Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

A Big Fish Caught in Afghanistan

No one should be fooled into thinking that the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s No. 2 commander, will end the insurgency in Afghanistan — any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 ended al-Qaeda in Iraq’s reign of terror. In fact (a sobering thought!), violence in Iraq only intensified after Zarqawi’s death, which occurred at the hands of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, containing America’s top commando units. Nevertheless, Baradar’s capture, which was apparently carried out in Karachi by the CIA in cooperation with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, will deal a major blow to the Taliban, at least over the short term. His importance is summed up in this Newsweek article:

Baradar appoints and fires the Taliban’s commanders and governors; presides over its top military council and central ruling Shura in Quetta, the city in southwestern Pakistan where most of the group’s senior leaders are based; and issues the group’s most important policy statements in his own name. It is key that he controls the Taliban’s treasury — hundreds of millions of dollars in narcotics protection money, ransom payments, highway tolls, and “charitable donations,” largely from the Gulf. “He commands all military, political, religious, and financial power,” says Mullah Shah Wali Akhund, a guerrilla subcommander from Helmand province.

No doubt Baradar will be replaced but that will take a while and, in the meantime, Taliban operations will be disrupted just as the U.S. troop surge is getting underway and the offensive aimed at Marjah, a major Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, is nearing the completion of its initial stages. The timing couldn’t be better. We can only hope that his interrogators make Baradar talk, which is probably more likely given that the ISI is not bound by the sort of restrictions on interrogation that the Obama administration has imposed on our own spooks. Nor, it should be added, will Baradar be read his Miranda rights — a sign of how differently we treat terrorists captured abroad compared with those who manage to make it to American soil.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing about Baradar’s capture is what it portends not about the future of Afghanistan but rather of Pakistan. Until now, Pakistani officials have been willing to go after the Pakistani Taliban, who pose a direct threat to their rule, while ignoring, or even subsiding, their Afghan brethren, who are seen as a tool of Pakistani foreign policy. Thus the Afghan Taliban have been allowed to operate with impunity in Quetta and other Pakistani cities. Let us hope that this operation signals a lasting change of attitude on the part of Islamabad. If it does, that will make the threat in Afghanistan much more manageable while also increasing the long-term prospects of defeating the Islamist insurgency in Pakistan.

No one should be fooled into thinking that the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s No. 2 commander, will end the insurgency in Afghanistan — any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 ended al-Qaeda in Iraq’s reign of terror. In fact (a sobering thought!), violence in Iraq only intensified after Zarqawi’s death, which occurred at the hands of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, containing America’s top commando units. Nevertheless, Baradar’s capture, which was apparently carried out in Karachi by the CIA in cooperation with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, will deal a major blow to the Taliban, at least over the short term. His importance is summed up in this Newsweek article:

Baradar appoints and fires the Taliban’s commanders and governors; presides over its top military council and central ruling Shura in Quetta, the city in southwestern Pakistan where most of the group’s senior leaders are based; and issues the group’s most important policy statements in his own name. It is key that he controls the Taliban’s treasury — hundreds of millions of dollars in narcotics protection money, ransom payments, highway tolls, and “charitable donations,” largely from the Gulf. “He commands all military, political, religious, and financial power,” says Mullah Shah Wali Akhund, a guerrilla subcommander from Helmand province.

No doubt Baradar will be replaced but that will take a while and, in the meantime, Taliban operations will be disrupted just as the U.S. troop surge is getting underway and the offensive aimed at Marjah, a major Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province, is nearing the completion of its initial stages. The timing couldn’t be better. We can only hope that his interrogators make Baradar talk, which is probably more likely given that the ISI is not bound by the sort of restrictions on interrogation that the Obama administration has imposed on our own spooks. Nor, it should be added, will Baradar be read his Miranda rights — a sign of how differently we treat terrorists captured abroad compared with those who manage to make it to American soil.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing about Baradar’s capture is what it portends not about the future of Afghanistan but rather of Pakistan. Until now, Pakistani officials have been willing to go after the Pakistani Taliban, who pose a direct threat to their rule, while ignoring, or even subsiding, their Afghan brethren, who are seen as a tool of Pakistani foreign policy. Thus the Afghan Taliban have been allowed to operate with impunity in Quetta and other Pakistani cities. Let us hope that this operation signals a lasting change of attitude on the part of Islamabad. If it does, that will make the threat in Afghanistan much more manageable while also increasing the long-term prospects of defeating the Islamist insurgency in Pakistan.

