Dialogues

Reason Enough?

Dear Warren,

I must say, I’m looking forward to this exchange; it’s not every day that I get to have a discussion with a genuine, AAA-approved, USDA-certified foreign-policy establishment pooh-bah, which is what you are, yes?

You’ve been doing great work, even if you’ve been doing it for the Man.

I know that we could spend the entire time talking about West Bank politics—and I do want to hear you out on the subject of misbegotten cease-fires and Palestinian nihilism and Ariel Sharon’s failure to keep his campaign promises—but we’re actually supposed to be talking about Iraq, specifically about the topics raised in an article I wrote this week in The New Yorker. (In other words, enough about me, let’s talk about my article.)

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The piece in question ran about 18,000 words (give or take a thousand), so I’ll try to summarize the main points in only 10,000 or so.

There has been a certain amount of discussion this week in Washington about one particular point I raised, which concerns allegations that Saddam is more closely tied to al-Qaida than we had previously thought. I had actually gone to Iraqi Kurdistan in late January not expecting to learn anything new about terrorism (post-Sept. 11 terrorism, that is, not state terror against the Kurds). But when I was in Kurdistan, I started to hear stories about an al-Qaida-style terror group formerly known as the Jund al-Islam, or Soldiers of Islam, which recently changed its name (for the most naked of PR reasons, I believe) to the Ansar al-Islam, or Supporters of Islam. This group controls about 10 villages near the Iranian border, and its membership consists of typical Islamist mayhem-makers; these people kill in various nasty ways and want to impose sharia, Islamic law, on Free Kurdistan (the parts of Kurdistan under the American no-fly zone), which is problematic because the Kurds are, in the main, secular, progressive, and pro-American.

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It’s not much of a surprise that this group would be run by so-called Afghan Arabs—Arabs who cycled through Afghanistan over the past 20 years to fight against the Soviets or for Osama. But what I learned—and I’m not going to give away the whole story here—is that Saddam’s intelligence agency may jointly control this group with al-Qaida. If this is true, well, the implications are quite serious, which is why people in Washington who don’t want the United States to do anything about Iraq have been (unsuccessfully) trying to discredit this aspect of my article. I will tell you, in a later round, about a ridiculous attempt by CNN’s Aaron Brown to shoot down the story.

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Let me move quickly to another main point of the piece. In 1988, Saddam used, as you know, chemical weapons against the Kurds of the north. He killed thousands with these weapons (and killed thousands more with conventional tools), and today the survivors of these attacks are suffering in terrible ways. Despite the fact that the people of northern Iraq make up the largest single population of chemical-attack survivors in the world, our government has never bothered to study this population and its problems in a systematic way. This is obviously a humanitarian issue, but it is also a national security issue for the United States. The Kurdish doctors I spoke to thought we had lost our heads over the anthrax scare of last fall, in which a handful of people died. We obviously weren’t ready for even a small-scale attack, so the question arises: Why hasn’t our government ever bothered to explore the long-term medical implications of Saddam’s chemical attacks on the Kurds?

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I will end what could quickly devolve into a rant by posing this question to you: Does it in fact even matter if Saddam is connected to al-Qaida? In other words, why look for a smoking gun when a dozen already exist? This is a man who has attacked, unprovoked, four of his country’s neighbors; a man who has committed genocide and used chemical weapons on civilians; a man who is clearly obsessed with the development of weapons of mass destruction; and a man who uses homicide and rape as a tool of governance. Isn’t he worthy, by these deeds alone, of removal?

Or am I just naive?

Best,
Jeff

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