Commentary

If U.S. Leaves, Al-Qaeda Will Not Inherit Iraq

The Bush administration’s worst-case scenario makes the present predicament in Iraq look good by comparison. Chris Preble and Justin Logan offer a corrective.

In making the case for an open-ended American military presence in Iraq, the Bush administration and its supporters have deployed various worst-case scenarios of what will occur in the event of a military withdrawal. The most important of these is the assertion that Iraq will become a terrorist haven if the United States leaves.

In a recent speech at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld painted a very grim picture. Rumsfeld asked his audience to “[i]magine the world our children would face if we allowed [Ayman] al-Zawahiri, [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi, [Osama] bin Laden, and others of their ilk to seize power or operate with impunity out of Iraq.” According to the defense secretary, the answer is obvious: “They would turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was before 9/11 - a haven for terrorist recruitment and training and a launching pad for attacks against U.S. interests and our fellow citizens.”

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad warned that a post-Saddam, post-U.S. Iraq would be even worse than Afghanistan. In an interview with Rich Lowry of The National Review, Khalilzad painted only two possible outcomes in Iraq. In the optimistic scenario, the U.S. achieves all of its political objectives, including the establishment of a functioning Iraqi democracy. Realistically, this requires an American presence for several more years. Khalilzad’s alternative scenario, though, is too horrible to imagine: “Al-Qaeda taking over part of Iraq and from there expanding to the rest of Iraq or beyond the region and the world.”

President George W. Bush also seems convinced that Al-Qaeda could take over if U.S. troops are withdrawn from Iraq. In a speech to U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen on November 30, he pointed to Al-Qaeda’s stated objective to gain control of Iraq. Following an American military withdrawal, the president warned, “They would then use Iraq as a base from which to launch attacks against America.”

There is ample reason to doubt these claims. In a recent essay in The Boston Review, MIT’s Barry Posen explained that the U.S. could not even be certain that a civil war, if one were to occur, would be a strategic boon for Al-Qaeda. More to the point, the U.S. does not need 150,000 troops in Iraq to pursue Al-Qaeda. The Zarqawi network is not going to be defeated by civil policing and neighborhood patrols.

The vast majority of Iraqis do not support Al-Qaeda’s methods or objectives, and they would be even less likely to do so after the U.S. military left Iraq. As the president explained in his Naval Academy speech, Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists comprise the smallest of the three groups that make up the current insurgency. There is strong evidence that the other larger insurgent groups - Sunni Arab rejectionists, and pro-Saddam loyalists - would turn against the small number of foreign fighters currently waging the most deadly terrorist attacks. An Iraqi insurgent leader, Abu Qaqa al-Tamimi, recently told Time magazine: “One day, when the Americans have gone, we will need to fight another war, against these jihadis.”

The largely Sunni Arab insurgents might well find themselves politically marginalized after a U.S. withdrawal. Their prospects for success depend on support from the Sunni population, but, perversely, the major factor driving Sunni cooperation currently is the U.S. presence. Without that rallying cry, what would Al-Qaeda have left? Shiite Muslims hate the foreign terrorists even more; Zarqawi has made attacks on Shiite Muslims a central object of his terror campaign, and some Iraqi Shiites now complain that the U.S. is preventing them from successfully prosecuting a counter-offensive against their would-be killers.

We can get a sense of Sunni Arab views toward Al-Qaeda by looking at other countries in the region. In a recent survey conducted in six Arab nations for Zogby International by Shibley Telhami, an expert on Arab public opinion, only 7 percent of respondents supported Al-Qaeda’s methods, and only 6 percent supported Al-Qaeda’s goal of creating a Muslim state. On the other hand, the number-one reason respondents sympathized with Al-Qaeda was because the organization was seen as standing up to the U.S.

At a news conference announcing the survey results, Telhami explained that respondents saw Al-Qaeda “as an instrument of anti-Americanism, but none of them would love to see Zarqawi be their ruler. None of them would like to see the kind of Taliban order that was imposed on Afghanistan in the Arab world.” A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would likely make this sentiment even stronger.

The jihadis will certainly claim that the American withdrawal represents a victory for their side, but they will do so whenever U.S. forces leave - be that next year, or 10 years from now. In his Johns Hopkins speech, Rumsfeld declared that a “retreat in Iraq” would tell our enemies “that if America will not defend itself against terrorists in Iraq, it will not defend itself against terrorists anywhere.”

That is absurd. An American military withdrawal from Iraq would not signal that the United States has chosen to ignore events there; it expects all countries around the world to cooperate with it in the fight against terrorism. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq must be coupled with a clear and unequivocal message to the people of Iraq, and to the world: Do not threaten us; do not support anti-American terrorists. Meanwhile, the U.S. must continue to pursue Zarqawi and his network, just as it pursues bin Laden and his network. The world can be assured: the U.S. will take all necessary measures to carry the fight the enemy, wherever he might reside, be that in Germany, Afghanistan or Iraq.

An American military withdrawal from Iraq will hardly be a stepping stone for Al-Qaeda’s grandiose plan to establish an Islamic super-state from Morocco to Indonesia. The Bush administration ought to stop inflating the costs of leaving Iraq, and take a more serious look at the benefits.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies, and Justin Logan is a foreign policy analyst, both at the Cato Institute. They are also members of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.