Two weeks ago, US intelligence released an intercepted letter from al-Zawahiri, an Al Queda leader, to al-Zarqawi, the recognized leader of Al Queda forces in Iraq. Today I am going to discuss its major features, because it seems to me to give a remarkably good idea of what Al-Queda wants, in Iraq and elsewhere, of their own thinking about how to get there, and of American strengths and weaknesses in the fight against their influence.
The letter is actually a quite sophisticated discussion of objectives, strategies, and tactics, which did not get nearly as much attention it deserved. To begin with—after a great many flowery salutation and religious allusions—it states Al Queda’s goal.
“It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world, specifically in the Levant, Egypt, and the neighboring states of the Peninsula and Iraq; however, the center would be in the Levant and Egypt. . . . the battles that are going on in the far-flung regions of the Islamic world, such as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Bosnia, they are just the groundwork and the vanguard for the major battles which have begun in the heart of the Islamic world.”
While a very big goal, this is a far cry from President Bush’s appreciation in a recent speech—that Al-Queda wants a fundamentalist state stretching from Pakistan to Spain. The exaggeration of our enemies’ goals has been common since the twentieth century, and most Americans have always thought that Hitler wanted to conquer the world, which is actually far more than he expected to see Germany do even in the course of his lifetime. He wanted to rule Europe and to create an empire of Aryans to Germany’s east, leaving more grandiose projects for the future. Here the goal is also regional. More importantly, Al-Zawahiri specifically identifies Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Bosnia as peripheral fronts, less important than Iraq and the struggles to come.
The letter then notes the favor that Allah has shown to Al-Zarqawi, by allowing him to begin a Jihad “in the heart of the Islamic world.” The man most responsible for this development, alas, is President Bush, who decided to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein, whom Jihadis did not threaten, in Iraq. Al-Zawahiri prefers to give the credit to Almighty God, but his analysis becomes increasingly more sophisticated as he surveys the development of the situation in Iraq and gives some cautionary advice.
“ . . . .we are extremely concerned, as are the mujahedeen and all sincere Muslims, about your Jihad and your heroic acts until you reach its intended goal.
You know well that purity of faith and the correct way of living are not connected necessarily to success in the field unless you take into consideration the reasons and practices which events are guided by. For the grandson of the Prophet Imam al Hussein bin Ali }, the Leader of the Faithful Abdallah Bin al-Zubair }, Abdul Rahman Bin al-Ashath ~, and other great people, did not achieve their sought-after goal.”
According to Thucydides, Nicias in 415 warned the Athenians that very little is ever gained simply by wishing for it. Here al-Zawahiri goes a step further, arguing that purity of mind and heart will not guarantee success. (A similar caution to an American President might refer to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon). Spreading democracy, for us, plays the same moral role in this conflict as spreading fundamentalist Islam does for Al Queda, but they have recognized that their excellent motives do not guarantee success. (Not knowing much about this history of the Muslim world, I cannot identify the unsuccessful Jihadis to whom he refers.)
Having recognized the need for a strategy, a sequence of steps, the author then lays one out.
“So we must think for a long time about our next steps and how we want to attain it, and it is my humble opinion that the Jihad in Iraq requires several incremental goals:
“The first stage: Expel the Americans from Iraq.
“The second stage: Establish an Islamic authority or amirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of a caliphate- over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq, i.e., in Sunni areas, is in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans, immediately upon their exit and before un-Islamic forces attempt to fill this void, whether those whom the Americans will leave behind them, or those among the un-Islamic forces who will try to jump at taking power.
“There is no doubt that this amirate will enter into a fierce struggle with the foreign infidel forces, and those supporting them among the local forces, to put it in a state of constant preoccupation with defending itself, to make it impossible for it to establish a stable state which could proclaim a caliphate, and to keep the Jihadist groups in a constant state of war, until these forces find a chance to annihilate them.
“The third stage: Extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq.
“The fourth stage: It may coincide with what came before: the clash with Israel, because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.
What emerges here, it seems to me, is an interesting, and not altogether alarming, picture of what comes next. The author is confident that the United States will in fact withdraw from Iraq fairly quickly—but that is only going to allow the Islamist insurgency to take power in the Sunni areas, after which they will face a prolonged local struggle. Only after that has been successful can the movement expand its reach into “neighboring” secular countries, which presumably refers to Jordan and Syria. (I have no idea whether al Zawahiri would refer to Saudi Arabia as “secular.”)
Now these observations have enormous relevance to the United States as well. In the spring of 2003, after the invasion of Iraq and during the beginnings of the insurgency, several commentators made analogies with the British experience in the 1920s. The British, they argued, discovered that when they thrust themselves into the center of Iraqi politics, the Iraqis (of whom there were only about two million then, less than one-tenth of the population today) would focus upon killing Brits; but when they pulled back, the Iraqis would begin killing each other. This is obviously what Zawahiri thinks in this case, and he even acknowledges that an American withdrawal would be a very real blow to his efforts to mobilize the Arab people. Zawahiri, like Lenin, knows he is speaking for a minority of Jihadis, and his success will depend upon securing broader support.
“In the absence of this popular support, the Islamic mujahed movement would be crushed in the shadows, far from the masses who are distracted or fearful, and the struggle between the Jihadist elite and the arrogant authorities would be confined to prison dungeons far from the public and the light of day. . . .
“The Muslim masses-for many reasons, and this is not the place to discuss it-do not rally except against an outside occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is firstly Jewish, and secondly American.
“This, in my limited opinion, is the reason for the popular support that the mujahedeen enjoy in Iraq, by the grace of God.
