We have recently been warning of the imminent emergence of a Taliban state in central Iraq. Today the New York Times op-ed page catches up with us. From “What Osama Wants” by Peter Bergen, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation and author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda’s Leader, Oct. 26:
A total withdrawal from Iraq would play into the hands of the jihadist terrorists. As Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, made clear shortly after 9/11 in his book Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, Al Qaeda’s most important short-term strategic goal is to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world. “Confronting the enemies of Islam and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land,” he wrote. “Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.” Such a jihadist state would be the ideal launching pad for future attacks on the West.
And there is no riper spot than the Sunni-majority areas of central and western Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the most feared insurgent commander in Iraq — was issuing an invitation to Mr. bin Laden when he named his group Al Qaeda in Iraq. When Mr. Zarqawi was killed this year, his successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, also swore allegiance to Al Qaeda’s chief.
Another problem with a total American withdrawal is that it would fit all too neatly into Osama bin Laden’s master narrative about American foreign policy. His theme is that America is a paper tiger that cannot tolerate body bags coming home; to back it up, he cites President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 withdrawal of United States troops from Lebanon and President Bill Clinton’s decision nearly a decade later to pull troops from Somalia. A unilateral pullout from Iraq would only confirm this analysis of American weakness among his jihadist allies.
Indeed, in 2005 Mr. Zawahri sent Mr. Zarqawi a letter, which was intercepted by the United States military, exhorting him to start preparing for the impending American withdrawal similar to that of Vietnam 30 years ago. “The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam — and how they ran and left their agents — is noteworthy,” Mr. Zawahri said. “Because of that, we must be ready starting now, before events overtake us, and before we are surprised by the conspiracies of the Americans and the United Nations and their plans to fill the void behind them.”
Bergen finds that “for the United States to wash its hands of the country now would give Al Qaeda’s leaders what they want.” But as a compromise between this and “holding course,” he suggests the US withdraw to bases on Iraq’s periphery, in the western desert, while leaving elite Special Forces to oversee Iraqi army troops who will pursue the counterinsurgency in the Sunni center. We argue that any US presence only deligitimizes the Iraqi regime and allows the jihadis to pose as the anti-imperialist “resistance,” paradoxically bringing us closer to the emergence of a Taliban state. It could be that the US staying in Iraq is precisely what Osama really wants…