consortiumnews.com

Zarqawi's Death May Aid Insurgency

By Ivan Eland
June 13, 2006

Editor's Note: From the start of the Iraq War, the Bush administration has operated under the erroneous theory that the conflict could be won through a decapitation strategy, i.e. killing key leaders.

Remember the bombing of the Baghdad restaurant in the war's opening days because of some bad intelligence that Saddam Hussein was having dinner there. Hussein wasn't around but the bombing killed innocent Iraqi diners. Or then the media's playing cards with pictures of top leaders. Or the killing of Hussein's two sons, followed by Hussein's capture.

Each time, the elimination of the leaders was hailed as a turning point. But instead the insurgency continued unabated -- and sometimes even stronger because unpopular leaders were removed and were replaced by younger insurgents who then injected new enthusiasm into the war effort. In this guest essay, the Independent Institute's Ivan Eland suggests that the killing of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may represent a similar false turning point:

The death of the sadistic sociopath Abu Musab al-Zarqawi shouldn’t bring a tear to anyone’s eye, but it is primarily a short-lived public relations triumph for the Bush administration that may mask an actual victory for the Sunni insurgency.

Inside the Washington Beltway, public relations is often more important than reality. Good policy is less important than posturing to appear that progress is being made solving important public problems. This sleight of hand avoids hard choices, wins elections, and keeps politicians in office. The approach has worked so well at home that U.S. administrations have taken it on the road to use in their military adventures abroad.

Because many Americans are accustomed to nasty villains on TV and in the movies, U.S. administrations demonize authoritarian foreign leaders—for example, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were compared to Adolf Hitler by the Clinton and Bush administrations before the U.S. bombing began—or use their formidable public relations operations to enhance the reputation of mere mortals into poster boys for evil.

In the latter case, the U.S. government’s propaganda machine has made al-Qaeda the most overrated organization in the world and its leaders, Osama bin-Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the controlling force behind worldwide violent Islamic jihad—even though they act mainly as inspiration for the movement.

Similarly, in Iraq, the U.S. government needed a villain to personify the rather faceless Iraqi insurgency. The vicious and brutal Zarqawi fit the bill perfectly. The Bush administration demonized Zarqawi’s foreign jihadists as the instigators and dominant force of the much larger Sunni insurgency to demonstrate that foreigners were causing most of the problems in Iraq rather than Iraqis who wanted to oust the occupying superpower.

After building up Zarqawi and the jihadists, the administration could now shore up sagging public support for the war at home by nailing the bad guy in classic Hollywood fashion.

Yet the administration’s public relations coup is likely to be temporary and do a favor for the Iraqi insurgency and maybe even bin-Laden and Zawahiri. Although Zarqawi was charismatic—to those jihadists who were especially bloodthirsty—and drew foreign fighters into Iraq, his cruel tactics made even bin-Laden and Zawahiri cringe.

Zawahiri sent Zarqawi a letter asking him to turn down the volume a bit, but Zarqawi ignored him and remained ever maniacal in his indiscriminate slaughter. Since the al-Qaeda leadership thought Zarqawi was giving the radical jihadist movement bad publicity, perhaps even bin-Laden and Zawahiri breathed a sigh of relief when Zarqawi bit the dust.

The larger Sunni insurgency certainly did. The Sunni nationalists, who make up about 90 percent of the insurgency, had long had enough of Zarqawi. His butchery and foreign origin (he was Jordanian) had made him extremely unpopular with most Sunni Iraqis. To be successful, it is critical for an insurgency to maintain the support of the population, which provides cover and sustenance. Zarqawi’s activities were counterproductive to this end.

By killing Zarqawi, the U.S. government no longer has a well-known “evil doer” to rally lagging U.S. public support for the war and has made it more likely that the Iraqi guerrillas can retain Sunni popular support for their insurgency.

And the killing doesn’t even get rid of the foreign jihadists in Iraq, who will continue to contribute to sectarian violence—now an even bigger problem for the U.S. occupation than the Sunni insurgency. The decentralized structure of the jihadist organizations makes it tough to kill the beast by simply cutting off the head.  

Thus, Zarqawi’s death has probably helped the larger Sunni insurgency, will do little to slow the escalating sectarian violence, and may even come as a relief to the al-Qaeda leadership. As with the killing of Saddam Hussein’s two sons, the cheering within the Bush administration probably will be short-lived.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.


Back to Home Page