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Why not Zarqawi (crossposted on CT)?

October 26th, 2004

The Bush Administration has finally conceded, on the record, that it decided, for political reasons, not to go after leading terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the leadup to the Iraq war. The question remains, which political reasons were decisive?

We can, I think, dismiss the idea that an attack on Zarqawi would have led the UN not to pass resolution 1441 demanding that Saddam admit weapons inspectors. As Ted Barlow points out here the US was bombing Iraq throughout the leadup to the war and had conducted many similar attacks on terrorists (notably including Clinton’s failed attempt on bin Laden). In any case, the final proposal for an attack on Zarqawi was rejected when the inspections were already under way. There was no way that the UN Secretariat could have withdrawn the inspectors without authorization from the UNSC where the US and UK could have vetoed it, in the unlikely event it was proposed.

I think two considerations were decisive. First, an effective attack would probably have required co-operation with Kurdish ground forces. But, right up to March 2003, the Administration was trying to get Turkish participation, or at least basing rights to allow an attack on Iraq from north as well as south. Strong hints were given that if the Turks came on board, the US would keep Kurdish demands for autonomy in check. Obviously, a joint operation with the Kurds would have wrecked the negotiations. As it turned out, the Turkish Parliament rejected the deal, but not until the war machine was already rolling.

The second point relates to intelligence. Defenders of the Administration’s position have made much of the fact that they didn’t know for sure whether Zarqawi was there[1], but this hasn’t stopped previous attacks on terrorist leaders, some of which have been successful and others not. A more difficult point for the Administration was that they had made propaganda points out of the claim that Zarqawi’s Al-Ansar group was manufacturing ricin, a poison used in assassinations. By a rhetorical sleight of hand, this could be equated to “WMDs in Iraq”. But, by late 2002, and certainly by early 2003, it must have been pretty obvious to the hardheads in the Administration that all their intelligence on WMDs was worthless – the failure to secure al-Tuwaitha after the war was indicative of this. Regardless of whether Zarqawi was caught, an attack on the Kirma camp would have come up blank on WMDs, and this would have undermined the broader case being mounted by Bush and Powell[2].

So, an attack on Zarqawi would have weakened the case for war, if only modestly. Going after Saddam was much more important to Bush than going after Zarqawi. It’s that simple.

Update After posting this, I got around to reading Hitchens’ latest piece in Slate. His column, following Orwell, is named “In Front of Your Nose”, but apparently the WSJ hasn’t passed in front of Hitchens’ nose. He has a long and confused analysis of Zarqawi, vaguely mentioning the point that his operations were “directed at the Kurdish leadership in that part of northern Iraq that was outside Saddam Hussein’s immediate control” but not the fact that this part of northern Iraq was under the immediate control of his new hero George Bush. I gave up expecting anything worthwhile from Hitchens some time ago, but this marks a new low for him, I think. It’s Orwellian all right, but not in a good way.

fn1. As an aside, despite not being able to find Zarqawi’s operatives when they are preparing attacks in downtown Baghdad, the Administration is still claiming to have incredibly precise intelligence about what is going on inside Fallujah to the extent, that it can locate the Zarqawi group in particular houses and restaurants for bombing raids on an almost nightly basis. If you don’t accept this claim, the obvious alternative is that the attacks are designed to terrify the inhabitants of Fallujah and thereby reduce their support for the insurgents. There is only one reasonable description for people who set off bombs in civilian areas to terrify their enemies.

fn2. I’m sure the Administration expected that something would turn up, once they had a free run in Iraq, access to the records and officials and so on. But (with the possible exception of Powell) I’m sure they also knew the intelligence they were peddling was worthless.

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  1. October 26th, 2004 at 17:44 | #1

