Kenneth Pollack: If Iraq slips back into civil war…it will be far more dangerous than in Afghanistan
Posted By: Trudy Rubin
The following are excerpts from a series of interviews with some of the country’s top terrorism experts conducted by Trudy Rubin, the Worldview columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer in conjunction with the July 2008 volume of The Annals on “Terrorism: What the Next President Will Face.” This interview is with Kenneth Pollack, of the Brookings Institution, an expert on national security and on the Persian Gulf. He served as Director of Gulf Affairs on the National Security Council under President Clinton and his latest book is A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.
Trudy Rubin: Ken, I would like to start by talking a little about the impact of the Iraq war on al Qaeda in the past five years. In early 2003, you wrote in The Annals that al Qaeda was on the ropes. So what was the impact of the invasion of Iraq on al Qaeda’s strength
Kenneth Pollack: I think that in the early days of the reconstruction of Iraq, the problems, almost all of which were self-inflicted wounds by the United States of America, were an enormous shot in the arm for al Qaeda. Here was the United States manifesting every one of the traits that al Qaeda had been warning the people of the Muslim world about. An aggressive United States imposing itself on an Arab country, making war on an Arab government, no matter how illegitimate, attempting to impose its rule, what it called an occupation, in the heart of the Arab world. There are not too many things that the United States could have done that would have been more helpful to al Qaeda, especially given how incompetently the United States handled the reconstruction of Iraq, creating an absolute mess and enormous security vacuum that created the perfect playing field for an organization like al Qaeda to move in, set up shop, begin to have a new impact on the Middle East and on Iraq in particular, begin to demonstrate to the rest of the Arab world that it remained relevant to the goals and aspirations of the people of the Arab world, generate new recruits and once again demonstrate that it could be a major player in the Middle East.
KP: No, it was not. I believe that the first sentence in my book on Iraq prior to the invasion was that there was no link between 9/11 and al Qaeda. The simple fact of the matter is that, as I wrote in that book, on the long list of Sadaam Hussein’s crimes against humanity his support for terrorism was actually very far down the list; it was rather minor. There were some links between Iraq and various terrorist groups and there were some contacts between the government of Sadaam Hussein and al Qaeda, but they were minor, they were insignificant; in truth they were meaningless. If what you were trying to do was eradicate the Salafi terrorist threat symbolized by al Qaeda, Iraq was not the place to wage that war in 2002 or 2003.
TR: And it diverted men and material from the central front?
KP: That is right. It is one of the reasons why, although as I think many people are aware, I did believe that a war with Sadaam Hussein would be necessary, it is why I believe that doing it in 2003 was mistaken. Because the war against al Qaeda was clearly the most important issue and that had nothing to do with Iraq. And by shifting our focus, our troops, our intelligence and special forces assets, by diverting all of our diplomatic capital from trying to finally smother, to suffocate, the last elements of al Qaeda that were still in Afghanistan and some fleeing to Pakistan, and by shifting all of that to Iraq we allowed that critical seed, the al Qaeda leadership, to escape and allowed them to reconstitute themselves in Pakistan, and then, as I said, handed them an enormous boon, not just by invading Iraq but more importantly by so badly fouling up the reconstruction that it gave them an opportunity to rebuild their networks, rebuild their propaganda, rebuild their support in the Arab world and do it in the heart of the Arab world.
TR: So after we invaded, did Iraq become a new front in the war on terrorism? And at its peak was it ever like a new Afghanistan of the 1980s?
KP: Unfortunately it became an important front in the war on terrorism. Again, not because it was before we went in, but because of the mistakes that we made once we did go in; by opening Iraq up, by creating chaos there, by creating a playing field for al Qaeda and, in addition, by creating the circumstances for sectarian and ethnic conflict in Iraq, which created in the Sunni Arab tribal community in Iraq a desperate desire for armed allies of any kind to help them wage the war that they believe they had to win against the Shia and the Kurds of Iraq. And it caused them to turn to al Qaeda as natural allies. Once that happened and al Qaeda became an important element in the Sunni resistance against what they saw as a Shia and Kurdish bid for hegemony inside of Iraq, backed by the United States, then all of a sudden al Qaeda was able to reestablish itself. And while I would not ever say that Iraq got to the point of being a new Afghanistan, it was certainly getting close to that point. You saw in 2005 and 2006 not just an extremely extensive al Qaeda presence inside Iraq itself, but enough of a presence that they were just beginning to send jihadists from Iraq out to other countries, with Jordan being the most important example of that.
