One of the more dire warnings repeated endlessly by George W Bush and other war supporters is that if the United States withdraws, al-Qaida will gain a safe haven in Iraq. It should not surprise us to hear this nonsense from Bush himself; I mean the man will say almost anything to justify his policies in Iraq –even something in which he is essentially conceding that the invasion he ordered has allowed al-Qaida to establish a strong presence in the country. What is troubling is that we hear it also from General David Petraeus and other US generals who should know better.
First of all, the original al-Qaida already has a safe haven – in Pakistan, our ally. Few would dispute, however, that al-Qaida in Iraq (an off-shoot which didn’t exist before we invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein) is a vicious and destructive force that has incited sectarian violence, has been responsible for a significant percentage of the worst attacks on civilians, and has been unyielding in its attacks on American forces.
However, it is the group’s fundamentalist extremism, which tolerates no ideological impurity, which has been its undoing in Anbar Province where the Sunni insurgency was once strongest. Its Taliban-style governance of the areas it briefly controlled along with the murders of many Sunni tribal chiefs who were slow to embrace the group, has led to an unlikely alliance between key Sunni tribes and the Americans. Although we don’t yet know the full story, it was the growing schism between al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgent groups who had previously fought the Americans that the US marines in Anbar skilfully exploited. The result is that the tribes who supplied many of the fighters for these groups have joined, if not the central government in Baghdad, then the Americans in fighting al-Qaida.
Their action stemmed from a simple recognition that al-Qaida represented a more deadly long term threat to their well-being than did the Shiite-dominated central government or the Americans. There is both hope and danger to be seen in this turn of events. The hope rests in the assurance that even Sunnis in Iraq do not now and never will embrace the hateful and murderous ideology of al-Qaida and Islamic extremism.
The danger is that we will mistake this willingness to combat a common foe Anbar and other areas with large Sunni populations, as a sign of reconciliation with and support for the central government in Baghdad. It is neither. And it is entirely possible that the weapons and training we are providing the Sunni tribes who declare their willingness to fight al-Qaida, will be turned one day back against us and certainly the Iraqi government if the latter fails to make political accommodation with the Sunni minority.
Al-Qaida is an extreme, fundamentalist, Sunni Islamist terrorist group. It is a bitter enemy of the Shiite majority in Iraq and of the Kurdish minority. Now, if ever there were any doubt, we can see that the Sunni minority want no more to do with it than the others.
Whatever the consequences of a US withdrawal of major combat forces from Iraq, the establishment of a safe and secure haven for al-Qaida is surely not one of them.