qaeda movement, which has equivocated about the legitimacy of attacks on fellow Muslims and the tactical desirability of exacerbating the Sunni-Shia split.
Like bin Laden's al Qaeda, AQI sees itself as a vanguard and defines its aim as reestablishing the caliphate. Furthermore, like takfirist groups around the world, it has attempted to put its ideology into practice wherever it has been able to establish control. AQI attacks judges in Iraq because they usurp God's power to judge. It establishes sharia courts to enforce its interpretation of Muslim law and custom. It even formally declared the establishment of the 'Islamic State of Iraq,' whose capital it variously located in the major cities of Ramadi and Baquba and the small village of Balad Ruz in Diyala, among other places. It designates 'emirs' (commanders) to perform various functions and exercise control. It behaves in every respect as al Qaeda and the Taliban did in Afghanistan; indeed, it is almost indistinguishable from those groups in these critical practices--and in its intention to reach beyond Iraq at every opportunity. Thus, in addition to the Foley assassination in 2002, AQI conducted a complex attack on hotels in Amman in November 2005 that killed 60.
But AQI is not simply a local franchise of the global al Qaeda concept. Its leaders participate in the development of the global ideology, as Zawahiri's exchanges with Zarqawi and al-Masri demonstrate. It sends aid to the global movement and asks for and receives aid from it. In particular, it receives an estimated 40 to 80 foreign fighters each month, who are recruited by al Qaeda leaders throughout the Muslim world, helped in their training and travel by al Qaeda facilitators, and, once in Iraq, controlled by AQI. Finally, as previously noted, the non-Iraqis who are its principal leaders were part of the global al Qaeda movement before coming to Iraq. There should be no question in anyone's mind that Al Qaeda In Iraq is a vital and central part of al Qaeda, that it interacts with the global movement, shares its aims and practices, and will assist it as much as it can to achieve their common goals.
AQI'S Modus Operandi
AQI uses two primary methods to establish itself in Sunni populations in Iraq. When it finds Sunnis who feel existentially threatened by Shia militias or military forces, or who seek military aid in pursuing an insurgent agenda, it offers help from its zealous and highly trained leaders and fighters. In communities not eager for such help, or that resist AQI's efforts to impose its religious code, AQI uses violence to terrorize Sunnis into participation. Wherever it goes, it seduces the disenchanted young with the promise of participation in a larger movement.
In 2003, the hostility within Iraq's Sunni Arab community to the prospect of a Shia-dominated government sparked an insurgency, of which AQI quickly took advantage. The fanaticism of AQI fighters (who often warn Westerners that they love death more than we love life) recommended itself to Sunni Arabs who faced the daunting task of defeating both American military forces and Iraq's Shia majority. The convergence of AQI and the Sunni insurgency in the ensuing years allowed the takfiris to establish solid bases in Anbar Province and then in Baghdad, Sunni areas to the north and south, Diyala, Salah-ad-Din, and Ninewa. AQI bases in Falluja, Tal Afar, and Baquba included media centers, torture houses, sharia courts, and all the other niceties of AQI occupation that would be familiar to students of the Taliban in Afghanistan and takfiri groups elsewhere. Local thugs flocked to the banner, and those who resisted were brutally tortured and murdered. Imams in local mosques--radicalized in the 1990s by Saddam Hussein's 'return to the faith' initiative (to shore up his highly secular government by wrapping it in the aura of Islam)--preached takfirism and resistance to the Americans.
The presence of large numbers of Iraqis in the movement has contributed to confusion about the relationship between AQI and al Qaeda. Apart from the radicalized clerics and some leaders, most of the Iraqis in the organization are misfits and ne'er-do-wells, younger sons without sense or intelligence who fall under the spell of violent leaders. The recruitment process in many areas is like that of any street-gang, where the leaders combine exhortation and promises with exemplary violence against those who obstinately refuse to join. In this regard, AQI is -subtly different from the al Qaeda movement that developed in Afghanistan. The takfiri elements of the mujahedeen who fought the Soviet invader in Afghanistan were highly diverse in origin. That war attracted anti-Soviet fighters from across the Muslim world. They did not fit easily into Afghanistan's xenophobic society, and so concentrated themselves in training camps removed from the population centers after the Soviet withdrawal and the rise of the Taliban. Americans saw these foreign fighters in their camps as the 'real' al Qaeda, the one that attacked the United States in 2001.
