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 There was no way that the UN Secretariat could have withdrawn the inspectors without authorization from the UNSC where the US and UK could have vetoed it, in the unlikely event it was proposed.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, 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.
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.