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Remember Iraq?

In today’s New York Times, David Carr has a piece about the dwindling media coverage of the Iraq War. Carr begins writing about war fatigue and soon descends into a lament about Pentagon restrictions on media and, of course, the human toll of the war. When a media expert cites the success of the troop surge as a possible cause for decreased coverage, Carr is quick to minimize the point:

“Ironically, the success of the surge and a reduction in violence has led to a reduction in coverage,” said Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “There is evidence that people have made up their minds about this war, and other stories – like the economy and the election – have come along and sucked up all the oxygen.”

But the tactical success of the surge should not be misconstrued as making Iraq a safer place for American soldiers.

(Anyone interested in “misconstruing” the definition of success to actually mean success, should go check out this Los Angeles Times article about the four-year-low in Iraq violence.)

The MSM has reasons beyond widespread anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment to keep post-surge good news out of the headlines. H. Fred Garcia, media consultant at Logos Consulting Group, cites the five C’s that make a story newsworthy: Conflict, Contradiction, Controversy, Cast of Characters and Colorful Language. With the progress made in the last year, the Iraq War has disappointed in delivering the five C’s to outlets like the New York Times. Let’s consider them one-by-one:

Conflict: A more stable Iraq means, by definition, less conflict. Where there was once talk of civil war, there is now talk of reconciliation. Stories about parliamentary sessions don’t contain body counts, and pictures of bill-signings don’t make it to the front page as frequently as battle scenes.

Contradiction: General David Petraeus is in the honorable habit of telling it like it is. Whereas jettisoned personalities like Donald Rumsfeld could be relied upon to observe setbacks and brag of successes, Gen. Petraeus is circumspect when testifying about hard-won progress. How can the media trip up a man who readily concedes that the success he’s seeing is “fragile and reversible”? Furthermore there’s greater public agreement coming out of the Pentagon and the State Department than there was in the early days of the war. The Petraeus plan has been settled upon and there’s very little in-fighting to leak out.

Controversy: If you go to google.com/news and type in “Iraq scandal”, you’ll get hits for Abu Ghraib, Guantanemo Bay, Walter Reed, insufficient body armor, and Blackwater. These are all years-old stories of varying merit. Try as they might, the MSM has been unable to make any fresh controversy stick to the coalition’s effort in Iraq.

Cast of Characters: Iraq isn’t a soap opera anymore. The days of Donald Rumsfeld and Baghdad Bob are over. There is no more hubristic overstatement, wise-cracking insouciance, or delusional ranting. On the American side Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker don’t project primetime appeal. They appear before cameras to make their case and then go back to work. On the Iraqi side, there’s no more Saddam Hussein or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The classic villains have been slain. (The aged and puny Tariq Aziz is currently standing trial for war crimes and no one even notices.) The MSM salivates over Moqtada al-Sadr’s every bark and growl, but as he continues to be marginalized the effort to turn him into a larger-than-life personage grows evermore challenging. As Prime Minister al-Maliki goes about the unglamorous business of Iraqi statehood, he fails to cut the dashing image of, say, (one-time prime minister hopeful) Ahmed Chalibi.

Colorful language: The lexicon of battle is far more lurid than the lexicon of reconciliation. We’ve gone from the pyrotechnics of “Shock and Awe” and the exotic horror of exploding golden domes to the legalese of parliamentary decisions. The most hysterical effort at maintaining the electrified language of war can be found in the lede of a July 27 New York Times story about ice in Bagdhad: “Each day before the midsummer sun rises high enough to bake blood on concrete, Baghdad’s underclass lines up outside Dickensian ice factories.” Blood can bake only so many times as violence decreases.

