The End of Al Qaeda?
The Iraqi’s went to the polls and there is only one conclusion possible. Walid Phares, a Lebanese who teaches ‘Middle East political issues, ethnic and religious conflict, and comparative politics’ at Florida Atlantic University, wrote in The Washington Times:
‘On October 15, 2005, an historic Iraqi victory was registered in the 6,235 polling centers across the country. Millions of Iraqis cast their ballot for a "yes" or a "no" to the new constitution.
Regardless of the final results, the political process in the post-Baath Iraq is emerging as a victor against the stubborn terror attacks by al Qaida and the Saddam regime remnants. From that angle alone, the bloc of 15.4 million registered voters – including those who voted "no," or weren't able to participate because of fear – have defeated one more time the forces of Jihadism and Baathism.’
Until two and a half years ago most of these voters collaborated – actively or passively - with Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror. Many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were willing executioners. Millions of others were only able to survive by averting their eyes and placing the interests of their own family and clan above the elevated but dangerous principles of solidarity and compassion. In Communist Eastern Europe and in Europe under the occupation of Nazi Germany, people often made the same choice.
Saddam Hussein’s immediate power base was his own Sunni clan and the tribes living in what is now known as the Sunni Triangle. Their hegemony has left deep scars. Iraq is littered with mass graves. From the centre of this artificial nation - Iraq was devised in 1921 by Winston Churchill (one of his lesser masterpieces) - Saddam Hussein ruled over Iraq like potentates have done for millennia in the Middle East: with cruelty, violence, corruption.
As such, Saddam showed himself a classic Middle Eastern despot, knowing exactly when to kill and when to distribute gifts. His was a regime that differed little from the traditional governments of the Arab Islamic region (and differing until recently little from that of many a dictator in much of the rest of the world).
In addition to bringing an end to this specific terror, the American-led invasion incidentally undermined the organisational principle on which the power of the state has been founded in this region since time immemorial. Small wonder, therefore, that this democratic revolution has caused a major upset in the Arab world.
America swept away an order that prevailed in Iraq based on violence and corruption, but the new democratic order (which is a concept introduced from the West: peaceful transfer of power through regular free elections) is vehemently opposed by various different groups. Were it not for the violence of these anti-democratic so-called ‘insurgents’ - in most of the Western media the murderers of innocent Iraqi civilians are still not referred to as terrorists - Iraq would probably have long ago been pacified and the most liberal and free society that the Arab world has ever known would have become a fact. Progress towards this goal is continuing, but many obstacles remain. The main question is what would happen if the Americans were to leave the country in the short term.
To answer this it is necessary to examine the forces currently undermining the new order.
The British government recently confirmed what many had already surmised: Iran is actively involved in terror in Iraq. Iran has much to gain if the democratic revolution fails. An Iraqi Shiite state that pursues its own liberal agenda alongside a fundamentalist Iran would form a direct threat to the Teheran regime. For the mullahs it is therefore essential to be able to influence events in Iraq, and if possible to ensure the secession of the oil-rich south-eastern Shiite section of the country.
For Teheran the advantage would be enormous: a Shiite vassal state in the south would dramatically reinforce the position of the Iranian regime. It is hardly surprising that Iran has put so much energy into obtaining a nuclear capability, since this would place its hegemony over that part of Iraq beyond dispute. The mullahs have obviously learned from Saddam Hussein’s mistake of occupying Kuwait without having first acquired a nuclear arsenal. It is in Iran’s interests, therefore, to maintain instability and to keep up the level of violence in Iraq until it has manufactured an atomic bomb, enabling it to annex – de facto or de jure - the south unopposed. The mullahs know that the West would not risk nuclear war over Basra.
Syria is equally anxious at the prospect of peace in a free and prosperous Iraq. The Alawite tyranny in Damascus, which has the country in a grip of economic stagnation, is only able to maintain its hold through corruption and repression, so that the influence of a democratic Arab neighbour might easily lead to a conflagration in Syrian society.
