Virtually all of the serious reporters in Iraq–and there are several–have noticed that both our political and military leaders there have no clear picture of the enemy. Some think we’re fighting a Baathist underground, with a handful of foreign terrorists tossed in for leavening. Some of our guys even give numbers, saying the foreigners are somewhere between five and ten percent. Others, above all those on the Syrian and Iranian borders, speak of a massive flow of killers into Iraq.
This confusion derives from several causes. First and foremost is the disarray of the intelligence community, produced over more than a quarter-century of politicization, mounting restrictions from Congress, a surfeit of lawyers, and America’s own cultural shortcomings (we don’t study history, geography, or foreign languages). These critical weaknesses cannot be cured in a couple of years. It will take at least a generation to fix, even with the best leadership.
As I have repeated to the point of monotony, we are particularly weak on Iran, and have been since the late 1970s. At the time of Khomeini’s seizure of power, there was no full-time Farsi-speaking Iran expert on the crisis team at CIA. A few years later, when Oliver North and Robert McFarlane went to Tehran, they had to drag a man out of retirement to serve as interpreter. And even a year or two ago the agency was still claiming that Sunnis and Shiites don’t work together, and denying that there was any link between Tehran and Osama bin Laden. By now we are reduced to begging for information on the numerous al Qaeda terrorists in Iran.
Second is the interplay between policy and intelligence. Over the years, the intelligence people have learned not to bring forward information that policymakers do not want to hear. At the moment, the top policy people do not want to take on another terror master, whether in Damascus, Tehran, Tripoli, or Jeddah. So the intel guys oblige by not looking very hard at the remaining state sponsors of the terror network. It’s clear that the (domestic, electoral) political imperative is now paramount, and our leaders want to “manage” Iraq until the president is reelected. Then they’ll see.
Third, and one of the consequences of these factors, is the failure to see what has happened to the terror network and its sponsors. The destruction of the Taliban and the shattering of al Qaeda sent a shockwave through the Middle East, and the impending liberation of Iraq was only a matter of time. The terror masters and their gangs of killers did the rational thing: They planned for the next battlefield, and we gave them every opportunity, 14 or 15 long months. During that time they devised the strategy we see in Iraq: a terror war, modeled on their successful campaign against us in Lebanon. This required coordination, both between the tyrannical regimes that sponsor terror, and the various terrorist organizations. That was accomplished in two phases, first in the run-up to the Iraq campaign, and then inside Iraq itself once we had liberated the country from Saddam.
The regime worked out a battle plan, including the “disappearance” of Saddam along the same lines as Osama. And then the terrorists designed joint operations. It makes no sense, nowadays, to try to distinguish one group from another, because they are all working together. Osama and Hezbollah’s operational chieftain, Imad Mughniyah, have met several times, and Mughniyah is now working closely with Osama’s deputy, al-Zawahiri. The two met very recently in Iran to coordinate activities in Iraq. They have the full panoply of terrorists at their disposal, from Baathist survivors to the foot soldiers of Ansar al-Islam, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and all the rest.
Instead of talking about separate organizations, we would do better to think of the terrorists as a galaxy, with the various comets, stars, and planets revolving around the tyrannical terror masters, themselves linked by a sort of common gravitational field.
Thus the problem that baffles our experts–Who’s the enemy here?–is answered by President Bush’s original insight into the nature of the war against terrorism. We are at war with a series of regimes and thousands of terrorists, and they are all after us in Iraq.
Even keen-eyed observers on the ground are scratching their heads to decipher the clear evidence. In Shiite Basra, for example, the successors of the Ayatollah Hakim (assassinated in Baghdad when he betrayed the Iranian mullahs by embracing the traditional Shiite doctrine of separation of mosque and state) and their Iranian-trained militia, the Badr Brigades (inconveniently invited to Iraq by our own State Department) are suddenly flourishing, almost to the point of opulence. They have purchased several choice properties, they are living opulently, and they are signing up followers at a great rate. Where does the money come from? Have they learned a lesson from the death of their leader and now follow orders from Tehran? Or have they found some other way to finance themselves? The most likely explanation is the obvious ones: They are working with the people who created them in the first place.
Whatever the explanation for this and other similar phenomena (Syrian “businessmen” suddenly moving into new neighborhoods in Baghdad, for example), we had better get the context right: We are involved in a regional struggle, not just a national conflict. This is not a civil war, it is part of the broad war against the terror masters, and it cannot be won if we limit our vision and our action to Iraq. The remaining terror masters cannot and will not permit us to create a stable, peaceful, and democratic Iraq, because that would threaten their own survival.
If we persist in narrowing our vision and our actions to Iraq, the attacks will get more lethal, killing larger numbers of Americans. And they will not be limited to Iraq. Significant numbers of terrorists have been rounded up of late, from the Middle East to Europe and inside this country. They are coming after us, just as we should have expected, and there is a limit to how long we can forestall catastrophes by playing defense.