Iraq and the War on Terror: Are We Winning?

On the heels of the release of the Pentagon’s definitive study demonstrating that there was no pre-Iraq War link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, comes this WPR feature from Bernard Finel arguing that recent progress in Iraq should not be confused with progress against the global terrorist threat:

We are slowly digging ourselves out of the hole of the Iraq war. Al-Qaida has increasingly been marginalized in Iraq, and the success of American counterinsurgency efforts has diminished the perception that we can be defeated quickly or easily. And yet, Iraq remains a net negative in the overall struggle. . . Al-Qaida is on the run in Iraq, but continues to use the war as a potent and effective recruiting tool throughout the Muslim world.

Worse, six and half years after Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida is stronger than ever. It has a safe haven in Pakistan. It has replaced revenue lost through better financial monitoring with increased ties to the drug trade. It has tightened its institutional links to jihadist organizations around the world, making deep inroads in Southeast Asia and North Africa, as well as maintaining its core of support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Finel is the author of the American Security Project’s report Are We Winning?, which last September measured progress in the fight against extremist violence based on a variety of metrics. The ASP just issued a six-month update to the report today, and the results are discouraging.

To be sure, the threat of Iraq becoming a vector for the spread of radicalized and trained al-Qaida operatives can’t be dismissed. Matthew Levitt, for instance, points to the similarities between a recently de-classified State Dept. assessment from 1993 of the threat posed by radicalized Afghan mujahidin and today’s Iraq to make that case. And that’s probably the most compelling argument as far as American public opinion goes against a precipitous withdrawal from (or a continued presence in) Iraq. (Strategically, the collapse of Iraq is probably more of a threat to our regional interests.)

Still, I can’t help but wonder whether, with al-Qaida Iraq’s recent reversals of fortune, the most seasoned and hardcore operatives haven’t already left the burning ship to sink and begun to fan out into the other theaters of operation that have already been identified. (Western Europe and the Maghreb, for instance.) In many ways, the idea that AQI ever harbored a serious ambition to somehow conquer and govern Iraq is farfetched. More than a territory to be conquered, Iraq represented a convenient host for the extremist virus to nourish itself and spread. In that sense, it has long since served its purpose, which means that AQI can now shed the “I” with little impact on its broader strategic goals.

Which in turn means that our “victory” over the AQI threat might end up being a pyrrhic one. Metrics such as body counts are tricky when it comes to an enemy that uses suicide as a tactic. And going by the ones the ASP has come up with, the broader war is far from over.