TCS Daily

Who's Distracted?

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - September 18, 2003 12:00 AM

A favorite refrain of critics of the decision to go to war in Iraq is that the war distracted from the general war on terrorism, and on the need to defeat al Qaeda. Most of the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have made this message part of their campaigns.


There is plenty of evidence to refute the notion that the general war on terrorism is somehow suffering from the decision to go to war in Iraq. While engaged in the effort to bring about regime change in Iraq, terrorists like Riduan Isamuddin, Whalid bin Attash, associates of Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad have all been captured. And just last week, American forces in Iraq were able to announce a roundup of 80 terrorists associated with al Qaeda.


Flies to Paper?


Moreover, one of the questions currently being debated is whether there is a deliberate policy on the part of the Bush administration to draw terrorists into an Iraq occupied and administered by American armed forces, so that those terrorists may be more easily captured or killed. David Warren believes in the existence of this "flypaper" strategy, and contends that the strategy will help in the fight against terrorism in the long run. Liberal blogger Josh Marshall, on the other hand, derides the flypaper theory, and argues that it is counterproductive.


The question of whether there is or isn't a deliberate strategy at work seems inconsequential. More interesting -- and more important -- is the fact that no matter what the conclusion regarding the "flypaper" strategy, the American effort against terrorism is proceeding more successfully than many people give it credit for.


Assume for a moment that there is no deliberate strategy to draw al Qaeda and other terrorists into Iraq. This assumption still forces us to ask why there are al Qaeda and other terrorists into Iraq. Despite the connections between al Qaeda and the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group that was located in northern Iraq, those who opposed the war in Iraq argued that there were no ties between al Qaeda and the regime of Saddam Hussein, and that in fact, Saddam and al Qaeda had disparate goals. If that was the case, then one cannot help but wonder what so many al Qaeda terrorists are doing inside the country. Was there a stronger connection between al Qaeda and Saddam's former regime than opponents of military action in Iraq have contended? Does that stronger connection explain why al Qaeda members have been found and captured in Iraq? If so, such a conclusion would only serve to reinforce and validate the Bush administration's casus belli for military action in Iraq, as Iraq would clearly be found to be harboring and supporting terrorists under those circumstances.


Opponents of the war may contend that the reason so many al Qaeda terrorists are being found in Iraq has nothing to do with any connections between the group and Saddam's former regime, and that the reason al Qaeda members are being found in Iraq is that they want to destabilize the region through their activities in Iraq, ruin American efforts to rebuild and administer Iraq, and kill as many American soldiers as possible. This, opponents may argue, serves to undermine the Bush administration's reasons for removing Saddam Hussein, and serves to make Iraq a breeding ground for terrorism, instead of eradicating terrorists from Iraq.


But these arguments are rather easily refuted. First of all, Saddam's regime was never a catalyst of regional stability, especially given his decision to start a war against Iran in the 1980s; his decision to use chemical weapons in that war and against the Kurds; the fears of the international community regarding Saddam's development of weapons of mass destruction (a fear Saddam did nothing to dispel given his serial noncompliance with the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions); his invasion of Kuwait in 1990; and his financial support of terrorist activity against Israel. Al Qaeda may be trying to maintain a state of political and strategic chaos in the region, but life with Saddam Hussein in power was hardly an improvement over what Al Qaeda intends to bring about.


As for the threat to American forces and interests, no one should be sanguine about this issue. But terrorists who choose to take on American soldiers do so with the understanding that a large number of them could be either captured or killed in the effort to disrupt American military and administrative activities. The American military obviously holds many advantages over terrorist groups in any conflict -- superior technology, superior training and numbers, and much more firepower. And American soldiers enter a conflict with terrorists being well trained in fighting terrorist forces -- especially after the military action in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and Taliban elements there.


Losing Proposition


In the end, confronting American forces in Iraq is a losing proposition for the terrorists, and the U.S. benefits from having a number of terrorist cells in one place -- where their operations and planning can be disrupted and where their personnel can be attacked and harassed -- rather than having terrorist cells widely dispersed and able to plan and carry out operations with less fear that they may be discovered by unfriendly American forces. In short, it may be better for the U.S. to invite terrorist to fight on American terms, and on ground that the United States occupies and is quite familiar with, than to have to go and search hither and yon for terrorist cells -- and fear that those cells may be planning a catastrophic attack on America or American interests in the meantime.


Obviously, even if there is a deliberate flypaper strategy being employed to draw terrorists towards Iraq, such a strategy has its limits, and should not be pursued carelessly. The U.S. should still work to monitor who is coming into Iraq in order to correctly identify incoming terrorist elements. The use of a flypaper strategy is not -- and should not be judged as being -- inconsistent with the need to reinforce and strengthen border patrols and protection in Iraq, as it would be significantly easier to capture or kill terrorists before they have a chance to fortify and establish camps inside of Iraq.


Finally, the U.S. should continue to work for a stable and peaceful domestic situation in Iraq, and for the advancement of a civil society there. If terrorists are determined to come to Iraq and try to take on the American military, the U.S. should make use of the opportunity to debilitate terrorist operations. However, it should work to ensure that terrorist cells are eliminated before they have the chance to damage the emerging Iraqi civil society. Finding and eliminating terror cells at the borders will help achieve this objective.


Terrorists may believe that they have a golden opportunity to frustrate American efforts in Iraq, and make Iraq a base of terrorist operations (if it wasn't one already). It may very well be one of the worst tactical mistakes they have ever made.


TCS Daily Archives