So: We’re left with the humdrum narrative of slow and steady progress. Happiness, they say, writes white. While no one would characterize Iraq as happy, there’s been more boring good news coming from Mesopotamia in the past year than the MSM knows what to do with.

In today’s New York Times, David Carr has a piece about the dwindling media coverage of the Iraq War. Carr begins writing about war fatigue and soon descends into a lament about Pentagon restrictions on media and, of course, the human toll of the war. When a media expert cites the success of the troop surge as a possible cause for decreased coverage, Carr is quick to minimize the point:

“Ironically, the success of the surge and a reduction in violence has led to a reduction in coverage,” said Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “There is evidence that people have made up their minds about this war, and other stories – like the economy and the election – have come along and sucked up all the oxygen.”

But the tactical success of the surge should not be misconstrued as making Iraq a safer place for American soldiers.

(Anyone interested in “misconstruing” the definition of success to actually mean success, should go check out this Los Angeles Times article about the four-year-low in Iraq violence.)

The MSM has reasons beyond widespread anti-war, anti-Bush sentiment to keep post-surge good news out of the headlines. H. Fred Garcia, media consultant at Logos Consulting Group, cites the five C’s that make a story newsworthy: Conflict, Contradiction, Controversy, Cast of Characters and Colorful Language. With the progress made in the last year, the Iraq War has disappointed in delivering the five C’s to outlets like the New York Times. Let’s consider them one-by-one:

Conflict: A more stable Iraq means, by definition, less conflict. Where there was once talk of civil war, there is now talk of reconciliation. Stories about parliamentary sessions don’t contain body counts, and pictures of bill-signings don’t make it to the front page as frequently as battle scenes.

Contradiction: General David Petraeus is in the honorable habit of telling it like it is. Whereas jettisoned personalities like Donald Rumsfeld could be relied upon to observe setbacks and brag of successes, Gen. Petraeus is circumspect when testifying about hard-won progress. How can the media trip up a man who readily concedes that the success he’s seeing is “fragile and reversible”? Furthermore there’s greater public agreement coming out of the Pentagon and the State Department than there was in the early days of the war. The Petraeus plan has been settled upon and there’s very little in-fighting to leak out.

Controversy: If you go to google.com/news and type in “Iraq scandal”, you’ll get hits for Abu Ghraib, Guantanemo Bay, Walter Reed, insufficient body armor, and Blackwater. These are all years-old stories of varying merit. Try as they might, the MSM has been unable to make any fresh controversy stick to the coalition’s effort in Iraq.

Cast of Characters: Iraq isn’t a soap opera anymore. The days of Donald Rumsfeld and Baghdad Bob are over. There is no more hubristic overstatement, wise-cracking insouciance, or delusional ranting. On the American side Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker don’t project primetime appeal. They appear before cameras to make their case and then go back to work. On the Iraqi side, there’s no more Saddam Hussein or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The classic villains have been slain. (The aged and puny Tariq Aziz is currently standing trial for war crimes and no one even notices.) The MSM salivates over Moqtada al-Sadr’s every bark and growl, but as he continues to be marginalized the effort to turn him into a larger-than-life personage grows evermore challenging. As Prime Minister al-Maliki goes about the unglamorous business of Iraqi statehood, he fails to cut the dashing image of, say, (one-time prime minister hopeful) Ahmed Chalibi.

Colorful language: The lexicon of battle is far more lurid than the lexicon of reconciliation. We’ve gone from the pyrotechnics of “Shock and Awe” and the exotic horror of exploding golden domes to the legalese of parliamentary decisions. The most hysterical effort at maintaining the electrified language of war can be found in the lede of a July 27 New York Times story about ice in Bagdhad: “Each day before the midsummer sun rises high enough to bake blood on concrete, Baghdad’s underclass lines up outside Dickensian ice factories.” Blood can bake only so many times as violence decreases.

So: We’re left with the humdrum narrative of slow and steady progress. Happiness, they say, writes white. While no one would characterize Iraq as happy, there’s been more boring good news coming from Mesopotamia in the past year than the MSM knows what to do with.

