An Intelligent Reading of the National Intelligence Estimate

TCS Daily

September 29, 2006

Reports in the Sunday editions of the New York Times and Washington Post that an April National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the Iraq War has increased the danger to the United States from terrorists created a media feeding frenzy. Critics of the war said “I told you so” while supporters questioned the motives of the leakers and the reporters alike.

Under pressure, the White House declassified and released the “Key Judgments” portion of the NIE Tuesday night. Not surprisingly, the real picture was substantially more complicated and, frankly, not all that different from what informed readers already knew.

The opening paragraph encapsulates the story:

“United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa’ida and disrupted its operations; however, we judge that al-Qa’ida will continue to pose the greatest threat to the Homeland and US interests abroad by a single terrorist organization. We also assess that the global jihadist movement—which includes al- Qa’ida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells—is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts.”

So, over the last five years, we have simultaneously decimated the most potent terrorist threat to the United States and seen the spread of the overall movement of which it is a subcomponent.

Is the latter mostly because of the war in Iraq? No. But the war has apparently helped mobilize jihadists. That’s not surprising. I wrote in July 2004 that, “The U.S. and its allies have killed or captured dozens of key terrorist leaders and hundreds of jihadist footsoldiers. It is unclear, of course, how many the invasion created.” If the released portions of the April NIE are any indication, we still do not have any clear idea of the latter number.

Several key findings, though, seem to belie the idea that the war has been all bad from a counter-terrorism perspective:

“Greater pluralism and more responsive political systems in Muslim majority nations would alleviate some of the grievances jihadists exploit. Over time, such progress, together with sustained, multifaceted programs targeting the vulnerabilities of the jihadist movement and continued pressure on al-Qa’ida, could erode support for the jihadists.”

You may recall that the primary terrorism-related rationale for the Iraq War was that creating a model Arab democracy was the path to changing the culture that makes the recruitment of suicide bombers possible. Whether the ambitious mission to create a stable democracy out of a society with no experience with popular sovereignty, a tiny middle class, sectarian divisions, and other major obstacles can succeed remains to be seen; I’ve always been a skeptic. Still, the idea that democracies don’t fight other democracies is widely touted as “the closest thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations.”

The most damning finding is followed—in the same sentence, no less—with a rather significant caveat:

“We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.”

That the war is shaping the jihadi movement is virtually axiomatic. Vietnam shaped a generation of American military leaders (see James Kitfield’s Prodigal Soldiers, for example) and Iraq is doing so with the present generation. The reason is obvious: Contrary to the views of many war opponents, Iraq is the central battleground in the Long War (granted, a condition created by the war).

“The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.”

The fact that the war is breeding resentment but losing it would inspire more jihadists creates a rather substantial public policy dilemma. If the Iraq War has increased the number of terrorists, does it follow that leaving Iraq in its current state would decrease the number of terrorists? Not according to the NIE.

It is noteworthy, too, that Iraq is just one factor fueling the jihadists.

“Four underlying factors are fueling the spread of the jihadist movement: (1) Entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness; (2) the Iraq “jihad;” (3) the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations; and (4) pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims—all of which jihadists exploit.”

Three of the four would exist had we never launched the Iraq War. This should not be a great surprise since, after all, the jihad arguably began with the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis and certainly was underway with the first al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

The NIE goes on to note that the jihadists’ dream of “an ultra-conservative interpretation of shari’a-based governance spanning the Muslim world” is “unpopular with the vast majority of Muslims” and that there are powerful signals of a backlash among the moderate Muslim leaders. It is the latter who are “the most powerful weapon in the war on terror.”

“If democratic reform efforts in Muslim majority nations progress over the next five years, political participation probably would drive a wedge between intransigent extremists and groups willing to use the political process to achieve their local objectives. Nonetheless, attendant reforms and potentially destabilizing transitions will create new opportunities for jihadists to exploit.”

This is the balancing act currently underway in Iraq. Political participation there is at extremely high levels, more so than we could have reasonably hoped. There are also plenty of signs that the extremists are unpopular. Yet the forces of instability clearly seem to have the upper hand at the moment, at least from the perspective of those watching events on television.

“The loss of key leaders, particularly Usama Bin Ladin, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Zarqawi, in rapid succession, probably would cause the group to fracture into smaller groups. Although like-minded individuals would endeavor to carry on the mission, the loss of these key leaders would exacerbate strains and disagreements. We assess that the resulting splinter groups would, at least for a time, pose a less serious threat to US interests than does al-Qa’ida.


“Should al-Zarqawi continue to evade capture and scale back attacks against Muslims, we assess he could broaden his popular appeal and present a global threat.”

For those who missed the news, Zarqawi was killed three months ago in a US air strike. To the extent the NIE is correct, then, the group is seriously weakened and fractionalized.

The bottom line here is very much a mixed bag for both supporters and opponents of the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror. Al Qaeda itself is far weaker than it was on 9/11/01. So far, at least, it appears that the overall jihadi cause is stronger.

The invasion of Iraq simultaneously created a killing zone so that jihadists could be dealt with in a centralized location away from the United States (the so-called “Flypaper Strategy”) and became a rallying cry that generated more terrorists. We’ve killed or captured hundreds upon hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists, including scores of their senior leaders around the world, yet they have thus far, unfortunately, responded in hydra-like fashion.

Michael Scheuer argued in Imperial Hubris that fomenting an American-led invasion of an Arab Muslim country was beyond Osama bin Laden’s wildest dreams when he launched the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda was hoping for a second rallying event like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to gin up enthusiasm for the cause and turn latent anti-Western hostility into more troops for the cause. Others made similar arguments and few doubted that as a likely effect. Still, as I argued here in January, al Qaeda is 0-for-6 in achieving its strategic objectives.

While Osama and company managed to attract large numbers of troops to fight the atheist Soviets in Afghanistan, they gained far more out of the fact that the Soviets left Afghanistan in defeat. Similarly, it’s quite likely that an American withdrawal from Iraq without accomplishing the barest part of our mission – a reasonably stable, democratic society – would embolden the jihadists. Afghanistan. Lebanon. Somalia. Each of those displays of weakness convinced the jihadists that the infidel was weak and could be defeated. Forcing the Americans to leave Iraq would be a far, far bigger prize.

Original article