There is a tradition in Damascus of conspiring with Iran against Iraq. During the rule of Saddam’s family, ideological cousins of Syria’s Assad family, their aim was to restrain the expansionist ambitions of Iraqi Baathists. But unlike Iran, Syria has no long term interest in chaos in Iraq. Syria’s support for terrorism is almost a natural reflex reaction for the Assad regime, but Damascus has nothing to gain from a restoration of Iraq’s Baath party regime or an Islamist victory.
What the deal is between Damascus and Teheran is not entirely clear. Strong Western pressure will probably produce results in Syria, unlike in Iran: the rulers in Damascus know equally well that Teheran’s mullahs will never trust the Alawites, a Muslim sect.
The Islamist terrorists pretend to have their own long term perspective. But the notion of a caliphate in the west of Iraq is despite Islamist rethorics quite unrealistic, and it may well be that the terrorist leaders have come to realise that Iraq is no Afghanistan, where Koran students in isolated regions of the country formed the Taliban and exported their rural culture to the cities. Nothing like this could emerge in Iraq, nor could it be imposed from above. If Iran’s support for terror can be stopped - which is an absolute prerequisite - there are two options for Iraq, and neither of these fulfils Islamist ambitions.
Option 1: Iraq disintegrates into three separate states with their own ethnic and cultural identities - Kurdistan with oil, Shiitistan with oil, and Sunnistan without oil.
Option 2: Iraq manages to survive as a modern federal state.
The fourth group, the Baathist insurgents, have equally little chance of succeeding. Saddam relied on his secret police services, who gave Iraqis a choice as individuals either to collaborate or to be marginalised (or eliminated), and on the army, which he compartmentalised, like the secret police, in order to prevent possible coups. The Baathist state apparatus and its executive organs have been destroyed, making the restoration of the old regime virtually impossible.
There is one burning ambition all these groups share: the demise of America’s power. Despite the vast differences in their goals and capabilities, the main resistance groups hope to weaken the foundations of the only superpower by a terror campaign which main objective is to strengthen opposition in the West against the present American administration. The Americans cannot be defeated in the field, but they can be defeated on their television screens and their newspaper pages. That is the Vietnam Option (in Vietnam the Americans withdrew from a victory).
The Islamists face a terrible dilemma: they have to fight the Americans, but if they succeed they play Iraq – or a huge part of Iraq – into the hands of the Shiites in Iran. There may be cooperation between Sunni terrorists and Teheran, but this will break down the moment the Coalition troops would leave.
The terrorist leaders are still driven by a century old Muslim fiction: the Ummah, the global Islamic community. They still imagine that they are able to galvanise the Ummah, the global Islamic community, to rise up en masse against the West.
Why did this not happen after 9/11? Nor after Bali, Madrid or London?
The abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib make two things clear: in the American army as well there are individuals who are unable to control themselves when they have people in their power. And secondly: pictures of incidents perpetrated by Americans - comparable incidents would have been considered irrelevant by the world’s press under Saddam Hussein’s regime - are considered far more scandalous by Muslims than pictures of mosques blown up by terrorists. At least, this is what the media try to picture.
On 26 September Reuters reported that ‘gunmen killed five Shi’ite primary school teachers and a driver in a school in Iskandariya, south of Baghdad on Monday, a spokesman for Babel police said. “These men were terrorists in police uniform,” the spokesman told Reuters. He said the gunmen arrived at the school in two civilian cars, led the teachers and the school driver to a part of the school where no children were present, and shot them.’
This type of attack is an everyday occurrence. There is no response from the Arab-Islamic world. The terrorists are counting on the explosion of indignation in the Ummah when new photos emerge of humiliated Arab prisoners (an American judge recently ordered the Pentagon to release more pictures). Al Jazeera and Western media created an immense scandal of the Abu Ghraib pictures, and severe incidents of rioting Muslims occurred. But no such thing as an uprising of the Sunni civilization as such – Bin Laden’s main ambition. Not even a shred of that.
