Al-Qaida: time on its side

4 June 2007

The kidnapping of a British financial specialist and four bodyguards on 29 May 2007 would not have been unusual at this juncture in Baghdad except for two aspects.

The first is that this was close to the centre of the city nearly four months into a "surge" in United States forces that was expected to bring a degree of stability.

The second was the ability of the kidnappers to use large numbers of police vehicles to cordon off the streets around the finance ministry and then to walk in past the guards and abduct the five expatriates. This indicates either a remarkable ability of insurgents to acquire official vehicles or that the operation was the work of a renegade police unit most likely linked to a militia.

Each factor gives some indication of the problems facing the US military as it continues its surge, others being the high level of bombings in Baghdad and of American military casualties. On the same day as the abductions, a bus-bomb and car-bomb together killed at least forty people and wounded almost a hundred. That day too, the US military announced that another ten of its soldiers had been killed on 28 May. In addition, over 600 American soldiers were wounded in the three weeks to 22 May, with a majority of them sustaining serious injuries.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

For the second month running, US military deaths have exceeded 100, the first time that this has happened since the war started over four years ago. May's total (116 as of 30 May) is already the third worst month on record and is coming close to the heavy casualties experienced by US troops during the two assaults on Fallujah in April and November 2004. It also followed a report from Baghdad's morgues that sectarian killings have risen again since the decrease at the start of the surge in February (see "The fire next time", 24 May 2007).

A change in the weather

Although some Washington sources still speak optimistically about the prospects for success with the surge, there have been two major shifts of mood in the past two weeks. The first is that across the administration, short-term expectations are being substantially downgraded. The planned schedule had made September 2007 a key date: that was when General David Petraeus would deliver an interim report on the progress of the surge, which would in turn be related to three key benchmarks of political progress.

The problem now is that only one of these benchmarks has any hope of being reached by September: the passage of a bill through the Iraqi parliament determining the future of Iraqi oil revenues and ownership (yet even this is problematic, given its remit to allow foreign companies in on extraordinarily lucrative terms). The other two benchmarks - provincial elections and a programme for bringing far more Sunnis into government positions - are non-starters (see Julian E Barnes, "Iraq Likely to Miss Goals Set by U.S.", Los Angeles Times, 29 May 2007).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here Paul Rogers's most recent book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, 2006)

The second shift is much more long term - the increasing recognition that the surge will not work and that another option will need to be pursued. The full details of this are as yet unclear, but enough is known to sketch out the likely "Plan B".

One element is that it will give up completely on the original expectation four years ago. This was that Iraq would make a rapid transition to a relatively peaceful client state of Washington - dependent on US military power centred on a few large bases. The world's largest embassy, under construction in downtown Baghdad, would oversee these closest of connections and a free-market economy would be developed involving flat-rate taxes and a minimum of regulation, allowing widespread access to the Iraqi economy, especially the oil industry, by US-based companies.

This wider aspiration has long since gone, yet there is still no admission in Washington that the Iraq policy has failed and there is no alternative to withdrawal. Instead, the core security elements of the dream remain. National Public Radio reported on 21 May that, whatever happens in the next year or so, there are likely to be around 40,000 US troops in Iraq for many years - possibly decades - to come. Indeed, a White House spokesman went to far as to acknowledge on 29 May that President Bush "would like to see a lengthy U.S. troop presence in Iraq like the one in South Korea to provide stability but not in a frontline combat role" (see Steve Holland, "Bush Envisions US Presence in Iraq Like South Korea", Reuters, 30 May 2007).

The exact nature of the forthcoming deployments is not easy to determine, but they are likely to involve a return to the idea of a few very well-defended bases: one close to Baghdad, two others close to the northern and southern oilfields and yet another towards the Syrian border. The cities will be left largely to their own devices, some degree of border security will be maintained, and there will be few ground-based patrols as US military activities are focussed primarily on preventing any overtly anti-American militia gaining overall control.

Such a long-term commitment will be a very poor second to the original grand plans for Iraq, but it will mean that a powerful US military presence is maintained in the heart of the Persian Gulf, forming part of a chain that goes on down to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman, with further facilities in Djibouti and Diego Garcia. It should certainly be enough to contain Iran, given a long-term US presence in Afghanistan, and may well - given the strategic value of Gulf oil reserves - be acceptable to any future United States president. Whatever might be said by Democrats in opposition, any Democrat in the White House after 2008 will still have to face realities.

