Saturday, June 10, 2006

Who--and what--was Zarqawi? (Hitchens, Kaplan, & the Atlantic)

[Also guest-posted on Normblog]

The day that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death was announced, perceptive analyses of the man and his significance by Christopher Hitchens and Fred Kaplan appeared in Slate. The Atlantic also put a more lengthy profile of Zarqawi on-line, "The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi". The Atlantic article is useful and informative. But both Hitchens and Kaplan highlight some important factors that I think have been obscured in a lot of other commentary, including the Atlantic piece.

A number of observers have pointed out, correctly, that foreign jihadists like Zarqawi seem to make up only a small proportion of the people actively involved in the so-called "insurgency" in Iraq, which is clearly a loose coalition of elements ranging from Iraqi fascists and home-grown Iraqi Islamist fanatics to ordinary Sunni Arabs who are most interested in expelling the Americans and restoring Sunni Arab supremacy in Iraq. However, this overlooks the fact that those foreign jihadists, epitomized by Zarqawi and his organization, have played a key role in many of the most horrific and effective dimensions of the insurgency. These include suicide bombings (in which the people who actually blow themselves up appear to consist overwhelmingly of foreign jihadist volunteers); the massacre of the UN mission in Iraq, which drove the UN out of the country and discouraged other governments and international organizations from getting involved in the reconstruction of Iraq; the kidnappings and beheadings of foreign workers, technicians, and journalists; the assassinations of important Shiite leaders like Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim ; and, above all, the campaign of indiscriminate terrorist murder of Iraqi Shiite civilians, including attacks on mosques and shrines and religious festivals, which has brought Iraq to the verge of all-out sectarian civil war. (On this last point, see Some thoughts on the terrorist strategy of the Iraqi 'insurgency'.)

As Kaplan nicely sums it up:
Make no mistake: The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a big deal, and for reasons beyond justice, vengeance, and crossing out another top mug on the al-Qaida most-wanted chart. [....] For a long time now, analysts and several officials have noted that jihadist followers of Zarqawi's comprise a small segment of the insurgency but commit a larger percentage of the most violent acts. Nobody has been precise about how the numbers break down. I doubt if anyone really knows. At the very least, we may be about to find out.
Hitchens puts it this way:
The latest Atlantic has a brilliantly timed cover story by Mary Anne Weaver, which tends to the view that Zarqawi was essentially an American creation, but seems to undermine its own prominence by suggesting that, in addition to that, Zarqawi wasn't all that important.
Not so fast. Zarqawi contributed enormously to the wrecking of Iraq's experiment in democratic federalism. He was able to help ensure that the Iraqi people did not have one single day of respite between 35 years of war and fascism, and the last three-and-a-half years of misery and sabotage. He chose his targets with an almost diabolical cunning, destroying the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad (and murdering the heroic envoy Sérgio Vieira de Melo) almost before it could begin operations, and killing the leading Shiite Ayatollah Hakim outside his place of worship in Najaf. His decision to declare a jihad against the Shiite population in general, in a document of which Weaver (on no evidence) doubts the authenticity, has been the key innovation of the insurgency: applying lethal pressure to the most vulnerable aspect of Iraqi society. And it has had the intended effect, by undermining Grand Ayatollah Sistani and helping empower Iranian-backed Shiite death squads.
=> Both of them are essentially right. There is no question that the kinds of grisly and indiscriminate mass terrorism associated with Zarqawi have been absolutely critical in shaping developments in post-Saddam Iraq.

The real question is the extent to which Zarqawi himself actually played an essential role in planning and carrying out these operations. It does remain possible that his position as a central figure in these terrorist campaigns was, at least in part, a deliberate optical illusion. Along with Juan Cole and a number of others, I think there is a lot of convincing evidence that surviving Baathist secret-police, military, and other organizational networks have played a crucial role in organizing and coordinating the Sunni Arab "insurgency" in Iraq. Even when foreign jihadist fanatics are the ones who actually blow themselves up in suicide-bombing attacks, planning and carrying out these attacks requires effective organization on the ground, which the Ba'athist and ex-Ba'athist networks are well suited to provide. At the very least, they probably play a necessary role in enabling most of these mega-terrorist operations.

