False hype of al Qaeda in Iraq

Washington Monthly put its October cover story online today, and it is fantastic. (And not just because I’m quoted.) I’ll comment on it and excerpt it briefly, but really, go read the article.

Back? Okay. The author, Andrew Tilghman, is a former reporter for Stars and Stripes, an independent military-focused newspaper, and spent nine months in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. It was clear to me when we spoke that he had an excellent basis of knowledge about the conflict, and he asked all the right questions to get at the specifics of the topic.

And he got fascinating answers from a variety of sources, which he weaved into a solid and damning assessment of the hyping of al Qaeda by military and administration leaders for political and/or careerism aims. To wit:

With disproportionate resources dedicated to tracking AQI, the search has become a self-reinforcing loop. The Army has a Special Operations task force solely dedicated to tracking al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Defense Intelligence Agency tracks AQI through its Iraq office and its counterterrorism office. The result is more information culled, more PowerPoint slides created, and, ultimately, more attention drawn to AQI, which amplifies its significance . . .

[T]he bar for labeling an attack the work of al-Qaeda can be very low. The fact that a detainee possesses al-Qaeda pamphlets or a laptop computer with cached jihadist Web sites, for example, is at times enough for analysts to link a detainee to al-Qaeda. “Sometimes it’s as simple as an anonymous tip that al-Qaeda is active in a certain village, so they will go out on an operation and whoever they roll up, we call them al-Qaeda,” says Rossmiller. “People can get labeled al-Qaeda anywhere along in the chain of events, and it’s really hard to unlabel them.” Even when the military backs off explicit statements that AQI is responsible, as with the Tal Afar truck bombings, the perception that an attack is the work of al-Qaeda is rarely corrected.

The author actually talked to regional and intelligence experts — not to be confused with “political” or “military” commentators — including names you probably recognize, like Juan Cole, Pat Lang, and Larry Johnson, as well as some you won’t but should, like Malcolm Nance, a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker. Nance is also the author of The Terrorists of Iraq, which is easily the best book written on the Iraq insurgency and a must-read for anybody seriously interested in the issue.

The size and impact of al Qaeda in Iraq is hugely overblown by the media, elected figures, and military officials. Further, and perhaps even more importantly, its purported strength is essentially the only security-related reason claimed by the administration for maintaining our occupation. Political manipulation by government and military leaders — combined with a lack of knowledge of situational specifics on the part of commentators and the public — results in a profound general misunderstanding of the facts on the ground.

Incidentally, according to General Petraeus the surge is aimed at al Qaeda, a group about which he is severely deluded. It’s all such a debacle.

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