The other side

All this makes a kind of perverse sense in light of the current predicament but - quite apart from the grim prospects for Iraq in this scenario - it leaves out entirely a key factor: the relevance of this outcome to the al-Qaida movement and the wider jihadist community. For them, such an eventuality is the stuff of dreams and it fits in extraordinarily well with their ambitions, these being measured not in months or even years, but in many decades.

It is worth recalling the multiple aims of this diffuse and dispersed movement, bearing in mind its highly unusual combination of revolutionary fervour and religious intensity. Al-Qaida is about evicting "Crusader/Zionist" forces from the Islamic world, replacing corrupt and elitist regimes in the region with proper Islamist governance and supporting diverse movements such as the southern Thailand separatists and the Chechens. These short-term aims are measured in decades. The long-term aim, possibly a century way is to establish a new form of caliphate while crippling the far enemy of the United States, much as the mujahideen destroyed the only other superpower, the Soviet Union, in 1980s Afghanistan.

A main al-Qaida aim of the 9/11 attacks may well have been to entice the United States into Afghanistan as an occupying power, laying the groundwork for a decade or more of guerrilla warfare as a re-run of the 1980s success against the Soviets. Initially the US avoided the trap, choosing instead to combine air power, special forces and a rearmed Northern Alliance to terminate the Taliban regime. That has now changed, with well over 20,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is useful to al-Qaida but, meanwhile, the United States and its coalition partners have fallen into a trap that is much more potent then Afghanistan - the occupation of Iraq.

It is now patently obvious that Iraq is serving the hugely advantageous purpose of providing the wider jihadist movement, especially al-Qaida, with a highly effective combat training zone. Moreover, this is combat-training against the world's best-equipped troops in a largely urban environment, not Soviet conscripts in rural Afghanistan. The movement of paramilitaries in and out of Iraq is aided by the constant flow of refugees, and there is evidence of jihadist connections with Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as in Afghanistan where the Iraq connection has been evident for well over a year. (Michael Moss & Souad Mekhennet, "Militants widen reach as terror seeps out of Iraq", International Herald Tribune, 28 May 2007).

One recent analysis in Jane's Intelligence Review points out that:

"The tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) used in modern insurgencies enables a relatively small, poorly equipped force to render otherwise powerful Western military forces ineffective in fulfilling mandates and accomplishing broader political objectives" (see Jim Dorschner, "Mission Fatigue: the future of military interventionism", Jane's Intelligence Review, June 2007).

Al-Qaida strategists such as Ayman al-Zawahiri are only too well aware of this, with Zawahiri himself trying to encourage young jihadist paramilitaries to make Somalia a new zone of conflict in the wider struggle (Andrew Black, "Recruitment Drive: can Somalia attract foreign fighters?", Jane's Intelligence Review, June 2007 [subscription only]).

A question of time

Moreover, Ayman al-Zawahiri himself is further emboldened by what is seen as substantive progress. In a video released on 5 May 2007 he sought to make common cause with American Muslims, especially black Muslims, but also enlarged this war against the far enemy to be a war of liberation against US power as a whole, an idea not without support that extends way beyond the Islamic world.

Al-Zawahiri was scathing about the current US surge in Iraq, mocking Bush by inviting him to share a glass of juice in the cafeteria of the Iraq parliament that had been successfully targeted a few days earlier. As to the prospect of an early US withdrawal from Iraq, his sarcasm was positively dripping since such an event "will deprive us of the opportunity to destroy the American forces which we have caught in a historic trap" (see Michael Scheuer, "Al-Qaeda message aimed at US living rooms", Asia Times, 10 May 2007).

The real point about all of this is the matter of timescales. The predicament in Iraq certainly gets plenty of attention in the United States but most of the concern is with short-term issues, much of it related to the 2008 presidential election. Fortunately for the al-Qaida movement, the strategic importance of the Gulf makes a complete US withdrawal highly unlikely in the next few years, but the movement is in any case measuring developments in decades.

It may take that long for jihadist paramilitary movements to make progress against the near and far enemies, but the Iraq combat-training zone has already given such a prospect a substantial boost. As of now, the United States is giving al-Qaida at least five years' worth of training in Iraq and, with luck, this will extend to at least a decade and maybe much more (see Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, "The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy", 18 December 2006). Al-Qaida may have hoped to trap the far enemy in Afghanistan, but instead it has trapped it in the much more vital "land of the two rivers", centred on Baghdad (which was, after all, the centre of the great Abbasid caliphate). In making this grievous mistake the Bush administration is gaining a notoriety that will last for much of this century.


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