Monday, June 12, 2006

Thoughts on Zarqawi's Demise (Part II)

Yesterday, in Part I of this post, I argued why history suggests that the Administration is correct to be cautious about the impact of Zarqawi's killing on the level of violence in Iraq. Although it is important to avoid triumphalism and unrealistic expectations in the wake of Zarqawi's death, it is equally important not to go too far in the opposite direction and trivialize his importance to the insurgency.

There are currently three sources of insurgent violence in Iraq:
-- Foreign jihadists under the Zarqawi network's direction who seek to impose Islamofacism on the Iraqi people and establish a base for global attacks;
-- Former Ba'athists who seek to reimpose their secular fascism on the Iraqi people (and for anybody who doubts that the Ba'ath were a Fascist party, read Kanan Makiya's Republic of Fear to dispel all doubts); and
-- Sunni Arabs who feel excluded from the Iraqi political process due to the loss of privilege they enjoyed since the British imposed a Sunni monarch on a majority Shi'a country in the 1920s.
Additionally, in the past few months, the majority of Iraqi civilian deaths have been caused by radical Shi'a militias.

With the exception of the "Saddamists," Zarqawi's death has the potential to significantly reduce three of the four sources of violence in Iraq.

First, Zarqawi's death clearly weakens Al Qaeda in Iraq. Through his propaganda campaign (unquestioningly conveyed by the Arab and Western media), Zarqawi attained a rock star status amongst jihadists that gave him a unique ability to recruit extremists and raise money for operations. Whoever takes over Al Qaeda in Iraq will not have the same charisma as Zarqawi, and will take at least a year or two to attain his stature. The problem for this successor, however, is that in order to attain such visibility, he has to expose himself to the U.S. military. If nothing else, the attack that killed Zarqawi shows that Coalition intelligence has gotten inside the decision loop of the terrorist hierarchy. Whoever succeeds Zarqawi will likely have to spend as much time on the run as planning terrorist attacks, and if the key intelligence did come from within the Zarqawi network, may have to conduct a purge in order to feel that he can trust his subordinates.

As every Administration and military official has noted, this does not mean an end to suicide bombings in Iraq. However, Al Qaeda's operational effectiveness is likely to be degraded in the mid- to long-term because of Zarqawi's death.

Second, any weakening of Al Qaeda in Iraq stemming from Zarqawi's death will signicantly alter the dynamics within the insurgency. As with most guerrilla wars, Iraq's insurgency will likely end with a political settlement rather than a decisive military victory. Now that they've seen there is a place for Sunnis in the new Iraq (Tariq al-Hashemi, a former insurgent sympathizer, is a Vice President, and Mahmoud al-Mashaddani is Speaker of the Council of Representatives), many Sunni Arab insurgents have already indicated that they are tired of the fight and want to join the political process . Until now, fear of retribution from Zarqawi's network has intimidated these insurgents and prevented any negotiation of a surrender/cease-fire with the Iraqi government. Zarqawi's death, however, makes it more likely that a political compromise will be reached with those Sunni Arabs who are fighting for what they perceive to be nationalist reasons.

Third, and finally, Zarqawi exceeded even Al Qaeda's ideology by proclaiming all Shi'a to be tafkiri (infidels), and therefore subject to mass slaughter. He attempted to recruit Sunni Arabs to his cause by provoking a full-scale sectarian civil war in Iraq through attacks such as the al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra in February. (Most Sunni insurgents are abhorred by these attacks on their fellow Iraqis, and have sought to separate themselves from Zarqawi's ideology and actions). To some degree, he was successful, as that attack unleashed a wave of sectarian violence in Baghdad by Shi'a militias seeking to push Sunnis out of mixed neighborhoods. With Zarqawi gone, however, there is reason to hope that attacks targeting Shi'a civilians will decline as well. This could create a window of opportunity for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to enact a program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate the militias into Iraqi society -- a plan that has Grand Ayatollah Sistani's tacit support, incidentally.

Again, much of what I've described above is conditional. Zarqawi's death does not ensure that Al Qaeda in Iraq will be permanently incapacitated, that Sunni insurgents will reach a negotiated solution with the Iraqi government, or that Prime Minister Maliki will be able to rein in the Shi'a militia. But Zarqawi's death was a necessary precondition for these things to happen. Killing Zarqawi provides a critical window of opportunity for Iraq's leaders to step up and lead, which is always what the rebuilding of Iraq was geared toward and, ultimately, dependent upon for success.

Although it will not immediately end the violence in Iraq, this is why Zarqawi's demise should be a cause for optimism.