Whither Al-Qaeda in Iraq?

By Colin Kahl

Hello there. I want to thank Phil Carter for inviting me to be part of the team pinch-hitting for him while he's away. For my first post, I wanted to say a few words about al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Bob Woodward claims in his new book "The War Within" that "groundbreaking" covert techniques, rather than the surge of conventional forces, have devastated AQI over the past year. This oversells the case, but there is no doubt that American special operations forces and intelligence agencies have become much more proficient at targeting AQI leadership and cadre. This fact was also noted by a piece in the Post on Saturday.

Stories like this tend to emphasize "gee-whiz" technological advancements (such as the ability to track individuals with unmanned aerial vehicles and rapidly exploit data found on cell phones and computers for follow-on raids), as well as the improved coordination between various U.S. agencies involved in the hunt for terrorists. At least as important, however, has been the flood of intelligence on al-Qaeda in Iraq from human sources, and here the Sunni community's turn against AQI has been decisive in increasing the amount of "actionable" intelligence available to U.S. forces.

That said, I don't want to linger on the source of al-Qaeda in Iraq's troubles -- I want to talk about its magnitude.

When I was in Iraq last month, I had the chance to speak with numerous military and intelligence analysts. Although they are reluctant to say so in public, there was near unanimity in private that al-Qaeda in Iraq has been "strategically defeated." What does this mean? It means that AQI remains capable of assassination, intimidation, and the occasional spectacular bombing, but the organization no longer poses a threat to the viability of the Iraqi government. Saturday's story in the Post noted these sentiments as well: "While AQI remains capable of staging deadly suicide bombings, its leaders are becoming reviled throughout the country and are hard-pressed to find sanctuary anywhere in Iraq, according to U.S. defense and intelligence officials."

This is big news. The administration's claim that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism has always been dubious, but now it is simply unsustainable. Of course, this didn't stop President Bush from reiterating the claim during his speech today at National Defense University, where he reminded us, "Al Qaida leaders have repeatedly declared that Iraq is the central front of their war with America."

Yet, as Saturday's Post story notes:

"The shift also is tacitly acknowledged inside al-Qaeda's base on the Afghan-Pakistan border, as Osama bin Laden has begun retooling his propaganda campaign to emphasize the conflict in Afghanistan instead of the failing effort in Iraq, the officials said. While there is little evidence that al-Qaeda is attempting to move fighters and resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, the Iraq conflict is no longer driving recruitment and donations for al-Qaeda as it did as recently as nine months ago, they said.

Attacks inside Iraq by AQI, meanwhile, have dropped sharply, with 28 incidents and 125 civilian deaths reported in the first six months of this year, compared with 300 bombings and more than 1,500 deaths in 2007.

"Iraq will always be a target that resonates for al-Qaeda, but we believe it will never again be the central front," said a U.S. counterterrorism analyst who was not authorized to speak on the record. "Their ability to affect what is going on in Iraq has been greatly diminished.""

Iraq's Shia and Kurdish communities revile AQI, and the Sunni turn against AQI is unlikely to be reversed. "We don't see the Sunni community going back to al-Qaeda under any circumstances," a senior defense official told the Post. In this environment, the United States should be able to gather sufficient intelligence to effectively target AQI and prevent a safe haven from emerging in Iraq even as our troops draw down. We need to seize this opportunity to shift more resources to confront the challenge posed by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bush has announced the withdrawal of 8,000 U.S. forces (including one combat brigade) from Iraq by next March, and the deployment to Afghanistan of one additional Marine battalion in November and an Army brigade in January. Given the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, it is clear that more is needed. And the sooner the better.

By washingtonpost.com |  September 9, 2008; 10:27 AM ET  | Category:  Al Qaeda , Counterterrorism , Iraq
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Before the invasion of Iraq there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq. Also, i firmly believe that OBL and AAZ are dead but are being kept figuratively alive for political reasons by the cynical/criminal right wing pseudo republicans. The CIA could have removed Saddam Hussein and his key henchmen at a much lesser cost of lives, both American and Iraqi.

Posted by: ghostcommander | September 9, 2008 12:21 PM

al Qaeda was in Iraq pre invasion and has always staked a heavy claim in defeating the U.S. there. Please read www.regimeofterror.com if you can handle being proven wrong about when al Qaeda got to Iraq. There are now thousands of Baathists and al Qaeda members who have admitted such. Denying it is just dishonesty, ignorance or partisanship.

Posted by: T.J. Houkir | September 10, 2008 9:05 AM

Al Qaeda operatives fled to Kurdistan to the camps of Ansar al-Islam after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Ansar was not connected to Saddam, but did have ties with Iran, where they fled during the U.S. invasion. Zarqawi did come to Iraq before the invasion, but he was not working with Al Qaeda then. Rather he was a rival who wanted to create his own terrorist "brand" fighting the Americans when they rolled into the country.

Posted by: motown67 | September 10, 2008 11:33 PM

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