Al Qaeda resurgence in Iraq: why Pentagon sees a silver lining

Before Al Qaeda elements seized the city of Fallujah, Iraq, on Jan. 1, they had stayed mostly in the shadows. Coming into the open will make them easier to handle, some experts say.

AP
Gunmen patrol in Fallujah, Iraq, Saturday. Fighting between security forces and Al Qaeda-linked militants in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar Province has killed at least 60 people during the past two weeks, an official said Saturday.

As violence escalates in the western Iraq province of Anbar – the site of one-third of all US troop deaths during America’s war there – some US military officials are arguing that perhaps Al Qaeda's return to the region offers a valuable opportunity for US-trained fighters to take on the terrorist group.

This is the counter-narrative emerging from analysts who say that Al Qaeda’s decision to take the battle to the streets of western Iraq represents what could turn out to be a damaging strategic blunder for the organization.

“Al Qaeda made a big mistake in coming out of the shadows,” says retired Col. Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and former director for Iraq at the National Security Council during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Assessments like these are emerging in sharp contrast to the admonitions of Republican lawmakers including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who warn in a joint statement that the region is now a “vacuum ... filled by America’s enemies” and “a threat to US national security interests.”

Senator McCain, for his part, suggested that President Obama send retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of US forces in Iraq, back to the country.

A number of analysts take issue with the dire assessment. “I think this ‘Fallujah has fallen’ stuff – that it’s the equivalent of watching the helicopters go off the embassy in Vietnam – is overstated,” Dr. Ollivant says.

The current violence has flushed out Al Qaeda fighters, which could offer a chance for the Iraqi government to act decisively against them, he adds.

For some time, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “hasn’t been able to find” Al Qaeda operatives, who for the past couple of years have been behaving more like spies in the region.

Now, “Al Qaeda has been kind enough to come out of the shadows and present themselves as a target,” Ollivant says. “They’ve stopped being spies and started being soldiers. Spies are hard to deal with. Soldiers are easy for other soldiers to deal with.”

As a result, the current fighting is “a real opportunity for the Iraqi government.”

The question is how the government will handle it. There is a danger that Iraqi security forces, under the direction of the Shiite-led government, could use indiscriminate violence and further alienate the region’s majority Sunni population. “Never underestimate the ability of any government to screw up an opportunity,” Ollivant says.

Mr. Maliki announced Sunday that he was searching for a way “to end the presence of those militants without any bloodshed, because the people of Fallujah have suffered a lot.”

Mindful of the concerns of the citizens of Fallujah that the Iraqi military could turn the city into a battleground, Maliki told residents that they themselves, under the direction of Sunni tribal leaders, must find a way to take the city back from Al Qaeda insurgents, who overran it Jan. 1.

In the meantime, the Iraqi Army has encircled Fallujah, which is 45 miles west of Baghdad.

If Iraqi security forces pressure Al Qaeda militants from one side, while the Free Syrian Army “is pushing them out of Syria on the other side,” Ollivant says, “This could change the dynamic.”

“If” remains the operative word. The Iraqi security forces – trained by US troops at a price in the neighborhood of $25 billion – are also saying that they need more weapons to continue to do battle against insurgents who would like to replace the Shiite-led government with an Islamic caliphate.

To this end, the White House stepped up the shipment of 100 more Hellfire missiles, as well as nearly a dozen surveillance drones.

At the same time, some US military officials are taking issue with the notion that Fallujah is strategically important at all.

“It is not now, and, sadly, it was not then. And stupid me, I only just got it,” Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, an infantry officer, wrote in a blog posting in Esquire last week. “All it took was the morons of Al Qaeda to let me see how dumb I was back when I was in Iraq in 2005.”

There are only a couple of ways in and out of Fallujah, which has a population of some 210,000 people and is set squarely in the desert. That in turn “pretty much dooms the Al Qaeda idiots who ‘took’ the city ... to a fairly rapid death. And we don’t have to lift a finger this time,” Lieutenant  Colonel Bateman writes, predicting that Iraqi paramilitary units will link up with Sunni local leaders “to utterly crush the Al Qaeda elements there.”

When that happens “there will be a shudder of violence, and perhaps a few dozen of the local boys who ‘went astray’ will take a sudden vacation to visit relatives out of town, and voila, the city is back under normal government control again,” Bateman predicts.

Still, the violence has disturbed US troops who served there and have wondered aloud on Facebook and in blog posts whether their fighting amounted to anything.

During a question-and-answer session at Camp Pendleton, Calif., last week, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus was asked by one Marine whether he expected other areas that Marines have fought to secure, such as Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, will ultimately be retaken by insurgent fighters as well.

“You know, I can’t even imagine how it feels to be a Marine who fought in Fallujah and to watch what’s happened,” Mr. Mabus told troops. “It is tragic beyond belief that the government of Iraq could not sustain what Marines paid in blood to get.” 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.