Friday, October 06, 2006

The Long War

Last week, the US government released a translation of a letter sent to Zarqawi (pdf) by a senior al-Qaeda figure (initially spotted via a mention here). The letter was found in the bombed out remains of Zarqawi's safe house after his death in June this year. There doesn't seem to be a date on the letter but it was written sometime after November 2005 (it mentions the suicide bomb attacks in Jordan). It was a private letter not intended for public consumption and as such, it offers a rare opportunity to see underneath the propaganda which taints al-Qaeda's public pronouncements.

The letter is mostly concerned with explaining to Zarqawi the importance of the long term battle for hearts and minds. The author, a previously unknown person called Atiyah, warns Zarqawi that his actions must be consistent with this battle if they are to help assist in the jihad. It's a bit jumbled so the following quotations are not in the order they appear in the original.

First, it should be noted that the author confirms what has long been maintained about the what the invasion of Iraq did for al-Qaeda.
[W]e will persevere in the jihad and the struggle against the enemies of God until the last spark of life, and last drop of blood, God willing; whether we are successful in Iraq, or not, or if we reach something, or not. However, it is shameful for us to waste the opportunities that God has granted through our own negligence and carelessness and our not adopting the [shari’a] opinions.
The invasion created an an opportunity, one which did not exist before. Ultimately, that is all al-Qaeda can lose in Iraq, an opportunity. To then remove that opportunity would be a sort of defeat for them but self-evidently, a military action to remove an opportunity created by that same military action can never be a "decisive victory against this terrorism".

The substance of the letter, as I said, is mostly concerned with strategy.
My dear brother, you are achieving successes and striking the enemies of God and hitting and doing much, which is a good and great thing that we are not lowering at all and we ask God to bless and increase, but this isn’t everything. The path is long and difficult, and the enemy isn’t easy, for he is great and numerous and he can take quite a bit of punishment as well. However, true victory is the triumph of principles and values, the triumph of the call to Islam. True conquest is the conquest of the hearts of people, and the regard for seeing the Treaty of Hudaybiyah as a victory.
I will speak further about embracing the people and bringing them together and winning them over and placating them and so forth, for this, my brother, is a great way towards victory and triumph that is not lesser than military operations, but rather in truth is the foundation while military operations must be a servant that is complementary to it. Therefore, when you embrace the people and enjoin them through your morals, kind words, your conduct and upbringing, you will have gained a greater means of victory over your enemy, with God’s permission. If the people love you and are grand in their love of you and affection, and God brings their hearts to you, then that is more successful and helpful to your word, and more safeguarding of you against all harm that your enemy is planning.
Atiyah advises Zarqawi not to alienate the population, to show respect to religious scholars "no matter what", and to "educate our jihadi cohort in good conduct, by providing them with a good model in manners, respect, modesty, the giving of advice, accepting advice, admitting mistakes, respecting others, proficiency in dialogue, politeness with those who disagree, mercy, justice, kindness, et cetera".

This, for all the talk of the new and different nature of al-Qaeda, is essentially standard asymetric warfare doctrine. The strategies described here are pretty much identical to those adopted by Latin American revolutionaries and Vietcong cadres. This demonstrates the vacuous nature of the hyperbolic rhetoric which claims that "this new terrorism" kills without restraint. Senior al-Qaeda figures understand that to kill without restraint would be enormously counter-productive; this letter was an attempt to rein in Zarqawi for exactly that reason.

I believe this is also the reason why al-Qaeda did not attempt another attack on the scale of September 11th for many years afterwards. After that attack, there was an unprecedented degree of sympathy among Muslims for the American people and bin Laden's strategy could easily have backfired. That Bush's "war" on terror has destroyed so much of this sympathy is the greatest failure of his Presidency. It is only now, after five years of the "war" on terror and with anti-American sentiment running so high in much of the Muslim world as a result, that another strike on such a scale would be considered.

Perhaps most importantly though, Ayitah expresses his opinion on the best interests of the global jihad in relation to Iraq.
The most important thing is that you continue in your jihad in Iraq, and that you be patient and forbearing, even in weakness, and even with fewer operations; even if each day had half of the number of current daily operations, that is not a problem, or even less than that. So, do not be hasty. The most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day. Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest, with God’s permission.
I'll repeat that; prolonging the war is in our interest.

If you're familiar with Zawahiri's letter to Zarqawi from July 2005, this might seem to be in contradiction to Zawahiri's position. He stated that the first goal should be to "expel the Americans from Iraq" and that "the Americans will exit soon, God willing".

To understand why it isn't a contradiction, Zawahiri's remarks need to be taken in context. This is a letter to a young, arrogant, egotistical firebrand from a wily old strategist who's trying to get him to see with big picture without pissing him off. Note the respectful tone; Zawahiri mentions that he is expressing his own "limited opinion" any number of times. This is a letter intended to persuade, not an order issued to a subordinate who's fully in on the loop.

