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The Al Qaeda in Iraq argument
Posted by: McQ on Friday, July 13, 2007

Michael Gordon and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times write an article in which they claim Bush has distorted the al Qaeda links in Iraq.

James Joyner at Outside the Beltway does an excellent job of sorting through all the claims and counter-claims and shedding a little objective light on the subject. But more importantly he asks the question that everyone should be asking:
The debate should focus on the future rather than the past: Given where we are now, what are our options? What’s the best path toward maximizing American security interests in the region? And, frankly, what are our moral obligations to the Iraqi people given that we created the situation that allowed the current chaos to be created?
He goes on to point out that doesn't mean there shouldn't be any political recriminations for the mess made, but at this point, it isn't where we should be spending our time and effort. Says Joyner:
There is plenty of room for points scoring on the campaign trail, where it’s fair game. But that should take place alongside an honest dialog about the best way forward.
The "best way forward" is the critical argument now, not who shot John or why. We can settle all that at our leisure later. Suffice it to say no one disagrees that Iraq has been a mess and you'll find few who will disagree about where the majority of the blame should fall. That doesn't change the fact that we have a problem and we need to address it in a way which best serves our interests and security.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

"...we need to address it in a way which best serves our interests and security."
Actually, we need to address it in a way which best serves our security. Those who are too conscious of the opportunity presented to serve their best (political) interests have become the problem.
Written By: notherbob2
URL: http://
Suffice it to say no one disagrees that Iraq has been a mess and you’ll find few who will disagree about where the majority of the blame should fall.
Where does the "majority of the blame fall" for the mess that is Iraq? On the very same people you are now endorsing. Yet again. That is your choice, McQ. You, however, are the exception. An overwhelming majority of Americans has no confidence that the Bush Adminstration can be trusted to lead us out of Iraq successfully. Why? Because of the Administration’s track record of incompetence, ineptitude, and dishonesty. So, the past does matter. At least when a democracy is prosecuting a war. Why should anyone believe that this President — upon whom the majority of the blames falls for the mess that is Iraq — can guide the country out of the mess he got us into?

I watched as much of the press conference yesterday as I could stand. Bush has learned NOTHING. He says the exact same things he’s been saying for four years. He learns nothing and, because of that, he mistakes stubborness for resolution. Then, the report comes out that Al Qaeda — Al Qaeda! The ones who attacked us on 9/11! — has reconstituted in Pakistan. Why? Because we have wasted our resources — all of our resources: lives, money, good will — in Iraq. And what are we doing in Iraq? Trying to quell an ages-old religious war, while we sustain a proving ground for terrorists with the lives of our soldiers.

And Bush is wrong on another thing. Thank god. It is not Congress’ job to write the checks for whatever military misadventures he blunders the nation into. It is Congress’ job to decide whether to write those checks. Come September, there will be no more checks. The country has seen enough. So have I.

Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://
You’re right, DS. All Congress has to do is stop wiring the checks. So what’s stopping them from signing the checks? Why didn’t they stop writing the checks earlier this year? Any new elections happen that I wasn’t told about? Did the makeup of congress change and I didn’t get the memo? You know something that we all here do not know?

The point of the posting was "where do we go from here" and from your entry, I can see you don’t have a clue.

If you have seen enough then cover your eyes. If it hurts so much, why do you even bother to look? Morbid curiosity?
Written By: SShiell
URL: http://
The point of the posting was "where do we go from here" and from your entry, I can see you don’t have a clue.
Where do we go? We get out of Iraq’s civil war. Clear enough?
If it hurts so much, why do you even bother to look?
Because this is my country.
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://
While of course the emphasis should be on which way forward, it would be nice to see some humility from those who created/supported the policies that got us into this mess. Maybe an acknowledgment that some of the ridicule and anger heaped on those opposed to invading Iraq was misguided and the war critics better understood the difficulties ahead. Usually when someone says "oh well, let’s forget about the past and move forward" it’s easier to do when they acknowledge their errors. But few in the Administration do so, and that makes it more difficult for war critics to reallly believe that they’ve learned their lessons and we can trust their judgement moving forward. But I will give Bush credit for personnel changes like bringing in Gates to replace Rumsfeld. It was late, but Gates was a good choice. And, while I don’t agree with the war Czar position, Lute was a pretty good choice there too. The apparent weakness of Cheney within the administration is good news. Reading between the lines it seems like the President has learned a bit. But you can’t tell from his rhetoric.
Written By: Scott Erb
Debate on this issue range from the well reasoned, to the naive, and everything in between. And that isn’t limited to one camp.

Some people supported the war, knowing full well the difficulties that could happen. War is always difficult, messy, and the worst option to choose. But, sometimes it’s the best of the worst options.

War critics seem to want to see hand wringing and a brooding President, ala Johnson during Vietnam. I think that can paralyze some leaders.

Despite the rhetoric of "stay the course" being the only path, we’ve actually been adapting our tactics to suit the situation as it unfolds. The military is actually pretty good at the lessons learned business.