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One Down…

An Al Qaeda big shot, Abu Laith al-Libi, has apparently been killed in Pakistan by a missile fired from an American Predator drone probably operated by the CIA. That’s good news, of course, but we shouldn’t get carried away. There are lots more bad guys where he was hiding, and neither the Pakistani nor the U.S. authorities have been willing to go after them—the former for complicated internal political reasons, the latter for fear of offending and embarrassing the government of Pakistan.

The administration’s working hypothesis has been that Pervez Musharraf will do our dirty work for us in the western tribal areas of Pakistan, and that allowing American forces to operate there unilaterally would only undermine his regime. That calculus should start to shift now that it is apparent that Musharraf has not done nearly as much as he promised to battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban and now that his own legitimacy with the Pakistani people is almost nonexistent anyway. We need to do what we can to fight back against the Islamist extremists who are consolidating their hold on the frontier regions, thus threatening both Pakistan and Afghanistan. That could involve taking some of the fetters off the CIA and the Special Operations Forces and letting them conduct more targeted hits.

But if we’ve learned anything in Iraq it is that killing or capturing terrorist big shots isn’t enough. Special operators had success taking down everyone from Saddam Hussein to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and none of it made much difference to the overall goal of pacifying Iraq. We only made real strides when large numbers of American troops were deployed to mount classic counterinsurgency operations, which means securing the people against insurgent attacks. There is scant prospect at the moment that American troops in large numbers will be deployed to conduct such operations in Pakistan. That is, in fact, almost inconceivable barring another 9/11-style attack emanating from that area. (Unfortunately such an atrocity itself is by no means inconceivable.)

In the interim, the U.S. is trying to do what it can to help the Pakistani armed forces and perhaps tribal forces to take on the extremists. Those efforts haven’t shown much success so far, but they are now one of the most critical fronts in the war on terror, and they need to be a top priority for the administration in its waning days in office.

An Al Qaeda big shot, Abu Laith al-Libi, has apparently been killed in Pakistan by a missile fired from an American Predator drone probably operated by the CIA. That’s good news, of course, but we shouldn’t get carried away. There are lots more bad guys where he was hiding, and neither the Pakistani nor the U.S. authorities have been willing to go after them—the former for complicated internal political reasons, the latter for fear of offending and embarrassing the government of Pakistan.

The administration’s working hypothesis has been that Pervez Musharraf will do our dirty work for us in the western tribal areas of Pakistan, and that allowing American forces to operate there unilaterally would only undermine his regime. That calculus should start to shift now that it is apparent that Musharraf has not done nearly as much as he promised to battle Al Qaeda and the Taliban and now that his own legitimacy with the Pakistani people is almost nonexistent anyway. We need to do what we can to fight back against the Islamist extremists who are consolidating their hold on the frontier regions, thus threatening both Pakistan and Afghanistan. That could involve taking some of the fetters off the CIA and the Special Operations Forces and letting them conduct more targeted hits.

But if we’ve learned anything in Iraq it is that killing or capturing terrorist big shots isn’t enough. Special operators had success taking down everyone from Saddam Hussein to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and none of it made much difference to the overall goal of pacifying Iraq. We only made real strides when large numbers of American troops were deployed to mount classic counterinsurgency operations, which means securing the people against insurgent attacks. There is scant prospect at the moment that American troops in large numbers will be deployed to conduct such operations in Pakistan. That is, in fact, almost inconceivable barring another 9/11-style attack emanating from that area. (Unfortunately such an atrocity itself is by no means inconceivable.)

In the interim, the U.S. is trying to do what it can to help the Pakistani armed forces and perhaps tribal forces to take on the extremists. Those efforts haven’t shown much success so far, but they are now one of the most critical fronts in the war on terror, and they need to be a top priority for the administration in its waning days in office.

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The Shia Awakening

After returning to the U.S. from my summer trip to Baghdad and Ramadi, I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News that warned against bingeing on optimism in the wake of the surge. I wrote this despite the dramatic turnaround in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The abject defeat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq in and around Anbar’s capital of Ramadi is stunning, but local. The fight still rages on elsewhere, and in each place it is different. In early 2007, Ramadi was the most violent city in all of Iraq. It was also, counterintuitively, the easiest city to win.

