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Tilting at Windmills

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February 8, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

CHANGE IN TACTICS....Amit Paley of the Washington Post reports that the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq is (a) far smaller than it was a year ago and (b) working to turn that around:

From internal documents and interviews with members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a picture emerges of an organization in disarray but increasingly aware that its harsh policies — such as punishing women who don't cover their heads — have eroded its popular support. Over the past year, the group has been driven out of many of its strongholds. The group's leadership is now jettisoning some of its past tactics to refocus attacks on American troops, Sunnis cooperating closely with U.S. forces, and Iraq's infrastructure.

...."We do not deny the difficulties we are facing right now," said Riyadh al-Ogaidi, a senior leader, or emir, of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the Garma region of eastern Anbar province. "The Americans have not defeated us, but the turnaround of the Sunnis against us had made us lose a lot and suffer very painfully."

...."We made many mistakes over the past year," including the imposition of a strict interpretation of Islamic law, he told a Washington Post special correspondent. Al-Qaeda in Iraq followers broke the fingers of men who smoked, whipped those who imbibed alcohol and banned shops from selling shampoo bottles that displayed images of women — actions that turned Sunnis against the group.

Ogaidi said the total number of al-Qaeda in Iraq members across the country has plummeted from about 12,000 in June 2007 to about 3,500 today.

Fascinating. I wouldn't be surprised if even that 3,500 number is exaggerated, but it appears that AQI and its fellow takfiris are nothing if not adaptable, even on the kind of core religious principles that supposedly they'd never compromise on. Apparently, if they need to compromise in order to step up recruitment of Sunni tribe members, then compromise they will. But will it work?

Kevin Drum 11:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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It's no wonder their numbers are decimated. We keep taking out their #3 man. Soon there won't be any left.

Posted by: jprichva on February 8, 2008 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

Since the definition of AQI is "whoever the US Army says it is", the size naturally grows and shrinks in proportion to the needs of the US Army.

C'mon, Kevin, as Atrios points out today, you frequently have a defective bullshit detector.

Posted by: David in NY on February 8, 2008 at 11:35 AM | PERMALINK

Meanwhile, al Qaeda in Afghanistan is growing because we took our eye off the ball when "we" invaded Iraq to find the mythical WMD...or was it to get Sadddam...or was it to install democracy...or was it to spread peace throughout the Middle East?

Biggest. Foreign policy mistake. Ever.

Posted by: Rich on February 8, 2008 at 11:35 AM | PERMALINK

No smoking, drinking, or women?! Yowsa. No wonder they left the liquid valium alone.

Posted by: Tripp on February 8, 2008 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

The foreign policy mistakes that could rival the War in Iraq are getting involved in Vietnam, and letting the Treaty of Versailles punish Germany into Naziism after WWI.

55,000 American deaths and 3,000,000 Vietnamese deaths are greater than the 4,000 coalition (don't forget Poland!) deaths and the 1,000,000 Iraqi deaths.

Posted by: Owned_by_2_cats on February 8, 2008 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin seems to have changed the subject.

Posted by: David in NY on February 8, 2008 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

Funny how the growth or shrinkage of enemy numbers can be spun either way.

Al Qaeda is growing:
Pro-War spin: The threat is so dire we can't quit now.
Anti-War spin: We're just making the problem worse.

Al Qaeda is shrinking:
Pro-War spin: See! Told you it would work!
Anti-War spin: If there's no threat, let's get out.

Posted by: Grumpy on February 8, 2008 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

But will it work?

Oddly, the same question MCain's people are asking about their efforts to woo Christian fundies . . .

Posted by: rea on February 8, 2008 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

The difference between Iraq and Vietnam is that: 1) we didn't start the war in Vietnam; and 2) getting involved in Vietnam didn't distract us from another war.

Considering how we have destabilized the region and allowed al Qaeda to flourish, the war in Iraq is a much bigger strategic blunder than than Vietnam because the costs to our national interest will continue to accrue for decades to come.

