Only a U.S. Withdrawal Will Stop Al Qaeda in Iraq
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One of the last justifications for continuing the U.S. occupation of Iraq despite overwhelming opposition from Iraqis, Americans and the rest of humanity has come down to this: U.S. forces must remain in order to battle "al Qaeda in Iraq."
Like so many of the arguments presented in the United States, the idea is not only intellectually bankrupt, it's also the 180-degree opposite of reality. The truth of the matter is that only the presence of U.S. forces allows the group called "al Qaeda in Iraq" (AQI) to survive and function, and setting a timetable for the occupation to end is the best way to beat them . You won't hear that perspective in Washington, but according to Iraqis with whom we spoke, it is the conventional wisdom in much of the country.
The Bush administration has made much of what it calls "progress" in the Sunni-dominated provinces of central Iraq. But when we spoke to leaders there, the message we got was very different from what supporters of a long-term occupation claim: Many Sunnis are, indeed, lined up against groups like AQI, but that doesn't mean they are "joining" with coalition forces or throwing their support behind the Iraqi government.
Several sources we reached in the Sunni community agreed that AQI, a predominantly Sunni insurgent group that did not exist prior to the U.S. invasion -- it started in 2005 -- will not exist for long after coalition forces depart. AQI is universally detested by large majorities of Iraqis of all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds because of its fundamentalist interpretation of religious law and efforts to set up a separate Sunni state, and its only support -- and it obviously does enjoy some support -- is based solely on its opposition to the deeply unpopular U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
We spoke by phone with Qasim Al-jumaili, a former member of Falluja's City Council, who was confident that his local militias would eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq from Fallujah if U.S. forces were to withdraw. "The U.S. presence is making our work harder," he said. "For example, the Anbar Salvation Front [the Sunni tribal leadership group that declared war against Al Qaeda in Iraq], is not getting a lot of public support because they think we're collaborating with the U.S. and the Al-Maliki government."
Al Jumaili was confident that Iraqis wouldn't tolerate Al Qaeda in Iraq's presence in an independent Iraq . "If the U.S. was to pull out from Iraq and let Iraqis have a national government instead of the puppet one now, Iraqis with their government and tribal leaders would quickly eliminate Al Qaeda from all Iraq," he said. It's a credible statement -- most estimates of the terror group's strength suggest its membership is in the low thousands, no match for the larger organized militias or the fledgling security forces without the support of some of the residents of the areas in which they operate.
Contrary to the neat media narrative of a unified "Sunni" leadership that has turned on AQI and joined with the Americans -- a narrative wholly fabricated by the White House and repeated without skepticism by most of the traditional media -- the Sunni community in Iraq is fragmented and divided by a variety of shifting loyalties and interests. Canadian journalist Patrick Graham, who spent a year with Sunni militias, wrote of the "Anbar Awakening":
â€¦ It is still a shaky union, a desperate marriage of convenience based on shared enemies: Iran, and the Sunnis' former-friend-turned-foe Al Qaeda. Many of America's new allies are former insurgents and Saddam Hussein loyalists (Saddam was a Sunni) who only a short while ago were routinely called terrorists, "anti-Iraqi fighters," and "Baathist dead-enders." They are suspicious of one another and strongly anti-American, although willing to work, for the moment, with the U.S.
Iraq's Sunnis are divided; while there's a dramatic backlash against the AQI, the group receives its support from within the community. But according to Sunni leaders with whom we spoke, there won't be a unified opposition to the terror group as long as U.S. forces remain in the country.
MN, a leader of a local "social committee" in Fallujah who would only speak anonymously for security reasons, said of the emerging Sunni resistance to AQI: "I'll join them as soon as they cut their ties to the occupiers." Although opposed to AQI, he told us he would never join the fight against AQI as long as it is associated with the U.S.-led occupation.
One of the central tenets of counter-insurgency is that a small group of active fighters can be a powerful force of opposition, but only if they have at least the passive support of the populace. The second the United States commits to a complete withdrawal of its forces, Al Qaeda in Iraq will become a pariah organization and its members will be killed, if they're lucky, or captured if they're not.
Resistance or terrorism?
In July, three of the most prominent Sunni insurgent groups agreed to join forces in a concerted effort to end the occupation. Abd al Rahman al Zubeidy, a spokesman for one of the groups, told the Guardian: "Resistance isn't just about killing Americans without aims or goals. Our people have come to hate Al Qaeda, which gives the impression to the outside world that the resistance in Iraq are terrorists. We are against indiscriminate killing, fighting should be concentrated only on the enemy." He added that "a great gap has opened up between Sunni and Shia under the occupation and Al Qaeda has contributed to that â€¦ Most of Al Qaeda's members are Iraqis but its leaders are mostly foreigners. The Americans magnify their role, even though they are responsible for a minority of resistance operations."
The public opinion research shows that those views are shared by overwhelming majorities of ordinary Iraqis. All of Iraq's ethnic groups oppose Al Qaeda. They reject AQI's attacks on Iraqis, its harshly fundamentalist brand of Islam and its attempts to form a separate Sunni "caliphate" -- an independent theocratic state -- in central Iraq, but significant pluralities -- and a huge majority of Sunnis -- support AQI's attacks on occupation forces. A recent poll by the BBC found that almost half of all Iraqis backed AQI's attacks on coalition troops, but only one in 100 favored its larger separatist agenda ( PDF).
The narrative surrounding Al Qaeda in Iraq is just one part of the larger argument to continue the occupation indefinitely. That is: the United States must remain in Iraq because the Iraqis will murder each other if we were to depart. George W. Bush recently laid out the prevalent scare story about what would happen if the occupation were to come to an end:
If we were to leave before the job is done, chaos could ensue, innocent people would lose their life, extremists would be emboldened â€¦ the countries of the Middle East would be endangered, and that would cause America to be endangered, as well.
What's remarkable is how effective this argument has been, even among purported opponents of the war. Take a step back, and the proposition that it's immoral for an invading power to bring an end to a disastrous occupation is nothing short of bizarre. It was an argument that could just as easily have been made by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan and is just as valid today vis-Ã -vis the American presence in Iraq.
It is a classic imperial argument -- portraying colonized peoples as childlike savages who need the steady hand of European leadership. It's not a new concept, but a new iteration of the central ideology used to justify the subjugation of hundreds of millions of people around the world -- the cornerstone of colonial policies from the Monroe Doctrine to Apartheid South Africa.
And it is profoundly wrong. According to the BBC poll from September, 72 percent of Iraqis believe the U.S. presence is making the security situation worse. Early last year, the Project on International Policy Attitudes asked Iraqis what they predicted would happen if the United States were to pull out in the next six months, two-thirds said they thought the "day-to-day security of ordinary citizens" would improve, a similar number predicted that "violent attacks" would decrease, 61 percent said that "interethnic violence" would drop and 56 percent predicted that the number of "foreign fighters" in Iraq would dwindle. Iraqis, by more than a two-to-one margin believe that a U.S. commitment to withdrawal will strengthen the Iraqi government and make a conciliation among ethnic an sectarian groups more likely.
The question for those who argue that setting a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal presents some kind of moral conundrum is this: What makes you think you understand the dynamics in that country better than the Iraqis do?