At The Washington Monthly, Andrew Tilghman makes the argument that al-Qaeda in Iraq is a myth, or at the very least it isn’t nearly as big a part of the overall “insurgency” as it’s made out to be. On the other side, Frederick Kagan gives a detailed look inside the organization and comes to the opposite conclusion.
The problem in determining whether “al-Qaeda in Iraq” is responsible for 8% of attacks in Iraq or 15% of attacks is that it’s hard to pin down exactly what groups are associated with AQI. There isn’t a clear delineation between many of the jihadi groups in Iraq, and the Iraqis themselves tend to use “al-Qaeda” as generic term for Sunni terrorist groups.
However, Tilghman’s conclusions end up undercutting his own argument:
This is not to say that al-Qaeda in Iraq doesn’t pose a real danger, both to stability in Iraq and to security in the United States. Today multiple Iraqi insurgent groups target U.S. forces, with the aim of driving out the occupation. But once our troops withdraw, most Sunni resistance fighters will have no impetus to launch strikes on American soil. In that regard, al-Qaeda—and AQI, to the extent it is affiliated with bin Laden’s network—is unique. The group’s leadership consists largely of foreign fighters, and its ideology and ambitions are global. Al-Qaeda fighters trained in Baghdad may one day use those skills to plot strikes aimed at Boston.
Yet it’s not clear that the best way to counter this threat is with military action in Iraq. AQI’s presence is tolerated by the country’s Sunni Arabs, historically among the most secular in the Middle East, because they have a common enemy in the United States. Absent this shared cause, it’s not clear that native insurgents would still welcome AQI forces working to impose strict sharia. In Baghdad, any near-term functioning government will likely be an alliance of Shiites and Kurds, two groups unlikely to accept organized radical Sunni Arab militants within their borders. Yet while precisely predicting future political dynamics in Iraq is uncertain, one thing is clear now: the continued American occupation of Iraq is al-Qaeda’s best recruitment tool, the lure to hook new recruits. As RAND’s Ali said, “What inspires jihadis today is Iraq.”
The problem with that argument is that the Anbar Awakening has significantly changed the dynamics of the conflict in Iraq. Iraqi Sunnis are rejecting terrorist groups like AQI, Ansar al-Sunnah, etc. and beginning to come together to work within the political process. Sunni rejectionism has only caused them to become a marginalized community in Iraq, and the oppression of al-Qaeda’s furtive attempts at founding an Islamic state has not gone over well with Iraqi Sunnis. Instead of fostering a revolution towards a global Islamic caliphate, AQI and its hangers-on have driven Iraq’s Sunnis towards the US and the Iraqi government.
Regardless of the exact percentage of attacks that are directly attributable to AQI, they still represent a serious threat to US and Iraqi security. The same tactics used to go after AQI apply equally well to other terrorist groups operating in Iraq. The more the divisions grow between AQI and its associated groups and Iraq’s Sunni community, the stronger the chance for a lasting federal system in Iraq.
AQI is not a myth — it may be relatively small in terms of size and number of attacks, but there can be no doubt that it represents a serious threat to Iraq and to the US. To leave Iraq without having smashed that group — or at the very least set up an Iraqi security force capable of stopping them will be to compromise our national security. It still is a fundamentally unsound policy, and our strategy of stabilization must still go forward.