But al Qaeda was only part of the story in Afghanistan. The Taliban forces that seized power in 1994 imposed a radical interpretation of Islam upon the population and attacked the symbols of other religions in a country that had traditionally tolerated different faiths and diverse practices. Like their AQI counterparts today, the Taliban tended to be ill-educated, violent, and radical. And they were just as necessary to sustaining al Qaeda in Afghanistan as the Iraqi foot soldiers of AQI have been to supporting that movement. Bin Laden provided essential support, both military and financial, to put the Taliban in power and keep it there. In return, the Taliban allowed him to operate with impunity and protected him from foreign intervention. The war began in 2001 when Taliban leader Mullah Omar refused to yield the al Qaeda members responsible for 9/11 even though the Taliban itself had not been involved in the attacks.
Afghanistan's extremist thugs and misfits, once in power, facilitated the foreign-led al Qaeda's training, planning, and preparation for attacks against Western targets around the world, including the attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, and 9/11. In return, al Qaeda's foreign fighters fiercely defended the Taliban regime when U.S. forces attacked in 2001, even forming up in conventional battle lines against America's Afghan allies supported by U.S. Special Forces and airpower. In Afghanistan the relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban was symbiotic, mutually dependent, and mutually reinforcing. It included a shared world view and a willingness to fight common enemies. There was a close bond between indigenous Afghan extremists and the internationalist takfiris. Al Qaeda in Iraq benefits from just such a bond.
Yet there is a difference between the two movements in this regard: Whereas in Afghanistan al Qaeda remained separate from Afghan society for the most part, interacting with it primarily through the Taliban, AQI directly incorporates Iraqis. Indeed, the foreign origins of AQI's leaders are a handicap, of which their names are a constant reminder: Zarqawi's nom de guerre identified him immediately as a Jordanian, and the 'al-Masri' in Abu Ayyub al-Masri means 'the Egyptian.' The takfiris clumsily addressed this problem by announcing their 'Islamic State of Iraq,' which they presented as an umbrella movement Iraqi in nature but which was in fact a thin disguise for AQI, and by inventing a fictitious leader with a hyper-Iraqi, hyper-Sunni name, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
As for its local recruits, they undergo extensive training that is designed to brainwash them and prepare them to support and engage in vicious violence. One of the reasons some Iraqi Sunnis have turned against AQI has been this practice of making their sons into monsters. Many Iraqis have come to feel about AQI the way the parents of young gang members tend to feel about gangs.
These AQI recruits often remain local. Young Anbaris do not on the whole venture out of Anbar to attack Americans or Shia beyond their province; AQI recruits in Arab Jabour or Salah-ad-Din tend to stay near their homes, even if temporarily driven off by U.S. operations. The leaders, however, travel a great deal--Zarqawi went from Jordan to Germany to Afghanistan to Iraq, and within Iraq from Falluja to Baquba and beyond, and his subordinates and successors have covered many miles at home and abroad. The presence of AQI cells in each area facilitates this movement, as well as the movement of foreign fighters into and through Iraq and the movement of weapons, supplies, and intelligence. AQI facilitators provide safe houses and means of communication. Some build car bombs that are passed from cell to cell until they are mated with the foreign fighters who will detonate them, perhaps far from where they were built. Even though most members of AQI remain near their homes, the sum of all of the cells, plus the foreign leadership and foreign fighters, is a movement that can plan and conduct attacks rapidly across the country and around the region, and that can regenerate destroyed cells within weeks. The leaders themselves are hooked into the global al Qaeda movement.
The integration of AQI into the population makes it harder to root out than al Qaeda was in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, American leaders could launch missile strikes against al Qaeda training bases (as President Clinton did, to little effect), and U.S. Special Forces could target those camps with or without indigenous help. Not so in Iraq.
Intermingled with the population, AQI maintains no large training areas and thus offers few targets suitable for missile strikes. American and Iraqi Special Forces have been effective at killing particular AQI leaders, but this has not destroyed the movement or even severely degraded its ability to conduct attacks across the country. New leaders spring up, and the facilitation networks continue their work.
When the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, al Qaeda lost its freedom of movement throughout the country. Most surviving al Qaeda fighters fled to Pakistan's largely ungoverned tribal areas, where they could count on enough local support to sustain themselves. Today there is little support for al Qaeda in Afghanistan, no large permanent al Qaeda training camp, and certainly no ability to conduct large-scale or countrywide operations against U.S. or Afghan forces.
