Thursday, September 6, 2007

Is al-Queda not relavant in Iraq?

If al-Queda is not working hard in Iraq, they are surely working hard elsewhere. We may be "fighting them in Iraq" while they are fighting us everywhere else. I imagine a blindfolded man in a dark room punching at a foe that has left the building. Could it be that al-Queda is using few resoruces in Iraq while the Iraquis themselves keep us pinned down?

Andrew Tilghman a former Stars and Stripes reporter in Iraq has the story in Washington Monthly

The essential questions are: How large is the presence of AQI, in terms of manpower and attacks instigated, and what role does the group play in catalyzing further violence? For the first question, the military has produced an estimate. In a background briefing this July in Baghdad, military officials said that during the first half of this year AQI accounted for 15 percent of attacks in Iraq. That figure was also cited in the military intelligence report during final preparations for a National Intelligence Estimate in July.
This is the number on which many military experts inside the Beltway rely. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution who attended the Baghdad background briefing, explained that he thought the estimate derived from a comprehensive analysis by teams of local intelligence agents who examine the type and location of daily attacks, and their intended targets, and crosscheck that with reports from Iraqi informants and other data, such as intercepted phone calls. "It's a fairly detailed kind of assessment," O'Hanlon said. "Obviously you can't always know who is behind an attack, but there is a fairly systematic way of looking at the attacks where they can begin to make a pretty informed guess."
Yet those who have worked on estimates inside the system take a more circumspect view. Alex Rossmiller, who worked in Iraq as an intelligence officer for the Department of Defense, says that real uncertainties exist in assigning responsibility for attacks. "It was kind of a running joke in our office," he recalls. "We would sarcastically refer to everybody as al-Qaeda...."

How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I've heard comes from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq," according to Nance, "is a microscopic terrorist organization..."

The view that AQI is neither as big nor as lethal as commonly believed is widespread among working-level analysts and troops on the ground. A majority of those interviewed for this article believe that the military's AQI estimates are overblown to varying degrees. If such misgivings are common, why haven't doubts pricked the public debate? The reason is that alternate views are running up against an echo chamber of powerful players all with an interest in hyping AQI's role.

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