How the war in Iraq has damaged the war on terrorism

A terrorism expert formerly on the National Security Council explains why Richard Clarke is right and Condoleezza Rice is wrong.

Published April 7, 2004 10:39PM (EDT)

Richard Clarke's argument that the war in Iraq was a distraction from the war on terrorism deserves extremely careful examination. He and other analysts are right in their assessment that the troops and focus needed to fight al-Qaida in Afghanistan were transferred to Iraq. Even more troubling, attacking Iraq strengthened the terrorists at our expense.

The Bush administration justified the war, from a national security perspective, with three principal arguments.

First, there were the purported links between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein and the notion that the global war on terrorism required getting rid of those two threats. President Bush explained in September 2002: "You can't distinguish between al-Qaida and Saddam when you talk about the war on terrorism. They're both equally as bad, and equally as evil, and equally as destructive."

Second, there was the problem of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which Bush felt were so dangerous that they had to be taken out with a preventive war. "The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, showed what enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what ... terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction," he said. Bush warned that waiting until Saddam attacked would impose immense and unacceptable risks to the free nations of the world.

Finally, there was the danger that Saddam would turn those weapons over to al-Qaida. Bush raised the danger that "al-Qaida becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world."

There are several problems with the notion that a war in Iraq could in any way reduce these threats. Setting aside the argument that Saddam was attempting to forge some kind of an alliance with al-Qaida, an idea whose veracity has not been proven by U.S. intelligence, there is the broader question of whether attacking a rogue state could further our goal of wiping out a terrorist movement. Terrorist groups and rogue states should not be conflated, as military strategist Jeffrey Record argued in a report published by the Army War College. Terrorists -- especially suicidal ones -- have no return address and cannot be deterred, while rogue states have to worry about retaliation. The claim that rogue states are likely to be more easily deterred than terrorists has been argued by many academics, one of whom happens to be serving as the national security advisor. In her January 2000 article in Foreign Affairs, Condoleezza Rice argued that Iraq in particular could be deterred because any use of weapons of mass destruction would mean "national obliteration."

But the greatest threat America faces today does not stem from "rogue states" but from weak ones and the terrorist groups and purveyors of WMD that thrive within their borders. This has been clear to some of us who have dealt with terrorism for a decade or more. After 9/11, the fixation on enemy states as the most important threat to U.S. national security can no longer be seen as just quaintly old-fashioned. It is now a dangerous fixation. Rogue individuals and groups are not only the most important source of danger with regard to terrorist threats to American civilians, but -- as the case of Dr. A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb who traded his knowledge to the North Koreans and others, makes painfully clear -- they are also important sources of weapons of mass destruction and expertise.

Moreover, by attacking Iraq without sufficient preparations for creating a functioning state, we have created precisely what the Bush administration had identified as a major threat to world security: a weak state unable to police its borders or to maintain a monopoly on violence. Failed and failing states can no longer be viewed exclusively as humanitarian crises, but must be seen as threats to international security because of the opportunities they offer to terrorists. The Bush administration claimed to have learned this lesson from the events of 9/11. The 2002 National Security Strategy declared that the events of that day "taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders." But the decision to attack Iraq, ignoring all efforts by the State Department to create a blueprint for a functioning state, suggests that the lesson was learned only in a theoretical sense.

The false idea that the United States is engaged in a crusade against the Islamic world is a critical component of the Islamist nihilists' worldview, and spreading this idea is critical to their success. The unprovoked attack on Iraq, followed by an occupation that is widely perceived as inept and arbitrary, even by our British ally, has confirmed this view among potential sympathizers. Every time American troops shoot into a crowd, even in self-defense, the image of America as a reckless, ruthless oppressor is highlighted. Televised pictures of American soldiers and their tanks in Iraq are a "deeply humiliating scene to Muslims," explained Saudi dissident Saad al-Faqih, who calls the war in Iraq a "gift" to Osama bin Laden. Unsurprisingly, terrorist recruiters are using the war and the continuing occupation to mobilize recruits -- not only inside Iraq but outside as well. Intelligence officials in the United States, Europe and Africa have reported that the new recruits they are seeing since the war became imminent are younger, with a more menacing attitude.

Perhaps most troubling, the occupation has given disparate groups from various countries a common battlefield on which to fight a common enemy. On a Web site described by the U.S. government as "jihadist," Dr. Hani al-Sibai, the director of the London-based Al-Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies, explains, "When the United States occupied Iraq, the border was actually uncontrolled." Iraq, he says, "is currently a battlefield and a fertile soil for every Islamic movement that views jihad as a priority." He emphasizes that Iraq is a "better place" than Afghanistan for waging jihad "in terms of the language, features of the people, and popular sympathy -- whether in Iraq's Sunni regions or its neighboring countries." He notes that "the continuation of the anti-occupation resistance will produce several groups that might later merge into one large group." Very few of the participants in the Iraqi "jihad" are members of al-Qaida, he says. "Nevertheless, the role of al-Qaida and its sympathizers in Iraq is more like the salt of the earth and it's reminiscent of the role of Arabs in Afghanistan who lifted the spirit of the Afghan people, who fought and sacrificed thousands of martyrs." He describes a new network of Salafi and other jihadist Sunni groups that formed five months after the occupation began. The network consists of mujahedeen, ulema, and political and military experts, he says, together with a number of jihadist factions from the north and south that previously operated separately. He concludes, "Even if the U.S. forces capture all leaders of al-Qaida or kill them all, the idea of expelling the occupiers and nonbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula and all the countries of Islam will not die."