Militarily there are positive signs of progress in Iraq. There have been before, and sometimes that progress has been short unsustainable gains. But, Iraq isn’t completely in chaos, nor is it completely in peace, it’s in between, and it depends on where you go. Some places are as calm as say, Israel. There’s the danger of a suicide bombing, but life has a relative normality.

I will argue that politically, the Iraqi government is where most governments are in their first year of business. Still trying to figure out how to do things, and where things should go. They could use more help, but darn if I know who would be best to help them. It’s not like our government is expert at running things efficiently and without bitter divisions.

One way to look at it, is that the Iraqis have scored better on their benchmarks then the Democrats. The Iraqis are at least making some progress in most of the benchmarks, and only 2 have no progress.

The military part of the surge is having an effect on the security situation. Dampening the violence is supposed to give the Iraqis the space and time to bring about some political progress. But, many don’t want to give them that space and time, for what seem to be purely political motives.

Populists appeals to the base seems to be trumping serious analysis of national security interests.
Written By: Keith_Indy
Keith, I actually agree with most of what you said. I do think that since 2005 there has been a shift in the policy which reflects much better choices by President Bush, and that the anti-Bush rhetoric is misguided. I do see rising violence this month though, and the history of insurgencies and ethnic conflict are not helpful.

My analysis is fundamentally historical. I tend to look at what’s happened elsewhere, including studies on sectarian violence and nation-building in places like Iraq, and that leads to pessimism (it also led me to be correctly pessimistic about the stock market in 1999 — which was a good thing for my retirement fund!) I analyze Iraq not just from the standpoint of bench marks and short term security gains or loses, but whether the big picture seems to be showing signs of weakening corruption, more cross cutting cleavages, reconciliation between groups (or even elite cooperation between groups, often called consociationalism). So far, what I see in Iraq looks bleak, regardless of surge success. In these cases, military solutions tend not to exist. It was also history that informed much of my pre-war opposition. The neo-conservative idea was intellectually advanced and seductive — it was probably the most intellectually interesting and vigorous idea about post-cold foreign policy out there by the late 90s. But it seemed to me a lot like Kennedy’s foreign policy ideals, and those created problems (again, I was looking for historical parallels).

On top of that, while I agree we have a moral obligation to the Iraqi people and we don’t benefit if Iraq is in chaos, we have to weigh multiple factors in how to move forward and whether the policy now is worth its very high cost (esp. as the Taliban shows renewed vigor and al qaeda is prospering in Pakistan). I’m also trying to think about this in a forward looking way (my blogs on July 5 and 6 give one idea of how to change policy, I get a bit skeptical of even that on July 9). And perhaps I am misapplying historical lessons. We’ll see.
Written By: Scott Erb
The following is from an article on This is the blog where David Kilcullen, Petraeues’s Aussie counterinsurgency advisor writes ocassionally. This is from a guy named Malcom Nance, a 25 year veteran of the US Intelligence community’s combating terrorism and force protection program, who apparently spent 4 years in Iraq:

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 (Former Regime Loyalists) 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

AQI almost exclusively perform carries out suicide car bombings and suicide vest bombings (SVBIED/SPBIED). They occasionally perform IED, rocket, MANPAD and even a few impressive massed infantry attacks on Iraqi Police and government buildings (such as the symbolic assault on Abu Ghraieb prison in 2005). In fact, AQI’s impact on US forces is actually quite small in comparison to the FRLs and IREs.

AQI Does Not Command the Insurgency - In November 2005 at a speech at the US Naval Academy the President once accurately described AQI as “the smallest, but the most lethal” insurgent force. Many claim that their size, intelligence, and history put them at the top tier of the resistance. To claim AQI leads the insurgency would have to allow that AQI has a more politically savvy guerilla military and political operation on the ground than the entirety of the former regime and the present Government of Iraq. This is giving them too much credit.

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 (Former Regime Loyalists) or Iraqi religious extremist insurgents.

The whole thing is worth reading for a pretty good refresher of the insurgency in Iraq.

1500 crazy foreign jihadis aren’t going to take over Iraq, a country of 25 million people. Especially when even their former allies - the Sunnis in Anbar province - want them out.

The surge was supposed to give the Iraqi government "breathing room" to make the political compromises necessary to satisfy all Iraqis that they and their kind have a future and should quit killing each other and our troops. As we’ve seen in the latest report Bush tried to fudge the Iraqi government has done nothing of the sort. Political progress is nil. They’re all still killing each other in Baghdad and elsewhere, the Green Zone is shelled and mortared almost daily now. The security situation is so miserable Maliki has told all Iraqis to arm themselves as protection from each other. So why are our soldiers chasing this little AQI band from province to province?

