Zarqawi’s Legacy Part I of II

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was an able devil: a man whose gifts as a guerilla commander extended well beyond his willingness to kill.  Revolutionary movements invariably attract a broad spectrum of discontents.  It was Zarqawi’s “virtue” that he allowed no incidental form of opposition to Saddam, or to the Americans, to dilute his absolute commitment to Islamo-fascism.  This purity yielded three tactical insights.

First, Zarqawi understood earlier than most of his “insurgent” compatriots that democracy, however tempting, could not be used against the occupying force, however unpopular.  Democracy fundamentally alters the relationship of the people to those who govern them, in favor of the former.  The elected politician gets what he wants – power – only by providing, or at least promising, what a majority of his constituents want.  No totalitarian ideology can survive in such a climate.

Zarqawi’s first campaign was therefore voter intimidation. He killed poll workers, and bombed polling sites.

The effort failed.  In successive elections, Iraqi turnout increased from 58% to 77%.  By December of 2005, even Sunnis, the group most disadvantaged by Saddam’s overthrow, were participating extensively.

Second, Zarqawi understood earlier than most that any Iraqi Defense Force established under the elected government would undermine the nationalistic component of the insurgency.  Anti-occupation sentiment would dissipate confronted with a native Iraq army and police.  He therefore targeted recruitment centers for Iraqi police and army, killing young men by the hundreds.


Again, Zarqawi was on target.  And again, he failed.  By March of 2005, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) surpassed the coalition in numbers, if not in competence.  And now, the Coalition was holding territory as well as taking it.  Our troops were no longer required to man all check points, and to garrison all towns – policing which it was qualified to do neither by numbers nor by culture.  The American generals’ concept of “clear, occupy, and hold” became feasible on a large scale with the assistance of an Iraqi force loyal to (or at least, paid by) the new order.  And as the ISF increased in numbers (now around 270,000) and competence, the noose tightened around the terrorists.

Zarqawi’s third tactical insight was that acts of random violence against unarmed Iraqi civilians could feed his insurgency, even if they could not win it, buying him valuable time against an enemy (America) whose will was in doubt.

This phase of the war, so successful for Zarqawi in the West, so disastrous in Iraq, bears closer scrutiny.  Zarqawi announced it in September of 2005, when he called upon loyal Iraqi Sunni Arabs (roughly 20% of the Iraqi population) to declare jihad against Iraq’s Shi’ite “heretics” (roughly 60% of the Iraqi population).  But the strategy wasn’t systematically implemented until the bombing of the Golden Shrine in Samara, February 22, 2006.  A flurry of ethnic violence and counterviolence followed, primarily around Baghdad.  It has claimed roughly 1,000 Iraqi lives per month.

Zarqawi’s tactic could neither kill, nor defeat, Iraq’s Shi’ites – something his ragtag band of fanatics was patently unequipped to do.  Rather, these acts of random violence against the Shi’a, now armed and in control of the government, were designed to excite acts of ham-fisted counterviolence against Iraqi Sunnis.  This in turn would radicalize the besieged elements of the Sunni community. A full scale civil war would be unwinnable, but it would doubtless feed the manpower of the insurgency.

In effect, Zarqawi decided to narrow his base in order to increase his manpower.  And if formal elements of the government – Shi’ite police units acting out of the Department of Interior – could be goaded into attacking Sunnis, all the better!

Now, Terrorism 101 teaches that an insurgent force, confronted by an undefeatable occupying power, should goad it into violence and/or repressive measures against the indigenous population, thus increasing the rebellion’s demographic pool for support and recruitment. Zarqawi’s variant, which attacked the majority component of the indigenous “occupied” population in order to radicalize a minority within it, struck us at DD as an innovation. 

But a re-reading of Flavius Josephus convinced us that the Zealots adopted a similar posture toward the majority Jewish population of Jerusalem during the siege of that city by the Roman general Titus in 69 A.D.  


(There’s a neat irony here.  Zarqawi, who believed that the Jews dominate Middle Eastern events, illustrated his own principle.)

Zarqawi’s third tactical plan – internecine violence directed against civilians – had two international objectives as well.  First, he could depend on the Sunni Arab press of the Middle East, particularly the Qatar-based TV station al Jazeera, to inflame Sunni sentiment against the Iraqi government throughout the Middle East.

This would improve Al Qaeda’s capacity to recruit suicide bombers and other foreign fighters.

Second, and more important, the concentration of insurgent attacks against civilians in the Baghdad area would have a dramatic impact on the will of the West to continue the war.

And BINGO !! Zarqawi got it right.  True, shooting schoolchildren, shredding women in markets, and blasting men at prayer didn’t buy the insurgents the love of their fellow citizens.  True, the tactic didn’t win them an inch of territory.  But it got the insurgency EXACTLY what they wanted in the America:  a vision in which the insurgents were winning, and the Iraqi Democrats and Coalition troops were losing.

And they got it on the cheap.  After the invasion, U.S. news organizations reduced the reporters embedded with U.S. troops by 90%.  The bulk of what was left was located in Baghdad, cloistered in troop-protected hotels.  The daily killing of civilians became, by default, the only story American newsmen reported, and that the American public heard.

No attention was paid to the fact that the insurgency was dead in 14 out of 18 provinces. No attention was paid to the fact that Iraqi citizens were ratting out “insurgents” in record numbers, and that arms caches were being confiscated, terror cells broken, and new territories pacified.

It a word, the FACT that Coalition forces and Iraqi democrats were WINNING was not reported. 

But Zarqawi’s third tactic was tanking, and he knew it.  It was a strategy to buy time, not to win a war.  Given enough time, it might have worked — in America, if not in Iraq. 
But when Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki formed his unity government – including consensus choices for the critical security posts – time ran out for Zarqawi.  His “Civil War” was not to be.  The stage was set both for his own death, and for the massive anti-insurgent operations in Baghdad and Ramadi now underway.

Ever the fertile tactician, Zarqawi was busy working on a fourth plan when death overtook him.  We will describe it tomorrow.

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