The recent turn against Al Qaeda In Iraq by key Iraqis has produced less dramatic results because of the different means by which AQI maintains itself. Although much of AQI's support originally came from locals who sought its aid, by 2006 the takfiris had made themselves so unpopular that their continued presence relied on their continuous use of violence against their hosts. As Anbari tribal leaders began for various reasons to resist AQI's advances, AQI started attacking them and their families. Outside of Anbar Province, AQI regularly uses exemplary torture and murder to keep locals in line. The principles of takfirism justify this, as anyone who resists AQI's attempts to impose its vision of Islam becomes an enemy of Islam. AQI then has the right and obligation to kill such a person, since, in the takfiri view, execution is the proper punishment for apostasy. It is a little harder to see the pseudo-religious justification for torture, but AQI is not deterred by such fine points.
Like al Qaeda in Afghanistan, then, AQI initially relied on support from the population more or less freely offered. Unlike al Qaeda in Afghanistan--but like the Taliban--it also developed means of coercing support when this was no longer given freely. As a result, Iraq's Sunnis cannot simply decide to turn against al Qaeda on their own, for doing so condemns them to outrageous punishments. To defeat Al Qaeda In Iraq, therefore, it is not enough to attack takfiri ideology or persuade the Iraqi government to address the Sunnis' legitimate grievances. Those approaches must be combined with a concerted effort to protect Sunni populations from AQI's terrorism.
How to defeat AQI
One of the first questions Iraqis ask when American forces move into AQI strongholds to fight the takfiris is: Are you going to stay this time? In the past, coalition forces have cleared takfiri centers, often with local help, but have departed soon after, leaving the locals vulnerable to vicious AQI retaliation. This pattern created a legacy of distrust, and a concomitant hesitancy to commit to backing coalition forces.
This cycle was broken first in Anbar, for three reasons: The depth of AQI's control there led the group to commit some of its worst excesses in its attempt to hold on to power; the strength of the tribal structures in the province created the possibility of effective local resistance when the mood swung against the takfiris; and the sustained presence and determination of soldiers and Marines in the province gave the locals hope of assistance once they began to turn against the terrorists.
The movement against the takfiris began as AQI tried to solidify its position in Anbar by marrying some of its senior leaders to the daughters of Anbari tribal leaders, as al Qaeda has done in South Asia. When the sheikhs resisted, AQI began to attack them and their families, assassinating one prominent sheikh, then preventing his relatives from burying him within the 24 hours prescribed by Muslim law. In the tribal society of Anbar, this and related actions led to the rise of numerous blood-feuds between AQI and Anbari families. The viciousness of AQI's retaliation and the relative weakness of the Anbari tribes as a military or police force put the locals in a difficult position, from which they were rescued by the determined work of coalition and Iraqi security forces.
Throughout 2006, U.S. soldiers and Marines in Anbar refused to cede the province's capital and major population centers to the insurgents. Officers like Colonel Sean MacFarland worked to establish bases in Ramadi, protect key positions within the city, and generally contest AQI's control. At the same time, Marine commanders strove to reach out to Anbaris increasingly disenchanted with AQI. Commanders in the province now acknowledge that they probably missed several early overtures from tribal leaders, but they clearly grasped the more obvious signals the sheikhs sent in late 2006 and early 2007 indicating their interest in working together against the common foe.
The change in U.S. strategy announced in January 2007 and the surge of forces over the ensuing months did not create this shift in Anbar, but accelerated its development. The surge meant that American commanders did not have to shift forces out of Anbar to protect Baghdad, as had happened in previous operations. MacFarland's successor, Colonel John Charlton, was able to build on MacFarland's success when he took command in early 2007. He moved beyond the limited bases MacFarland's soldiers had established and began pushing his troops into key neighborhoods in Ramadi, establishing Joint Security Stations, and clearing the city. Marine forces in the province were augmented by two battalions in the spring and a battalion-sized Marine Expeditionary Unit in the summer. The latter has been attacking the last bastions of AQI in northeastern Anbar.
The increased U.S. presence and the more aggressive operations of American forces--working with Iraqi army units that, although heavily Shia, were able to function effectively with U.S. troops even in Sunni Anbar--allowed the tribal turn against AQI to pick up steam. By late spring 2007, all of the major Anbari tribes had sworn to oppose AQI and had begun sending their sons to volunteer for service in the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police. By summer, the coalition had established a new training base in Habbaniya to receive these recruits, and the Iraqi army units had begun balancing their sectarian mix by incorporating Anbari Sunnis into their formations. Thousands of Anbaris began patrolling the streets of their own cities and towns to protect against AQI, and coalition commanders were flooded with information about the presence and movements of takfiris. By the beginning of August, AQI had been driven out of all of Anbar's major population centers, and its attempts to regroup in the hinterland have been fitful and dangerous for the takfiris. The mosques in Anbar's major cities have stopped preaching anti-American and pro-takfiri sermons on the whole, switching either to neutral messages or to support for peace and even for the coalition.