(Some analyses by Iraqis and others--discussed here--have suggested that this could help explain why "insurgent" attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan have been minimal, aside from some very occasional atrocities. It's not enough to say that they have no support there, because they have been able to carry out spectacular attacks in the Shiite south of Iraq, where they also have almost no popular support. Instead, the key factor is that Iraqi Kurdistan is the one part of the country where underground Baathist networks have been totally dismantled for a long time. This is plausible.)

It suits the purposes of many groups in Iraq, including not just the Ba'athists but also many of their opponents, to pin the blame for the indiscriminate terrorist murder of Iraqi civilians on foreigners rather than on other Iraqis. So the Ba'athists were undoubtedly trying to use Zarqawi and his organization as front men, to give themselves plausible deniability so they could pretend they weren't directly involved in carrying out these atrocities. If this was Zarqawi's main role, then the Ba'athists can probably come up with another symbolic figure to replace him.

On the other hand, Zarqawi and the other jihadists have undoubtedly been trying to use the Ba'athists in return, and it may turn out that he was a more significant independent actor than the first hypothesis would suggest. The after-effects of his death may help to clarify these matters. Meanwhile, we have to hope that the undeniable political and human damage done by Zarqawi and his organization does not prove to be irreversible. As Kaplan says, we may be about to find out.

--Jeff Weintraub
====================
Slate.com
Posted Thursday, June 8, 2006, at 2:00 PM ET

A Good Day's Work
Why Zarqawi's death matters

By Christopher Hitchens

Zarqawi. Click image to expand.

Zarqawi's death portrait

The death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is excellent news in its own right and even more excellent if, as U.S. sources in Iraq are claiming, it resulted from information that derived from people who were or had been close to him. (And, if that claim is black propaganda, then it is clever black propaganda, which is also excellent news.)

It hasn't taken long for the rain to start falling on this parade. Nick Berg's father, a MoveOn type now running for Congress on the Green Party ticket, has already said that he blames President George Bush for the video-beheading of his own son (but of course) and mourned the passing of Zarqawi as he would the death of any man (but of course, again). The latest Atlantic has a brilliantly timed cover story by Mary Anne Weaver, which tends to the view that Zarqawi was essentially an American creation, but seems to undermine its own prominence by suggesting that, in addition to that, Zarqawi wasn't all that important.

Not so fast. Zarqawi contributed enormously to the wrecking of Iraq's experiment in democratic federalism. He was able to help ensure that the Iraqi people did not have one single day of respite between 35 years of war and fascism, and the last three-and-a-half years of misery and sabotage. He chose his targets with an almost diabolical cunning, destroying the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad (and murdering the heroic envoy Sérgio Vieira de Melo) almost before it could begin operations, and killing the leading Shiite Ayatollah Hakim outside his place of worship in Najaf. His decision to declare a jihad against the Shiite population in general, in a document of which Weaver (on no evidence) doubts the authenticity, has been the key innovation of the insurgency: applying lethal pressure to the most vulnerable aspect of Iraqi society. And it has had the intended effect, by undermining Grand Ayatollah Sistani and helping empower Iranian-backed Shiite death squads.

Not bad for a semiliterate goon and former jailhouse enforcer from a Bedouin clan in Jordan. There are two important questions concerning the terrible influence that he has been able to exert. The first is: How much state and para-state support did he enjoy? The second is: What was the nature of his relationship with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida?

For the defeatists and pacifists, these are easy questions to answer. Colin Powell was wrong to identify Zarqawi, in his now-notorious U.N. address, as a link between the Saddam regime and the Bin-Ladenists. The man's power was created only by the coalition's intervention, and his connection to al Qaida was principally opportunistic. On this logic, the original mistake of the United States would have been to invade Afghanistan, thereby forcing Zarqawi to flee his camp outside Herat and repositioning him for a new combat elsewhere. Thus, fighting against al-Qaida is a mistake to begin with: It only encourages them.