Al Qaeda had seized it and declared it the capital of their so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.” Local tribal leaders and civilians initially welcomed al Qaeda as liberators against the hated American occupiers, but later rejected them after al Qaeda behaved like…al Qaeda, and launched a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against everyone who opposed them. “It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me.

Zarqawi’s lieutenants make up a relatively small percentage of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but they are by far the most psychotic and destructive. No one should be surprised that they were expelled from Anbar. They went at the Iraqis with car bombs and kitchen knives. They sawed off the heads of children as well as adults. They murdered entire families just for making eye contact with American soldiers. The Iraqis in Ramadi had little choice but to form an alliance with Americans, in order to purge these killers from their lands.

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After returning to the U.S. from my summer trip to Baghdad and Ramadi, I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News that warned against bingeing on optimism in the wake of the surge. I wrote this despite the dramatic turnaround in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The abject defeat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq in and around Anbar’s capital of Ramadi is stunning, but local. The fight still rages on elsewhere, and in each place it is different. In early 2007, Ramadi was the most violent city in all of Iraq. It was also, counterintuitively, the easiest city to win.

Al Qaeda had seized it and declared it the capital of their so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.” Local tribal leaders and civilians initially welcomed al Qaeda as liberators against the hated American occupiers, but later rejected them after al Qaeda behaved like…al Qaeda, and launched a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against everyone who opposed them. “It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me.

Zarqawi’s lieutenants make up a relatively small percentage of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but they are by far the most psychotic and destructive. No one should be surprised that they were expelled from Anbar. They went at the Iraqis with car bombs and kitchen knives. They sawed off the heads of children as well as adults. They murdered entire families just for making eye contact with American soldiers. The Iraqis in Ramadi had little choice but to form an alliance with Americans, in order to purge these killers from their lands.

However, as I wrote in late August, “what worked in Ramadi might not work in Baghdad. [Moqtada al-Sadr's radical Shia] Mahdi Army’s relative moderation, compared with al Qaeda’s brutality, prevents it from being rejected by the entire society.”

I may have been too pessimistic and given Sadr’s militia more credit than it deserves.

The New York Times reported last week that many Shias in Baghdad, including some tribal sheikhs, are now turning against the Mahdi Army and working with the Americans to evict them. Sadr’s base is collapsing from right underneath him, and it’s a direct result of the successful assault on radical Sunnis by General Petraeus’s surge forces and the Mahdi Army itself.

The Mahdi Army picked up substantial local support thanks to its defense of Shias from Sunni insurgents and death squads. Neither the American soldiers nor the Iraqi security forces were able to secure the streets of the neighborhoods, so Sadr’s militia was called on for the job. Many portions of Baghdad have since been purged of Sunni extremists, partly due to the notorious sectarian “cleansing” and population transfers. The Mahdi Army is a victim of its own success, in a way: it has outlived its perceived usefulness and has degenerated into an ideology-free gang of murderous street thugs who do not want to let go of power. A militia need not be as deranged as al Qaeda to wear out its welcome, even in Baghdad.

Sadr’s army has been opposed by a substantial number of Shias all along. The new opposition comes from his base, and includes several sheikhs who supported him not long ago.

It’s hard for Americans to appreciate just how much power sheikhs have in Iraq. What they say goes. I spent a week in the Graya’at neighborhood of Baghdad, where every sheikh had come around to the American side. Earlier this year they insisted that not a single shot shall be fired at American soldiers, and not a single shot has been fired since. When they say it’s time to join Moqtada al-Sadr, or it’s time to join the Americans, nearly every person under their authority does what they say.

In the parts of Iraq where the locals turn against the insurgents en masse, it is only a matter of time before the insurgents are finished. Civilians phone in actionable intelligence on the locations of safe houses, weapons caches, IED’s, and everything else.

