Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Who is the enemy? Al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia

As the Bush Administration begins to dig its heels even further on Iraq, you can expect to hear more rhetoric about fighting "Al Qaeda" terrorists. Indeed, yesterday President Bush again misleadingly stated that the "enemy we are fighting in Iraq is the same one that attacked us on 9/11."

Yawn. By now, most sentient Americans understand that (a) Osama bin Laden and members of his "network," which we have named Al Qaeda, attacked us on 9/11, and (b) Saddam Hussein had no significant working relationship with OBL or Al Qaeda before, during or after the attacks. However, the Bush Administration -- and Bush himself -- constantly refer to fighting Al Qaeda within the country of Iraq.

There are two main things to remember to avoid getting sucked into Bush's delusions.

First, Osama bin Laden's "Al Qaeda" is not the same as "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia." The former is a network of jihadists who bin Laden and his lieutenant, Dr. Zawahiri, trained and funded and, on occasion, issued direct orders to attack certain U.S. military and civilian targets. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is not controlled by OBL or Zawihiri. Instead, it is a hodgepodge of foreign -- meaning, foreign to Iraq -- jihadists who have entered the country with the disgusting ambition of blowing themselves up to kill U.S. soldiers. The mission is different in degree, if not in kind, but the main thing to remember is the difference in leadership structure.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there are strong reasons to doubt that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is the main fighting force that we should be concerned about. As the Iraq Study Group rightly noticed, the main source of violence within Iraq is between sectarian forces and former Saddam regime elements. Here's someone far more knowledgable than me, Malcolm Nance, writing about the insurgency on his Small Wars Journal blog:

We Really Don’t Know Our Enemy That Well - It is well documented that the Sunni insurgency is composed of three wings of insurgents. It is composed of the nationalist Former Regime Loyalists (FRLs) and their former military elements (FREs). This force may be upwards to 29,000 active combatants carrying out over 100 unconventional attacks per day using improvised explosive devices, rockets and automatic weapons ambushes. The FRL-originated Jaysh al-Mujahideen is composed of former Saddam Fedayeen, Special Republican Guard intelligence officers, former-Ba'athists, Sunni volunteers and their families. The second wing is the nationalist Iraqi Religious Extremists (IREs). These are forces including the Islamic Army of Iraq, Ansar al-Sunnah and other smaller groups, which may total approximately 5,000 fighters, sprinkled throughout western, central and northern Iraq. On occasion come into the conversation when one of their attacks is particularly daring or when the coalition claims it is negotiating their departure from the battlefront. Inevitably these “lesser” insurgent groups are portrayed as bit players on the sidelines of the epic.

Finally, the foreign fighters of the Al Qaeda in Iraq and its umbrella group the Islamic Emirate of Iraq (aka Islamic State of Iraq) may be as few as 1,500 fighters and supporters and may also have direct links to the two other tiers. Overwhelming evidence exists that that the FRLs have been waging the lion’s share of the insurgency. Until 2004 they were considered a separate part of the insurgency but recently they have been called ‘Al Qaeda-associated’ because AQI was operating in their area of operations ... by 2007 it wasn’t hard for Washington to make a semantic and rhetorical leap to refer to all insurgency forces as “Al Qaeda.”

* * *

AQI is a microscopic paramilitary terror force that selects very specific weapons for very specific targets to meet strategic goals of their cultish reading of Islam. However, AQI itself has been subject to a significant degradation since January 2005. I believe that since mid-2003 AQI coordinated their SVBIED campaigns in 2004 and 2005 with the support of the FRLs networks. It hard to believe that foreign fighters can enter the Iraqi Sunni community, anywhere, without first kissing the ring of the local FRL or Iraqi religious extremist insurgents.

If Nance is right, the continued rhetoric regarding "Al Qaeda" in Iraq is further evidence of the Bush Adminstration's inability to accurately describe the nature of the war we're fighting, largely if not entirely because of political -- rather than strategic -- concerns. We are not fighting Osama bin Laden, and we're not really fighting foreign jihadists -- they are being used essentially as human weapons by a multi-faceted enemy. Thus, even if we were to succeed in diminishing or even destroying "Al Qaeda in Iraq," this alone could not bring peace to the country. Remember this in the days and weeks ahead.


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