On the contrary: increasing numbers of Muslims are voicing their abhorrence to terrorist tactics, and it seems that the barbarity and magnitude of the attacks against the Shiites are beginning to reduce support among the Ummah. Nevertheless, the terrorists continue to try and provoke the Americans into retaliating and creating Abu Ghraib-like situations.
Al Qaeda’s acting COO Ayman Zawahiri has a sharp eye for the changing image of his brand among Muslims. He warned in a letter to Al Qaeda’s franchise chief in Iraq Abu Musab Zarqawi against the negative response to his terror campaign.
The Washington Post noted: ‘The letter may indicate al Qaeda’s recognition of Muslim public opinion, said one Middle East scholar. “If the letter’s true, it’s new because they haven’t shown any particular avoidance of certain ruthless tactics. It says to me they are concerned about the way they are being perceived in the Muslim world,” said Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution and the University of Maryland. “The vast majority of people in the Arab world sympathize with al Qaeda only because it champions their issues and speaks their language and it’s seemingly effective against their enemies. But most would not want al Qaeda to be the rulers. They would be repulsed to have someone like Zarqawi, who is beheading people, to head their government,” he said.’
In her speech at Princeton op September 30th, Condoleezza Rice explained that there is a serious danger that al Qaeda may seize hold of Iraq if the Americans withdraw. President Bush repeated the message in his speech on October 6th for the National Endowment for Democracy: ‘Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now. This is a dangerous illusion, refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe, with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people, and its resources?’
Is there an alternative to ‘cutting our losses en leaving Iraq now’?
Sunni terror - perpetrated by national-socialist Baathists and Islamo-fascists - has left deep wounds among Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds. Their self-control is remarkable. But without the US army in place that self control would probably not last long. The question is whether this is something that should be prevented.
America’s intervention in Iraq has been heroic. The achievements of US soldiers have been astonishing and decisive in creating the conditions for the emergence of a just Iraqi society. Walid Phares wrote in his Washington Times piece:
‘With 155,000 American troops, 22,000 coalition forces, and about 200,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen, deployed efficiently, Iraq's territories have been secured by significant deterrent forces. The Jihadists and their cross-borders allies, who have been attempting to wage massive attacks since mid-summer, were denied the capacity to disrupt the voting process. That alone is a field victory for the US-Iraqi alliance: For a second time in one year, the Iraqi people were allowed to express its will freely, while Jihad terror was incapable of reversing the democratic process.’
The consequences of this for the Arab Islamic world are potentially huge. But for now it is essential to examine the current situation as dispassionately as possible.
The social fabric of the Middle East is dominated by ethnicity and religion. The characteristics of a functioning nation-state - the division of legislative, executive and judicial powers, a neutral civil service, responsible police, democratic elections leading to peaceful transfer of power - arose in the West through centuries of bloody conflict, and have to date never been successfully emulated in any Arab state. The variants developed by Arabs themselves, from semi-secular Baathist national-socialism to stifling Taliban style fundamentalism, have created societies brimming with resentment, anger, confusion, delusion.
The Kurds have shown that it is possible to form a relatively open, reformed society based on ethnic-religious identity. With sufficient support, the Iraqi Shiites will be in a position to emulate their success. This depends on Iran being prevented from exercising a negative influence on the situation in Iraq.
It is hardly surprising that it has proved difficult to build up a non-ethnic, national Iraqi army. Not pressured anymore by a ruthless tyranny, with which collaboration seemed to be the only way to succeed in Iraqi society, for most recruits their primary loyalty is not with Churchill’s notion of Iraq but with their tribe and their ethnic-religious affiliation.
Instead of insisting on building a national Iraqi army, it is necessary to discuss the creation of ethnic National Guards, Kurdish in the north and Shiite in the south, which together will form a proto-Iraqi army. The referendum will lead Iraq into the direction of a federation with three distinct ethnic-religious member-states.