I think that (for once) Colin Powell was on to something. I know that Kurdish intelligence had been warning the coalition for some time before the invasion that former Afghanistan combatants were making their way into Iraq, which they saw as the next best chance to take advantage of a state that was both "failed" and "rogue." One might add that Iraq under Saddam was not an easy country to enter or to leave, and that no decision on who was allowed in would be taken by a junior officer. Furthermore, the Zarqawi elements appear to have found it their duty to join with the Ansar al-Islam splinter group in Kurdistan, which for some reason thought it was the highest duty of jihad to murder Saddam Hussein's main enemies. But perhaps I have a suspicious mind.

We happen to know that the Baathist regime was recruiting and training foreign fighters and brigading them with the gruesome "Fedayeen Saddam." (This is incidentally a clue to what the successor regime in Iraq might have looked like as the Saddam-plus-sanctions state imploded and Baathism itself went into eclipse.) That bomb at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, for example, was no improvised explosive device. It was a huge charge of military-grade ordnance. Are we to believe that a newly arrived Bedouin Jordanian thug could so swiftly have scraped acquaintance with senior-level former Baathists? (The charges that destroyed the golden dome of the Shiites in Samarra were likewise rigged and set by professional military demolitionists.)

Zarqawi's relations with Bin Laden are a little more tortuous. Mary Anne Weaver shows fairly convincingly that the two men did not get along and were in some sense rivals for the leadership. That's natural enough: Religious fanatics are schismatic by definition. Zarqawi's visceral hatred of the Shiite heresy was unsettling even to some more mainstream Wahhabi types, as was his undue relish in making snuff videos. (How nice to know that these people do have their standards.) However, when Zarqawi sought the franchise to call his group "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia," he was granted it with only a few admonitions.

Most fascinating of all is the suggestion that Zarqawi was all along receiving help from the mullahs in Iran. He certainly seems to have been able to transit their territory (Herat is on the Iranian border with Afghanistan) and to replenish his forces by the same route. If this suggestive connection is proved, as Weaver suggests it will be, then we have the Shiite fundamentalists in Iran directly sponsoring the murderer of their co-religionists in Iraq. This in turn would mean that the Iranian mullahs stood convicted of the most brutish and cynical irresponsibility, in front of their own people, even as they try to distract attention from their covert nuclear ambitions. That would be worth knowing. And it would become rather difficult to argue that Bush had made them do it, though no doubt the attempt will be made.

If we had withdrawn from Iraq already, as the "peace" movement has been demanding, then one of the most revolting criminals of all time would have been able to claim that he forced us to do it. That would have catapulted Iraq into Stone Age collapse and instated a psychopathic killer as the greatest Muslim soldier since Saladin. As it is, the man is ignominiously dead and his dirty connections a lot closer to being fully exposed. This seems like a good day's work to me.

Related in Slate
For Slate's take on Iraq's chief terrorist click here. Eric Umansky assessed this "semiliterate goon and former jailhouse enforcer." In 2004 Dan Benjamin chided the White House for making Zarqawi's capture a low priority. Christopher Hitchens noted that even some Iraqi insurgents wanted Zarqawi out of the picture. Fred Kaplan wondered if it was wise for the United States to release a video showing a "fat" and "lazy" Zarqawi. With Zarqawi out of the picture, could one of these guys be the next leader of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia?
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for
Vanity Fair. His most recent book is Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. His most recent collection of essays is titled Love, Poverty, and War.

===============
Slate.com
Posted Thursday, June 8, 2006, at 3:53 PM ET

Window of Opportunity
What happens now that Zarqawi's dead?

By Fred Kaplan

Make no mistake: The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a big deal, and for reasons beyond justice, vengeance, and crossing out another top mug on the al-Qaida most-wanted chart.

Just how big a deal it is will depend on what the new Iraqi government does as a follow-up—or, more to the point, what it can do, and there are still severe limits on that.

Still, one piece of good news is that there is a new Iraqi government, and this seems to be in part a direct outcome of the airstrike that hit Zarqawi and his entourage. Right after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the news, the parliament confirmed his appointments to the Cabinet's final three, most crucial slots: the defense, interior, and national-security ministries. The nominees—a Sunni and two Shiites, respectively—had been subjects of rancorous sectarian debate, which ended instantly upon the demise of Iraqi sectarianism's chief instigator.