The battle is by no means over. AQI has made clear its determination to reestablish itself in Anbar or to punish the Anbaris for their betrayal, and AQI cells in rural Anbar and surrounding provinces are still trying to -regenerate. But the takfiri movement that once nearly controlled the province by blending in with its people has lost almost all popular support and has been driven to desperate measures to maintain a precarious foothold. The combination of local disenchantment with takfiri extremism, a -remarkable lack of cultural sensitivity by the takfiris themselves, and effective counterinsurgency operations by coalition forces working to protect the population have turned the tide.
Anbar is a unique province in that its population is almost entirely Sunni Arab and its tribal structures remain strong despite years of Saddam's oppression. The 'Anbar Awakening,' as the Anbari turn against the takfiris is usually called, has spread to almost all of Iraq's Sunni areas, but in different forms reflecting their different circumstances. Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, Babil, Salah-ad-Din, and Diyala provinces have long suffered from AQI, but they also face a significant Shia Arab presence, including violent elements of the Jaysh al-Mahdi, or Mahdi Army, the most extreme Shia militia. Diyala, Ninewa, and Kirkuk provinces also have ethnic fault lines where Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds meet and occasionally fight. Tribal structures in these areas vary in strength, but are everywhere less cohesive than those of Anbar.
Extreme elements of the Jaysh al-Mahdi, particularly the Iranian-controlled 'secret cells,' have been exerting pressure against Sunni populations in mixed provinces at least since early 2006. Some formerly Sunni cities like Mahmudiya have become Shia (and Jaysh al-Mahdi) strongholds. Mixed areas in Baghdad have tended to become more homogeneous. AQI has benefited from this struggle, which it helped to produce, posing as the defender of the Sunni against the Jaysh al-Mahdi even as it terrorizes Sunnis into supporting it. AQI's hold cannot be broken without addressing the pressure of Shia extremists on these Sunni communities, as well as defending the local population against AQI attacks.
This task is dauntingly complex, but not beyond the power of coalition forces to understand and execute. American and Iraqi troops throughout central Iraq have been working aggressively to destroy AQI strongholds like those in Arab Jabour, Baquba, Karma, and Tarmiya and in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Ameriyah, Ghazaliya, and Dora, and have largely driven the takfiris out of the major population centers and even parts of the hinterland. As U.S. forces have arrived in strength and promised to stay, thousands of Sunnis have volunteered to fight the terrorists and to protect their neighborhoods by joining the Iraqi army, police, or auxiliary 'neighborhood watch' units set up by U.S. forces. In these areas, however, coalition forces have also had to work to protect the local Sunni from attacks by the secret cells of the Shia militia and by Shia militia members who have penetrated the Iraqi national and local police forces. The continued presence of American forces among the population is a key guarantor against attack by the Jaysh al-Mahdi as well as AQI reprisals. Indeed, the Sunni insist upon it as the condition for their participation in the struggle against the takfiris.
The description of the new U.S. strategy as 'protecting the population' is shorthand for this complex, variable, and multifaceted approach to the problem of separating AQI from the population and supporting the rising indigenous movement against the takfiris. It has been extremely successful in a short period of time--Anbar in general and Ramadi in particular have gone within six months from being among the most dangerous areas in Iraq to among the safest. AQI strongholds like Arab Jabour and Baquba are now mostly free of large-scale terrorist infiltration, and their populations are working with the coalition to keep the takfiris out. The overall struggle to establish peace and stability in Iraq clearly goes beyond this fight against AQI, but from the standpoint of American interests in the global war on terror, it is vital to recognize our success against the takfiris and the reasons for it.
AQI--and therefore the larger al Qaeda movement--has suffered a stunning defeat in Iraq over the past six months. It has lost all of its urban strongholds and is engaged in a desperate attempt to reestablish a foothold even in the countryside. The movement is unlikely to accept this defeat tamely. Even now, AQI cells scattered throughout the country are working to reconstitute themselves and to continue mass-casualty attacks in the hope of restarting widespread sectarian conflict from which they hope to benefit. If the coalition abandoned its efforts to finish off these cells and to prevent them from rebuilding their networks, it is quite possible that they could terrify their victims into taking them back in some areas, although AQI is unlikely to be viewed sympathetically by most Iraqis for a long time to come.
