Al-Qaeda’s defeat: claims and reality

Deepak Tripathi

Serious claims need serious thinking before they are made. The recent claim by the CIA Director, Michael Hayden, that Al-Qaeda had essentially been defeated in Iraq is astonishing. ‘Near strategic defeat of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, near strategic defeat in Saudi Arabia and significant setbacks globally’ was Hayden’s message in an interview published in the Washington Post on 30 May 2008. Was his message driven by evidence on the ground? Or was it a product of anxiety in Washington to point to a legacy before George W Bush moves out of the White House?   

The credibility of Hayden’s claim was quickly shattered. On the same day, a suicide attack in the Iraqi city of Mosul, an Al-Qaeda stronghold, killed sixteen people and wounded many more. Another suicide attack killed ten people at a police checkpoint in Anbar province, west of Baghdad – a province hailed as a success story since 2007 for a sharp decline in the recorded number of terrorist attacks. Anbar is among Iraqi provinces where Sunni tribesmen under the banner of Awakening Councils are financed by the Bush administration, and armed, as a counter to Al-Qaeda. This American operation is no different in its design, explosive nature and future risks from the CIA operation to provide weapons and training to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union. Only this time, it might be easier for the Iraqi Sunni tribesmen, who are financed and armed with American help, to return to fellow-Arabs of Al-Qaeda or other anti-US Sunni groups.

In Afghanistan, where Hayden claims Al-Qaeda is on the defensive, two NATO soldiers were killed in yet another attack, with several civilians hurt.

In a subsequent attack, on 2 June 2008, in the heart of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, some ten people died outside the Danish embassy. There is little doubt that it was the work of Al-Qaeda, which had warned of retaliation against the republication of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, much is made in the international media of a sharp decrease in US and NATO casualties. But something of a sinister nature is missed. The drop in foreign casualties does not necessarily reflect a drop in violence. The truth is that the Bush administration now fights proxy wars and uses national armies, as well as hired militias, to fight Al-Qaeda. When local people are put in front, they serve as shields that protect foreign occupation forces, at the cost of their own lives.

I want to focus on Iraq now, because the invasion of that country in March 2003 has been the most serious failure and therefore the topic of the most upbeat claims by the Bush administration as it nears its end.

Let us not play with semantics. What is really going on in Iraq is civil war under American occupation.   

Two early decisions by Paul Bremer, the US administrator appointed by President Bush, will forever be remembered as the trigger that brought a state of nature to Iraq, unleashing a war of all against all. By Order Number 1, issued on 16 May 2003, Bremer dissolved the Ba’ath Party at a stroke. With it formally collapsed the state structure that employed large numbers of Iraqis to run the country – both in the military and the civil service. In an article in Le Monde diplomatique in 2007, Toby Dodge, a British scholar, described the Iraqi population as dominated by a Hobbesian nightmare. He estimated that in the purge of the civil service, between 20,000 and 120,000 senior and middle-ranking highly-skilled officials lost their jobs. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussain, as now, they would have constituted the very force to be used to restore order amid violence from insurgents and criminals, looting and anarchy.

In a subsequent move, Bremer issued Order Number 2, which dissolved the most important state institutions and their subordinates such as government ministries, Iraqi military and paramilitary organizations, the National Assembly, courts and emergency forces. To be prepared with alternatives to take over the functions of these organizations was essential in a country of thirty million people. The two edicts with no alternatives in place were a triumph of vindictiveness over rationalism. They caused the complete collapse of the Iraqi state’s administrative and coercive capacity, leaving a vacuum that was rapidly filled by civil war.

So, Iraq became a theatre not only for America’s war against terror, but a number of simultaneous conflicts, with rival forces terrorizing each other and millions of innocent victims in the country.  

If only the President of the United States had gone into Afghanistan and concentrated on rebuilding the country properly, instead of seeking to impose his vision of a modern, democratic state which is so unrealistic, and continued to exercise non-military pressures on Iraq by international means, the prospects of a significant legacy of George W Bush might have been infinitely brighter.

The above comment was published in the Palestine Chronicle on 6 June 2008.

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