TR: Talk about the foreigners who came to Iraq. Do you have now a new cadre of trained Muslims from Arab and other countries who learn certain skills in Iraq that they did not have before? What did they come out with?
KP: That is exactly right, Trudy, and I know that you have written on this topic as well so I could just as easily be interviewing you on it. But that of course is one of the many problems that was created in Iraq when the United States invaded and then so badly messed up the reconstruction, was that it did create an insurgency and a civil war, a major element of recruiting for al Qaeda. They were able to say, “Go to Iraq to fight both the infidels and the apostates,” the Americans and the Shia, and that war served as the Afghan war, first against the Soviets and then the Afghan civil war did, as a terrific training ground for new al Qaeda recruits. People were motivated to go to Iraq to fight the infidel and the apostate and once there they would not only be indoctrinated into al Qaeda’s etiology, but trained in its methodology. And they were then available to be redeployed elsewhere in the Muslim world for other missions. And of course in that 2005-2006 period you saw al Qaeda on the cusp, beginning to export its terrorist revolution beyond Iraq as it had been doing in Afghanistan before the 2001 invasion.
TR: In your article in The Annals you wrote about some of the specific skills that these foreign recruits learned in Iraq, like how to make IEDs.
KP: Right. You know, the world had never seen IEDs before the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq. That is not to say that there were not improvised explosive devices; there always were. But the factories that were established in Iraq, the skills that were brought to bear, the innovation, the learning, by constantly coming into contact with coalition forces, by seeing coalition countermeasures, and then by developing counters to those countermeasures, the explosive skills, the IED-making skills, the ambush skills of al Qaeda as an institution grew exponentially as a result of Iraq. And as a result you are now seeing those skills taken by al Qaeda operatives and applied elsewhere. It is interesting that before the invasion and occupation of Iraq there were not IED problems in Afghanistan. There are today.
TR: And something else that seems to have happened in Iraq, the ideology, the thinking of al Qaeda, was far more harsh than the Sunni insurgents with whom it became linked inside Iraq. Do you think that some of that harsh, Salafi ideology has rubbed off on native Iraqis and perhaps taken roots inside the country in ways that we will see in the future?
KP: I do not think that we know that, but I think that we do have to worry about it. It is the nature of civil wars; typically communities go into civil wars with more reasonable goals than the goals that develop over the course of time. It is the nature of fighting. Once you start fighting, once blood has been spilled, tensions, anger, emotions rise and war aims escalate. That is true for nations, it is true for any kind of community. In addition, of course, once the civil war in Iraq really got underway in 2005 and 2006 and the Sunni tribal community increasingly lashed itself to al Qaeda as a necessary ally in its war against the Shia, against the Kurds, and against the United States, which it saw standing behind both of those communities, increasingly people began to identify with al Qaeda. Young men went to al Qaeda training camps, they learned not only the skills that al Qaeda brings with them, but also their philosophy, their way of thinking about the world. And while I think that it is clear and this is part of kind of the narrative arc of al Qaeda in Iraq, that the Sunni community has largely rejected al Qaeda and largely rejected that philosophy, I do not think that we should assume that every individual has rejected it, nor do I think that we should assume that entire community itself has not at least inculcated some of its values. They may not be quite as radical as what you would hear from Ayman al-Zawahiri or bin Laden himself, but I do think that there probably has been a change in the perceptions of the community as a whole, and that could prove problematic over time, especially if the current progress in Iraq does not last.
TR: In the past year, as you just referred to, the tide has turned on al Qaeda in Iraq. Can you describe briefly what happened, tell us about al Qaeda in Iraq’s overreach and how did this actually quite stunning break with Sunni insurgents come about and whether you think al Qaeda in Iraq is finished.
