Iraq is not about fighting terrorism

by Paolo von Schirach

August 2, 2007

WASHINGTON – Not knowing exactly what kind of problem one is dealing with does not help in devising the best way to resolve it. The worst aspect of the present American predicament characterized by the interminable bleeding in Iraq and the ongoing fight against terrorist groups inspired by Islamic radicalism is in the inability or unwillingness on the part of the administration to correctly and properly describe to America and to the world that we are involved in two qualitatively different fights. Iraq and the fight against terror are separate problems that require different methods and different solutions. They are not one and the same thing, as it has been claimed all along.

However late it may be, America should come to terms with reality and say that the mess in Iraq, strong al Qaeda’s presence there notwithstanding, is not the main theater in the conflict against Islamic fundamentalism. Frankly it never was. By the same token, even assuming complete pacification in Iraq, including the destruction of al Qaeda in Iraq, we shall still have to deal with all the other Islamic terrorists spread around the world. So, the White House should stop saying that Iraq is the main theater in the war against Islamic fundamentalism. The imported radicals, the real instigators of al Qaeda in Iraq, constitute a major added complication in this conflict.

However, they are not the main drivers of what has emerged as a sectarian conflict. Granted, al Qaeda thrives in this conflict. It has done its best to deepen it. But, looking at Iraq in context, we see what has always been an artificial state now torn by powerful centrifugal forces. These forces have been unleashed by the trauma and ensuing chaos brought about by a poorly planned US invasion.

The idea of a strong connection between Saddam and terrorism, (documented by some instances of support for terrorists groups by the dictatorship), was trumpeted before the invasion as a handy (in the jumpy post 9/11 psychological climate) justification to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But now that we know that none of this was true, we should stop misrepresenting the attempt to pacify Iraq as part as a crucial chapter in the “war on terror”.

We know what was said (and maybe believed) at the time. The invasion of Iraq of 2003 was aimed at preventing, (so it was said at the time), the potential collusion between a dictator who supposedly had (we thought then) weapons of mass destruction, WMDs, and terrorists who might have used those weapons against us. A potential, although sketchy, doomsday scenario from possibility graduated to a certainty. It was labelled an imminent danger that required immediate, drastic action via “regime change.”

The affirmation that Saddam, the friend of the terrorists, had to be removed to prevent WMDs from falling into the wrong hands might have been tenable at the very beginning, when there was almost unanimous certainty that the fall of the regime would have yielded stockpiles of WMDs and plenty of documentary evidence of strong ties between Saddam and terrorist groups. But when, very early in the game, when it became obvious to all that this was not the case, it was incumbent on the administration to quickly admit its mistake. It should have changed focus and tone and proclaim to the world that –even without the Saddam-terrorists connection– the liberation of Iraq from its dictator was still a worthwhile endeavor and that the international community could take a large role in aiding the Iraqis to find a better, hopefully more just, future.

But this did not happen. Instead, the arrival of al Qaeda in Iraq, along with assorted foreign fighters, made possible by the post invasion chaos, gave the administration the wonderful opportunity to square the circle. The White House could say that the strong presence of al Qaeda in Iraq, along with documents showing the strategic relevance of the fight in Iraq in al Qaeda’s new masterplan, proved conclusively what had been said all along by the administration: “The invasion of Iraq was absolutely necessary in the ongoing fight against terrorism”. This is either cinically disingenous manipulation, or the result of being blindsided by one’s own rigid preconceptions.

By insisting that Iraq is mostly about the al Qaeda brand of terrorism, (terrorist methods are used also in the ongoing brutal sectarian violence), the administration has created its own reality that is not supported by the facts. This inability or unwillingness to admit error has created deep divisions at home and abroad. The consequences of the confusion created by the mislabeling of the conflict in Iraq are visible in the acrimonious debates began by those who would like us to leave, precisely because they see the conflict as primarily internal sectarian strife, not truly tied to the larger issue of our global fight against fundamentalism.

It is a serious matter when policy positions result from totally different definitions of the facts on the ground. It would appear that proponents and opponents of withdrawal are looking at different countries. The confused political debate in Washington is in large part the outcome of confused analysis. And the administration, being in charge of all policies, should have the primary responsibility to provide an accurate assessment of the dynamics on the ground.

