In his State of the Union Address last Tuesday, President Bush warned that if the U.S. fails in Iraq, al Qaeda will gain a safe haven from which to launch attacks against America. It is an argument that the President, other members of the administration, and neoconservative hawks have been using for years.
In late 2005, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned that al Qaeda leaders “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.”
Despite such scare mongering, it is highly improbable that al Qaeda could use Iraq as the kind of safe haven it enjoyed in Afghanistan. There, the organization had the protection of an entrenched, friendly government, which it will not have in Iraq. Al Qaeda also had a much larger force in Afghanistan — an estimated 18,000 fighters. Even the U.S. government concedes that there are fewer than 2,000 al Qaeda fighters in Iraq, and the Iraq Study Group put the figure at only 1,300.
Indeed, foreign fighters make up a relatively small component of the Sunni insurgency against the U.S. and British occupation forces. It strains credulity to imagine 1,300 fighters (and foreigners at that) dominating a country of 26 million people.
The challenge for al Qaeda in Iraq would be even more daunting than those raw numbers suggest. While the organization has some support among Sunni Arabs there, opinion even among that segment of the population is surprisingly negative.
A September 2006 poll conducted by the University of Maryland’s prestigious Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 94 percent of Iraqi Sunnis had a somewhat or highly unfavorable attitude toward al Qaeda.
As the violence of al Qaeda attacks has mounted, and the victims are increasingly Iraqis, not Americans, many Sunnis have turned against the terrorists. There have been a growing number of reports during the past year of armed conflicts between Iraqi Sunnis and foreign fighters.
And the anemic Sunni support for al Qaeda is overshadowed by the intense Shiite and Kurdish hostility to the group. Almost to a person, they loathe al Qaeda. The PIPA poll showed that 98 percent of Shiite respondents and 100 percent of Kurdish respondents had somewhat or very unfavorable views of the organization.
The notion that a Shiite-Kurdish-dominated government would tolerate Iraq becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda is improbable on its face. Even if U.S. troops left Iraq, the successor government would continue to be dominated by 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.
At best, al Qaeda could hope for a tenuous presence in predominantly Sunni areas of the country while being incessantly stalked and harassed by government forces — and probably hostile Iraqi Sunnis as well. That doesn’t exactly sound like a reliable base of operations for attacks on America.
Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican of Nebraska, has it right. “I have never been persuaded to believe that whether we stay there six months, a year, or two years, that if we would leave, that somehow Iraq would turn into a haven for terrorists.”
His skepticism is well placed.
The notion of al Qaeda using Iraq as a sanctuary is a specter — a canard that the perpetrators of the current catastrophe use to frighten people into supporting a fatally flawed, and seemingly endless, nation-building debacle.