ThreatsWatch.Org: Commentary


Abandoning Iraq Would Mean Catastrophe Elsewhere As Dominoes Likely Fall

By Steve Schippert

Following majority leader Harry Reid’s declaration that the war was "lost,” General David Petraeus spent his day reassuring prominent Iraqi religious, political, and military leaders. Many Iraqis fear the United States will abandon their country as in 1991, only this time to the ruthlessness of al-Qaeda rather than the brutality of Saddam Hussein.

Who could blame them for detecting such signals in the air? Even though the new strategy put into effect at General Petraeus’ hand shows unmistakable signs of progress in a mere few weeks, there also appears to be no political will to see it succeed.

In a statement meant to assure the world that Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters had not killed him, al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri openly acknowledged in a May 5 message that al-Qaeda has lost control of Anbar province. After claiming control of 80 percent of Diyala province, he concluded that al Qaeda “is capable of taking the initiative in Al-Anbar.” There can be little question of this if the United States withdraws.

If retreatist political will is allowed to persist and dictate American force posture, regional dominoes would likely fall as a direct result. The global conflict at hand would become violently altered, and would require American forces to engage on multiple additional fronts beyond an abandoned Iraq. The ‘stretched thin’ U.S. military in Iraq would seem the good ol’ days.

Iraq: Only The First Domino

Within Iraq itself, the situation would be untenable without U.S. ground forces engaging the terrorist enemy. In January, a Brookings Institution report called for a U.S. contingency plan putting U.S. ground forces at the periphery. The report posited that the “retention of assets (air power, Special Operations Forces, and a major intelligence and reconnaissance effort) in the vicinity to identify and strike major terrorist facilities like training camps, bomb factories, and arms caches” would be required. But such an arm's length approach to combating al-Qaeda on the terrain they travel is no recipe for victory, neither for American security nor the Iraqis' safety.

This limited employment of ground forces will pester an enmeshed organization like al-Qaeda in Iraq, which conceivably will have taken (or re-taken) control of provinces through unspeakable brutality on local tribes and tribal leaders. But ‘pestering’ will not defeat it. As the sea-change in Anbar province demonstrates, sustained boots on the ground empowers local populations to reclaim their neighborhoods, cities, and, yes, provinces. Without this local presence, it is a proven fact that intelligence degrades exponentially.

In defense of Senator Reid's declaration that the Iraq War is "lost," Senator Charles Schumer's (D-NY) stated aim of a U.S. role “more focused on terrorism” calls for the bombing of any “al-Qaeda camps” that would arise. But the degraded intelligence and the enmeshed nature of al-Qaeda means the certainty of a rise in collateral civilian casualties with US strikes. For yet another reason, al-Qaeda gains on the ground and in the information/media war.

The perception of ‘civil war’ in Iraq has been constructed upon the bloody attacks of foreign al-Qaeda bombings of Shi’a population centers and Iranian-backed Shi’a extra-judicial killing (EJK) cells. General Petraeus was clear to point out that these ‘death squads’ are not the “run-of-the-mill Jaish al- Mahdi (Mahdi Army),” who have otherwise been “just sort of the young men with guns on the streets.” Rather, the fires are stoked by Iranian-trained “extremist cells” who have the mission of murdering Sunnis, and thus deepening the chaos through the perception of civil war. This misperception seems to drive much of the political will in Washington. This misperception thus drives the largely successful strategy of our enemies.

If the United States limits its military efforts on the Iraqi field of battle ostensibly to airstrikes and limited missions by special forces operators working with degraded intelligence capabilities, the vacated regions of Iraqi territory would essentially be divided up between al-Qaeda and Iran. Al-Qaeda would claim and control predominantly Sunni areas. Likewise, the Shi’a areas of Southern Iraq would fall to de facto, and perhaps someday explicit, Iranian control. Sectarian attacks carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq and enabled on both sides by Iran would likely fall significantly with the attacks' psychological mission fulfilled through U.S. withdrawal.

And this overall condition after U.S. disengagement on the ground in Iraq, once toe-to-toe and face-to-face with al-Qaeda terrorists, would lead to far greater consequences: those beyond Iraq’s borders.

The Royal Saudi Domino

Many of the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq would be freed to make their way back to the Arabian Peninsula to mount a threat there. While Saudi Arabia and its ruling monarchy have long been among al-Qaeda’s primary strategic objectives, the number of attacks inside Saudi Arabia has been low. This has less to do with the Saudi claims of neutralizing al-Qaeda in the Kingdom and much more to do with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s terrorists migrating to Iraq. With the successful conquer of much of Sunni Iraqi territory, a merely ‘pestered’ al-Qaeda will be freed up to shift significant human resources.

There are two paths to al-Qaeda’s black banner of jihad flying over Saudi Arabia. First is the elimination of the ruling monarchy, seen as apostates by bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Through attacks on the royal family itself and the Saudi oil infrastructure, al-Qaeda would seek to kill key royals and create a chaos that would drive the remainder into exile and out of the land of the two holy mosques...and many fertile oil fields.

Another potential path to the black banner over the peninsula could see the royal family buckling to an insurgency and flipping sides, declaring allegiance with al-Qaeda. Though this potential does not get much consideration, perhaps discounting it too quickly is unwise. Sensing the tangible regional effects of the change in the US political climate, King Abdullah may well have been cracking open a back door to this potential turn of events in addressing the Arab League summit late in March. The Saudi monarch said of the US presence in Iraq, “bloodshed is continuing under an illegal foreign occupation.” Hardly the words of a dependable ally, especially considering the magnet of the “illegal occupation” is the primary reason for al-Qaeda’s relative quiet within Saudi Arabia. To be sure, the House of Saud’s propensity for self-preservation is well documented.