KP: As you know well, it is an extremely complicated story and a hard one to reduce to just a few elements, and unfortunately it has been caricatured very badly in most of the work that has been done. It is hard to know where to start, but I will start with the Sunni community itself where I think it is clear that over the course of 2006 the community, and in particular its leadership, began to develop a real distaste for al Qaeda and for a whole variety of different reasons. In some cases, al Qaeda simply began to lord it over the traditional leadership, and something that I heard frequently from Sunni sheikhs in al-Anbar province was their point that what al Qaeda in Iraq had been doing was recruiting the dispossessed of their community, the poorest elements, those with the worst backgrounds, with the worst pedigrees. As one sheikh put it to me, “These are boys who were not fit to shine my son’s shoes, and now they are coming back as our lords.” That chafed against the traditional leadership. They began to impose ridiculously harsh new social conditions on the populations, forbidding people from smoking, stoning adulterers, cutting people’s hands off for smoking or stealing, imposing their own bizarre extreme version of sharia law on an Iraqi community which, truth to tell, had developed a much more worldly, sophisticated, even laissez-faire attitude over the course of time and was not interested or used to this kind of a set of social codes, and began to chafe against it and rebel against it. In addition, you had changes inside of Iraq, changes within the political structure, and a new tone from the United States. At the political level this started even before the military surge with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who attempted to reach out to the Sunni tribes in a way that previous American political masters had not in the past. Zalmay Khalilzad made a very concerted effort to bring the tribal leadership on board, to convince them that the United States was going to try to give them an equal share in governance in Iraq and was going to protect their political prerogatives and make sure they got their fair share of Iraq’s oil wealth, that was an important message. Later, of course, you had the adoption of the surge strategy and General Petraeus’ emergence in Iraq. Even before that, though, the Marines, who were the ones responsible for al-Anbar province, they had already begun to implement a strategy of counterinsurgency warfare that focused on population protection, that was not antagonistic to the Sunni community but sought to actually assist them and protect them. And as a result when the Sunni tribal sheikhs began to get fed up with al Qaeda, they were able in their own minds to see a way out of their problems that included support from the Americans. They knew that they would have to turn on al Qaeda, that that would be a nasty fight, and because of what they had been seeing from the Americans, both at the political and the military level, they felt confident of what they would get from the Americans and that the support that they would get from the Americans would be exactly what they needed. And so it was this synergy between the unhappiness with what these new elements, these al Qaeda elements, had brought into their society, which they did not care for, and the sense that the Americans were finally providing them with a realistic way out of their problems that combined to cause the Sunni sheikhs to begin to turn against al Qaeda in what has now been called the Sahawah, the Anbar Awakening.
TR: Can we say then that al Qaeda in Iraq is finished or defeated? Can we say that it no longer presents the threat it once seemed to, that it could actually take over areas of Iraqi territory and from those bases send people out to threaten other regimes in the region?
KP: It is a tough question, as you know, and it is probably the $64,000 question out there. I would never suggest that al Qaeda is defeated in Iraq. Al Qaeda is still there, they can still be a lethal nuisance. They can still kill people, they can still cause major disruptions, even at their current level. That said, they have suffered some very major defeats all across Iraq and they are simply not the force that they once were. They no longer constitute a viable insurgency that is capable of swaying major political decisions in the country, let alone toppling the government, not at this moment. They can still kill people, they are still out there as a force, but they have been greatly reduced in what they are able to do. The problem is, of course, that Iraq itself is still a work in progress and there are enormous problems still in Iraq. And while on the one hand I hail the progress that has been made, I think that it is tremendous, I think that it is extremely important, I also always try to caution people against the overconfidence which now seems to be creeping in. The way I like to describe it is that Iraq is an extremely complex situation; in 2003 we created a set of first-order problems and insurgency, a civil war, a failed state that were sucking Iraq into all-out chaos. The surge pretty effectively has dealt with those three first-order problems. What we are now seeing crop up are a series of second- and third- and fourth-order problems. Now, they are not as deadly as the first-order problems, but they are not benign either. And in particular, second-order problems, the immaturity of the Iraqi political system, the fact that you now do have a very powerful military in a system with very weak institutions, the kind of situation that has led to coups elsewhere in the Middle East. The fact that you now have these issues with the Sons of Iraq, Sunni members, former insurgents who are very angry about their treatment at the hands of the government, the return of four million refugees to their homes, there is problem after problem after problem. These could, over time, if left untreated, recombine to recreate very severe problems inside Iraq. And the fact is, of course, that al Qaeda has been greatly reduced but it is not dead. It is down but it is not out. And if those conditions begin to reemerge, because these second and third-order problems are allowed to fester and grow back into first-order problems, al Qaeda could reemerge very quickly.