Posted by: Rich on February 8, 2008 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

From internal documents and interviews with members...a picture emerges of an organization in disarray but increasingly aware that its harsh policies -- such as punishing women....have eroded its popular support. Over the past year, the group has been driven out of many of its strongholds. The group's leadership is now jettisoning some of its past tactics to refocus attacks on American troops...and [America's] infrastructure.

...."We do not deny the difficulties we are facing right now," said...a senior leader...."The [Democrats] have not defeated us, but the turnaround of the [American people] against us had made us lose a lot and suffer very painfully."

You know, you change a couple of words here, a couple of words there, and it becomes an article about the Republican party today....

Posted by: Stefan on February 8, 2008 at 12:13 PM | PERMALINK

So....if AQI is growing, it means that we can't leave because we have to stay and fight them. If AQI is shrinking, it means we can't leave because we're winning (though conversely if AQI is growing it doesn't meant we're losing. We are always winning, whether AQI is growing, shrinking or staying stable).

Posted by: Stefan on February 8, 2008 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

I suppose what had been flourishing in Iraq pre UN sanctioned invasion was much better?

And, I guess flourishing AQI you mean losing support from your largest base - Anbar?

Ignoring tyranny led to some great things mid last century. So much useless death and destruction! And for wha? The defeat of both Nazism and Communism were actually blunders and a waste of time - why repeat the blunder and defeat islamofascism?

Our national interest is served best by ignoring all forms of fascism. Go buy a ranch

Posted by: mike on February 8, 2008 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

"C'mon, Kevin, as Atrios points out today, you frequently have a defective bullshit detector."

Yup. AQI are mostly a mirage. The Wash Post itself wrote (years ago) about the disinformation campaign aimed at promoting the image of AQI, in Iraq and in the US. The "why" is obvious. Sure, there might be (now) local Sunni Iraqis who adopted the name, and shadowy websites that claim responsibility for bombings (handy?), and other Sunni tribes that accept payments from the US for "fighting" AQI, but.....

Hard to understand how something the military and politicians say, and the media repeats over and over again, with nary a caveat or qualifier (like, AQI are not international terrorists or foreign fighters, they are fighting the civil war in Iraq) could actually not be true, but it happens.

Posted by: luci on February 8, 2008 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

... you change a couple of words here, a couple of words there, and it becomes an article about the Republican party today....

Stefan read my mind. The difference, of course, is that Al Qaeda seems to have enough sense to rebrand itself, whereas Republicans are going for the guy who's pitching 100 more years of the mess we've got now.

Posted by: junebug on February 8, 2008 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

But he's a maverick!

Posted by: Kenji on February 8, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

Will it work? If they have more than $300 a month to pay Sunnis to switch sides again it will.

Posted by: markg8 on February 8, 2008 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Romney said his sons weren't in Iraq because they chose to serve their country in his campaign. Now that his campaign is over, maybe he and his sons can go to Iraq as Mormon missionaries to AQI. I can't figure a better way to the AQI hightailing it for the borders.

Posted by: tomeck on February 8, 2008 at 1:08 PM | PERMALINK

What a bunch of nonsense. I can't believe that you buy into this made-for-Fox-News false narrative, Kevin. 3,500 members of AQI - How do they know? Did we stumble across the AQI payroll register or something? I cry BULLCRAP!

If there are 100 true al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq, I would be surprised. Just because some disgruntled Iraqi picks up an old rifle and shoots at an American soldier, doesn't make him or her a well-trained al-Qaeda operative.

These numbers are meant to do two things: (1) Scare Americans into voting for a Republican because there is a false perception that they are "tough on terror". (Actually, they are extremely weak in taking meaningful steps to reduce terrorism), and (2) To give misinformed Americans the false impression that our illegal occupation of Iraq is justified (really, it is a gross violation of the UN Charter) and is reducing the threat from Islamic jihadis

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on February 8, 2008 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Keep in mind that Islamism is divided, amongst many other things, on whether the Khalifat should be imposed by the actions of a radical vanguard or come about as a result of long-term educational and da'wa activities. (In a sense, you can think of "near enemy" radical Islamists as Leninists, "far enemy" radical Islamists as Trotskyites, and reformist Islamists as Fabians.)

