As Richard Clarke’s unsurprising revelations continue to receive blanket coverage around the blogosphere and elsewhere, I’ve been increasingly puzzled by the failure of the Zarqawi scandal to make a bigger stir. As far as I can determine, the following facts are undisputed
* Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of the group Ansar al-Islam is one of the most dangerous Islamist terrorists currently active. He is the prime suspect for both the Karbala and Madrid atrocities and the alleged author of a letter setting out al Qaeda’s strategy for jihad in Iraq. Although he has become increasingly prominent in the past year, he has been well-known as a terrorist for many years
* For some years, until March 2003, Ansar al-Islam was based primarily at Kirma in Northern Iraq, in part of the region of Iraq generally controlled by the Kurds and included in the no-fly zone enforced by the US and UK. In other words, the group was an easy target for either a US air attack, a land attack by some special forces and/or Kurdish militia or a combination of the two
* Nothing was done until the invasion of Iraq proper, by which time the group had fled
These facts alone would indicate a failure comparable in every way to the missed opportunities to kill or capture bin Laden before S11. But the reality appears to be far worse.
According to the MSNBC report that broke the story, three plans were drawn up for attacks on Zarqawi and all were killed by the National Security Council
Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.
There are various hypotheses about the precise grounds, all highly discreditable, but the most plausible is that a watertight plan would have required co-operation between US air forces, and Kurdish ground forces. This would have been most unpalatable to the Turkish government, which was being courted, up to the last minute, as a partner for the Iraq war. So nothing was done, and by the time the camp was attacked at the beginning of the war, Zarqawi and most of his followers were gone.
An alternative, equally discreditable, explanation is that the Administration wanted to keep Zarqawi’s group in existence as a count in the indictment of Saddam, relying on the claim that Zarqawi had received treatment in a Baghdad hospital as ‘proof’ of Saddam’s links to terrorism, a claim that was unlikely to stand up to the kind of close examination that would follow an attack on the group.
Although it’s a peripheral point, there were also credible reports that Ansar al-Islam was engaged in the manufacture of ricin, a poison used in assassination. Ricin is scarcely a weapon of mass destruction but, if the Administration had applied the same criteria to Zarqawi as to Saddam, it would certainly have provided sufficient justification for a pre-emptive strike. It is, however, a peripheral point. The justification for attempting to kill Zarqawi and eliminate his group is and was the fact that he is a terrorist, not a legalistic quibble about his choice of killing technology. Similar attacks have been made in a number of countries under both Bush and Clinton, most notably including Clinton’s attempt on Osama.
When the story first broke about a month ago, it was widely covered by critics of the war, at least some of whom pointed out the seriousness of the implications. Brad de Long, for example, argued that it constituted grounds for impeachment of Bush and other members of the Administration. (There was some dispute about the legal feasibility of this, but none about the morality).
On the other hand, the warbloggers have been almost uniformly silent. The few who have mentioned the issue have mostly made the ludicrous claim that Zarqawi’s activities, undertaken in an effectively US-controlled part of Iraq, constituted proof that ‘Iraq really did have WMD’s’. I have found the single honorable exception of Andrew Sullivan, and I expect there are some others, but not many.
And there it rests. As far as I can tell, there’s been no follow-up story and no action on the political front. A failure that would appear to be, at best, a disastrous blunder and, at worst, a deliberate betrayal of the struggle against terrorism has simply been ignored while Washington plays the familiar game of “He Said, She Said”.
fn1. The best blanket is that provided by Tim Dunlop. Tim’s doing a great job with the story but, for once, my blogtwin and I are not picking up the same vibrations from the BlogGeist as to what constitutes an interesting topic.
fn2. Even before the war, Dan Drezner wondered why the group had not been attacked.