TR: Let me touch on one of those problems that you mentioned, the second-order problems. A key, as you said, to getting rid of al Qaeda was that Sunni leadership, especially tribal leadership, decided to turn against them with the help of the Americans because they had overreached, and the vehicle for that was the Sons of Iraq, basically Sunni militias that the Americans are still paying. And as you know the whole idea was that these 100,000 young men who are on the U.S. payroll as Sons of Iraq in different parts of the country would eventually be transitioned over to the Iraqi government payroll and either go into the security forces or have some kind of work, which U.S. embassy officials have described as the Civilian Conservation Corps-type of jobs. Now Prime Minister Maliki is balking at this; only a small percentage has been absorbed. If these Sons of Iraq are not absorbed into some kind of government payroll or jobs are not created, could you see a situation where they as nascent militias could actually turn to fighting against the government? Or could you see a situation where the tribal leaders would ever turn back to supporting al Qaeda because they felt that the Sunni-led government was never going to give them a piece of the action?
KP: Yes, this is an extremely important issue, and it is one that I think that the U.S. government is finally focused on, but I do not think that they have yet come up with the right answer for. I think that it is clear that the Maliki government is uninterested in bringing the Sons of Iraq into the government, into the security services the way that the SOIs, the Sons of Iraq, had been promised. I think that that is potentially a very serious problem, for both of the reasons that you outlined. The first, and in some ways the more obvious but probably the much less important, is that you could just get individual Sons of Iraq or groups of Sons of Iraq basically saying to heck with this, if they are not going to give us jobs in the police or the army, we are going to go back to fighting. That is possible, but it strikes me as unlikely and we need to always understand that in the tribal society of Iraq these individuals are constrained in their behavior and very few will simply go off and act on their own, that there are always societal forces that act on them and shape them, and it would be unlikely that large numbers of them took that route. I think the second issue that you raised is actually the far more problematic one, which is what signal does it send to the tribal community as a whole and what course does it set them off on.
TR: The Sunni tribal community?
KP: Correct, the Sunni tribal community. I think that it is clear that the Sunni tribal community sees the Sons of Iraq issue as a bellwether for how they are going to be treated. What we were just talking about before, that one of the critical elements in the Sahawah, in the decision of the tribal leadership to turn on al Qaeda, was their sense that they were going to have a proper place in the new Iraq, that they were going to get a real role in governance, that they were going to get their fair share of oil revenues, that they would get control of their own provinces and have an opportunity to participate in an Iraqi government and that the United States was going to make sure that that happened. The problem is, and I think that the tribal community, in fact I have heard this from a number of different Iraqi friends, is looking at what is going on with the SOIs as the acid test of that, and if the government excludes the SOIs, reneges on their promise as they see it to the SOIs, to the Sons of Iraq, and if the United States is unable or unwilling to step in and guarantee the terms of that agreement, I think that it is going to send a very powerful and very negative signal to the entire Sunni tribal community that they are not going to be accepted back into the fold, they are not going to get that role in Iraq’s governance that they were promised, and that the United States is either unable or unwilling to guarantee and to live up to the terms of the agreement. Now, if you are the Sunni tribal community that leaves you in a very awkward situation. I think that they have mostly decided that the insurgency was not very rewarding for their community and so I do not think that they necessarily want to go back down that path. But if they are left no alternative, it is going to cause a great deal of confusion and consternation and we simply do not know where they are going to wind up. My guess is in the short term what you would see is a variety of other acts of civil disobedience and pushback by the Sunni community against the Shia, against the Kurds, as a way of saying, “Hey, if you guys do not live up to the promises that you made to us, well we can find ways to make life hard for you, as well.” And especially if this comes in a context where the United States is de-escalating, is pulling its troops out, where the U.S.’s leverage is waning. Increasingly over time that kind of tension, that kind of political fighting among the different factions could eventually escalate back to combat. Again, I think that the progress that we have made is such that I would not expect a return to large-scale warfare, the way that we saw in 2006, for some time, but I do not think that it is out of the question at all. And if that happens, I think the Sunni community will, just as they did in 2004, 2005, 2006, be looking for any allies that they can get. And I think that a lot of these sheikhs may basically decide, “You know what, we do not like al Qaeda and this time around we are going to have a different set of ground rules with al Qaeda but we need allies.” And so if it comes to renewed fighting among Iraq’s factions, I do think that you could see the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq even though the Sunni tribal community would likely try to circumscribe their ability to act and to lord it over their own community in ways that they did not in the past.
