Saturday, March 15, 2008

The "Resilience" of Al Qaeda in Iraq

It was just last fall when both pundits and reporters were declaring the destruction of al Qaeda of Iraq.

Now we have
Robert Burns of the Associated Press proclaiming al Qaeda's here to stay:

Al-Qaida is in Iraq to stay. It's not a conclusion the White House talks about much when denouncing the shadowy group, known as al-Qaida in Iraq, that used the U.S. invasion five years ago to develop into a major killer.

The militants are weakened, battered, perhaps even desperate, by most U.S. accounts. But far from being "routed," as Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed last month, they're still there, still deadly active and likely to remain far into the future, military and other officials told The Associated Press.

Commanders and the other officials commented in a series of interviews and assessments discussing persistent violence in Iraq and intelligence judgments there and in the U.S.

Putting the squeeze on al-Qaida in Iraq was a primary objective of the revised U.S. military strategy that Gen. David Petraeus inherited when he became the top commander in Baghdad 13 months ago. The goal _ largely achieved _ was to minimize the group's ability to inflame sectarian violence, which at the time was so intense that some characterized Iraq as trapped in a civil war.

However, the militants are proving they can survive even the most suffocating U.S. military pressure.

"They are not to be underestimated. That's one thing I've seen over and over," said Col. John Charlton, commander of the Army's 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. His unit has fought al-Qaida for the past 14 months in a portion of Anbar province that includes the provincial capital of Ramadi.

"I'm always very amazed at their ability to adapt and find new vulnerabilities," Charlton said in a telephone interview this week from his headquarters outside of Ramadi. "They are very good at that," even though they have largely lost the support of local citizens.

The U.S. and Iraqi government intent is to chip away at al-Qaida until it is reduced to "almost a nonentity," Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno said March 4 shortly after finishing his tour as the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq. "Unfortunately with these terrorist organizations, they will always be there at some level."

Demonstrating anew their remarkable staying power, the militants are thought to be behind attacks in recent days in Baghdad and beyond, including bombings in the capital March 7 that killed at least 68 people.

Now that U.S. troop reinforcements are beginning to go home, Petraeus and the Bush administration will be watching closely to see if American-trained Iraqi forces can keep up the pressure on al-Qaida.
Note, though, that military commanders are very careful about pumping up excessive expectations, as was the case this week with the reports from General David Petraeus and Lieutenant General Raymond T. Odierno.

Last fall, as well, commentators were careful to put the victory over al Qaeda in perspective. As
Austin Bay remarked:

The evidence that al-Qaida has suffered a major strategic information defeat in Iraq continues to mount....

Is this victory in Iraq? No. But it suggests we've won a major battle with potentially global significance.
As for the Associated Press claim that al Qaeda in Iraq is "here to stay," recall Jules Crittenden's words this week:

The bizarre dynamic of American reporting in this war is that terrorists, no matter how hamstrung they may be, will always applauded for their resilience. The United States military and its allies, no matter how much progress they make in hamstringing terrorists, will always be fighting a rearguard action. The dramatic developments of the past year are typically dispensed with in boilerplate, often presented in a manner to indicate the U.S. military’s role was incidental.
Keep this last point in mind when reading forthcoming AP updates on al Qaeda's "resilience."