If, on the other hand, coalition forces complete the work they have begun by finishing off the last pockets of takfiris and continuing to build local Iraqi security forces that can sustain the fight against the terrorists after American troops pull back, then success against the terrorists in Iraq is likely. That success will come at a price, of course. The takfiris have only the proverbial hammer in Iraq at this point, and they are now in the position of seeing every problem as the proverbial nail. Their hammer can be effective only if no one is around to protect the population: Their violence consistently drives Iraqi sentiment against them and their ideology. So the prospect of a thorough and decisive defeat of the terrorists in Iraq is real.
It is too soon to declare victory in this struggle, still less in the larger struggle to stabilize Iraq and win the global war on terror. AQI can again become a serious threat if America chooses to let it get up off the mat. Other significant takfiri threats remain outside Iraq, such as the al Qaeda cell that has been battling Lebanese military forces from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the aggressive al Qaeda group in the Islamic Maghreb that has proclaimed its intention of conquering all of North Africa and restoring Muslim rule to Spain. Each al Qaeda franchise is subtly different from the others, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to defeating them. But our experience in Iraq already offers lessons for the larger fight.
The notion that there is some 'real' al Qaeda with which we should be more concerned than with AQI or any of the other takfiri franchises is demonstrably false. All of these cellular organizations are interlinked at the top, even as they depend on local facilitators and fighters in particular places. The Iraqi-ness of AQI does not make it any less a part of the global movement. On the contrary, if we do not defeat AQI, we can expect it to start performing the same international functions that al Qaeda and the Taliban did in Afghanistan: Locally active AQI cells will facilitate the training, planning, and preparation for attacks on Western and secular Muslim targets around the world. As has often been noted, the overwhelming majority of the September 11 attackers were Saudis, yet their attacks were made possible by facilitators who never left Afghanistan. AQI, if allowed to flourish, would be no different. It has posed less of a threat outside Iraq because of the intensity of the struggle within Iraq--just as the takfiris among the Afghan mujahedeen posed little threat outside that country as long as they had the Soviet army to fight. If the United States lets up on this determined enemy now and allows it to regain a position within Iraqi society, it is likely that AQI cells will soon be facilitating global attacks.
The idea that targeting these cells from the air or through special operations is an adequate substitute for assisting the local population to fight them is also mistaken. Coalition forces have relied on just this approach against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11, with questionable results. Granted, there have been few successful attacks against Western powers, none of them in the United States, for which this aggressive targeting is surely in part responsible. But recent intelligence estimates suggest a strengthening of the al Qaeda movement. In Iraq, years of targeting AQI leaders weakened the movement and led it to make a number of key mistakes, but did not stop mass-casualty attacks or stimulate effective popular resistance to the takfiris. It seems doubtful that Muslim communities--even those that reject the takfiri ideology--are capable of standing up to the terrorists on their own or with only the support of intelligence-driven raids against terrorist leaders and isolated cells.
Iraq has also disproved the shibboleth that the presence of American military forces in Muslim countries is inherently counterproductive in the fight against takfiris. Certainly the terrorists used our presence as a recruiting tool and benefited from the Sunni Arab nationalist insurgency against our forces. But there is no reason to think that Iraq would have remained free of takfiri fighters had the United States drawn down its forces (or should it draw them down now); it is even open to question whether a continued Baathist regime would have kept the takfiris out. The takfiris go where American forces are, to be sure, but they also go where we are not: Somalia, Lebanon, North Africa, Indonesia, and more. The introduction of Western forces does not inevitably spur takfiri sentiment. When used properly and in the right circumstances, Western military forces can play an essential role in combatting takfirism.
This is not to say that the United States should invade Waziristan and Baluchistan, or launch preemptive conventional assaults against (or in defense of) weak Muslim regimes around the world. Each response must be tailored to circumstance. But we must break free of a consensus about how to fight the terrorists that has been growing steadily since 9/11 which emphasizes 'small footprints,' working exclusively through local partners, and avoiding conventional operations to protect populations. In some cases, traditional counterinsurgency operations using conventional forces are the only way to defeat this 21st--century foe. Muslims can dislike al Qaeda, reject takfirism, and desire peace, yet still be unable to defend themselves alone against the terrorists. In such cases, our assistance, suitably adapted to the realities on the ground, can enable Muslims who hate what the takfiris are doing to their religion and their people--the overwhelming majority of Muslims--to succeed. Helping them is the best way to rid the world of this scourge.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805 (forthcoming). He is grateful to Daniel Barnard for assistance with this article.
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