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Misreading al-Qaeda on Iraq

By Robert Parry
October 27, 2006

Peter Bergen, an influential expert on al-Qaeda, says a long-term U.S. military presence is needed in Iraq to thwart the terrorist group’s strategic goals. But Bergen appears to be basing his conclusion on a misunderstanding of recent intercepted internal communiqués.

In a New York Times Op-Ed piece on Oct. 26, Bergen argues that “a significant [U.S.] force must remain in Iraq for many years to destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq” because otherwise the group will turn Iraq into a base for terrorist operations, an argument that echoes campaign statements by President George W. Bush.

To bolster his argument, Bergen cites an intercepted letter from Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, dated July 9, 2005, that exhorted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, to begin preparing for an American military withdrawal.

“We must be ready starting now, before events overtake us, and before we are surprised by the conspiracies of the Americans and the United Nations and their plans to fill the void behind them,” Zawahiri wrote in an excerpt quoted by Bergen.

But Bergen misreads Zawahiri’s point. The radical Egyptian Islamist isn’t welcoming the prospect of an American withdrawal so much as he is warning Zarqawi about the dangers to al-Qaeda forces in Iraq should the United States pull out suddenly.

According to a fuller reading of the letter, Zawahiri is worrying that a rapid U.S. military withdrawal could cause al-Qaeda’s operation in Iraq to collapse because its foreign jihadists, who flocked to Iraq to battle the Americans, might give up the fight and go home.

“The mujahaddin must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal,” wrote Zawahiri, according to a text released by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence.

To avert mass desertions, Zawahiri suggests that Zarqawi talk up the “idea” of a “caliphate” along the eastern Mediterranean.

'Prolonging' the War

A more recent letter – written on Dec. 11, 2005, by another al-Qaeda leader known as “Atiyah” – elaborates on this fear of a prompt American withdrawal and the benefit to al-Qaeda from “prolonging” the war by keeping the Americans bogged down in Iraq.

Atiyah lectures Zarqawi on the necessity of taking the long view and building ties with elements of the Sunni-led Iraqi insurgency that had little in common with al-Qaeda except hatred of the Americans.

“The most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day,” Atiyah wrote. “Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest.” [Emphasis added.]

The “Atiyah letter,” which was discovered by U.S. authorities at the time of Zarqawi’s death on June 7, 2006, and was translated by the U.S. military’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, also stressed the vulnerability of al-Qaeda’s position in Iraq.

“Know that we, like all mujahaddin, are still weak,” Atiyah told Zarqawi. “We have not yet reached a level of stability. We have no alternative but to not squander any element of the foundations of strength or any helper or supporter.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]

What al-Qaeda leaders seem to fear most is that a U.S. military withdrawal would contribute to a disintegration of their fragile position in Iraq, between the expected desertions of the foreign fighters and the targeting of al-Qaeda’s remaining forces by Iraqis determined to rid their country of violent outsiders.

In that sense, the longer the United States remains in Iraq, the deeper al-Qaeda can put down roots and the more it can harden its new recruits through indoctrination and training.

U.S. Intelligence Analysis

Just as U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq became a “cause celebre” that spread Islamic radicalism around the globe, so too does it appear that an extended U.S. occupation of Iraq would help al-Qaeda achieve its goals both there and elsewhere.

CIA analysts have long recognized this symbiotic relationship between the political interests of George W. Bush and the strategic interests of Osama bin Laden. For instance, after bin Laden took the risk on Oct. 29, 2004, to release a videotape denouncing Bush, CIA analysts quickly concluded that bin Laden was actually trying to help Bush get a second term as President.

“Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret “strategic analysis” after the videotape had dominated the day’s news, according to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders.

Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. … Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.”

Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush’s heavy-handed policies – such as the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal and the war in Iraq – were serving al-Qaeda’s strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.

“Certainly,” Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”

As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.

However, Bush’s campaign backers took bin Laden’s videotape at face value, calling it proof the terrorist leader feared Bush and favored Democrat John Kerry.

In a pro-Bush book entitled Strategery: How George W. Bush Is Defeating Terrorists, Outwitting Democrats and Confounding the Mainstream Media, right-wing journalist Bill Sammon devoted several pages to bin Laden’s videotape, portraying it as an attempt by the terrorist leader to persuade Americans to vote for Kerry.

“Bin Laden stopped short of overtly endorsing Kerry,” Sammon wrote, “but the terrorist offered a polemic against reelecting Bush.”

Sammon and other right-wing pundits didn’t weigh the obvious possibility that the crafty bin Laden might have understood that his “endorsement” of Kerry would achieve the opposite effect with the American people.

Bush himself recognized this fact. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush said in a post-election interview with Sammon about bin Laden’s videotape. “I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be the President, something must be right with Bush.”

In Strategery, Sammon also quotes Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman as agreeing that bin Laden’s videotape helped Bush. “It reminded people of the stakes,” Mehlman said. “It reinforced an issue on which Bush had a big lead over Kerry.”

But bin Laden, a student of American politics, surely understood that, too. The Saudi extremist apparently saw Bush as both a useful fool and a perfect foil, someone who had played into al-Qaeda’s hands by prematurely turning U.S. attention away from Afghanistan in 2002 and invading Iraq – and then transforming bin Laden, in the eyes of many Muslims, from a crazed blood-soaked zealot into a far-sighted defender of Islamic lands.

If the CIA is correct that bin Laden wanted Bush to stay in the White House, it would follow that bin Laden also wanted the United States to stay militarily in Iraq. It was obvious to everyone that Bush’s famous stubbornness would not let him admit a mistake and pull U.S. forces out of Iraq.

Getting It Wrong

In recent week, Bush has pounded the same theme that Bergen does in the New York Times – that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq is what bin Laden wants.

“If we were to follow the Democrats’ prescriptions and withdraw from Iraq, we would be fulfilling Osama bin Laden’s highest aspirations,” Bush said at an Oct. 19 campaign speech in La Plume, Pennsylvania. “We should at least be able to agree that the path to victory is not to do precisely what the terrorists want.”

Similarly, Bergen wrote in the New York Times that “another problem with a total American withdrawal is that it would fit all too neatly into Osama bin Laden’s master narrative about American foreign policy. His theme is that America is a paper tiger that cannot tolerate body bags coming home.”

Though it’s galling to think about giving bin Laden any satisfaction about anything, it could be argued that the strategic gamble of the Iraq War should have been more carefully weighed before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

The current question is really whether this three-year-old strategic blunder should be maintained indefinitely – at great expense and with heavy loss of life – so bin Laden won’t have one more thing to crow about.

Or, is it better to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and deny al-Qaeda its desire for “prolonging the war”? And it might even be possible to structure an American withdrawal from Iraq so U.S. Special Forces would be freed up so they can finally find and kill bin Laden and his inner circle.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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