Senator Barack Obama’s answer to Katie Couric’s question a few days ago about why he thinks there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since September 11, 2001, was bizarre.
“Well,” he said, “I think that the initial invasion into Afghanistan disrupted al Qaeda. And that was the right thing to do. I mean, we had to knock out those safe havens. And that, I think, weakened them. We did some work in strengthening our homeland security apparatus here. Obviously, the average person knows that when they go to the airport, because they are goin’ through taking off their shoes … all that. The problem is when we got distracted by Iraq. We gave al Qaeda time to reconstitute itself.” [Emphasis added.]
Jennifer Rubin correctly noted that Couric asked Obama why the U.S. has not been attacked, but let’s leave that aside. The notion that “we gave Al Qaeda time to reconstitute itself” is breathtakingly ahistorical.
The U.S. and NATO have never let up in Afghanistan. At no time were American resources redeployed from Afghanistan to Iraq. (CORRECTION: The number of troops were not reduced in Afghanistan thanks to the war in Iraq, but some CIA agents and predator drones were redeployed.)
Obama could, perhaps, argue that fewer resources were available for the fight in Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. That would be true. But that’s also true of Al Qaeda’s resources. They also deployed manpower and material to Iraq that otherwise could have been sent to Afghanistan.
The Al Qaeda leadership emphatically has not agreed with Obama that Iraq is a distraction. It has been their main event for years.
“The most important and serious issue today for the whole world,” Osama bin Laden said on December 28, 2004, “is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world’s millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.”
It’s only natural that an Arab-led and mostly Arab-staffed terrorist group like Al Qaeda would be more concerned with a strategically critical country in the heart of the Arab Middle East than with a primitive non-Arab backwater in Central Asia.
Bin Laden’s lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri explicitly spelled out Al Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq on July 9, 2005. “The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq,” he said. “The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or amirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate—over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq.”
The war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq can plausibly be described as a distraction from the war against Al Qaeda. But the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq cannot possibly be accurately described as a distraction from the war against Al Qaeda.
And make no mistake: Al Qaeda’s manpower and resources have been thoroughly degraded from its disastrous fight with Americans and Iraqis, especially in Anbar Province which was briefly established as Al Qaeda’s “capital” of the so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.”
Last summer I met with U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province and also what until 2007 was Al Qaeda’s key stronghold.
“What’s the most important thing Americans need to know about Iraq that they don’t currently know?” I asked him.
“That we’re fighting Al Qaeda,” he said without hesitation. “[Abu Musab al] Zarqawi invented Al Qaeda in Iraq. The top leadership outside Iraq squawked and thought it was a bad idea. Then he blew up the Samarra mosque, triggered a civil war, and got the whole world’s attention. Then the Al Qaeda leadership outside dumped huge amounts of money and people and arms into Anbar Province. They poured everything they had into this place. The battle against Americans in Anbar became their most important fight in the world. And they lost.”
Al Qaeda lost in Iraq partly because American soldiers and Marines outsmarted and outfought them, but also, just as importantly, because the Iraqi people themselves rose up in resistance.
Iraqis aren’t the only ones who have soured on Al Qaeda lately.
Last year the Pew Research Center surveyed Muslims in 16 different countries. Support for suicide bombers has declined in nearly every country that was also surveyed in 2002, and the decline is dramatic almost everywhere. The only Muslim communities surveyed where support for suicide bombers remains at greater than 50 percent are, unsurprisingly, the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
The United States could not have prudently allowed itself to yield the field to Al Qaeda in either Iraq or Afghanistan by being wholly distracted from one or the other. Both fronts were crucial for Al Qaeda, which means both were crucial for the United States. It doesn’t matter if we like the fact that we have been embroiled in a hot war with Al Qaeda in two countries at once. That’s just how it is.
If Al Qaeda hadn’t poured all those resources into Iraq, they likely would have poured them into Afghanistan. And the U.S. very well may have lost the war by this time. Afghanistan, at the very least, would be in much worse shape than it is. And it’s not looking good even now. Independent foreign correspondent Michael Yon, who is hardly known as a pessimistic defeatist, still insists we’re losing the war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the U.S. has all but won the war in Iraq even though Iraq was in much worse shape recently and the war there did not last as long. Iraq, as it turned out, was an easier place to fight Al Qaeda and other sundry insurgent and terrorist groups than Afghanistan.
Obama is rightly worried about the safe havens Al Qaeda has created in Pakistan, and it’s to his credit that he refuses to let up about it. But for years he’s been entirely blasé about the safe havens Al Qaeda created in Iraq–in Ramadi, Fallujah, Baqubah, Mosul, and parts of Baghdad. For years he has aggressively promoted a policy of abandoning the fight in that country which quite obviously would have allowed Al Qaeda to preserve those safe havens and possibly even expand them.
He finally admitted the surge worked after wallowing in denial about it for a year and a half while those of us who actually worked in Iraq knew he was wrong. It’s time for him to admit that one of the results of the surge is that Al Qaeda lost its war in Iraq and was not given time to reconstitute.