Indeed, while al Qaeda is indeed there and needs to be dealt with, the primary mission in Iraq is to pacify a country torn by sectarian violence. Even assuming total victory against al Qaeda in Iraq, Iraq’s problems would not be settled. Whereas, in the administration’s rhetoric, there are constant pronouncements about Iraq as the key theater in the “war on terror” (i.e. the ongoing struggle to degrade transnational cells of radical ideologues who claim to follow a strict interpretation of Islam).

This clearly misrepresents the broader scenario of a diffuse threat coming from a transnational movement of violent radicals residing in various countries, willing and maybe capable to plot more attack against the US. Whatever happens in Iraq, this threat will continue and we shall have to deal with it.

Whereas, in trying to shore up support for the continuing commitment in Iraq, the administration repeats ad nauseam that “we fight them there so that we do not have to fight them here”. Now, in light of the above, this idea is highly questionable, if not entirely silly. This notion implies that all or most our terrorist enemies are currently in Iraq. Thus, as long as they are engaged in combat against our troops, they cannot mount a threat against the US mainland. But, although it is true that since 9/11 we have not been attcaked, it cannot be proven that this is because we are fighting the terrorists in Iraq.

Indeed, the fact that we have not suffered another attack since 9/11 in no way demonstrates that the Iraq engagement has prevented anything new to happen. Unfortunately, we do know that it takes only a handful of determined individuals willing to engage in suicide missions to bring about a great deal of damage in the US mainland. This is after all what we learnt from 9/11 and similar plots and attacks in other countries. So, the notion that, “as long as we keep them all pinned down in Iraq, we are safe here at home”, is preposterous. No doubt, we are engaging some dangerous radicals in Iraq; but there are plenty more around the world, as many attacks against targets in Europe and elsewhere have proven.

This notion of “bringing the fight to them so that they do not bring it to us” would be dubious even in the case that the fight in Iraq were indeed all about al Qaeda and affiliates. But it is even more implausible, as this is not the case. As we know, official rhetoric notwithstanding, US forces in Iraq have multiple missions. The key one right now, (whatever the chances of eventual success), is about reducing sectarian violence. This is what they are trying to accomplish. Iraq is now mostly a civil war, with al Qaeda –granted– playing a significant, disruptive role. But this conflict is by no means primarily about al Qaeda. As this is obvious to almost everybody, it would do the country and the world a lot of good for the administration to stop affirming what is patently wrong. 

Thus, it would help both national and international public opinion to state clearly that at this time we are dealing with two separate problems in the global arena: a) how to create a modicum of self-sustaining security in Iraq; b) how to prevent (through good intelligence, secret services and special forces) more terror attacks around the world, while defusing the appeal of Islamic radicalism that seems to be the incubator of almost all terrorist groups. Of course, in Iraq, there is some degree of overlap, at least in some areas. But, again, let us rememeber that we did not go into Iraq to fight al Qaeda. al Qaeda could get established in Iraq mostly thanks to the total collapse of order. It is not the expression of a strong, deeply rooted indigenous political culture grounded on Islamic fundamentalism.

(This does not mean, as most opponents of the invasion claim, that the war in Iraq is a really a horribly expensive distraction that has prevented us from focusing on the main threat. For this reason we should excuse ourselves and leave as soon as possible. Unfortunately, whatever the errors that have led us into Iraq, now that we have turned it upside down, before leaving we have to be very clear as to what is that we want to leave behind. Mistake or no mistake, until domestic Iraqi forces can reliably ensure a modicum of security and some kind of institutional viability, “we own” Iraq and we have a crucial responsibility for not making a bad situation worse both internally and externally).

So, let us establish some distinctions between the broad strategic issue of Islamic fanaticism and how to recreate security in Iraq after the mess we created by removing a dictator who, whatever his horrible methods, certainly had found a way to enforce a brutal order.

This may not help much in the short term; but no doubt a correct definition of the problem we are facing is a precondition for the elaboration of relevant solutions. So, however late it may be, let’s at least establish correctly what we are dealing with and have a debate based on facts rather than slogans.

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