Zawahiri explains the reason why Zarqawi's group was having success in Iraq. Again, this relates to popular support:
The Muslim masses-for many reasons, and this is not the place to discuss it-do not rally except against an outside occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is firstly Jewish, and secondly American. This, in my limited opinion, is the reason for the popular support that the mujahedeen enjoy in Iraq, by the grace of God. [...] In my opinion-which is limited and which is what I see far from the scene-the awakening of the Sunni people in Iraq against the Shia would not have had such strength and toughness were it not for the treason of the Shia and their collusion with the Americans, and their agreement with them to permit the Americans to occupy Iraq in exchange for the Shia assuming power.
This is Zawahiri confirming that he believes the occupation of Iraq by US troops has been an enormously effective recruiting agent for al-Qaeda and the jihad generally. He goes on to stress again the importance of avoiding taking action which would damage popular support and from there goes into discussing the implications of US withdrawal from Iraq.
The Americans will exit soon, God willing, and the establishment of a governing authority-as soon as the country is freed from the Americans-does not depend on force alone. Indeed, it's imperative that, in addition to force, there be an appeasement of Muslims and a sharing with them in governance and in the Shura council and in promulgating what is allowed and what is not allowed. In my view-which I continue to reiterate is limited and has a distant perspective upon the events-this must be achieved through the people of the Shura and who possess authority to determine issues and make them binding, and who are endowed with the qualifications for working in Sharia law. They would be elected by the people of the country to represent them and overlook the work of the authorities in accordance with the rules of the glorious Sharia.

And it doesn't appear that the Mujahedeen, much less the al-Qaida in the Land of Two Rivers, will lay claim to governance without the Iraqi people. Not to mention that that would be in contravention of the Shura methodology. That is not practical in my opinion.
This is the key to understanding the message he wants to send to Zarqawi.
This is the most vital part. This authority, or the Sharia amirate that is necessary [to allow al-Qaeda to claim governance of the Iraq people], requires fieldwork starting now, alongside the combat and war. It would be a political endeavor in which the mujahedeen would be a nucleus around which would gather the tribes and their elders, and the people in positions, and scientists, and merchants, and people of opinion, and all the distinguished ones who were not sullied by appeasing the occupation and those who defended Islam.
You and your brothers must strive to have around you circles of support, assistance, and cooperation, and through them, to advance until you become a consensus, entity, organization, or association that represents all the honorable people and the loyal folks in Iraq.
Essentially, Zawahiri is worried about what will happen when the US withdraws because he knows that without foreigh occupation, support for al-Qaeda in Iraq will quickly drain away. He urges Zarqawi to build up political support before the opportunity disappears. His implicit warning, although he dare not say it outright to the hotheaded Zarqawi, who is (now was of course) fighting so hard to defeat the occupation, is that it wouldn't actually be good if the US troops left too early. Zawahiri only wants the US out once the occupation has generated a critical mass of support which will allow al-Qaeda the opportunity to take control of the country. Without the foreign occupation, he knows it is an impossible task.

Zawahiri is almost certainly also considering the global implications of the US occupation and the anger it is generating among Muslims around the world. He's in no hurry to have the US withdraw.

It seems likely that Zarqawi must have come to understands this on some level by the time the second letter arrived as its author felt able to be more explicit.
Prolonging the war is in our interest.
That is the key truth which Bush and Blair still don't show any sign of grasping.

A marginally entertaining footnote to this is the reaction of Power Line (big US conservative semi-blog) to this letter. They highlight parts of the letter relating to operational difficulties al-Qaeda are experiencing as a result of the "war" on terror and suggest that this is an indication of success. Like the man said "we won every battle but we still lost the war.

That's not the entertaining part though. To their credit, they do quote the fact that a senior al-Qaeda figure believes that prolonging the war is in their interest. Their response?
That's right: there is an election in November.
Er, you what now?

It seems that they're suggesting that this private letter to Zarwaqi, only found because he was caught and killed, contains a sentence which was writen with the sole purpose of making Bush and the Republicans look bad in the run up to the mid-terms. I've thought about it and it is very difficult to think like a Bush supporter but I can't see any other possible meaning.

*scratches head in bemusement*


Scratching my head in bemusement must have triggered my "think like a Bush supporter" abilities because I've got it now; it's a cheap dig at the Democrats. Al-Qaeda want to prolong the war until the Republicans lose the election because we all know terrorists support the "cut and run" Democrats.

*shakes head despondently*

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. said...

Great, well-thought out post. The other reason I'd suggest why there hasn't been an attack on the scale of 9/11 is simply because there is no way they could repeat such an outrage from inside the United States, or here for the matter. They more or less, luckily, got everything right on 9/11. They haven't since, they don't have the resources to, and the level of threat has been vastly exaggerated by our politicians.

The real threat is the autonomous cells such as the 7/7 bombers who come up with their own ideas independently and with little association with extremist groups. The war on terror has not only failed comprehensively to stop such new movements, but has exacerabated them.

sam_m said...

The problem I have with letters like these is the leap of faith necessary to believe they were written by the people they purport to be (if these people exist).