Why the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi still matters
by CPT S. Lee Cleghorn
Until recently, the media worldwide cast Iraq as a modern day Vietnam, without trees. The fact is, trees and terrain density are key on the battlefield, as proven by a recent RAND study on insurgency factors that affect conflict duration. Iraq enjoys a tree deficit, but this is hardly a key factor in the now unfolding Iraq success story. What is important to understand about Iraq today is that the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi still matters and foliage is not the only factor that distinguishes Iraq from the jungles of the American past.
Al-Zarqawi was clueless as to how to fight an insurgency. Into 2005 and then with more zest after the 2006 Golden Dome bombing, Zarqawi sought to gain power by radicalizing the masses along religious lines. His error was that he illuminated, for perhaps the first time clearly, the true meaning of sectarianism—destruction for the sake of power rather than achievement of divine aspirations. Even global level Al-Qaeda leadership openly questioned the functionality of Muslims killing Muslims without political objectives. Counterinsurgents spend much of their brain power trying to figure out how to create space between the insurgents and the populace. Zarqawi created this space himself.
One key lesson for historians and those concerned with shaping future wars is how Coalition and Iraqi leaders leveraged Zarqawi’s carnage into a positive force. Pure and simple, the Iraqi government and Coalition Forces offered a less apocalyptic future for Iraq than the insurgents. Sunni fighters turned from guerilla warfare and joined groups formed by Coalition Forces across Iraq as pro-government militias. These militias started with the Awakening Councils in the Anbar province of Iraq, and followed elsewhere in Iraq by groups including Sons of Iraq, Ghazalia Guardians, and others. How Coalition and Iraqi leaders positioned the Awakening Councils to Sunni rejectionists in Anbar and Sons of Iraq as freedom fighters for Iraqi people was as key to the strategy’s success as the motivation unwittingly created by Zarqari’s brutality. Adding these indigenous fighters to the Iraqi Police and Military, has succeeded in saturating Baghdad with security forces. But the Iraqis are getting frustrated.
At a recent meeting with coalition forces in Baghdad, a local governmental leader questioned, “Why do you Americans always ask us about the security situation?” He continued emphatically “the security is fine, we need development.” And so they do. An Iraqi military officer recently remarked that if all the mosques were replaced with dance clubs the violence would stop. Such a clear path to end violence does not exist, but this statement reinforces the belief of some Iraqis that economic prosperity, not religiofication, will lead Iraq to stability. When individual incomes rise, the value of stability becomes more apparent at the local level. But Iraq—owner of the world’s second largest oil reserves–can’t figure out how to spend its oil money. Rising oil prices may have frustrated the average American driver, but the extra cash pouring into gas tanks across the heartland may get the country out of this war.
In Baghdad, at least, attacks on the people and security forces are now mostly motivated by conflicting secular claims to power. One such attack occurred recently, against a local militia leader, General Sayyid. With blood oozing from his neck after suffering an assassination attempt, General Sayyid signaled from the back of an ambulance a swollen smile that he was going to be fine. He was smiling because his reputation as a hardened freedom fighter for Iraq’s future had been reinforced by three pieces of lead. Power is bleeding from Al Qaeda and Al-Sadr’s violent wing and consolidating under a more effective Iraqi Government. Local players today are vying to be on the winning team, whose star players are the Iraqi Government and the Coalition Forces. As sectarian identity gives way to national identity, the security situation is improving. The center of gravity for western Baghdad is no longer about violence, although it continues, but economic and organizational development.
The future array of security calls for the pro-government militias to join the ranks of the formal Iraqi Security Forces. Following this transition the military will relocate to the outskirts of cities, while the police will assume responsibility for urban security. We are in the throes of these two processes, which will present their challenges. But these being the central security issues underscores the general movement away from violence.
The conditions are now on our side, but cleaning out the clogged financial system, meeting the call for more development, continuing to nurture the organizational development of the Iraqi Security Forces and transitioning the pro-government militias to more legitimate positions–these next steps are essential. If the Government of Iraq, with the help of outside advisors, cannot figure out how to use oil money for development soon, it will lose the moral superiority against its detractors—just as Zarqawi lost his. As Clausewitz observed, good timing, unlike a ground position, cannot be regained. We should heed the lesson of our fallen enemy before it’s too late.
U.S. Army Captain Cleghorn, completing his 2d tour in Iraq, serves in a Cavalry unit in western Baghdad.