(orig. Posted 4/8/08, on MySpace)
Today I set my DVR to record Ambassador Crocker’s and General Petraeus’ testimony before Congress on matters pertaining to Iraq. Although I mean to watch it later, I tuned in to parts of it as it recorded and was once again struck by the deep disconnect in various people’s perceptions of what is going on over there.
To the Democrats (with the notable exception of the redoubtable Joe Lieberman), Iraq is an adventure undertaken by the Bush Administration which has diverted resources away from the "real" war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Al Qaeda Prime currently resides. The Al Qaeda presence in Iraq is seen as an incidental factor, provoked and maintained by the presence of Coalition forces there. The "real" phenomenon unfolding in Iraq is seen as a protracted civil war between indigenous Sunni and Shiia factions. And it is seen as hopeless and so, unsurprisingly, as going very poorly.
To Republicans, the Iraqi theater of the Global War On Terror (or "Long War," or War on Islamic Extremism, or what have you) is currently the central front of a multimodal, worldwide campaign to attack the roots (versus merely pruning the branches) of Salafist Jihadism. The so-called "civil war" aspect of the conflict is a very deliberate strategem of foreign Jihadis to inflame long-standing Sunni-Shiia animosity with the goal of collapsing Iraq into a failed state from which the Coalition will be forced to withdraw and from whose ensuing chaos Al Qaeda can consolidate its efforts to spread its violent Jihad through the greater Middle East, aided by Iraqi petro-capital and by the enormous propaganda victory of having expelled the "Great Satan" from the heart of the ancient Caliphate. It is seen as an essential component of the larger endeavor to starve the feeder streams of global Jihad and to present the Arab world with an alternate model of life from the grandiose fantasies of the Jihadis on the one hand, and the cynical oppressive petrocrats on the other. In the wake of General Petraeus’ subtle and incisive counterinsurgency strategy and its supporting surge in troop levels, it is seen as very winnable, and viewed with guarded optimism based on the events of the past year.
These two visions could not be more diametrically opposed to each other, and it strains the mind to imagine how such incompatible narratives could be applied to the same events.
Unfortunately, the stakes of this question are terribly high (just how high, I fear many Americans have gradually forgotten, as 9/11 falls farther into the rear-view and a follow-on attack on our soil has --thus far-- failed to materialize). The current Presidential campaign highlights just how different a view of the way forward is currently ascendant in each party. Americans have some very difficult choices to make, and I fear that -- as usual -- the requisite data to inform that choice is buried amid the posturing and shouting on both sides.
A couple of days ago, I happened across this article, which examines some objective indices of the respective energies expended by Al Qaeda (AQ) in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Specifically, it looks at the AQ weapon of choice: the suicide/homicide bomber, and concludes that the available evidence supports the contention that AQ views Iraq as a far more important front in its global Jihad than the Af/Pak theater. This makes a great deal of sense, given that AQ is primarily a Sunni Arab creature, which very much speaks to that ethnic/sectarian consciousness in its efforts at recruitment and in its vision of who will be in charge should the global Caliphate ultimately come to pass.
Afghanistan was a refuge of opportunity for Osama Bin Laden after he was expelled by the government of Sudan in 1996 (link is to the absolutely essential book, The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright. If you read no other book on these matters [though naturally I hope you read many more!], then do read that one!). Afghanistan possessed the distinction in the Islamist mind of being the site from which the Warriors of Allah managed to expel a superpower (the USSR) in the 80s, and it had the advantage of being a loose and relatively lawless setting to establish remote training camps and direct operations.
But it was not Arabia, and thus was never seen as more than a staging area for the Big Push to expel the "apostate" regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and thence to the rest of the Middle East and the world.
So the notion promulgated by Obama and Clinton (to the extent that her actual policies can be gleaned from the average of her poll-driven statements) that Afghanistan and Pakistan are somehow the more central and primary locus of AQ’s wider strategies is nonsensical on its face. In point of fact, they are seen by Bin Laden and Zawahiri as distractions, albeit temporarily necessary ones, from their larger designs. Iraq was a few steps down their action plan until we hastened their attention toward it. But it is now, as the above-linked article lays out, front and center for them. And that means it should be for us as well.