The radical Sunnis in Iraq are the most vicious. It is logical, then, that they are being defeated first. Extremist Shias have been tougher because they are more moderate, as well as more numerous. But defeating Sunni insurgents knocks out support from under the radical Shias. If you’re looking for a reason to hope in Iraq, that is it.

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Al Qaeda in . . . Mesopotamia?

In today’s New York Times we read this:

The recent drop in violence against noncombatants in Iraq occurred during a time when al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had promised to inflict more. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group that American intelligence has concluded is led by foreigners.

This is of course good news. And yet this paragraph highlights, as if we needed more evidence, the political bias of the editors of the Times (it is important to note that some of their reporters, like John Burns and Michael Gordon, are first-rate). Instead of referring to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) as, say, al Qaeda-Iraq—which is how our commanding general in Iraq, David Petraeus, describes it—the Times refers to the organization as al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. And this phrase is always followed up with this formulation: “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group that American intelligence has concluded is led by foreigners.”

The indispensable James Taranto, who writes the daily online column “Best of the Web,” has made merciless fun of the Times for doing this (playing off the Times, he refers to AQI as “al Qaeda Which Has Nothing to Do With Iraq in Iraq Which Has Nothing to Do With al Qaeda”). At the risk of taking the editors of the Times too seriously, it’s worth considering what the Times is trying to achieve.

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In today’s New York Times we read this:

The recent drop in violence against noncombatants in Iraq occurred during a time when al Qaeda in Mesopotamia had promised to inflict more. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group that American intelligence has concluded is led by foreigners.

This is of course good news. And yet this paragraph highlights, as if we needed more evidence, the political bias of the editors of the Times (it is important to note that some of their reporters, like John Burns and Michael Gordon, are first-rate). Instead of referring to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) as, say, al Qaeda-Iraq—which is how our commanding general in Iraq, David Petraeus, describes it—the Times refers to the organization as al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. And this phrase is always followed up with this formulation: “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group that American intelligence has concluded is led by foreigners.”

The indispensable James Taranto, who writes the daily online column “Best of the Web,” has made merciless fun of the Times for doing this (playing off the Times, he refers to AQI as “al Qaeda Which Has Nothing to Do With Iraq in Iraq Which Has Nothing to Do With al Qaeda”). At the risk of taking the editors of the Times too seriously, it’s worth considering what the Times is trying to achieve.

In a single sentence, the Times does three things. First, it refers to Iraq as Mesopotamia, thereby using a more obscure term in an effort to disconnect al Qaeda from Iraq. Second, it goes out of its way to say that “homegrown Sunni Arab extremists” constitute the group, thereby emphasizing the indigenous rather than foreign element of al Qaeda in Iraq. And third, it attempts to put a question mark around the foreign involvement of AQI by saying that “American intelligence” has concluded it’s being run by foreigners.

The problem is that while the Times wants to separate the Iraq war from al Qaeda, al Qaeda itself does not. Osama bin Laden has declared:

The most important and serious issue today for the whole world 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.

As for the homegrown aspect of AQI: it’s true (as you would expect) that many members of AQI are Iraq Sunnis—and it’s also true that our military estimates that between 80 and 90 percent of suicide attacks in Iraq are carried out by foreign-born al Qaeda terrorists brought into Iraq for a single purpose: to blow themselves up in the cause of killing innocent Iraqis, which in turn will push Iraq closer to civil war.

As for the foreign composition of AQI: it’s not incidental. Al Qaeda in Iraq was in fact (not alleged to have been) founded by foreign terrorists linked to senior al Qaeda leadership. The Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded AQI—and his successor (Zarqawi was killed in June 2006) is Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who is Egyptian. Zarqawi, who ran a terrorist camp in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks, had long-standing relations with senior al Qaeda leaders and had met with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ideological leader of al Qaeda. In 2004, Zarqawi and his jihadist organization formally joined al Qaeda and pledged allegiance to bin Laden, promising to “follow his orders in jihad.” And bin Laden publicly declared Zarqawi the “prince of al Qaeda in Iraq” and instructed terrorists in Iraq to “listen to him and obey him.”