So it's not surprising that you'd see serious differences appear within al-Qa'ida-affiliated groups as to whether an Islamist state should be imposed immediately, or if they should concentrate on bringing more sympathizers over before imposing their version of Shari'ah. Unfortunately, these arguments are more likely to make al-Qa'ida affiliates adapt to changing circumstances rather than cause them to fragment like the Palestinians tended to.

al-Qa'ida is, of course, not the major threat in Iraq, but they *are* dangerous and destabilizing, and the fact that Iraq is a failed state means that even a small band of terrorists can cause more social damage than they could in, say, Jordan or Egypt. The more we concentrate on dealing first with political stability issues, the easier it will be for Iraq to deal with radical Islamists down the road.

Posted by: WatchfulBabbler on February 8, 2008 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

Ogaidi said the total number of al-Qaeda in Iraq members across the country has plummeted from about 12,000 in June 2007 to about 3,500 today.

Whenever I encounter statistics involving large numbers of people, I always divide by 30,000 so I can estimate how many hockey-stadiums it would take to hold the resultant crowd.

So what your telling me is that our entire "enemy" in Iraq was never much bigger than a typical concert crowd and now would fit into a movie theater. But in order to counter this threat we have spent $492,698,273,499 and killed countless tens of thousands of people.

In the meantime, the people who were actually responsible for the 9-11 attacks are enjoying a truce with the Pakistani government.

If you thought the 60's were surreal, you ain't seen nothing yet!

Posted by: Paul Dirks on February 8, 2008 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

It seems to me that libertarians would be better off accepting that, and instead spending their time figuring out the best possible way to construct a national health plan that still retains elements of competitiveness and incentives to innovate.

Well, at the risk of offending you & yours, Kevin (which I really don't mean to do, because they're lovable if round), it seems to me that your cats would be better off spending a little less time at their food bowls, and a little more time scampering around your backyard. Thing is, it just isn't going to happen, so you buy diet cat food & moderate their portions. You do this because you know better & their input isn't necessary. I feel the same way about libertarians.

Whoa -- I feel almost Republican in my desire to force my policies down the throats of the opposition.

Posted by: junebug on February 8, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

Woops, wrong thread. So sorry!

Posted by: junebug on February 8, 2008 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

I wouldn't be surprised if even that 3,500 number is exaggerated, but it appears that AQI and its fellow takfiris are nothing if not adaptable, even on the kind of core religious principles that supposedly they'd never compromise on. Apparently, if they need to compromise in order to step up recruitment of Sunni tribe members, then compromise they will.

Gosh. That makes one think that AQ might be willing to work with a "secular" dictator....

Posted by: Brian on February 8, 2008 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

Apparently, if they need to compromise in order to step up recruitment of Sunni tribe members, then compromise they will. But will it work?

Stefan is right. This IS just like the current GOP. "AQI" is just appealing to the center, becoming more moderate. The beheadings and defingerings are ruining their popularity. Next thing you know "they" will change their name to something that has lower "negatives", like when SCIRI changed to SIIC by dropping "revolutionary" from their acronym.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on February 8, 2008 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

Not to make light of a potentially good news story, but if you take the AQI spokesman's words and attribute them to an American politician or activist talking about their party or issue movement... That's actually a good thing in some ways, thinking politically. The caveat of course is he's not talking about getting support in the form of votes or raising money but is talking about getting "martyrs" and killers.

Posted by: carsick on February 8, 2008 at 6:37 PM | PERMALINK

Al-Qaeda in Iraq followers broke the fingers of men who smoked, whipped those who imbibed alcohol and banned shops from selling shampoo bottles that displayed images of women

If there's anything the GOP loves, it's absolutism. I await these measures being taken by Republicans against other conservaloonies in the near future.

Posted by: craigie on February 8, 2008 at 11:11 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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