Military history



Al Qaeda in Iraq since 2003

IT BEGAN IN August 2003—Iraq’s descent into hell. On August 7 a truck bomb outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad killed nineteen people. On August 12 a suicide bomber drove a cement mixer loaded with explosives into the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. Among the twenty-two dead was the UN’s senior representative in Iraq, the popular Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. Worst of all was the attack on August 29 in Najaf. A parked vehicle, most likely a Toyota Land Cruiser, exploded at around 2 p.m. just outside the Imam Ali mosque, the most sacred shrine in the entire Shiite faith. Noon prayers were just ending. Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, one of the country’s leading Shiite clerics, was leaving after his weekly sermon and thousands of the faithful were milling around. The blast left a three-foot-wide crater in the street, killing more than eighty people, including Hakim. According to a witness, “Pieces of flesh were found on the rooftop of the building opposite the mosque and smeared across the windows.” Afterward a reporter found that “the air reeked of burned rubber, and streets were coated in oil, twisted metal, glass and debris.”60

Such grotesque scenes would be repeated all too often in the years ahead. U.S. troops had little trouble toppling Saddam Hussein’s decrepit regime in a few short weeks of fighting in the spring of 2003, which highlighted the American mastery of conventional combat operations. Unfortunately American commanders had been overly focused on the initial assault and were unprepared to restore order and rebuild governance. The resulting power vacuum allowed sundry Sunni and Shiite extremists to wreak havoc, slaughtering tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of foreign troops in one of the most destructive terrorist campaigns ever recorded. At the forefront was the group that was responsible for the August bombings and many more to come: Monotheism and Jihad, or, as it was eventually renamed, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Its founder was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose own father-in-law was said to have been the suicide bomber in Najaf. He would for a brief time emerge as the most famous jihadist in the world after Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but he differed greatly from those educated offspring of distinguished families. Born Ahmad Fadil al-Khalaylah in the grimy Jordanian industrial city of Zarqa, whose name he took, he was a tattooed high school dropout, a former video store clerk and petty criminal, uneducated and barely literate, a hard drinker and street brawler. He eventually found Allah and in 1989, at the age of twenty-three, made his way to Afghanistan, where he trained in an Al Qaeda camp. After returning to Jordan, where he served five years in jail for his subversive activities, he was back in Afghanistan by 1999. Soon he was leading his own jihadist group.

U.S. attacks in the fall of 2001 caused him to flee with his followers to Iran, which cynically provided him with aid and shelter notwithstanding his anti-Shiite sentiments. From there Zarqawi and his men infiltrated Iraq beginning with the Kurdish areas in the north that were, ironically, protected by American airpower. By the time the U.S. armed forces entered Iraq in the spring of 2003, in search of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein no longer possessed, Zarqawi was ready to “burn the earth under the feet of the invaders.”61

More secular Sunni groups, led by former Baathists, concentrated on sniping at the occupying troops and blowing up their vehicles with improvised explosive devices—time-honored guerrilla techniques that would have been all too familiar to French forces in Indochina and British forces in Malaya a half century earlier. Zarqawi, by contrast, preferred sick, flamboyant gestures such as televised beheadings of hostages that took advantage of the newest communications technologies. On May 11, 2004, a jihadist website posted a video in which five masked men decapitated a Jewish-American businessman, Nicholas Berg, who was dressed in an orange jumpsuit similar to those worn by detainees at Guantánamo. The CIA believed that Zarqawi personally wielded the knife that cut off Berg’s head. The way that this video was distributed online, taking advantage of newly available broadband Internet access, was typical of the sophistication with which AQI promulgated its propaganda. Just as nineteenth-century anarchists had taken advantage of the spread of newspapers and magazines, and the Vietcong and PLO had taken advantage of broadcast television, so these twenty-first-century insurgents showed how the latest technology could be harnessed to spread terror.

While focused primarily on Iraq, Zarqawi did not forget about his homeland. In 2005 his suicide bombers hit three American-owned hotels in Amman, killing sixty civilians, mainly Muslims, and thus sparking mass revulsion in Jordan. But his most destructive actions were suicide car bombings in Iraq. There were more suicide attacks in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 than in any other country in history. “By April 2008,” writes Peter Bergen, “suicide attacks had killed more than ten thousand Iraqis.”62

Although the political scientist Robert Pape claims that “suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation,”63 most of the suicide bombers in Iraq were not Iraqis and their targets were not foreign occupiers.64 They came primarily from other Arab lands via Syria (Saudis composed the largest group), and they struck mainly at Shiite civilians and Iraqi security personnel. Clearly they were motivated by religious ideology, not nationalism, since most of them had never previously visited Iraq before immolating themselves on its soil.

It is perhaps pointless to look for rational motives behind such heinous crimes, given how rabidly Zarqawi hated Shiites. In a letter he had written that was intercepted by American authorities, he referred to Shiites as scorpions, snakes, rats, infidels, and “devils in the bodies of men.” To the extent that his attacks on Shiites were animated by more than sheer animus, Zarqawi appeared determined to spark a Shiite backlash that would “awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger.”65 AQI could then emerge as the Sunnis’ defender. So far so good. The next step was not clear, however. How could the Sunnis, who accounted for no more than 25 percent of Iraq’s population, prevail against the Shiite majority? Far more likely that the Sunnis would be annihilated.