    Hitchens apparently believes the Zarqawi establishment in Kurdish areas was proof that Hussein was harbouring terrorists – and therefore a retrospective justification of the invasion! This is in spite of the fact that “no-fly zone” Kurdish Iraq was effectively a US military protectorate.
    If anything it proves that the US was effectively harbouring terrorists! Hitchens has become unhinged from reality.
    The US invasion of Iraq is now a real-political defeat in the fight against terrorism. It also appears to have to be an ideal-moral stain on the US’s civic-military honour.
    During the invasion the US inflicted about 20,000 serious military casualties (KIA & Disabling-WIA) on the Iraqi army, and about 10,000 serious casualties on Iraqi civilians. (Assuming one serious wound for every lethal wound, with light wounds not counted.)
    This “war-blogger”, like the US military staff, was shocked to discover that “the enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we’d war-gamed against”. So I underpredicted the total (civil & martial) Iraqi casualties by about 50%.
    Unfortunately, the heavy military invasion is the less bloody phase of this conflict. The occupation phase has been at least as bloody, if not more so.
    The total number of serious Iraqi civilian casualties (KIA or disabled) – including those killed by US heavy weapons use, the breakdown of civil order and the influx of terrorists – is now in the vicintity of 30,000. Most of the Iraqi civilian casualties have been caused by US military action, not insurgent terrorism.
    There have obviously been alot of insurgents, terrorists and regime loyalists killed by the US since major military operations ceased. I have no idea what the scale is but it is probably no less than the number of Iraqi military casualties in the invasion phase. These casualties are probably being counted with civilian casualites, but who knows what the overlap is.
    So, by the time elections are held, the total number of serious Iraqi (civil & martial) casualties will be well north of 50,000. This is about ten times the nineties-average annual Baathists atrocity rate, whilst they were under US supervision/UN inspections.
    If the US keeps up this rate of urban attacks, and if sectarian civil war ensues, then the total butchers bill could start climbing into Hussein’s eighties blood-bath era.
    The US invasion of Iraq was the use of illegal means in pursuit of unrealistic ends (militarist-disarming, terrorist-deharbouring, democracy-promotion). It follows that all military actions that utilise mass violence (aerial bombing) that might cause collateral damage are illegitimate and immoral.
    The US’s use of heavy bombers in urban areas is therefore immoral and should be stopped forthwith. The use of lighter aerial weapons – rockets, cannon, machine-guns – may be permissable in the hot pursuit of actual & legitimate targets (armed terrorists) identified in real time violence.
    We are now well past the time when our maxim should be “Do No (More) Harm”. At this point, I just want someone to “tell me how this ends”.

  2. October 27th, 2004 at 22:58 | #2

    Congratulations Pr Q, on running with this story. It is an absolute indictment, in both moral and legal senses, of the Bush admin criminal mishandling, and conflation, of both the War on Fundamentalist Terrorists and the War on Fascist Militarists.
    I am still shaking my head in disbelief at the duplicity and iniquity of this admin. Every time I think they’ve hit rock bottom it does not take too long before something turns up to show that they have managed to plumb new depths.
    God only knows how many civilians, contractors and service personnel have been decapitated on the off-chance that keeping Zarqawi alive might have brought some political advantage to this admin. The mind boggles.
    The Zarqawi story just keeps getting worse and worse. It seems that Cheyney has been trying to keep the Zarqawi scandal under wraps and, as usual, has used political intimidation to supress and distort the opinions of the professional intelligence services.
    Justin Logan extracts a passage from American Conservative, a conservative anti-war magazine that I have written a few articles for, in which, Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, recounts a hair-raising tale of Cheyney chucking a wobbly when the CIA told him what he didnt want to here on Zarqawi:

    The undeclared warfare between the CIA and the Bush administration has continued despite the arrival of Porter goss as Director of Central Intelligence. On Sept. 28, at the Vice President’s request, the Agency provided a special briefing on the subject of Jordanian terrorist Mu’sab al-Zarqawi.

    The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) reviewed all of the available intelligence on the subject and based its briefing on a just completed comprehensive intelligence analysis. The CTC concluded that Saddam Hussein had not materially supported Zarqawi before the U.S.-led invasion and that Zarqawi’s infrastructure in Iraw before the war was confined to the northern no-fly zones of Kurdistan, beyond Baghdad’s reach.
    Cheney reacted with fury, screaming at the briefer that CIA was trying to get John Kerry elected by contradicting the president’s stance that Saddam had supported terrorism and therefore needed to be overthrown.
    The hapless briefer was shaken by the vice president’s outburst, and the incident was reported back to Goss, who indicated that he was reluctant to confront the vice president’s staff regarding it.
    Goss was sent to CIA by the president with instructions to get the place under control and stop the leaking. The White House had earlier been upset by the leak of the most recent National Intelligence Estimate stating that things were not going well in Iraq. The choice of Goss as director was opposed by some of CIA’s management, who claimed he was too political.
    As a result of the sniping, Goss will have to navigate carefully between protecting the integrity of the intelligence process and serving his boss, the president. Reform of the Agency, once seen as a hot-button issue, though only embraced tepidly by Goss, will be seen as a secondary consideration.

    These abuses has to be impeachable. Its clearly an illegal use of security resources for partisan political purposes.
    Letting an “actual and existing Islamic terrorist” (Zarqawi) off the hook in order to bolster the case for going after a phantom Islamic terrorist (Hussein) directly violates anti-terrorist statutes passed by US congress in the aftermath of 911. Bush should be charged under his own Patriot Act.
    Never mind Christopher Hitchens increasingly desperate apologetics – what is Congress saying about this? Surely the DEMS can somehow get a committee up to investigate this scandal?
    Perhaps that is the reason for the edge of desperation that surrounds the Republican campaign. They cant afford to lose, their heads are on a block of their own making.

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