Even as the war is bringing various terrorist groups together, it is increasing tensions between the United States and its allies. The Polish president has suggested that he was deceived when his country agreed to participate in the coalition. The newly elected prime minister of Spain has announced he intends to withdraw his troops. As the Iranian cleric Rafsanjani noted gleefully in a sermon on the first-year anniversary of the attack, "They are getting drifted apart. A gap has appeared in this group which they call a coalition."

If attacking Iraq made things worse, what would it take to prosecute a war on terrorism successfully? A better strategy might employ the following elements: First, where they exist, we need to destroy terrorist headquarters and, when necessary, kill the killers. This strategy must be employed carefully, however: Wherever possible, we should avoid creating martyrs or enhancing our enemies' mobilization strategies. In many cases, it is likely to be more useful to persuade terrorists to talk to us than to kill them; and, second, when we select military targets, it is probably better to focus on operatives rather than inspirational leaders such as bin Laden or Sheik Yassin. While the world is definitely better off without such evil men, their deaths could inspire their followers to kill many more innocent people.

Third, penetrating the various groups that are fighting us and turning them against one another is a critically important goal. The terrorists, Mao tells us, aim to create spiritual unity between the officers and their men and between themselves and the people. They also aim to destroy our alliances. Our goal must be the reverse: to create tensions between the leaders and their followers and among the various groups that compete for attention and funding. We also need to strengthen our alliances and make them robust enough to withstand the terrorists' attempts to split us from our allies. The al-Qaida movement has been cleverly exploiting tensions over the Iraq war to split us from our allies.

Related to this, fourth, we need to strengthen intelligence and law enforcement networks both within and among governments. This requires maintaining existing alliances and creating new ones -- sometimes with states that don't always live up to our expectations in all matters. Once we understand that terrorism is the most significant threat we face today, it becomes easier to order our preferences and demands.

Fifth, we need to strengthen weak states, which are, as the Bush administration itself pointed out in its national security strategy, terrorist breeding grounds. Sixth, we must avoid feeding into the distressingly widespread perception that the United States is out to humiliate the Islamic world. We need always to be mindful of Mao's explanation that terrorists are fish swimming in a sea of ordinary people, whose occasional support the terrorists' may require. We are competing with the terrorists for the hearts and minds of the ordinary people who make up that sea. Finally, we need to minimize the risk that terrorists or their sponsors will acquire powerful weapons, especially weapons of mass destruction.

In addition to the purported links between al-Qaida and Saddam, the Bush administration claimed that the war was necessary because of Iraq's weapons-of-mass destruction program. Even granting the Bush administration its arguments, there were still serious problems with their case for invasion. The notion that Saddam might try to cultivate links with al-Qaida might have been a plausible theory, though no intelligence has been revealed to support it. And yet it seemed more than a bit far-fetched to envisage Saddam giving over weapons of mass destruction to an Islamist group with ideological links to local Salafists who aimed to destroy his regime. Indeed, attacking Iraq, without protecting its borders, has made it more likely that WMD components and expertise would end up in the hands of terrorists. Capt. J. Ryan Cutchin, the leader of the inspection team known as MET Bravo, told the New York Times that his team often arrived at sites identified as housing WMD after looters had stolen everything of value. We may never know what the looters -- or Baathist elements pretending to be looters -- managed to ferret away, he said. Once scientists know how to grow and disseminate biological agents effectively, new stockpiles can be rapidly rebuilt. Perhaps the most frightening prospect would be if some of Saddam's weaponeers provided their expertise to our terrorist enemies.

The war in Iraq has split the allies, not the terrorists. It has turned Iraq into a Mecca for international terrorists, and mobilized local Shiite and Salafi jihadist groups that had previously posed a minimal threat. It has facilitated connections between terrorists and those with formal military experience in Saddam's army, the lethal nightmare that the invasion was supposed to have thwarted. Antipathy toward the United States, not only in Iraq and throughout the entire Islamic world, but in Europe as well, has become a dangerous trend exploited by terrorists. Even as we tout our successes in rounding up al-Qaida terrorists, the broader movement inspired by bin Laden and ignited by the invasion of Iraq is recruiting new nihilist minions throughout the world. The war in Iraq has not only been a distraction from the war on terrorism; it has strengthened our enemies in ways that continue to surprise and horrify us. Where will we be surprised next?

By Jessica Stern

Jessica Stern is the author of "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill," a former staff member of the National Security Council, and a lecturer on terrorism at the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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Al-qaida Iraq War Osama Bin Laden Terrorism