If this occurs, the long shores of the Persian Gulf will be flanked on the west by al-Qaeda and on the east by Iran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. In such a scenario, American forces would be required to actively defend the various emirates remaining along the Persian Gulf coast. Kuwait would see a heavier concentration of US forces relocating from forward positions within Iraq. No longer would Kuwait be a staging ground for US forces held in offensive reserve. The American Gulf ally would become a key front line defensive position against al-Qaeda and aligned movements (AQAM) following any withdrawal from Iraq. Strong presence would surely be required also in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

For either path, al-Qaeda would require the time necessary to re-constitute and expand the terrorist forces on the peninsula, primarily from Iraq. This is not the case in the tribal areas of Pakistan – and no discussion of al-Qaeda can be complete without heavy consideration of Pakistan.

The Pakistan Domino

Events in Pakistan after a US withdrawal would almost certainly unfold with greater alacrity than in Saudi Arabia. The deadly clashes that began this past Saturday and left over 40 killed in Karachi should serve as a reminder of the already volatile domestic condition in Pakistan today. President Pervez Musharraf is recognized as a survivor who has weathered multiple assassination attempts and challenges to his power. But increasingly, his hold on power has as much to do with the fact that the Taliban–al-Qaeda alliance has yet to launch a full-on assault and insurgency eastward into Islamabad. With their Islamist armed manpower believed to be over 200,000 men in Pakistan’s tribal areas, this cannot be readily discounted.

Following a perceived U.S. defeat and withdrawal from Iraq amid the persistently manufactured chaos there, it would not be unreasonable to expect that Osama bin Laden would finally initiate an all-out Islamist push to oust Musharraf and gain control of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. Yet, given the current state of affairs in Pakistan and Musharraf’s growing unpopularity, bin Laden and company may exercise continued patience. They may continue to seek the (currently) unlikely installation of an al-Qaeda- and Taliban-friendly Islamist regime through the expected 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections. In any case, they already enjoy effectively unfettered autonomous control of a significant swath of Pakistani territory, much of it officially ceded by Musharraf in various ‘peace accords.’

The former director of Pakistan’s intelligence service, Hamid Gul, is believed to be in the employ of Osama bin Laden and has openly said in the past that he seeks a military alliance between Iran and an Islamist Pakistan. Respected journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave also quoted Gul in 2004 as saying he hoped Pakistan would one day become an “Islamist nuclear power that would form a greater Islamic state with a fundamentalist Saudi Arabia after the monarchy falls.” And Saudi Arabia, as previously described, would be the next major domino in place to be tipped.

Al-Qaeda and affiliated Islamists are, at the moment, largely sitting it out—or are tied up in Baghdad, Diyala and Anbar. A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could create a confluence of events and opportunity to significantly accelerate al-Qaeda’s terrorist ambitions.

The African Islamist Crescent

And the confluence considered here has not even taken into account al-Qaeda’s active drive to create an African Islamist crescent stretching from Mogadishu to Morocco. Yet, the refrain remains among Iraq critics that the true objective should be the defeat of al-Qaeda and “to change our mission and focus it more narrowly on counterterrorism.”

An American withdrawal from Iraq could scarcely be seen as anything but a disengagement from al-Qaeda where they are, dictated by the United States Congress, not America's generals and sergeants. Al-Qaeda fights also in Somalia, seeking its elusive African Islamist crescent. It was wise to allow Ethiopian troops to carry out the primary ground mission there recently, as the Ethiopians have a vested interest in a growing al-Qaeda menace in neighboring Somalia.

In The Absence Of Will

Yet, it is astonishing that the State Department has earmarked $40 million for Somalia 'stabilization,' yet refuses to allow a single dollar to the internationally recognized (by both the UN and the United States) Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which seeks to fight and destroy al-Qaeda on their soil. Instead, all funds not going to much needed humanitarian relief are pledged to logistical support for an unmaterialized (over four months on) African Union 'peacekeeping' force, nearly exclusively consisting of Ugandan troops who have neither a direct stake in Somali security nor the will to fight al-Qaeda terrorists head-on in the streets.

And why, might a curious American ask, would the State Department refuse the relative pocket change for the TFG to clothe, feed, arm and pay - and thus keep - its soldiers in their fight against al-Qaeda? Because, after routing al-Qaeda in December and January, the TFG refused State Department demands that they now negotiate with the al-Qaeda terrorists leading the Islamic Courts Union who only weeks before tried to kill the TFG leaders in their Baidoa retreat.

Meanwhile, as al-Qaeda has been driven from their Afghanistan safe haven, they have fully reconstituted their terrorist training camp infrastructure in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan, safe from direct American (let alone Pakistani) engagement on the ground.

If We Won't Fight Them Here...

Such is the context of the three major ground fronts against al-Qaeda. In Afghanistan, we have stopped at the border and granted reprieve. In Somalia, our aid-wielding foreign services leadership has ignored those who engage al-Qaeda in a fight for their broken country and their very lives. And in Iraq, where we are face-to-face with the enemy who has killed so many of us and seeks to kill more (at home and abroad), much of our elected Congressional leadership seeks to disengage the fight. All in the name of 'counterterrorism.'

This begs the obvious question: If U.S. political leadership currently lacks the will to confront and defeat al-Qaeda terrorists where they mass to confront us in the battlefields of Iraq, what confidence can the American people possibly derive that the current Congressional leadership can muster the will to defeat them elsewhere?

And elsewhere they will certainly be. The national security consequences could be grave.