The Magazine

Slow-motion Tet

Al Qaeda is counting on sapping our will, and persuading America to choose to lose a war it could win.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Last week, a group of tribal leaders in Salah-ad-Din, the mostly Sunni province due north of Baghdad, agreed to work with the Iraqi government and U.S. forces against al Qaeda. Then al Qaeda destroyed the two remaining minarets of the al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, a city in the province. Coincidence? Perhaps. But al Qaeda is clearly taking a page from the Viet Cong's book. The terrorists have been mounting a slow-motion Tet offensive of spectacular attacks on markets, bridges, and mosques, knowing that the media report each such attack as an American defeat. The fact is that al Qaeda is steadily losing its grip in Iraq, and these attacks are alienating its erstwhile Iraqi supporters. But the terrorists are counting on sapping our will as the VC did, and persuading America to choose to lose a war it could win.

The Salah-ad-Din announcement that Iraqis were turning against al Qaeda was just one of many such announcements over recent weeks and months. Some media reports have tried to debunk this development, reporting, for example, that the Sunni coalition against al Qaeda in Anbar province is fragmenting. But even the fragments are saying that they will continue to cooperate with us and fight al Qaeda. Sunni movements similar to the one in Anbar have developed and grown in Babil province south of Baghdad and even in strife-torn and mixed Diyala province to the northeast. Most remarkable, local Sunnis in Baghdad recently rose up against al Qaeda, and even hard core Baathist insurgent groups have reached out to U.S. forces to cooperate in the fight against the terrorists. Far from being evidence of our desperation and danger, as some have claimed, this turn of events demonstrates the degree to which al Qaeda is repelling Iraqis.

It has long been clear that most Iraqis want nothing to do with al Qaeda's religious and political views. They do not find the intolerant and occasionally ludicrous al Qaeda program appealing: Being required to segregate vegetables in a market by sex, as al Qaeda fighters have apparently demanded, appalls Iraqis just as it would Americans. Yet whenever al Qaeda makes itself comfortable in an Iraqi neighborhood, it begins to enforce its absurd and intolerant version of Islam. Locals resist, and al Qaeda begins to "punish" them with an increasing scale of atrocities. Just that sort of escalation led to al Qaeda's loss of control in Anbar and to the growth of the various anti-al Qaeda movements in Iraq's Sunni community.

Iraqis have also shown that they are not interested in having their homes become a base for the export of international terrorism--even as Al Qaeda in Iraq proclaims itself a "vanguard," like all good al Qaeda franchises, in the war against the infidel crusaders (us) and the Muslim heretics (the Shia and all others who practice a form of Islam different from al Qaeda's). The overwhelming majority of suicide bombers in Iraq are still foreigners, and Iraqis have never lined up at the gates of al Qaeda recruiting stations for training and dispatch to foreign lands.

Iraq's Sunnis have tolerated al Qaeda's presence all these years for one reason: Terrorists are good fighters. As long as Iraq's Sunni Arab community thought that it could use violence to regain control of Iraq or felt that it faced an existential threat from the Shiite majority, al Qaeda was a useful if unpleasant ally. But the willingness even of some of the hardest core Sunni Arab insurgents to negotiate with U.S. forces shows how far the Sunnis have come toward recognizing reality. They will not regain control of Iraq militarily, and will have to make the best deal they can get within the political system. And they will not face an existential threat from the Shia as long as we are there, and not at all if an appropriate political deal can be cut. These are signs of the waning of an insurgency--and ominous signs indeed for the parasitic terrorists who rely on the blood of sectarian violence to survive.

The way ahead will not be smooth. The second attack on the al-Askariya mosque creates a dangerous situation whose effects cannot yet be seen. Even beyond that incident, the path toward political reconciliation will be long, tortuous, and marked by setbacks. It will not follow timelines dictated from Washington, and it will not be accomplished by a nicely typed legislative package. Politics, like war, is messy, unpredictable, and not subject to timelines. But real progress has already been made in the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the terrorists know it. That's why they're surging against our surge, and why they are attempting to convince us that we have lost when it is they who are losing. But surely our political leaders have enough sense, and enough courage, not to believe enemy propaganda. We believed it once before, in 1968, in circumstances far less dangerous and far less consequential for our well-being than the present. Let's not make that grave mistake again.

--Frederick W. Kagan and William Kristol