Kevin Drum at Political Animal says it best:

Despite what the White House says, we’re fighting AQI not because they’re "high profile" or because they’re actually a genuine branch of al-Qaeda, we’re fighting them because we don’t have any choice. Who else are we going to fight? The Badr Organization? The Mahdi Army? The Sunni insurgents? The Iraqi Security Forces themselves? Hell, we’re allied with the Sunni tribes these days. We’re training the Iraqi Security Forces, making them into an ever more efficient sectarian killing machine. We’re supporting a government that supports the Badr Organization and we’ve apparently got back channel negotiations taking place with Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army too. This leaves us with distinctly limited options.

We’re not fighting AQI because they’re the real problem in Iraq. We’re like the drunk looking for his car keys under the street lamp. And we’re doing about as well.
Written By: markg8
URL: http://
I apologize for my overheated rhetoric the last couple of days. (Although I do stand by the substance of my comments.) The report on Al Qaeda reconstituting, together with President Bush’s press conference on Iraq, was too much. I don’t like how this country is being run, but that’s no reason for incivility.

I’m going to be quiet now. See you in September (at the latest).
Written By: David Shaughnessy
URL: http://
Well, Mark, all that points out to me is that Kevin Drum, as usual, doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to the military or AQI and that you, like many, have chosen to ignore what is readily available out there in terms of what AQI brings to the fight and why it is important to target and eliminate them:
While AQI may not account for most of the violence in Iraq, it is the organization responsible for the highest profile attacks, which serve as a primary accelerant to the underlying sectarian conflict. We presently assess that degrading AQI networks in these critical areas ‑‑ together with efforts to degrade Iranian-backed Shi’a extremist networks ‑‑ is a core U.S. national security interest and essential for Iraq’s longer-term stability.
Please note the second bold phrase. That answers Drum’s other uninformed question. Of course this information has been available since the kick off of Operation Phantom Thunder and is one of the stated reasons LTG Odierno said we’ve targeted AQI. But, of course, you have to be interested in the truth and willing to seek it out to know that.

Last, but not least:
The surge was supposed to give the Iraqi government "breathing room" to make the political compromises necessary to satisfy all Iraqis that they and their kind have a future and should quit killing each other and our troops. As we’ve seen in the latest report Bush tried to fudge the Iraqi government has done nothing of the sort. Political progress is nil.
Did you read the report? He says there has been unsatisfactory progress on 8 areas by my count and satisfactory progress in 9 areas. One had no assessment that I could find.

But there’s also this:
As demonstrated by our PRT initiatives and moving resources outside of Baghdad and into the provinces, our strategy envisions “bottom-up” reconciliation to be as important, if not more important, than top-down reconciliation. Bottom-up reconciliation involves working at the local and provincial level, seeking local political accommodations and getting more Iraqis to invest in the future of a united and democratic Iraq. Bottom-up reconciliation can take many forms: in Anbar, we have seen greater involvement of tribal groups; in Salah ad Din, it is involving local and provincial leaders taking greater responsibility for their political and economic future; in Baghdad, it has involved local neighborhood councils working with newly deployed Coalition and Iraqi units to identify and isolate extremists. All of the new resources devoted to this strategy — the arrival of military reinforcements, the expansion of PRTs, and the diplomatic surge ‑- can be leveraged to produce bottom-up reconciliation. Over time, we expect bottom-up reconciliation to be reflected in, and latch up with, progress on top-down measures.
IOW, we’re figuring out how it works in Iraq and beginning to have some progress. Where before we essentially ignored the shieks and tribes and concentrated only on a top-down strategy, we’ve now come to understand the prominent role they play in the political realm. So we’re working a bottom-up scenario as well as a top-down effort all the while effectively increasing the security environment to the point that, well you can read the last sentence above for yourself.

But hey, don’t allow what the report actually says to get in the way of a mediocre attempt to pretend it says something else.
Written By: McQ
Over time, we expect bottom-up reconciliation to be reflected in, and latch up with, progress on top-down measures.

why? what possible rational basis exists for that expectation? the bottom-up reconciliation that you’re referencing is almost nowhere crossing the hard lines.

where’s the data on refugee flows reversing? where’s the data on ongoing ethnic cleansing in mixed neighborhoods? How many police can be trusted? How many army units serve with distinction launching attacks against their own sect?

The map which is the next post down is really pretty effing funny because it shows that local control has been established where the oil is — Kurdish peshmerga to the north and newly-trained (by the US), largely pro-Iranian shia to the south.

Great. US gets bled fighting over Bagdad, while the two new powerful militias create facts on the ground where the resources are.
Written By: Francis
URL: http://
Okay, interesting comments. Al Qaeda in Iraq really wants to inflame a Sunni/Shia civil war. Are they the ones who are bombing the mosques and markets? That is a very important question. My understanding is that they are the ones who do that stuff.

I worry far less about Sunni nationalist insurgents who are killing our troops because they are more easily handled via co-option (Anbar) or negotiation, or by us pulling out troops.

If there was absolutely ZERO civil war going on, and all we had were attacks on US forces, I think it would be far easier to withdraw safely than the current situation, and that would be a case where a firm deadline would make much more sense. Michael Yon interviewed that insurgent leader, who basically said the same thing.
Written By: Harun
URL: http://

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