The Magazine

Iraq Is the Central Front

The Democrats are in denial about our struggle against al Qaeda.

Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The leading Democratic presidential contenders have voiced a new conventional wisdom in recent weeks: The war in Iraq has little or nothing to do with defeating al Qaeda. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have embraced this view, as has the New York Times. It is dangerously wrong. At the very time it is being propounded, al Qaeda continues to fight fiercely to expel U.S. forces from Iraq in pursuit of its long-announced objective of establishing a safe haven there. It is contradicted by U.S. intelligence and by the repeated pronouncements of al Qaeda's top leaders going back years.

Oblivious to these facts, the Democrats insist: "This is not our fight." So wrote Hillary Clinton and her Senate colleague Robert Byrd in a July 10 op-ed. "Iraq is at war with itself and American troops are caught in the middle."

Campaigning recently in Iowa, Barack Obama agreed: "We cannot win a war against the terrorists if we're on the wrong battlefield." Pointing to al Qaeda's resurgence along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Obama called for troops to be redeployed from Iraq. He promised that when he becomes president, "Nobody will work harder to go after those terrorists who will do the American people harm. But that requires a commander in chief who understands our troops need to be on the right battlefield, not the wrong battlefield."

And in the same spirit, the New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt scolded the Bush administration under the headline "Seeing Al Qaeda Around Every Corner."

This narrative is politically convenient for anti-Iraq war Democrats and like-minded members of the press: Public support for the war and the president has plummeted; most now believe the United States should not have gone into Iraq in the first place; and the Democratic base wants American troops withdrawn as soon as possible. What the new conventional wisdom isn't is consistent with the actual struggle we are in.

Just last week, the summary of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) representing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community was released. It states that the organization "Al Qaeda in Iraq" is the terror network's "most visible and capable affiliate." Al Qaeda's leadership still desires to strike the U.S. homeland and "will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)" to do so. "In addition," the intelligence estimate notes, al Qaeda relies on Al Qaeda in Iraq to "energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks."

These judgments are obviously inconsistent with Obama's belief that America is fighting on the "wrong battlefield." But the judgments of the intelligence community have been wrong before--witness the October 2002 NIE on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. So we should be wary of taking this latest pronouncement at face value.

The NIE's conclusions are, however, supported by a source that cannot be ignored: al Qaeda's two principal leaders. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have repeatedly called Iraq the "front line" in their war against Western civilization. Indeed, a review of their statements--readily accessible in translation in the anthologies edited by Bruce Lawrence (Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden) and Laura Mans field (His Own Words: Translations and Analysis of the Writings of Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri) and from other public sources--confirms that they have made Iraq their fight.

Consider what bin Laden said about the importance of the war in Iraq in December 2004:

I now address my speech to the whole of the Islamic nation: Listen and understand. The issue is big and the misfortune is momentous. The most important and serious issue today for the whole world is this Third World War, which the Crusader-Zionist coalition began against the Islamic nation. It is raging in the land of the two rivers. The world's millstone and pillar is in Baghdad, the capital of the caliphate.

The whole world is watching this war and the two adversaries; the Islamic nation, on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other. It is either victory and glory or misery and humiliation. The nation today has a very rare opportunity to come out of the subservience and enslavement to the West and to smash the chains with which the Crusaders have fettered it.

Likewise, here is how Ayman al Zawahiri described the war in Iraq in a letter to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, then al Qaeda's chief terrorist in Iraq, in 2005:

I want to be the first to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting battle in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam's history, and what is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.