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Professor Says Al-Zarqawi In Iraq Is a Myth

Whiskey Bar Blog | November 4 2005

Juan Cole -- Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan, burgeoning media personality and blogger extraordinaire -- passed through here (here being my quiet corner of suburban Philadelphia) yesterday, after stopping off at Swarthmore College to give a talk on the situation in Iraq.

Like many in Left Blogostan, I look to Juan for my daily dose of news and analysis of the Cheney Administration continues to put the "mess" in Mesopotamia, so getting a two-hour straight shot was a nice treat, and having a little face time (and a few beers) afterwards was even better.

If you're also a steady reader of Informed Comment, Dr. Cole didn't say much you don't know already. But he did explore one intriguing theory that I hadn't heard before, which is the possibility that all of the players in this bloody game -- and not just the Cheney administration -- may be perpetuating the myth that the Iraq insurgency is now largely controlled by the diabolical Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his band of fanatical fundamentalist fighters, Al Qaeda in Iraq.

This would not only mean that American forces have been on a wild goose chase (in which approximately 10,538 of Zarqawi's "senior lieutenants" have been captured so far) but that both the Cheney administration and the real masterminds of the insurgency are selling the same fraud -- as are our "allies" in Baghdad.

What's more, each party knows that the others know, and they each know that the others know that they know, and so on. The only ones left outside this loop of knowledge are the poor saps doing the chasing, and of course the folks back home. And even they may be beginning to suspect something.

Juan Cole doesn't claim that Zarqawi and his group are complete fictions, although the "Al Qaeda in Iraq" label appears to be a flagrant violation of Bin Ladin's intellectual property rights, possibly perpetuated by some Internet wannabes who don't have any connection to either crew. But Cole does make the case that the strength and influence of "foreign fighters" in Iraq has been even more exaggerated than I assumed, and that the key underground networks sustaining the insurgency are all probably run by remnants of the old Ba'ath security services.

We are still, in other words, fighting the war that Commander Codpiece started in March 2003 -- the one against Saddam's regime, even though Saddam himself is folding his underwear in the pokey.

And those Saudi and Algerian and Egyptian jihadists slipping over the border from Syria? They're mostly cannon fodder -- suicide bombers and IED planters, or pack mules for same. They may even think they're working for Zarqawi or those like him, when in fact the Ba'athists are pulling the strings.

There is some tangible evidence for the theory. For example, Juan Cole points to the surprisingly low percentage of non-Iraqis among captured insurgents. In one recent operation -- it may have been Tal Afar, or maybe it was Haditha, the beer has clouded my memory -- only 6% of those captured were foreigners.

Someone from the audience also pointed out that the insurgency has been able to pull off fairly complex operations in the Shi'a south -- outside their home turf, but an area where a Ba'athist underground infrastructure (safe houses, rat lines, etc.) was in place before the 2003 invasion. But the insurgents have not had nearly as much success in the Kurdish north, where the Ba'ath was uprooted by the peshmerga more than a decade ago.

There is, of course, counterfactual evidence, such as the reported establishment of Taliban-inspired mini-regimes in western border towns like Haditha, and the stream of jihadi internationalists reported to be returning to Europe and North Africa from action in Iraq.

But these could be misleading signs. The fact that the foreign fighter types can only set up shop in dusty, remote towns on the Syrian border (instead of in larger Sunni cities like Ramadi or Balad) could be a sign of relative weakness, not strength. And while 500 or 1,000 veteran jihadis may be more than enough to create a major terrorism threat back where they originally came from, those aren't big numbers compared to estimates of total Iraqi insurgent strength, which run into the tens of thousands.

It's easy to understand why the Cheney administration would want to hype the "foreign fighter" threat -- both to maintain public support for the "central front in the war against terrorism," and to obscure the fact that the Ba'athist "dead enders" supposedly consigned to the garbage can of history two years ago instead have shown a remarkable staying power. But why would the Ba'athists themselves want to allow a relatively marginal figure like Zarqawi to hog the spotlight?

Cole's theory is that the Ba'ath have a dilemma on their hands: They want to return to power and rule Iraq just like in the good old days, but to get there from here they need to stir up as much civil strive as possible, in order to make Iraq ungovernable and force the Americans to withdraw. To that end, the insurgents are car bombing and suicide bombing the shit out of the Shi'a, to try to ramp up the cycle of atrocity and revenge until it reaches full-scale civil war.

But that creates a problem: If the Ba'athists do manage to claw their way back into power, how can they hope to rule a Shi'a majority that has been enraged and radicalized by such a ferocious communal struggle?

The best way to defuse, or at least minimize, opposition, Cole speculates, would be to have a scapegoat to blame for the worst atrocities against the Shi'a civilian population. And Zarqawi and his type -- militant Salafists and Wahhabis -- are excellent candidates. Once in power, a restored Ba'ath regime could turn on and annihilate the "foreign fighters," thus demonstrating that national unity, not a pogrom against the Shi'a, is their goal.

