Signaling the Iraqi Insurgents
If the Iraqi insurgents wanted the United States to turn tail and run out of their country, President George W. Bush has disabused them of that wishful thinking. In his press conference of March 21, he stated that the decision to withdraw the U.S. troops from Iraq would fall on his successor. His critics may argue that it was not a courageous statement, considering the fact that he will no longer run for office. However, the debate about and political pressure for withdrawing American troops from Iraq will begin in earnest in the American domestic arena. More to the point, given that Iraqi insurgents closely monitor all U.S. statements and maneuvers regarding their country, they will have to refigure their own long-term strategy.
Bush’s statement about troop withdrawal will have a major effect on the congressional elections. The Republican and Democratic legislators are facing the voters in November 2006. They all know that Bush’s popularity is waning, and that an increasingly large number of American populace is of the view is that Iraq is not worth fighting. Still, nothing about Iraq is cut and dry.
Legislators of both parties will have to be wary of implications of America’s potential failure in Iraq. They are jittery about getting way ahead of the voters on this issue. What happens if they carve out a position that America should withdraw and if the insurgents start to lose ground? How would the supporters of American withdrawal justify their position then? Alternatively, if the legislators take a strong position about withdrawing from Iraq, they still have to worry about implications of such a potential on America’s strategic interests in the Middle East. Wouldn’t the American voters still punish them for their role in "losing" Iraq? It bears repeating that nothing about Iraq is that simple.
Many in the United States remember the debate: "who lost Vietnam?" Everyone remembers the political fallout for President Lyndon Johnson. He decided not to run. His Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, lost the election. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon succeeded in convincing the voters that he had a secret plan to negotiate America’s way out of the Vietnam imbroglio.
However, stakes are entirely different regarding Iraq. The contemporary version of the "Domino theory" states that the "fall" of Iraq would eliminate all prospects of the introduction of democracy in the Middle East. Worse still, the Cassandra callers of today are saying that if the United states were to fail in Iraq, the global Jihadists will run amuck, transforming the entire Middle East into an "Islamic Caliphate." Since President Bush’s own use of that phrase last January, most purportedly knowledgeable talking heads on various television and radio channels in Washington are also parroting that line these days. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/13/AR2006011301816_pf.html).
The notion of Islamic Caliphate has been around for more or less 1400 years. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920s gave Muslims nostalgia for the need of it. However, no responsible state advocated it. Even al-Qaida did not harp on it from its very inception, and adopted the rhetoric of it only as an afterthought. In the post-9/11 era, the notion of Islamic caliphate has resurfaced especially in the writings of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s deputy commander. Only Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is most dominant in the Ferghana Valley of Central Asia, has been consistently using the idea of Islamic Caliphate in its propaganda literature.
Even the promoters of the idea of Islamic government thought about creating it in one state. In fact, it can be argued that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Iran envision their own governments as some versions of it. It was America’s desire to find a strategic purpose of global Jihadists’ rationale for waging a religious war that brought forth-and gave maximum possible publicity to-the notion of Islamic caliphate as some sort of a novel idea. However, if the United States is ousted from Iraq, this entire debate about the linkages between America’s defeat in Iraq and its implications for the promotion of global Jihadism will be resuscitated with intensity.
A very important aspect of Bush’s announcement about staying put in Iraq until 2008 is that the outcome of the Congressional elections of 2006 will also shape the modalities of presidential elections of 2008 regarding Iraq, assuming-above all-that nothing of a dramatic nature happens in that country in the meantime, leading to a forced withdrawal of the U.S. forces. The most ironic aspect of the entire Iraqi imbroglio is that the United States invaded Iraq with a view to change the course of history not just in that country but also the entire region. That is what the entire endeavor of "transforming" the Middle East is all about. Iraq, in turn, appears to radically influence the political course of events in the United States beyond this decade.
What kind of operational and tactical readjustment, if not a radical alteration, the Iraqi insurgents are likely to bring about in response to President Bush’s statement that he has no intentions of redeploying American forces from Iraq? There is a general consensus that these insurgents are some of the most avid students of American maneuvers affecting their country at all levels-from strategic to tactical. In view of this reality, they are likely to take the following steps.
First, even though they know that the most reliable aspect of the American president’s style of leadership is its consistency. Since Bush is driven, above all, by his own sense of moral correctness vis-à-vis al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, he can be counted on not to abandon his commitment to staying pat in Iraq. What the insurgents would study in the coming days, however, is what kinds of operational and tactical adjustments the U.S. military would bring about in Iraq from now on. The fact that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has already extended the CENTCOM Commander General John Abizade’s term by at least by one year is a clear indication that no major operational changes are forthcoming.
Second, the insurgents are also studying the U.S. Army’s focused commitment to fight insurgency in Iraq. Gone are the days when Rumsfeld and the previous Commander of CENTCOM, General Tommy Franks, derisively dismissed the Iraqi insurgents as "deadenders". Gone are the days when Bush, referring to the insurgents, sneered, "Bring them on." The insurgents know that the fight in Iraq has entered a very tough and even a bloodier phase than before.
Third, and an important extension of the preceding, is that the insurgents will intensify their attacks on the Iraqi security forces. As these forces increase their role in securing Iraq, they become even more exposed than before to terrorist attacks. That situation also helps the larger goal of the insurgents to destroy as much as possible the evolution of a professional Iraqi force so that the American forces take their place and get exposed.
Finally, the insurgents are likely to intensify their attacks on all the visible capabilities of the Iraqi government to provide services to its citizens. This is a very important aspect of fighting an insurgent war, which, in essence, is also a battle for legitimacy (or to apply an overused phrase, a battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis) in Iraq. The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, is most sensitive of this battle for legitimacy between the Iraqi government and the insurgents. That is why he has been so keen on persuading the Iraqi politicians to form a so-called "national unity government."
It has become apparent that the insurgents have understood the signal that President Bush has sent them. The battle for Iraq has already entered a decisive phase. Victory appears to be closer to one side. The insurgents seem to be convinced that they are on the winning side. George Bush projects an image that he is equally certain of his own victory in this battle. One wonders how confident he really is in his loneliest moments.