Does this mean that national unity lies around the corner? That's doubtful, and not just because Iraq has turned too many illusory corners these past three years for anyone to take seriously the sighting of another. Zarqawi exacerbated ethnic tensions and helped ignite them in mass violence; triggering a civil war was central to his strategy. But he didn't create those tensions, nor are they likely to vanish along with him. Fires rage on, regardless of what happens to the man who lit the match.

As for future fires, there's no shortage of matches in Iraq these days—or of people willing to light them.

For a long time now, analysts and several officials have noted that jihadist followers of Zarqawi's comprise a small segment of the insurgency but commit a larger percentage of the most violent acts. Nobody has been precise about how the numbers break down. I doubt if anyone really knows. At the very least, we may be about to find out.

The dismaying point here is that the violence won't end; President Bush himself made this clear in his public statement this morning. The vast majority of insurgents have claims and ambitions that have nothing to do with Zarqawi's. Those who are his disciples will probably set off some bombs over the next several days, if just to demonstrate that they can operate without him.

But can they remain a potent force without their leader for the next weeks, months, and years? Again, I don't think anybody knows. His group, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, has announced it has selected a new "prince" to replace him, though it seems unlikely that anyone short of Osama Bin Laden himself could match Zarqawi's organizational talents or charisma.

Does it matter if no jihadist leader emerges? In one sense, probably not. Al-Qaida International has long devolved from a centralized network to a scattered franchise, still capable of terrorism and harder to track down. In another sense, though, Zarqawi's absence might make a difference, especially in Iraq. His underlings' instant announcement of a replacement—just as mighty, the message promised—may indicate that they know how desperately such a figurehead is needed.

There were already signs that Zarqawi's operation was unraveling. Many Sunni Arabs bitterly protested his strategy of splitting Iraq's Muslims, especially his attacks on Shiites and their mosques. Juan Cole reports that, just this week, some of Zarqawi's fighters mounted an assault on a Fallujah police station—and were staved off by young Sunni tribesmen. Initial accounts of Zarqawi's death reported that "area residents" gave his location away. Later stories said the information came from insiders. Either way, it's good news. The former would mean that, for at least some Iraqis, their impatience with Zarqawi's violence outweighed their fear of his wrath. The latter would mean that his organization is about to splinter still further—with, ultimately, the same result.

A year ago, officials of what was then Iraq's interim government declared a strategy of dividing the foreign jihadists and the nationalist insurgents—isolating the former, co-opting the latter. Might Zarqawi's death give even a glimmer of hope that this strategy might be revived?

This seems to be what Maliki is hoping for. The completion of his government was a necessary first step. His decision to release hundreds of mainly Sunni detainees, a process that began earlier this week, is clearly meant as another step toward reconciliation. Next on the list, if this strategy has the slightest chance of success, would have to be: stopping the Shiite militias' death squads (significantly, the new Shiite interior minister has no militia ties), amending the Iraqi Constitution to give Sunni regions a more equitable share of oil revenue, further (though judicious) de-Baathification throughout the government—in short, giving all political parties (and the militias or insurgents that support them) a stake in the system.

Above all, Maliki seems to be hoping to demonstrate basic competence, to perform a string of successes that might inspire confidence. The nabbing of Zarqawi marks one such success.

Vali Nasr, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of The Shia Revival, said this morning that he sees "a window of opportunity," though he added, "I don't know how open it is, or for how long."

If there's any legitimacy to the new Iraqi government, now's the time it might take traction. If it can't take hold now, it might not ever.

Related in Slate
In May 2004 Fred Kaplan reported that, as far back as 2002, U.S. military officers had Zarqawi in their gun sights but that the White House vetoed their proposals to pull the trigger—in part for fear that killing him at that point might undermine one of the rationales for invading Iraq. Also in 2004, Daniel Benjamin chided the White House for making Zarqawi's capture a low priority, saying they underestimated the threat he posed. Earlier this year, Kaplan argued that it may have been a mistake for the United States to release the Zarqawi blooper tapes; and Christopher Hitchens delighted that Iraqis had begun taking justice into their own hands by going after Zarqawi's soldiers. Last year, Timothy Noah pointed out that Zarqawi's army seemed awfully top-heavy (and showed that this is part of a broader al-Qaida trend). In 2004, Eric Umansky assessed what we knew about the man's history and argued the United States was, stupidly, inflating his reputation.
Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com

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