“As for the sectarian and chauvinistic factor, it is secondary in importance to outside aggression, and is much weaker than it. In my opinion-which is limited and which is what I see far from the scene-the awakening of the Sunni people in Iraq against the Shia would not have had such strength and toughness were it not for the treason of the Shia and their collusion with the Americans, and their agreement with them to permit the Americans to occupy Iraq in exchange for the Shia assuming power.”
In the spring of 1961, General de Gaulle warned President Kennedy that the West could preserve some influence in Southeast Asia—but only if it did not introduce military forces. The United States learned the truth of this principle in the Middle East the hard way during the 1990s, after the establishment of a base in Saudi Arabia provoked a series of terrorist attacks. Incredibly, even now, neocons defend the invasion of Iraq as a means of establishing an alternative base for our forces that has allowed us to withdraw from Saudi Arabia—even though it has obvious that thousands of new recruits have flocked into Iraq to fight the Americans.
The lesson for us, here, seems clear: the sooner we leave Iraq the better. Our departure will provoke a violent struggle among Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites, but it will be their struggle, and our putative allies, the Kurds and (possibly, though far from certainly), the Shi’ites, will no longer be tainted by reliance upon ourselves. But the longer we stay to try to subdue central Iraq, the worse things are likely to get.
This is not a fantasy of al-Zawahiri’s part, or mine. It is confirmed by a story in today’s Sunday Telegraph, a conservative London paper, reporting the results of a poll of all Iraq arranged by the British forces. Here are its findings:
• Forty-five per cent of Iraqis believe attacks against British and American troops are justified - rising to 65 per cent in the British-controlled Maysan province;
• 82 per cent are "strongly opposed" to the presence of coalition troops;
• less than one per cent of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security;
• 67 per cent of Iraqis feel less secure because of the occupation;
• 43 per cent of Iraqis believe conditions for peace and stability have worsened;
• 72 per cent do not have confidence in the multi-national forces.
For the full story, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/10/23/wirq23.xml&sSheet=/portal/2005/10/23/ixportaltop.html .
Zawahiri, like a good Leninist, then moves to his key point: the need for effective political work—essentially, the creation of a kind of Popular Front—to secure his political objectives.
“Second: This is the most vital part. This authority, or the Sharia amirate that is necessary, requires fieldwork starting now, alongside the combat and war. It would be a political endeavor in which the mujahedeen would be a nucleus around which would gather the tribes and their elders, and the people in positions, and scientists, and merchants, and people of opinion, and all the distinguished ones who were not sullied by appeasing the occupation and those who defended Islam.
“We don't want to repeat the mistake of the Taliban, who restricted participation in governance to the students and the people of Qandahar alone. They did not have any representation for the Afghan people in their ruling regime, so the result was that the Afghan people disengaged themselves from them. Even devout ones took the stance of the spectator and, when the invasion came, the amirate collapsed in days, because the people were either passive or hostile. Even the students themselves had a stronger affiliation to their tribes and their villages than their affiliation to the Islamic amirate or the Taliban movement or the responsible party in charge of each one of them in his place. Each of them retreated to his village and his tribe, where his affiliation was stronger!!
“The comparison between the fall of Kabul and the resistance of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Al Qaim and their fearless sisters shows a clear distinction, by God's grace and His kindness. It is the matter towards which we must strive, that we must support and strengthen.”
We need the people’s support, he says, and their loyalties, like those of the Afghan people, are to their tribes, villages and families, not to the international Jihadi movement. We must take advantage of these loyalties—exactly what, apparently, the Kurdish and Shi’ite leaders are doing in other parts of Iraq. One cannot escape the feeling that both Al Queda and the United States are trying to impose alien visions on a very traditional society—a western-style democracy in our case, a medieval theocracy in theirs. The winner will probably be the side that adapts to local reality first, and best, with the proviso that the American occupation is probably a crippling disability, in the long run, for us.
In the last part of his letter, al-Zawahiri raises the issue that got the most press—his opposition to the beheading of Shi’ite enemies, which he regards, to use an American term, as poor information warfare. Again this shows his recognition of the internecine struggles to come within Iraq. It is not, in my opinion, nearly as important, however, as his overall strategic vision.
Clearly this letter has good news and bad news for the United States and anyone else who does not want to see Islamic radicalism triumph in the Middle East. The bad news relates to American policies over the last three years. As Michael Scheuer, formerly of the CIA, has argued repeatedly, the decision to overthrow Saddam and occupy Iraq was, for Osama Bin Laden, the Christmas present he would not have even dared asked for, had he believed in Christmas. It removed one of the stronger secular states in the region, validated his claim that the United States wanted to dominate the oil and people of the Middle East, and opened up a new front in his struggle to expel the West from the region, a front in which most of the advantages lie with him. Incredibly, during the last week the Bush Administration has been threatening to try to bring down the Ba’athist regime in Syria as well—a step that would create more chaos and more opportunity for radicals. The Sunday Times reports that some in Washington do fear the consequences of such a step. Let us hope so.
But the good news is that Jihad is only one, and far from the strongest, political force in the region. Other religious, tribal, ethnic and familial loyalties are stronger, and may easily remain so. The region seems destined for a period of prolonged internal conflict, much of it violent, which will almost certainly have wildly differing results in different states. Such a situation, while tragic for the people of the region—who failed to create many lasting political achievements during the twentieth century—is one that the West can live with. We find ourselves, however, in a paradoxical (though hardly unprecedented) position. The harder we try to shape developments exactly according to our lights, the worse the outcome will probably turn out to be. We desperately need leadership willing to realize that fact, and none, as yet, is in sight.