I see some holes in Cole's theory. I find it hard to believe, for example, that the Ba'ath are so out of touch with reality they think the Shi'a would let bygones be bygones, and agree to the restoration of a Ba'athist dictatorship, just because the evil Zarqawi and his men had been lined up against a wall and shot. The Shi'a would know from practical experience that they could be next.

The Ba'athists may simply hope that by appealing to Iraqi nationalism and unity (their traditional pitch) they could divide or weaken the Shi'a parties or peel off the more secular elements. The Ba'ath itself, Juan Cole notes, used to have a fairly sizable number of Shi'a members. True, most of them were simply getting along by going along, but that's kind of the point -- if the Ba'ath returned to power, and demonstrated they're not eager to fill more mass graves, some number of Shi'a might be willing to play along if they thought it was to their personal advantage.

But this leaves the question of why the current government in Baghdad would participate in the Al Qaeda in Iraq hoax. The answer, according to Cole, is that they want to avoid a full-scale civil war, at least until they are reasonably sure they can win it. They want to break the atrocity-revenge cycle the Ba'ath are trying to provoke. One way to do that is to go along with the fiction that those nasty foreign fighters are responsible for the civilian carnage, not our Sunni brothers.

So you end up with a peculiar result: Everyone has set up the same straw man, in order to deny what would otherwise be obvious: The war in Iraq is a civil war, one that has relatively little to do with the war on terrorism, but that has almost half of the U.S. Army bogged down in the middle of it.

From this theory, though, Juan Cole draws an improbably optimistic conclusion -- optimistic at least in a relative sense. Both the insurgency and the government are signaling that their objectives are political, not existential. They each want to rule Iraq, not exterminate the other side -- although both sides have their eliminationist wings.

This creates the hope that in Iraq, as in Clausewitz's doctrine, civil war is the continuation of politics by other means, not the opening salvo of the war of the all against the all. And this at least holds out the possibility (hope would be too strong a word) that the various sides will eventually realize they have to compromise -- just as the warring factions in Lebanon brokered a workable peace once the leaders of the major factions decided it was no longer in their interests to keep fighting.

If this is the case in Iraq -- if the war is essentially political -- then America might not face the Hobson's choice I've feared: Withdraw quickly, leaving behind a genocidal civil war, or stay, and get sucked into a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that itself could turn genocidal. U.S. forces could, in theory, be drawn down gradually, while disengaging from direct combat operations and playing more of a balancing role -- preventing the Ba'athists from shooting their way back into power, while trying to stop the Kurds and the Shi'a from overreaching in ways that could break up Iraq entirely and trigger a regional war.

Juan Cole, for example, suggests the bulk of U.S. ground forces could be withdrawn relatively rapidly, leaving behind a much smaller force of advisors and special forces units, backed by air power, to support the Baghdad government. U.S. diplomats, meanwhile, could try to nudge the various parties closer to a settlement.

Call me the eternal pessimist, but I have a list of problems with this scenario, beginning with the fact that U.S. policy on Iraq is becoming more incoherent, not less, under the ministership of Condi Rice. On the one hand, we've bet the farm that the political process will lead to a unified, stable government. On the other, we've backed a one-sided constitutional deal almost guaranteed to blow the country apart. While some American diplomats try to sooth the neighbors by promising to hold Iraq together, others (such as Peter Galbraith) openly advocate partition -- or partition in all but name. Expecting the American military to play the role of balancer, when the Cheney administration doesn't even know what it wants to balance, is a bit much.

There's also no guarantee the Shi'a will accept American "restraint" any more or any longer than absolutely necessary. Juan Cole has already reported that the Ayatollah Sistani may soon issue a fatwa instructing the Baghdad goverment to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. With Iranian support behind them, the Shi'a parties may eventually decide they can force a better deal on the Sunnis without us than with us, in which case even more American soldiers will have died to establish Iraq as an Iranian satellite state.

This brings me to the ultimate reason why I don't think a U.S. military presence in Iraq is going to be sustainable much longer: the home front.

If Cole is right, and our primary opponent is still the Ba'ath, and the fighting in Iraq has little or nothing to do with the war against terrorism, then sooner or later -- and probably sooner -- it's going to become politically impossible for the administration to continue spending $2 billion a week to keep 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. While Cole professes to see at least a glimmer of light, and a power-sharing settlement, at the end of the tunnel, he also says it could take another 10 to 15 years to get there, based on the Lebanon experience. As sluggish, uncomprehending and generally submissive as the American people are, I have a hard time believing they'll put up with a war that might still be raging long after Dick Cheney has gone to claim his infernal reward.

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