Would War in Iraq Hurt the War Against Al-Qaida?

A country-by-country review.

Brent Scowcroft, Al Gore, and others (including Chatterbox) worry that a U.S. war against Iraq will interfere with the war against al-Qaida. Those who favor war with Iraq answer in two ways. The cruder response (put forth by Michael Kelly and William Bennett) is that the war against al-Qaida is all but won already. That’s palpably untrue. The Pentagon, according to U.S. News and World Report, believes that fully two-thirds of al-Qaida’s top 30 leaders (including, possibly, Osama Bin Laden) remain at large. Al-Qaida is thought to be responsible for an explosion at a Tunisian synagogue that killed 19 people this past May—an accomplishment that, to be sure, pales in comparison to the murder of 3,000 innocents on Sept. 11 but one that shows the terrorist group was still in business a mere five months after the battle at Tora Bora. And the Bush administration, just last month, briefly raised the terrorism-threat level to orange (“high”) for the first time since 9/11, reportedly because of information it had received from a high-level al-Qaida operative. The United States has routed the Taliban, but al-Qaida is not yet defeated, and to suggest otherwise is almost comically irresponsible.

A more challenging answer to Scowcroft and Gore is that the proposition remains unproved that war with Iraq would interfere with the war against al-Qaida. Thus the New Republic, in an Oct. 7 editorial excoriating Gore’s speech:

Gore said that war with Iraq would undermine America’s primary mission: fighting terrorism. This mission, he explained, requires ongoing international cooperation. And he suggested that “our ability to secure this kind of cooperation can be severely damaged by unilateral action against Iraq. If the administration has reason to believe otherwise, it ought to share those reasons with the Congress.” But surely Gore also has an obligation to share his reasons for believing that war with Iraqwill “severely damage” the war on terrorism. The argument, after all, is not self-evident: Germany, the U.S. ally most vocally opposed to attacking Iraq, has simultaneously intensified its assistance in the war on terrorism–signaling that it will take over the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. In fact, Gore provides no evidence to support his claim. And thus he fails the very evidentiary standard that he calls on Bush to meet.

Chatterbox doesn’t see why the burden of proof must fall on those who say it’s more dangerous to go to war than not; he would have thought the default assumption (with obvious historical exceptions like Hitler’s march across Europe) is that peace is generally a safer bet than war. Rather than get embroiled in that argument, however, Chatterbox thought it more constructive to take a country-by-country sample of how war with Iraq might play havoc with the war against al-Qaida. The focus is not on Western nations like Germany, which no doubt will continue to assist the anti-terrorism crackdown, but on Islamic regimes, which may provide less assistance or, conceivably, topple and be replaced by fundamentalist leadership. What follows is an attempt at fair-minded and informed speculation drawn from Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001,a report from the State Department’s counterterrorism office, and from conversations with a few experts.

Pakistan.This is the country where war with Iraq could do the most mischief because its contribution to the war against al-Qaida has been the most valuable. All the important top-level al-Qaida officials who’ve been turned over to the United States—all, that is, whose capture is publicly known—have been turned over by Pakistan. The biggest prize was Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaida’s chief recruiter during the 1990s, who reportedly was planning attacks on U.S. embassies in Paris and Sarajevo when he was captured. Another key al-Qaida captive for whom we have Pakistan to thank is Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to be a major planner of the Sept. 11 attacks (he roomed with Mohamed Atta, who piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s north tower) and an important money conduit. In addition, Pakistan is said (by the U.S. State Department) to have frozen more than $300,000 in financial assets related to terrorist activities.

Pakistan’s military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has a tenuous hold on his country and even his own government. He has said publicly that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would “have very negative repercussions around the Islamic world.” Presumably he would stand by the United States if the war were short and involved minimal civilian casualties. If the war dragged on, though, and became a blood bath, Musharraf would feel pressure to abandon that allegiance or risk being deposed. That raises the possibility that al-Qaida would gain control over Pakistan, a nuclear power. A more likely but no less frightening possibility is that one of Pakistan’s home-grown, non-Arabic Islamist groups, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed—which has ties to al-Qaida—would take over.

Jordan.Jordan’s King Abdullah is as staunch a U.S. ally as can be found in the Middle East. (His own stepmother, Queen Noor, is American-born.) He has sent peacekeepers to Kabul and has urged Iraq to accept unconditionally the return of U.N. weapons inspectors. Abdullah’s government was instrumental in foiling al-Qaida’s millennium plot two years ago, and this past summer it arrested 13 people alleged to be plotting attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets overseas. L. Paul Bremer, who was Ronald Reagan’s ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism and now sits on President Bush’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, told Chatterbox that war in Iraq will “not have any effect on the excellent cooperation we have with Jordan.” But another government expert told Chatterbox that it will “make it more likely that he’ll have to get in bed with the bad guys.” The situation will be particularly tense if Iraq successfully draws Israel (which has refused to forswear retaliation) into the war.

Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy has not been especially helpful in turning over al-Qaida terrorists—which is particularly galling when you remember that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 attackers were Saudi citizens. The State Department does credit the Saudis with freezing terrorist assets. Saudi Arabia says it has cracked down on 150 bank accounts, but it’s anybody’s guess as to how exaggerated that figure is. The Saudis also claim to have detained 200 suspects.

The great danger war with Iraq poses in regard to Saudi Arabia isn’t so much that it risks curtailing a fairly negligible anti-terrorism effort. Rather, it’s that it would topple an already-shaky regime. Hawks on Iraq cheer the possibility that the result would be democracy. Doves worry that the result would instead be that the country would fall into the hands of the same anti-American Islamists who fund al-Qaida.

Iran.Since Iraq is Iran’s bitterest enemy, might war with Iraq actually increase whatever anti-terrorist assistance (probably zero) the United States has thus far received from this axis-of-evil member? Chatterbox thinks it’s a distinct possibility, though he can’t find any experts to say so. Chatterbox does not, however, deem this a good enough reason to overthrow Saddam.

Syria, Yemen.These nations, also fairly hostile to the United States, have been more cooperative since Sept. 11 than anyone expected them to be. Not many details are known, but Syria, for instance, has been interrogating Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who allegedly helped create the Hamburg, Germany, cell of al-Qaida where the World Trade Center attacks were planned. This assistance would appear to be seriously imperiled by war with Iraq.

Indonesia.The largest Muslim country in the world has been singularly unhelpful since Sept. 11. The chief worry here is that Indonesia will become a haven for al-Qaida. War with Iraq may hurry that along.

In researching this item, Chatterbox talked to both hawks and doves. Strikingly, not even the hawks were willing to dismiss entirely the notion that war with Iraq could interfere with the war against al-Qaida. For example, Steven Emerson, an anti-terrorism expert who favors war with Iraq, says “there’s a limit to how far [Islamic countries] can regress” in their anti-terrorism assistance. But “technically, I would see some slippage” in cooperation. That doesn’t worry him too much because he thinks the cooperation has been negligible. The doves, however, are far more worried about this slippage and its impact on U.S. efforts to destroy al-Qaida. So is Chatterbox.