TR: A couple of questions about ways in which this might be avoided; let me just try to set the stage here. Do you think it is possible that if elections are finally held for provincial governments you could have a situation where Sunnis would be able to be empowered at a local level, and if the central government were wise enough and funneled money their way that that might overcome some of the angst at the unfriendly way that the Sons of Iraq have been treated?
KP: Yes, again I think this is another superb point, Trudy. The upcoming elections in Iraq, both the provincial and the national, are absolutely critical to Iraq’s political future. They are the first elections in Iraq that might actually produce progress in Iraq rather than make the situation worse, which was always the case in previous elections in Iraq since the invasion. There is no question that the Sunni community is absolutely determined to regain control of the political governance of its own provinces through the provincial elections, and they also expect that the central government will provide them with a fair share of Iraq’s resources so that they can live their lives and improve the lives of their people. That is one reason why they are very much looking forward to the provincial elections, it is why the provincial elections have to come off, and it is why the provincial elections are likely to produce some very important benefits, almost regardless of anything else that happens. As long as that happens, as long as the Sunni community regains control of its own political mechanisms in its own provinces, that in and of itself will be a plus. For that reason, in some ways the provincial elections can only be a negative. If they do not go well, if they are not exactly what the Sunni community expects, and what the Sunni community expects is most likely going to be what happens, but if for some reason they are not because the central government steps in and starts to bugger the elections or refuses to provide the resources after the elections, that could be very problematic. Because you will now likely have a Sunni leadership that is fully in control of its provinces and very angry at a Shia leadership in the capital that is preventing them from getting the resources, getting the kind of lives that they want and, again, reneging on this promise.
TR: How does all this fit into the question of can we leave now, or when can we leave? You have written after your recent trip that a swift U.S. exit might exacerbate the problems in a county that is still fragile. So what is your take on what a quick withdrawal of combat troops might lead to?
KP: I think that the problem that we are having in the United States today is that there is now such a strong perception of how much progress has been made in Iraq, and that is correct, there has been tremendous progress, that unfortunately I think people are starting to overreact, assuming that we can now basically walk away from the problem of Iraq because we have pretty much solved it, and that there are now other more important problems that beckon for America’s resources, soldiers, and attention. What I think that that misunderstands really is the complexity of the remaining problems in Iraq, and the fact that the progress, while very important and potentially sustainable, is not self-sustaining. It is built upon a whole series of different political compromises and agreements that have at their foundation the presence of the United States to guarantee that various groups inside the country are no longer able to use violence to advance their political agenda, which unfortunately was not the case before the surge, before 2006, and which led to the civil war in Iraq. As I said, the first-order problems are well on their way to being taken care of by the surge. But the second, third, fourth-order problems are cropping up. That is going to require a continuing, very large American presence in Iraq for some years. It is also, however, going to require us to shift our focus. And that is something that I have my concerns that the administration is not yet focusing on, that they are so pleased with how well things have gone in terms of dealing with the civil war and the insurgency and the failed state that they are not shifting their focus and shifting the attention of our troops and our resources in Iraq over to deal with things like the immaturity of the Iraqi political system, the need to repatriate four million refugees to their homes, the need to deal with situations like Kirkuk and the Sons of Iraq, all of which could easily re-ignite the civil war. And as a result you are going to need to have that U.S. presence there. We need to be there as a buffer between the warring groups, we need to be there to reassure different groups that others cannot attack them. We need to be there to broker deals among these different factions who are having such tremendous difficulty brokering those deals themselves. In many ways these are the new roles that the U.S. has got to take on in Iraq and which we have been somewhat loathe, somewhat reluctant to do so. And unfortunately all of that is going to require a very…
KP: Right. Again, I tend to look at the situation on the ground as opposed to looking at the American political calendar. The truth is that we have got these two critical elections coming up in Iraq; provincial elections which will probably be at the beginning of 2008, national elections for the parliament, which will be at the end of 2009. I cannot stress how important these elections are going to be for Iraq. If they go well, and they only have to go reasonably well, they will create the basis for a very firm new political foundation that Iraq can use to move forward. If they go badly, well, we do not know exactly what would happen but let us hope we never have to find out. Because they could reopen all of these problems. They will greatly exacerbate all of the second-order problems and in so doing they could re-ignite the first-order problems and the civil war itself. Prior to those elections, in the run up to those elections, the United States has got to be there in force, exactly as we have been, in fact in an ideal world we ought to pour more troops in because we need to maintain the security, we need to reassure the different parties that there is not going to be a resumption of violence, we need to reassure them that, unlike in previous elections, this time around various militias, various insurgents, various terrorist groups, are not going to be able to subvert the elections through violence. And at the same time we are also going to need to be there with the maximum amount of leverage to get different Iraqi groups to make compromises that they do not want to. I will not get into too many details, but everyone should understand that the militia parties who have dominated Iraqi politics basically for the last three years…
TR: The political parties who are based on their various militias?
