The view from the other side
Bill Roggio comments a letter from from a highly-placed al-Qaeda leader Atiyah to Zarqawi. The letter has been analyzed by the US Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center. The letter is remarkable for reversing the perceptions that are normally assigned by conventional wisdom to the US military and the Sunni insurgency. It is Zarqawi who is upbraided for losing the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis; it is Zarqawi who is criticized for not reaching out Iraqi allies. It is Zarqawi who is blamed for plunging al-Qaeda into "weakness" in Iraq. It is Iraq as viewed, not through the pages of the New York Times, but through the prism of al-Qaeda. Here are some excerpts from the USMA synopsis. The emphasis is mine.
The captured letter sheds new light on the friction between al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership and al-Qa`ida’s commanders in Iraq over the appropriate use of violence. The identity of the letter’s author, “`Atiyah,” is unknown, but based on the contents of the letter he seems to be a highly placed al-Qa`ida leader who fought in Algeria in the early 1990s. `Atiyah's letter echoes many of the themes found in the October 2005 letter written to Zarqawi by al-Qa`ida’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri; indeed, it goes so far as to explicitly confirm the authenticity of that earlier letter. `Atiyah’s admonitions in this letter, like those of Zawahiri in his letter to Zarqawi, also dovetail with other publicly available texts by al-Qa`ida strategists.
Although `Atiyah praises Zarqawi’s military success against coalition forces in Iraq, he is most concerned with Zarqawi’s failure to understand al-Qa`ida’s broader strategic objective: attracting mass support among the wider Sunni Muslim community. `Atiyah reminds Zarqawi that military actions must be subservient to al-Qa`ida’s long-term political goals. Zarqawi’s use of violence against popular Sunni leaders, according to `Atiyah, is undermining al-Qa`ida’s ability to win the “hearts of the people.”
According to `Atiyah, Zarqawi’s widening scope of operations, culminating with the November 2005 hotel bombings in Amman, Jordan, has alienated fellow Sunnis and reduced support for the global al-Qa`ida movement. In this vein, `Atiyah instructs Zarqawi to avoid killing popular Iraqi Sunni leaders because such actions alienate the very populations that al-Qa`ida seeks to attract to its cause. `Atiyah also encourages Zarqawi to forge strategic relationships with moderate Sunnis, particularly tribal and religious leaders, even if these leaders do not accept Zarqawi’s religious positions.
`Atiyah instructs Zarqawi to follow orders from Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri on major strategic issues, such as initiating a war against Shiites; undertaking large-scale operations; or operating outside of Iraq. `Atiyah goes on to criticize Zarqawi’s board of advisors in Iraq for their lack of adequate political and religious expertise, and he warns Zarqawi against the sin of arrogance. Because al-Qa`ida is in what `Atiyah calls a “stage of weakness,” `Atiyah urges Zarqawi to seek counsel from wiser men in Iraq— implying that there might be someone more qualified than Zarqawi to command al-Qa`ida operations in Iraq.
`Atiyah closes with a request that Zarqawi send a messenger to “Waziristan” (likely, Waziristan, Pakistan) in order to establish a reliable line of communication with Bin Laden and Zawahiri. `Atiyah confirms in the letter that al-Qa`ida’s overall communications network has been severely disrupted and complains specifically that sending communications to Zarqawi from outside of Iraq remains difficult. Interestingly, he explains how Zarqawi might use jihadi discussion forums to communicate with al-Qa`ida leadership in Waziristan.
Several things stand out in this synopsis. The first is that al-Qaeda's does not intend to forge a "national united front" of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds. Their vision of an Iraqi resistance is entirely sectarian. Second, even within the Sunni community, al-Qaeda took a narrow focus and alienated "moderate Sunni" leaders. Third, al-Qaeda's operations abroad diffused the propaganda benefits derived from keeping the spotlight focused on Iraq. Sympathizers want to read about bombings in Iraq, not experience bombings themselves. The news should Iraq, Iraq and Iraq all the time. Supporters can sympathize with al-Qaeda as a symbol, as long as they don't have to live with al-Qaeda the reality. Fourth, despite Zarqawi's rampage of murder, al-Qaeda was in a "stage of weakness" not only in Iraq apparently, but even abroad where its network had been severely disrupted to the point that communications were difficult.
On IM with someone I knew in Iraq not too long ago he typed back "stop posting those stories about al-Qaeda arrests in Iraq; they're history. It's Sadr you should worry about". Ok. It's a point of view, but a plausible one from recent events. One unappreciated thing about the "leaked" NIE is that it was prepared while Zarqawi was still alive, at least six months ago. That was a moment when another unremarked thing was happening. The emphasis was shifting from the Sunni insurgency to "sectarian violence". The primacy of the perceived threat was also moving from Sunni extremism to Iranian militancy. The Lebanon War emphasized that shift. After Lebanon the Junior Status of Syria in the theater became evident. In one sense at least, debating the NIE in the NYT's terms is akin to an historical retrospective.
In fact a new story from the Times of London suggests my Iraq contact was probably dead on target. And its a pretty sad state of affairs when you can get better advance info off your IM than reading the national debate on the flagship papers.
High-ranking US military officers have expressed frustration with the Iraqi Government because of its failure to confront corrupt officials and death squad leaders who have infiltrated Iraq’s security forces. ...
A high-ranking Iraqi security official told The Times that pressure from Shia politicians had forced the Iraqi Army to stop fighting the al-Madhi Army this month in the southern city of Diwaniyah. Such political pressure had also stopped Iraqi Army operations against militias elsewhere, he said. ...
Faced with such hesitation on the part of the Government, US military brass are growing worried. “There is corruption and problems inside some of these ministries but it’s got to be dealt with, and it ought to be dealt with by the Prime Minister and the folks that are inside this Government. I think the time is short for them to deal with that because this cannot go on like this,” one officer said.
As if one cue, the History News Network is running the results of a poll that shows that al-Qaeda has a 94% disapproval rating in Iraq. It also shows a growing popularity in the Shi'ite controlled Iraqi government and a declining confidence in US forces to provide protection. And however you stand on those issues, those numbers sort of, kinda of make sense.
That's been a problem with a lot of the public debate over Iraq. It tends to be significantly lagged. We form ideas for future execution based on conditions that have passed. I think we are going to see that the debate will also be lagged with respect to Afghanistan too. One day people will be talking Waziristan after Waziristan is no longer the main problem. That's unfortunate because current events are a moving target which we analyze with lenses planted firmly in our posteriors.