The National Intelligence Estimate that was released today—titled “The Terrorist Threat to the Homeland”—amounts to a devastating critique of the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq, Iran, and the terrorist threat itself.
Its main point is that the threat—after having greatly receded over the past five years—is back in full force. Al-Qaida has “protected or regenerated key elements” of its ability to attack the United States. It has a “safe haven” in Pakistan. Its “top leadership” and “operational lieutenants” are intact. It is cooperating more with “regional terrorist groups.”
As a result, the report concludes, “the U.S. Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years” and is, even now, “in a heightened threat environment.”
This is bad enough news for President Bush, who has tried to bank support for his policies on the claim that the terrorist threat has diminished.
Worse news still is the report’s further observation—never stated explicitly but clear nonetheless—that the threat has re-emerged as a result of the war in Iraq.
The report—the unclassified version of a consensus product by the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community—also notes that the threat will grow still larger if we appear to threaten Iran.
One major reason for al-Qaida’s resurgence, according to the report, is its “association with” al-Qaida in Iraq. (Note, by the way, that these two organizations are said to be “associated” or “affiliated” with each other; contrary to what Bush has said in recent speeches, they are not the same entity.) This affiliation “helps al-Qaida to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks.” (Italics added.)
Al-Qaida in Iraq—or AQI, as the report identifies it—is not merely al-Qaida’s “most visible and capable affiliate.” More significant, it is “the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland.” (Italics added.)
Let’s put together the syllogism: Al-Qaida is more inclined to attack the United States because of its affiliation with AQI; AQI is the only affiliate that wants to attack the United States; therefore, if there were no AQI, the danger of an attack would be far less severe, if it existed at all.
Let’s add one more link to the logical chain (which the NIE leaves out but which is self-evident): If there were no U.S. occupation of Iraq, there would be no AQI. (Certainly the organization didn’t exist until well into the occupation. It has gained a foothold in Iraq—energizing “the broader Sunni extremist community”—by playing off their anti-American sentiments.)
Many times, President Bush has said that we’re fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them here. It is an absurd argument in many ways. But the NIE reveals that the opposite is the case—that because we’re fighting them in Iraq, we are more likely to face them here.
Does this mean that we should stop fighting AQI or negotiate some separate peace? No, the organization’s presence in Iraq—however exaggerated by some officials—is genuinely dangerous, and there is no negotiating with any al-Qaida affiliate in any event.
But it does mean we should do more to co-opt the Sunnis—even some of the Sunni extremists—that serve as AQI’s base of support. (We have started to do just that, with some success, in Anbar province.)
And it also means—for yet one more reason, beyond the many others—that we should start to get out of Iraq. (The question, as always, remains how to do so without unleashing catastrophic chaos. One reasonable inference of the NIE is that we should seek a regional resolution of the crisis as a matter of great urgency to the security not only of the Middle East but also of the United States.)
It’s worth recalling that, back in the spring of 2003, as the war was getting under way, Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy secretary of defense (and one of the war’s outspoken architects), told Vanity Fair that one reason to invade Iraq was to allow U.S. troops to leave Saudi Arabia. The presence of “infidel” soldiers on holy soil had been “a huge recruiting device for al-Qaida,” Wolfowitz said. (Osama Bin Laden had publicly cited their presence as a rationale for the attack on the World Trade Center.) Yet the troops couldn’t safely leave Saudi Arabia as long as Saddam Hussein was still in Iraq. Hence, Saddam had to be removed first. (Though Wolfowitz didn’t say so, another element of the plan was to relocate the U.S. bases from Saudi Arabia to the new, presumably pro-Western Iraq.)
Now, in a horrible irony, the troops in Iraq have become no less “a huge recruiting device for al-Qaida.” (Some of Wolfowitz’s erstwhile comrades insist he never wanted an occupation; perhaps he didn’t grasp that occupations often follow the forced toppling of a government, especially when the entire social structure collapses as a result.)
Some hawks and neocons want to deepen the involvement and attack Iran—either simply to destroy its bourgeoning nuclear program or (in a more fantasy-drenched scenario) to overthrow its unfriendly regime, too.
The NIE warns against this adventurism in only the most slightly veiled terms. While discussing other threats besides al-Qaida, the report states that Lebanon’s Hezbollah—which, till now, has confined its attacks to targets outside the United States—”may be more likely to consider attacking the Homeland … if it perceives the United States as posing a direct threat to the group or Iran.” (Italics added.)
This amounts to a direct warning to the White House: Don’t attack Iran, the entire U.S. intelligence community is saying—and, if you do, you should expect to get hit back.