KP: Correct, exactly, thank you for the clarification. All of them understand that the Iraqi people would very much like to get them out of office and their popularity is declining very significantly. And they are very frightened of that and they are trying to use their continuing control over the levers of power in Baghdad to buy support, to buy off political rivals, to intimidate political rivals, where necessary to kill political rivals. The U.S. has to be there to prevent that from happening. We need to be there on election day so that former militiamen who have now been integrated into the Iraqi security forces cannot intimidate voters in the polling places. And we need to be there in the aftermath of the election to ensure that a new Iraqi government is one that actually reflects what the people want and is expressed in those elections, as opposed to some cabal of different groups who are able to use their control of different militias to once again secure power. What that suggests is that, up through early 2010 when you should have the formation of that government, that large U.S. presence is going to be necessary. Now, if we have decent elections and we get the formation of a good government, I think the U.S. ought to be able to start scaling back its presence in Iraq very significantly very quickly thereafter. But we have got to be looking at it in those terms. These elections afford us the opportunity to begin a major withdrawal from Iraq on the right terms, but it means making sure that those elections come off well. And making sure those elections come off well is going to require a continued, very large U.S. presence.
TR: That picture you paint is looked at within the framework of Iraq, but put Iraq within the bigger picture of the global war on jihadi terrorists. As you know, many people argue that continuing with a large troop presence is distracting our attention from the front that really has become, again, the most dangerous threat to the United States, which is Afghanistan/Pakistan where al Qaeda is headquartering somewhere in the mountainous tribal regions of Pakistan. And as we know Pakistan is going downhill fast in terms of jihadi internal attacks and Afghanistan similar; do we need to be focusing in that direction? And if we keep a large troop presence in Iraq until mid-2010 does that distract us from focusing on the greater al Qaeda threat?
KP: Absolutely. I think that this is one of the critical second-order problems out there. The first-order problem was the civil war, that has largely been stamped out, but it has left the second-order problems of all the refugees from the civil war. And, again, the problem is that if that issue is not dealt with it could re-ignite the first-order issue in exactly the way that you have described, Trudy. If it is not handled properly, you are going to have a lot of people who are very angry. You may wind up with a lot of them living continually in refugee camps in Syria or just in different neighborhoods, in Jordan and in Damascus. Many of them will be forced to live in refugee camps in Iraq if they come back because they may not find somewhere else, or forced to take up residence in already overcrowded houses inhabited by cousins and other relatives who, after some period of time, are going to wish that they were not there anymore. This is not a stable environment, and that kind of a population is a prime recruiting ground for new militias, new insurgencies, new terrorist groups, exactly as we saw with the Palestinian community forced to live in refugee camps after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars which, let us remember, then provoked civil conflict in Jordan, in Lebanon, and eventually in Syria. This is an incredibly dangerous tinderbox of an issue and it is why you have got to deal with it and, unfortunately, I have not yet seen the United States, the international community, or the Iraqi government deal with it in anything like the kind of realistic and systematic fashion that is going to be necessary to deal with four million people.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy
Press play to hear recording.