Clearly the Times wants to disconnect the Iraq war from al Qaeda and the wider war against Islamic jihadists. The more they can pry the two apart, the more unpopular the Iraq war will be. And the Times, if it wants anything at all, wants America’s involvement in Iraq to end, regardless of the cost, including genocide, a victory and safe haven for jihadists, a victory for Iran, and a wider regional war. And as we have seen, they will go to ridiculous ends to play their part.

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Going Backward in Baqubah

One of the most common arguments employed by those who argue for a rapid drawdown of U.S. force in Iraq is that we don’t need to have a lot of troops trying to police a “civil war” between Shiites and Sunnis. A far smaller number of soldiers, primarily from the U.S. Special Operations Command, supposedly could achieve our core mission of disrupting al-Qaeda operations.

Never mind that we haven’t enjoyed much success in using commando forces to go after terrorists in unfriendly terrain. How often, after all, do we strike against terrorists in Syria and Iran? Or even in Pakistan? The reality is that without a permissive political climate and plenty of on-the-ground support our special operators, skilled as they are, have a very limited ability to prevent terrorist groups from making major gains.

Recent events in Iraq reinforce the point. As Rowan Scarborough notes in the Washington Examiner, the city of Baqubah served as a template for the previous U.S. strategy (which looks a lot like the future strategy advocated by most Democrats and Republicans, such as Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel) of rapidly turning over “battle space” to the Iraqi Security Forces and drawing down our own forces.

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One of the most common arguments employed by those who argue for a rapid drawdown of U.S. force in Iraq is that we don’t need to have a lot of troops trying to police a “civil war” between Shiites and Sunnis. A far smaller number of soldiers, primarily from the U.S. Special Operations Command, supposedly could achieve our core mission of disrupting al-Qaeda operations.

Never mind that we haven’t enjoyed much success in using commando forces to go after terrorists in unfriendly terrain. How often, after all, do we strike against terrorists in Syria and Iran? Or even in Pakistan? The reality is that without a permissive political climate and plenty of on-the-ground support our special operators, skilled as they are, have a very limited ability to prevent terrorist groups from making major gains.

Recent events in Iraq reinforce the point. As Rowan Scarborough notes in the Washington Examiner, the city of Baqubah served as a template for the previous U.S. strategy (which looks a lot like the future strategy advocated by most Democrats and Republicans, such as Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel) of rapidly turning over “battle space” to the Iraqi Security Forces and drawing down our own forces.

By last year, the entire province of Diyala, of which Baqubah is the capital—an area with over a million people—was being held by just one U.S. brigade, no more than 5,000 American soldiers in all. Notwithstanding the presence of these combat forces—and the skilled commandos of the Joint Special Operations Command who could always swoop into the area, as they did when they killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a year ago—Diyala became a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity. Alexandra Zavis summarizes what American troops have found in recent weeks as they have moved en masse back into Baqubah as part of the “surge of operations”:

For more than a year, hundreds of masked gunmen loyal to al Qaeda cruised this capital of their self-declared state, hauling Shiite Muslims from their homes and leaving bodies in the dusty, trash-strewn streets.

They set up a religious court and prisons, aid stations, and food stores. And they imposed their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on a population that was mostly too poor to flee and too terrified to resist. . . .

Evidence of the group’s reign included an interrogation center with knives and saws, its walls peppered with bullet holes and smeared with blood. Nearby, a house had been converted into a prison, with six numbered cells with metal doors and bars across the windows.

Residents said they were terrified of being stuffed into the trunk of a car and carted off to one of these places for such minor infractions as smoking in public. . . .

Residents said the militants gradually began taking over last year, parading through the streets in trucks, brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles and using bullhorns to inform residents that they were now part of the Islamic State of Iraq.

They banned smoking, closed down barbershops and coffeehouses, and required women to cover themselves in black robes with only a slit for their eyes. Iraqis working for the Baghdad government or for U.S. forces were hunted down and killed, residents said. Even a trip to Baghdad was grounds for suspicion.

