Al Qaeda is on the horns of a dilemma. Last month, some 30 of its senior leaders in Iraq were killed or captured. Now, Osama bin Laden faces a tough decision: Send reinforcements to Iraq in an attempt to regain the initiative? That risks losing those combatants, too — and that could seriously diminish his global organization. But the alternative is equally unappealing: accept defeat in Iraq, the battlefield bin Laden has called central to the struggle al Qaeda is waging against America and its allies.
Hard times for al Qaeda should be good news for America but you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of the antiwar movement and their sympathizers in Congress and the elite media. Many have been unwilling even to acknowledge that U.S. forces are fighting al Qaeda in Iraq. They claim we are merely refereeing a civil war and/or combating Iraqi “resistance” to American “occupation.”
CNN this week ran a special called “Meeting Resistance,” a documentary about what it called “ordinary Iraqis …taking up arms and fighting the Americans.” Earlier this month Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., Va.) lamented that Congress had been unable to pass legislation to “change the mission away from deep involvement in Iraq’s civil war and toward a more narrow focus on fighting al-Qaeda.”
How startled CNN producers and the Senator must have been to see the front-page story this week in the Washington Post reporting that American troops have dealt “devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq.” If our forces have achieved this without it being their mission, and despite the “resistance” of “ordinary Iraqis,” they must be warriors unlike any the world has seen since Thermopylae.
Is it ignorance or partisanship that makes so many politicians and media moguls blind to what has been happening in Iraq over recent months? Do they really not understand the dramatic change in strategy implemented by Gen. David Petraeus, the new American commander in Iraq?
That key to that strategy, known as the “surge,” is not the number of troops deployed — though a minimum force size is necessary — but rather how they are utilized. Col. Wayne W. Grigsby, Jr., who commands a “surge” brigade based in a mixed Sunni and Shia area near Baghdad, made it simple for me in a phone conversation this week: “We do not commute to work,” he said. “We live in the towns with the people we are here to help.”
That means providing them with security — gathering intelligence from them about where the terrorists are hiding, and then eliminating them, their safe havens, their bomb factories and their weapons caches. Do that and the bloodshed begins to subside.
“The Iraqi people are fed up with the violence and with the extremists, both Sunni and Shia,” Grigsby said. Far from “resisting” the American troops in their communities, “they want to join the fight and protect their neighborhoods. They are coming to us and saying, ‘How can we help? We don’t want to live like this.’”
Volunteers do not form sectarian militias. On the contrary, Grigbsy said, “they want to be recognized as legitimate members of the Iraqi security forces.”
American troops also facilitate economic and political development — something, they say, ordinary Iraqis sincerely desire. What about reconciliation? “I see signs of Sunni and Shia getting along,” the colonel answered. And there is, increasingly, “grass-roots governance. People aren’t waiting for the central government to act.”
Despite the fact that many more American troops are now deployed “outside the wire,” the number of soldiers killed in action is down 64 percent from May, the month before the “surge in numbers” reached full strength and the “surge of operations” began against al Qaeda cells, Iranian-backed militias and other enemies of America and Iraq.
And now bin Laden has to choose: send his most capable lieutenants to try to reheat the insurgency in Iraq; or cede the battlefield to the Americans and the majority of Iraqis who have no interest either in blowing people up or embracing the al Qaeda way of life.
The first course risks losing combatants who could otherwise be promoting al Qaeda’s agenda in Hamburg or New Jersey. As for the second course, bin Laden has said that the “world war” raging in Iraq will end in “either victory and glory, or misery and humiliation.”
At this moment, al Qaeda in Iraq seems likely to suffer the latter. Confronted by America’s adaptable, agile and courageous military forces, its only hope is divine intervention — and maybe the U.S. Congress.
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.