Thursday, October 26, 2006

What Osama Wants


Published: October 26, 2006


THE French saying, often attributed to Talleyrand, that “this is worse than a crime, it’s a blunder,” could easily describe America’s invasion of Iraq. But for the United States to pull entirely out of that country right now, as is being demanded by a growing chorus of critics, would be to snatch an unqualified disaster from the jaws of an enormous blunder.

To understand why, look to history. Vietnam often looms large in the debate over Iraq, but the better analogy is what happened in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion. During the 1980’s, Washington poured billions of dollars into the Afghan resistance. Around the time of Moscow’s withdrawal in 1989, however, the United States shut its embassy in Kabul and largely ignored the ensuing civil war and the rise of the Taliban and its Qaeda allies. We can’t make the same mistake again in Iraq.

A total withdrawal from Iraq would play into the hands of the jihadist terrorists. As Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, made clear shortly after 9/11 in his book “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner,” Al Qaeda’s most important short-term strategic goal is to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world. “Confronting the enemies of Islam and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land,” he wrote. “Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.” Such a jihadist state would be the ideal launching pad for future attacks on the West.

And there is no riper spot than the Sunni-majority areas of central and western Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the most feared insurgent commander in Iraq — was issuing an invitation to Mr. bin Laden when he named his group Al Qaeda in Iraq. When Mr. Zarqawi was killed this year, his successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, also swore allegiance to Al Qaeda’s chief.

Another problem with a total American withdrawal is that it would fit all too neatly into Osama bin Laden’s master narrative about American foreign policy. His theme is that America is a paper tiger that cannot tolerate body bags coming home; to back it up, he cites President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 withdrawal of United States troops from Lebanon and President Bill Clinton’s decision nearly a decade later to pull troops from Somalia. A unilateral pullout from Iraq would only confirm this analysis of American weakness among his jihadist allies.

Indeed, in 2005 Mr. Zawahri sent Mr. Zarqawi a letter, which was intercepted by the United States military, exhorting him to start preparing for the impending American withdrawal similar to that of Vietnam 30 years ago. “The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam — and how they ran and left their agents — is noteworthy,” Mr. Zawahri said. “Because of that, we must be ready starting now, before events overtake us, and before we are surprised by the conspiracies of the Americans and the United Nations and their plans to fill the void behind them.”

Yes, there is little doubt that the botched American occupation of Iraq was the critical factor that fueled the Iraqi insurgency. But for the United States to wash its hands of the country now would give Al Qaeda’s leaders what they want.

This does not mean simply holding course. America should abandon its pretensions that it can make Iraq a functioning democracy and halt the civil war. Instead, we should focus on a minimalist definition of our interests in Iraq, which is to prevent a militant Sunni jihadist mini-state from emerging and allowing Al Qaeda to regroup.

While withdrawing a substantial number of American troops from Iraq would probably tamp down the insurgency and should be done as soon as is possible, a significant force must remain in Iraq for many years to destroy Al Qaeda in Iraq.

That can be accomplished by making the American presence less visible; withdrawing American troops to bases in central and western Iraq; and relying on contingents of Special Forces to hunt militants. To do otherwise would be to ignore the lessons of history, lessons that Al Qaeda’s leaders certainly haven’t forgotten.

Peter Bergen, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation, is the author of “The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda’s Leader.”

2 comentarios:

courtney01 said...

Great post, Jade.

As much as I am against the war and have been since the beginning, I don't feel that the US, in good conscience, remove troops from Iraq now. We need to do something to get control of the area before we can leave. We created this mess, so it is up to us to fix it. How could we abandon the Iraqi people to their fates, when I think most of us have a good idea of what would happen as soon as the troops left?

Tyler Tarwater said...

I disagree with the editorial and the previous comment.

To first respond directly to the comment by courtney01, although we Americans can speculate on what would happen if we left Iraq, it might be better to consider what Iraqis think. As it turns out, most Iraqis think American troops are not making them safer - a recent poll conducted by the University of Maryland found that 78% of Iraqis think American military presence provokes more conflict than it prevents. (This is not a new trend - several polls agree)

That issue actually misses the point though. In his editorial, Berger mentions the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Berger doesn't intend to make this point, but he actually brings to light the similarities between the Soviet invasion and the current American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Both were bitterly opposed by the population of the invaded country, and neither invasion had a legitimate justification.

No one in their right mind would have claimed that the Soviets should have stayed in Afghanistan, at any point. If we are to be fair, then we must apply the same standards to our own country.

That isn't to say that we don't have responsibilities. The United States owes millions in reparations, and we must turn over the peacekeeping situation to the United Nations.

I wrote more about Berger's editorial on my blog


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