The counterproductive nature of Zarqawi’s attacks was clear even to his nominal superiors in Al Qaeda. In July 2005 Zawahiri sent him a letter of admonishment. “Many of your Muslim admirers among the common folks are wondering about your attacks on the Shia . . . ,” he wrote. “My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.”66

Zarqawi was free to ignore this good advice because his own organization operated independently of Al Qaeda central. By its peak in 2005–06, AQI was raising nearly $4.5 million a year, primarily from criminal rackets such as gasoline smuggling, car theft, and extortion.67 The organization that Zarqawi built was strong enough to survive his own death; he was killed by a pair of bombs dropped by an F-16 on June 7, 2006, after having been tracked down to a safe house outside Baqubah by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command.68

By then the disintegration of Iraq was well under way. AQI’s February 22, 2006, bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a revered site for Shiites, sparked a fierce backlash. Shiite death squads responded with a campaign of ethnic cleansing to push Sunnis out of Baghdad. Every day dozens of Sunni bodies would be found around the capital, some with evidence of torture from power drills, others simply shot through the temple. The number of Iraqi civilians killed jumped from 5,746 in 2005 to 25,178 in 2006.69

An all-out civil war appeared to be starting with U.S. troops in the role of helpless bystanders. American commanders were focused not on stamping out the violence but on turning over control to Iraqi security forces. Unfortunately the Iraqi forces were badly trained and heavily infiltrated by Shiite militants. They fed rather than doused the flames of sectarian conflagration. Amid pervasive insecurity, ordinary Iraqis gravitated for protection to sectarian militias. By 2006 AQI had gained dominance of an area larger than New England in western and northern Iraq,70 while the leading Shiite militia, the Jaish al Mahdi (Mahdist Army) led by Moqtada al Sadr, asserted its control in central and southern Iraq.

The seemingly hopeless situation began to reverse itself in September 2006 when tribal sheikhs around Ramadi launched a counterattack against AQI in cooperation with U.S. soldiers and marines. The tribes were offended that AQI had usurped their authority and their sources of revenue, primarily from smuggling. Because of its Salafist beliefs, AQI had even banned smoking—a favorite pastime across Iraq. Those who resisted its edicts were assassinated, sparking blood feuds with tribesmen. “The situation became unbearable,” one sheikh recalled.71 Similar sentiments had been expressed in nineteenth-century Chechnya by tribal elders offended by Shamil’s edicts. This led them to cooperate in the 1850s with Russian occupiers seeking to quash his jihadist movement. Yet even the tribesmen opposed to Shamil never took up arms against him en masse as the Sunni tribesmen of Anbar Province now proceeded to do against AQI. Eventually more than 100,000 Sunnis would join the Sons of Iraq, as the anti–Al Qaeda militia came to be called.

There was nothing inevitable about this massive switch of allegiance. There had been disaffection among the tribes before, and it had always been repressed ruthlessly by AQI. This uprising too would likely have failed if U.S. troops had been on the way out in 2007 as the majority of the American public desired. But at the end of 2006, after more than three years of drift, President Bush made an unpopular decision to turn around a failing war effort. Over the opposition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most lawmakers, he decided to send 20,000 more troops to Iraq—a figure that would eventually grow to 30,000. At the same time he made a clean sweep of his Iraq team. Out went Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, General John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, and General George Casey, the senior officer in Iraq: all of the architects of the worst disaster in American military history since Vietnam. In an echo of Westmoreland’s fate, Casey was elevated to become army chief of staff.

Until then, Bush had loyally acceded to the dogged desire of Rumsfeld, Abizaid, and Casey, all of whom he had picked personally, to minimize the American footprint in Iraq, because he did not want to repeat Lyndon Johnson’s supposed mistake of micromanaging the Vietnam War.72 This was a striking example of the importance of studying military history and of not relying on historical myths. In reality, as we have seen, Johnson only micromanaged the air strikes on North Vietnam; the ground war in the South he left to Westmoreland to run as he saw fit. The problem was that Westmoreland, like many of his successors in Iraq, approached an unconventional conflict with a relentlessly conventional—and Pollyannaish—mindset that seemed impervious to any evidence of failure.

As the situation on the ground in Iraq grew ever grimmer and as the American public turned against the war effort, Rumsfeld and the generals continued to issue blithe assurances, as McNamara and Westmoreland had once done, that progress was actually being made even if no one else could discern it. Eventually even Bush, who entered office with no national-security background, realized that he could no longer trust the chain of command in which he had naïvely reposed so much faith. With his own presidency hanging in the balance, the president turned for a new concept of operations to outside advisers such as the military historian Frederick Kagan and the retired general Jack Keane who urged the president to abandon the drawdown envisioned by Rumsfeld, Abizaid, and Casey and instead to send all the reinforcements he could find to Iraq.

To implement this “surge,” the president called on a general with a professorial air and a mild manner that only partially masked a fierce will to win. If Osama bin Laden had become the leading insurgent of the early twenty-first century, David Howell Petraeus was about to become the leading counterinsurgent.

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