December 1, 2005  

A split on strategy?

On Oct. 11 the White House released a translation of a communiqué from al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The letter, dated July 9, was intercepted as the result of a raid conducted shortly thereafter in Iraq. That the administration chose to publish the letter so quickly — indeed, at all — indicates not only a White House scrambling to bolster its poll numbers but a hopeful belief that the letter reveals an enemy in some disarray.

There certainly is a dispute over tactics between Zawahiri and Zarqawi. But at its core, it would seem the real issue is one of strategy, and because it is reasonable to presume Zawahiri speaks for Osama bin Laden, the difference is probably a profound one. The view from al-Qaida headquarters in Pakistan is that Zarqawi’s extremely violent tactics in Iraq are counterproductive: “Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace will never find palatable,” writes Zawahiri, “are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages.”

Zawahiri acknowledges the psychic satisfaction of chopping Americans’ heads off, but presses Zarqawi not to “be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and description of you as the sheik of the slaughterers, etc.” This is hardly an injunction to show mercy: “[W]e can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts.” To be blunt, “We don’t need this.”

Bin Laden, Zawahiri and the senior al-Qaida leaders see themselves, as does the Bush administration, in a large and long war for the future of the region, beyond Iraq. Zawahiri admonishes Zarqawi that “we are in a battle, and that more than half this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”

Not just the Western media, but in the Arab and larger Islamic media; it is the hearts and minds of the faithful that are al-Qaida’s center of gravity. “[W]e will see that the strongest weapon which the mujahedin enjoy,” writes Zawahiri, “is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries. So, we must maintain this support as best we can, and we should strive to increase it.” And therefore, “the Jihadist movement must avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve.”

Indeed, the underlying rationale for the letter is derived from al-Qaida’s larger strategy. In some sense, Zawahiri reflects the classic concerns of any headquarters in dealing with an overly independent theater commander; the view from the flagpole is somewhat at odds with the view from the field. Zawahiri is driven by political imperatives, while for Zarqawi – who, after all, is in daily danger of being killed or captured by coalition forces — tactical matters may be paramount.


This distinction helps explain the letter’s guidance in regard to the Shi’a majority in Iraq. The centerpiece of Zarqawi’s strategy in the Iraqi insurgency has been to attempt to provoke a civil war between the Shi’a and Iraqi Kurds, on one hand, and the Iraqi Sunni. “People of discernment and knowledge among Muslims know the extent of the danger to Islam of the ? school of Shi’ism,” observes Zawahiri. “The collision between any state based on the model of prophecy with the Shi’a is a matter that will happen sooner or later. This is the judgment of history, and these are fruits to be expected from the rejectionist Shi’a sect and their opinion of the Sunnis.”

Interestingly, Zawahiri — mirroring the conventional wisdom in the U.S. State Department and CIA — makes no important distinction between Iraqi Arab Shi’a and Iranian Persian Shi’a: “I assert here that any rational person understands with ease that the Shi’a cooperated with the Americans in the invasion of Afghanistan, [former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani himself confessed to it, and they cooperated in the overthrow of Saddam and the occupation of Iraq in exchange for the Shi’a assumption of power and their turning of a blind eye to the American military presence in Iraq. This is clear to everybody who has two eyes.”

But despite the inevitable struggle with the Shi’a, Zawahiri counsels Zarqawi against fomenting sectarian struggle in Iraq for the moment. “[T]he majority of Muslims don’t comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine it,” claims Zawahiri. “For that reason, many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shi’a. ? My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.”

Crucially from Zawahiri’s point of view, the attempt to create an Iraqi civil war diverts al-Qaida in Iraq from what should be its prime goal: getting the Americans out. “Does the conflict with the Shi’a lift the burden from the Americans by diverting the mujahedin to the Shi’a, while the Americans continue to control matters from afar?”

Zawahiri sees clearly that the attitudes of the Shi’a majority will determine the political future in Iraq and that, thus far, the Iraqi Shi’a have been, along with the Kurds, steadfast partners in the American program of political reform and democratization.

Violence alone, in Zawahiri’s estimation, will not achieve al-Qaida’s goals. “Indeed, it is imperative that, in addition to force, there be an appeasement of Muslims and a sharing with them in governance. ? It doesn’t appear that the mujahedin, much less [al-Qaida in Iraq], will lay claim to governance without the Iraqi people.”

Zawahiri and bin Laden learned this lesson from Afghanistan, although it is the Taliban they blame. “We don’t want to repeat the mistake of the Taliban,” warns Zawahiri, “who restricted participation in governance to the students and the people of Khandahar alone. They did not have any representation for the Afghan people in their ruling regime” — this is a mistake that has immeasurably aided the U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan — “so the result was that the Afghan people disengaged themselves from [the Taliban.]