The violence is being fed by resentment in the Sunni Triangle, Saddam’s former backbone, a region that has been deeply perverted by its collaboration with Saddam’s culture of rape, repression, theft, murder. If Saddam would have been in power now, the men who now commit acts of terrorism would be his henchmen.
Sunni leaders know what to expect if Kurdish and Shiite units would arrive in the Sunni Triangle to restore order with their US-supplied arms. American forces are limited in their scope and force by rules that don’t fit the region (Israel’s forces face the same kind of problems). The Kurds and Shiites will hardly be interested in playing by rules that the Pentagon will be able to sell to the Western media.
The lack of its own army will weaken the authority of the federal Iraqi government, but a functioning Iraqi state with functioning member states can only flourish after the eradication of terrorism. If an Iraqi army cannot do this job because it hasn’t created national legitimacy, Iraqi National Guards should do the job.
The bitter truth is that terrorism in Iraq continues by the grace of moral and ethnic rules imposed on Western fighting forces by Western journalists and commentators, rules that form a protective mantel over the towns and villages in which the terrorists find refuge. It is the television cameras of the press agencies and the presence of the US army that protects their tribes and families from the vengeance of the Kurds and Shiites. As has been the case for the first time in Vietnam, the media are part of the conflict. In this case: it is unavoidable that camera’s work in the advantage of the ‘insurgents’ (even the wording of their deeds plays into their advantage).
Without Western presence in their region, and because of that a sharp reduction of Western media representatives, the Kurds and Shiites would probably adopt a more ‘traditional’ Middle-Eastern approach to Iraqi terror. What is this more traditional Middle-Eastern approach? A traditional Middle-Eastern solution to terrorism could for example be the torture or liquidation of relatives of terrorists, or even the destruction of entire villages.
Sunni terrorist leaders, and the tribes that harbour them, will understand the potential consequences of the creation of ethnic-religious militias - excluding, as long as the ‘insurgency’ continues, the creation of a Sunnite National Guard - in the context of a new Iraqi federation. Kurds and Shiites, armed with American technology and driven by traditional ethnic-tribal passion, seeking revenge for the mass graves, massacres and car bombs, will not feel the constraint of the Western press. It is highly probable that the creation of ethnic-religious militias will persuade the Sunni leadership that America’s presence is the only guarantee for the continued existence of their clans.
These are cold Machiavellian considerations, but the facts are indisputable. Before the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Arab Islamic world can begin, terrorism has to be eradicated. Iraq is in the centre of the world where the expression ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ was born. That the response to this in Manhattan’s Upper West Side is one of horror, will mean little to the Shiite who has just lost his wife and children in a bomb attack on a market.
Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes recently found out in Saudi Arabia that Saudi women are the happiest in the world, so she’ll have the time to tell the Sunnis the truth. Cooperation, marginalisation, or annihilation. Those are the only options.
One remark about the ‘Ummah’, a term that also shows up in the letter written by the killer of Theo van Gogh.
The Ummah does not show any concern about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Islamic victims in Darfur, and it is seemingly unconcerned about the terrorist campaign in Iraq, that kills thousands of innocent Muslims. Would the Ummah suddenly be concerned if Kurdish and Shiite Muslims actively defend their markets, schools and shops by invading the Sunni Triangle?
If it is true that the Ummah remains stoic when confronted with terrible evil, the question arises if the Ummah exists at all. Isn’t it an abstraction comparable to the ‘Christian world community’?
There is only one way for Al Qaeda to succeed: the worldwide revolt of the Ummah. It may be cruelly ironic that Bin Laden is barking up the wrong tree, or better: is barking up the illusion of a tree. Is the Ummah unconcerned because the Ummah does not exist? It may be possible that the Ummah is one of those romantic but deeply ineffective concepts floating around in the ‘dream palace of the Arabs’, as the Arab mindset was called by the great scholar Fouad Ajami.