If al Qaeda could set up a miniature Talibanistan almost under the noses of (undermanned) American bases, just imagine what they would be able to do in Iraq if most American forces withdrew altogether. If our commandos couldn’t stop the radicalization of Baqubah when they were located only a few miles away at Balad, how much luck would they have if they relocated hundreds or even thousands of miles away to someplace like Kuwait or Iraqi Kurdistan, as suggested by Jack Murtha and other advocates of “redeployment”?

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Tame “Gators”

In a fascinating essay called “The Ploy” in the current Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains how an elite group of Special Operations troops in Iraq known as Task Force 145 got the information that led to the killing last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an online discussion forum regarding military affairs that I belong to (it’s called the Warlord Loop), Bowden’s article has been criticized by current and former intelligence officers for being overly detailed and for revealing our TTP’s (tactics, techniques, and procedures) to the enemy.

That seems a legitimate concern, but his essay raises another issue as well: have we handcuffed our soldiers with overly restrictive rules for the handling of detainees? The story repeats claims made in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets that prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, Task Force 6-26 (the predecessor to 145) had used some rough tactics: “Interrogators . . . were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employ ‘stress positions,’ and keeping them awake for long hours.”

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In a fascinating essay called “The Ploy” in the current Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains how an elite group of Special Operations troops in Iraq known as Task Force 145 got the information that led to the killing last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an online discussion forum regarding military affairs that I belong to (it’s called the Warlord Loop), Bowden’s article has been criticized by current and former intelligence officers for being overly detailed and for revealing our TTP’s (tactics, techniques, and procedures) to the enemy.

That seems a legitimate concern, but his essay raises another issue as well: have we handcuffed our soldiers with overly restrictive rules for the handling of detainees? The story repeats claims made in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets that prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, Task Force 6-26 (the predecessor to 145) had used some rough tactics: “Interrogators . . . were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employ ‘stress positions,’ and keeping them awake for long hours.”

All that ended after Abu Ghraib. “Physical abuse was outlawed, as were sensory deprivation and the withholding or altering of food as punishment,” Bowden writes. “The backlash from Abu Ghraib had produced so many restrictions that gators [the nickname for interrogators] were no longer permitted to work even a standard good cop/bad cop routine. The interrogation room cameras were faithfully monitored, and gators who crossed the line would be interrupted in mid-session.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Kyndra Rotunda, a former officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps who served at Guantanamo, offers further details on what sort of practices are no longer allowed. Interrogators cannot withhold detainees’ access to Qur’ans or any food or water. (All detainees receive their filling halal meals and their Qur’ans, no matter what they do.) They cannot stop piping in the call to prayer or refuse to tell detainees the direction of Mecca. They are even having a hard time using teams of shrinks (known as Behavior Science Consultation Teams) to monitor suspects for signs of duplicity.

In other words, in the rush to crack down on abuse, practices that would seem to stop well short of any reasonable definition of torture (the good cop/bad cop routine, for Pete’s sake!) have been jettisoned. Interrogators are left with a battery of approved techniques from the new army field manual on interrogation. As described by Bowden these include “’ego up,’ which involved flattery; ‘ego down,’ which meant denigrating a detainee; and various simple con games—tricking a detainee into believing you already knew something you did not, feeding him misinformation about friends or family members, and so forth.”

Bowden’s article describes how, in the hands of first-class interrogators, such “con games” could be used to elicit information from a couple of al-Qaeda operatives—information that led Task Force 145 to pinpoint Zarqawi’s location. But one wonders how much information coalition forces in Iraq or Afghanistan aren’t getting because interrogators aren’t as skilled, or detainees as gullible, as those in “The Ploy.”

Even in the case chronicled by Bowden, one threat was used effectively to elicit information. He writes: “The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed. The prospect of being shipped to the larger prison—notorious during the American occupation, and even more so during the Saddam era—was enough to persuade many subjects to talk.”

By now, any sentient detainee will know that Abu Ghraib has been shuttered (its replacement is Camp Bucca in southern Iraq) and that there is not much that their American captors can do to them. If they didn’t know that already (and all the smart ones do), they surely will after al Qaeda translates Bowden’s article and places it online as part of their training for handling captivity.

 

 

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