And it is clearly governance — political, temporal rule, not sacred violence for its own sake — that matters to Zawahiri and bin Laden. So if driving out the United States is the most immediate goal, it is only the first of several. The second crucial stage in the al-Qaida program is to establish in Iraq an “Islamic authority or emirate,” which then becomes the seed of a renewed “caliphate in the manner of the Prophet [Mohammed]” across the entire region and, ultimately, throughout the Islamic world. This Islamic emirate could, theoretically, exist within a sovereign Iraq once the Americans leave — which might “develop faster than we imagine; the aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam — how they ran and left their agents! — is noteworthy.” Zawahiri allows that the Sunni areas in Iraq could, “in the void stemming from the departure of the Americans,” stand as this new Islamic emirate.

In practical terms, the distinction between emirate and caliphate may be quite small. But in terms of strategic horizons, it is immense; it is the difference between an entity with essentially defensive aims and one with expansionist, imperial goals. Once there is an entrenched Islamic authority in the Sunni provinces of Iraq, it is to become the vehicle to “extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq.” An Iraqi Sunni emirate will not be easily deterred or contained.

It’s also clear from the letter that Arab lands are at the top of al-Qaida’s strategic priorities. Though it’s a deeply ideological and “universalist” movement, Zawahiri distinguishes quite sharply between the Arabian heartland and the borderlands of the Islamic world. “It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the prophet in the heart of the Islamic world, specifically in the Levant, Egypt and the neighboring states of the [Arabian] Peninsula and Iraq; however, the center would be in the Levant and Egypt.” This might seem somewhat self-centered — Zawahiri is Egyptian — and he does “not preach it as infallible,” but it is also based “on historical events and the behavior of the enemies of Islam themselves, and they did not establish Israel in this triangle surrounded by Egypt and Syria and overlooking the Hijaz except for their own interests.”

In fact, “the battles that are going on in the far-flung regions of the Islamic world, such as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Bosnia” are “just the groundwork and the vanguard for the major battles which have begun in the heart of the Islamic world.” For Zawahiri and bin Laden, the Arab lands are — and really always have been — the central front. Al-Qaida’s efforts in Afghanistan were a rehearsal, not the main show.


The obvious problem for Zawahiri is that it is Zarqawi who is the rising star. It may be that Zarqawi will be the one to define the future of the movement, not bin Laden. Given the inherent weaknesses of al-Qaida — for all its spectacular violence, its numbers remain relatively few — Zarqawi certainly has the means, and perhaps the motive, to pretend to power within the movement.

For one, Zarqawi occupies the center stage in Iraq. He regularly makes news while Zawahiri and bin Laden do not. It’s been a while since bin Laden has issued even a taped fatwa, and attacks at the periphery, such as the recent bombing in Indonesia or increased Taliban activity across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, don’t capture either Western or Arab media attention the way action in Iraq does. Plus, it’s hard for bin Laden to credibly claim direct responsibility for many of these sorties. In the battle for Muslim hearts and minds, it’s Zarqawi who has the strategic initiative. Even a spectacular death and martyrdom for Zarqawi at the hands of U.S. or Iraqi forces would, at least for some time, put bin Laden in the shade.

Moreover, Zarqawi is driven by local imperatives that may make it hard for him to comply with Zawahiri’s directives and requests. The struggle for power in post-Saddam Iraq is entering a crucial period. The Iraqi Sunnis did participate in large numbers in the recent Iraqi constitutional referendum, and though they failed to prevent the referendum from being approved, they showed enough strength to ensure dominant representation in three provinces in the upcoming legislative elections.

But working within the emerging Iraqi political system cannot bring the Sunnis back to power. Even if the United States declares victory and retreats from Iraq, the insurgents there cannot immediately expect the new Iraqi government to collapse. While there will almost certainly be an American drawdown in Iraq next spring in order to relieve the stress on U.S. ground forces, it’s highly unlikely that there would be a complete redeployment. And the new Iraqi army is increasingly incorporating Shi’a militiamen — and has long numbered Kurdish pesh merga fighters among its few effective units. Zarqawi should be considered the better judge of realities on the ground in Iraq than Zawahiri, a point which Zawahiri readily and repeatedly concedes in the letter.

Plus, the issue of “the Muslim masses” is more complex than Zawahiri allows in the letter. It’s notable that Zawahiri asks Zarqawi to send him money and admits that their usual sources of support have been running dry. No doubt part of the supply problem al-Qaida faces is due to energetic efforts on the part of the United States and its allies — including, to some degree, the Pakistanis — but it may also partly reflect decisions on the part of Islamic funding sources to support the insurgency in Iraq as their main effort.

Finally, it is Zarqawi who is best placed to establish himself in an Islamic emirate rooted in the Sunni provinces of Iraq. He’s closer to the scene — and can Zarqawi and bin Laden really expect to move in once the hardest part is done? — and he could dominate local politics in a vacuum.

In sum, it may well be that in five years’ time that the radical Islamic movement is led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or someone more in his mold, instead of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. More profoundly, this is a movement that requires extreme violence to win success. The war will continue, and seems more likely to grow than to end.