Last night I caught a fair and balanced Fox News "All Stars" panel on Iraq featuring war partisans Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke as well as a journalist named Nina Easton and Brit Hume.
In the course of climbing over Barnes to snark the Democrats' failed attempt to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, Kondracke made this claim:
[I]f all combat troops are out by the end of 2008, how can we possibly deal with the al Qaeda threat? Al Qaeda's got somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 hardened killers running at about in Anbar Provinces and Diyala Province and parts of Baghdad, and who's going to fight them...?(emphasis mine)
25,000 al Qaeda fighters in Iraq? That would be a pretty remarkable figure, considering the Baker-Hamilton Commission noted (.pdf) that there were only 1,300 foreign fighters in all of Iraq. Sure, al Qaeda has taken on an indigenous component, radicalizing Sunni Iraqis who, before the war, had no taste for Salafism. But 25,000? That seems wrong. (If there were 25,000 al Qaeda fighters, wouldn't things look a lot worse than they do now?) I've certainly never heard a figure even in that ballpark.
So I had our intrepid interns do a little digging to see where Kondracke could possibly have found such a number. The only thing we could come up with was a November 2006 propaganda tape purportedly released by Abu Hamza al Muhajir, Mr. al Zarqawi's successor as chief of al Qaeda in Iraq. But even Mr. al Muhajir didn't make the astonishing claim Kondracke did:
"The al Qaeda army has 12,000 fighters in Iraq, and they have vowed to die for God's sake," a man who identified himself as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir said in an audio tape released Friday. He also claimed to have another 10,000 unequipped fighters ready to go into battle.
There's a lot of disagreement about what to do in Iraq, and even a disagreement about some basic facts. However, amplifying and deploying al Qaeda talking points in the course of arguing for your preferred policy seems like a bad thing to do. One of the unfortunate things it leads to is legislators making daffy statements like this, courtesy of Rep. C. W. Bill Young (R-FL):
Nobody wants our troops out of Iraq more than I do. But we can't afford to turn over Iraq to al-Qaida.
Al Qaeda is not going to take over Iraq. The rest of the parade of horribles that warhawks trot out are all plausible to varying degrees, but not that one. (See here and here.) As my colleague Ted Carpenter put it in his recent PA:
The organization does have some support among the Sunni Arabs in Iraq, but opinion even among that segment of the population is divided. The September 2006 poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 94 percent of Sunnis had a somewhat or highly unfavorable attitude toward al-Qaeda.
Sunni support for al-Qaeda is feeble; Kurdish and Shiite support is nonexistent. Almost to a person they loathe al-Qaeda. The Program on International Policy Attitudes poll showed that 98 percent of Shiite respondents and 100 percent of Kurdish respondents had somewhat or very unfavorable views of al-Qaeda. The notion that a Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government would tolerate Iraq becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda is improbable on its face. And even if U.S. troops left Iraq, the successor government would continue to be dominated by the Kurds and Shiites, since they make up more than 80 percent of Iraq’s population and, in marked contrast to the situation under Saddam Hussein, they now control the military and police.
We face enough genuine dangers in extricating ourselves from the neocons' quagmire. Let's not waste time worrying about ones that don't exist.