The Magazine

Now for the Bad News

Zarqawi is dead, but the damage he did remains.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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It would be comforting to believe that Zarqawi's atrocities have made the Iraqi Sunnis more reflective. The Jordanian holy warrior forced them to look into the abyss. Certainly, killing Zarqawi is both a tactical and philosophical triumph. Contrary to much left-wing mythology, there is not an endless supply of operational talent in third-world "liberation" movements, be they religiously or secularly based. Chop the head off military organizations, even when they are fairly rag-tag, and you can damage them severely, perhaps mortally. The ongoing political process in Iraq, which is drawing in more Sunnis, may have had something to do with Zarqawi's death.

His demise will give Iraqi Sunnis a moment to pause, reflect, and perhaps helpfully rewrite their own history. It would be too much to ask for the leaders of this community to confess the extent to which they contributed to the Zarqawi phenomenon in Iraq; certainly the surrounding Arab Sunni world seems quite willing to accept that decent men and women should experience frissons whenever bin Laden launches lethal attacks on the United States.

Few Sunni Arab intellectuals have responded with joy to the news of Zarqawi's death. Many seem uncomfortable with the tactics Zarqawi used (so, too, it appears, were bin Laden and his Egyptian second, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the tactically sensitive moral conscience of al Qaeda). Far fewer appear to be uncomfortable with Zarqawi's overall objective--humbling the Americans, the Shiites, and the Kurds. We will see in the coming weeks whether a serious, critical discussion of Zarqawi's barbaric treatment of the Shiites develops and who abstains from calling him a martyr.

If the Iraqi Arab Sunnis can stop speaking sympathetically of foreign jihadists, then they might be able to begin to question the ethic of martyrdom that fuels their insurgency against the new order in Iraq. If they can stop using the specter of violence as a negotiating strategy, then they might even be able to abort the growing Shiite violence against them before it consumes the country, destroying the clerically backed effort to create a functioning democracy. This may already be impossible, now that Shiite militias are terrifying the Sunni community. Again, Zarqawi knew what he was doing: Reconciliation would be brutally difficult once the Shiites started doing to Sunnis what the Baathists and the Sunni insurgents and holy warriors had been doing to the Shiites for years.

The dimensions of Zarqawi's possible success are thus enormous--greater than what bin Laden accomplished on September 11. Zarqawi was the right man, with the right tactics, at the right moment. In all probability, he would not have mattered if the United States had actually occupied the Sunni Triangle after the deposing of Saddam Hussein, thereby giving the fallen Sunni Arab community a chance to breathe before they became sentimentally and physically enmeshed by the homegrown insurgency and imported holy war.

But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld chose not to send more troops to Iraq after the fall of Saddam, even after it became blindingly obvious that the insurgents, not the Americans, controlled the roads throughout the Sunni Triangle. General John Abizaid, the commander of American forces in the Middle East, married Rumsfeld's mania for new-age warfare and his lack of interest in post-Saddam Iraqi society with a very new-age, "light footprint" approach to counterinsurgency.

As this thinking has it, American forces, if deployed in large numbers, are more likely to provoke trouble than secure the peace. We are, as General Abizaid likes to say, "antibodies" in the Muslim Middle East. This is an odd position to hold after three years of ever-worsening insurgency--especially when violence has dropped in Iraq every time the Bush administration has increased U.S. troop levels for a national election. It's an odd position to hold after the victory in Tal Afar, where the American command saturated the town with U.S. troops, and the freed Sunni Arab residents were thankful.

It may well be that the manner of Zarqawi's death will send the wrong signal to the U.S. military, which seems determined to continue its "intelligence-driven" counterinsurgency. Good intelligence was followed by laser-guided munitions--just the kind of action that warms Secretary Rumsfeld's heart. But neither we nor the Iraqis are going to find salvation through good intelligence and smart bombs.

If we continue on this "easy" path, we will only guarantee that Abu Musab al Zarqawi's name will endure. Odds are decent that a historian looking back on our sojourn in Mesopotamia and the Iraqis' valiant effort to create a democracy on the ruins of Saddam's totalitarianism will find on our epitaph some tribute to Zarqawi, our monument no doubt safely inside the Green Zone, far from the carnage that this most savage of terrorists fathered.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.