A lot of ink has been spilled in recent weeks about the rising power of al Qaeda.
“Fallujah fall just the beginning — Al Qaeda virus is virulent and spreading,” an op-ed by the Heritage Foundation’s Peter Brookes, captures the spirit of this perception of a resurgence of what some people portray as the greatest source of evil ever to appear on Planet Earth.
The thing is, viral growth of any kind cannot be reliably measured by the ability to grab headlines. However widely dispersed groups branded as al Qaeda affiliates become, the feature that distinguishes each of them is that their predilection for violence makes them unpopular. They are like psychopathic gatecrashers. Everyone knows when they show up at a party and everyone wishes they’d go some place else.
Scaring everyone around you is a good way of getting noticed but it’s not a good way of making friends and at the end of the day, whatever else one might say about these men of violence, they have profound problems making and sustaining meaningful relationships. Their dysfunctionality makes it impossible for them to become the driving force behind any popular social movement; their direct impact on the wider world will never be more than marginal.
The real global impact of al Qaeda is not one that it has the capacity to generate itself; it is the impact created by governments which either cynically or paranoiacally react to a threat whose scope they been blown out of all proportion.
Anthony H. Cordesman writes: No one can deny that al Qaeda is a violent extremist threat wherever it operates. It poses a threat in terms of transnational terrorism in the United States and Europe, and a far more direct threat to the people who live in every area it operates. It has consistently been horribly repressive, violent, and often murderous in enforcing its political control and demands for a form of social behavior that reflect the worst in tribalism and offers almost nothing in terms of real Islamic values.
Like all extreme neo-Salafi movements, al Qaeda is also an economic and social dead end. It does not offer any practical way of operating and competing in a global economy, it is too dysfunctional to allow meaningful education and social interaction, and it finances itself largely through extortion in ways that cripple the existing local economy. Moreover, it does not tolerate competition even from other Islamist fighters. In Syria, it has provoked its own civil war with other hardline Islamist movements – a civil war it now seems to be decisively losing to other Sunni rebel factions.
It is precisely that type of behavior, however, which should lead U.S. officials, analysts, and media to do a far, far better job of reporting on exactly what has really happened in Anbar, and in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi. Bad as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is, far too much of the evidence points to Prime Minister Maliki as an equal threat to Iraq and to U.S. interests. Ever since the 2010 election, he has become steadily more repressive, manipulated Iraq’s security forces to serve his own interests, and created a growing Sunni resistance to his practice of using Shi’ite political support to gain his own advantage.
He has refused to honor the Erbil power-sharing agreement that was supposed to create a national government that could tie together Arab Sunni and Arab Shi’ite, and he has increased tensions with Iraq’s Kurds. As the U.S. State Department human rights reports for Iraq, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) make all too clear; Maliki’s search for power has steadily repressed and alienated Iraq’s Sunnis on a national level. It has led to show trials and death sentences against one of Iraq’s leading Sunni politicians including former Vice President Taqris al-Hashimi, who has been living in asylum in Turkey since being convicted and sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court. It has shifted the promotion structure in the Iraqi Security Forces to both give the Prime Minister personal control and has turned them into an instrument he can use against Sunnis.
Al Qaeda in Iraq – nor its recent incarnation the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – has not risen up as a rebirth of the opposition the U.S. faced in 2005-2008. In spite of attempts by the Maliki government to label virtually any major Sunni opposition as terrorists, the steady increase in that opposition orginated primarily in the form of peaceful and legitimate political protests against Maliki’s purges of elected Iraqi Sunni leaders, and a regular exclusion of Sunnis from the government – including the Sons of Iraq in areas like Anbar. It came because Maliki used the Iraqi Security Forces against segments of his own population in the name of fighting terrorists and extremists. It came because of the failure to use Iraq’s oil wealth effectively and fairly – resulting with an economy that the CIA ranks Iraq 140th in the world in per capita income. The opposition to Maliki’s government also resulted from corruption so extreme that in December 2013 Transparency International ranked Iraq the seventh most corrupt country in the world, with only Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia ranking worse than Iraq in terms of corruption.
Any analysis or news report that focuses only on al Qaeda’s very real abuses is little more than worthless – it encourages the tendency to demonize terrorism without dealing with the fact that terrorism almost always only succeeds when governments fail their people. Just as serious counterinsurgency can never be successful if it only addresses the military dimension, counterterrorism cannot succeed if it is not coupled with an effort to address the quality of the nation’s political leadership and governance, and the legitimate concerns of its people.
Any failure to analyze Maliki’s actions since the 2010 election – his disregard for the Erbil agreement that called for a true national government, his manipulation of the courts to create multiple trails and death sentences for political oppponents, including one of Iraq’s vice presidents – Tariq al-Hashemi; his use of temporary appointments to take control of key command positions in the Iraqi Security Forces; his efforts to bribe senior Iraqi Sunni politicians to support him with ministerial posts; and his steadily increasing suppression of Sunni popular opposition and protests – is dishonest, lazy, intellectual rubbish. [Continue reading…]