Perpetuating the al-Qaeda-Iraq Myth

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Kevin Wolf / AP

CIA Director Lieutenant General Michael Hayden

In an interview with the Washington Post last week, CIA Director Michael Hayden claimed we're beating al-Qaeda. As Hayden put it: "Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia."

I'll defer to Hayden on Saudi Arabia, but when it comes to Iraq, Hayden betrayed his belief in the neo-con lie that Iraq was one of al-Qaeda's bases before the 2003 invasion and still is today. Can no one drive a stake into a lie that suckered us into a war we didn't need? Probably not.

A friend of mine at the White House complained to me the other day that the Bush administration and the Pentagon until this day believe we are fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. They "stand up" al-Qaeda as the enemy in Iraq, he said, even behind closed doors. In the teeth of the facts, they ignore that the enemy we're fighting in Iraq is a half a dozen homegrown insurgencies, an incipient civil war, and criminal gangs. They ignore the fact that although a handful of Osama bin Laden's followers showed up in Iraq after the invasion, in a futile attempt to hijack the Sunni resistance, al-Qaeda is not the main enemy in that country.

It should be clear by now, but apparently it isn't: al-Qaeda is an idea, a way of thinking. Al-Qaeda thinks the world is divided between believers and nonbelievers, and the believers are divinely obliged to destroy the nonbelievers. It is a simple idea that has attracted tens of thousands of Muslims, but it is neither a political prescription nor the makings of an army. The Sunni Arabs who drifted into Iraq after the invasion and the Iraqis who embraced al-Qaeda were never an organization. They were never an army. They were never the main enemy. They numbered, what, a couple of thousand? They nearly triggered a civil war, but even that they failed to accomplish.

The success we're seeing today in Iraq has nothing to do with rooting out terrorist cells. What we're seeing instead is a shriveling of grassroots support, Sunni Muslims turning against al-Qaeda and its messianic, dualistic way of looking at the world. It hasn't gone unnoticed in the Middle East that al-Qaeda has killed more Muslims than nonbelievers. Or that al-Qaeda has failed to take an inch of ground in the name of Islam. With this kind of record how could the Iraqis not turn against al-Qaeda?

None of this, of course, is to take away from the turnaround in Iraq. Last month we saw the fewest American casualties since the invasion in 2003. Basra, Sadr City, and Mosul are coming back under Baghdad's control. Many Iraqis feel safe enough to move back into their houses. And none of it should take away from General Petraeus; our troops, who are bleeding and dying to hold together a country vital to American interests; or the Iraqis, who have backed away from civil war. So why should we now mischaracterize the enemy?

The tendency will be to leave it at the lie: We fought and beat al-Qaeda in Iraq. But it's a lie we'll pay for later. By mischaracterizing the enemy in Iraq, we mischaracterize the enemy in Pakistan. Whether the car bomb that destroyed the Danish embassy in Pakistan on Monday was the work of an actual member of al-Qaeda or not does not matter — what does is that al-Qaeda's way of thinking is not defeated.