Post 9/11, pre 3/03 world

by Ted on October 25, 2004

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a bloodthirsty terrorist. He was well-known before the war in Iraq. In fact, we knew that he had a base in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq, where we operated freely. Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN leaned heavily on Zarqawi to make the case for war. But it begged the question: why didn’t we take out Zarqawi’s base before the war?

The Pentagon drew up detailed plans in June 2002, giving the administration a series of options for a military strike on the camp Mr. Zarqawi was running then in remote northeastern Iraq, according to generals who were involved directly in planning the attack and several former White House staffers. They said the camp, near the town of Khurmal, was known to contain Mr. Zarqawi and his supporters as well as al Qaeda fighters, all of whom had fled from Afghanistan. Intelligence indicated the camp was training recruits and making poisons for attacks against the West…

But the raid on Mr. Zarqawi didn’t take place. Months passed with no approval of the plan from the White House, until word came down just weeks before the March 19, 2003, start of the Iraq war that Mr. Bush had rejected any strike on the camp until after an official outbreak of hostilities with Iraq. Ultimately, the camp was hit just after the invasion of Iraq began.

Did waiting until a full-scale invasion offer any advantages? Administration spokesman Jim Wilkinson says yes:

“It was more effective to deal with the facility as part of the broader strategy, and in fact, the facility was destroyed early in the war.”

The WSJ article doesn’t include his explanation of why such an attack would have been more effective. But it seems relevant that, according to President Bush, he had not made the decision to go to war with Iraq in June 2002, when the Pentagon drew up its plans.

In September 2002, he said, “Of course, I haven’t made up my mind we’re going to war with Iraq.”

In early March 2003, Bush said that war could be avoided. He said, “I’ve not made up our mind about military action. Hopefully, this can be done peacefully. Hopefully, that as a result of the pressure that we have placed—and others have placed—that Saddam will disarm and/or leave the country.”

As late as March 17, 2003, Bush made a televised address in which he said that Saddam could prevent a military conflict by abdicating his leadership of Iraq. He said, “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing.”

If we can accept Bush’s statements as truthful, it seems that between June 2002, when the Pentagon created its plans to destroy Zarqawi’s base, and March 2003, when Saddam missed the 48-hour ultimatum, there was a possibility that there would be no major invasion of Iraq.

If the President had finally decided against war, would his Administration have continued to leave Zarqawi and his camp unmolested? We can’t know. Maybe they would have decided that Zarqawi’s terrorist camp and its personel constituted a threat, independent of Saddam Hussein.

But even if we make the assumption that the Administration would eventually have authorized an attack on Zarqawi, with or without war, what possible advantage could have been gained by waiting?

{ 29 comments }

1

Eric the Unread 10.25.04 at 8:00 pm

Because it would have scuppered any chance at UN agreement on the wider issue of Iraq (since the French Veto threat wasn’t a twinkle in Chirac’s eye at that point) and Bush would have been derided by people as an insane warmonger?

2

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.25.04 at 8:19 pm

Because we would have been subjected to pictures of women crying and holding dead babies after we bombed the village/camp which would have meant that we wouldn’t have gotten to even get inspectors into Iraq, much less do anything else.

Also, we never had any firm intelligence about when Zarqawi was there.

3

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.25.04 at 8:19 pm

Because we would have been subjected to pictures of women crying and holding dead babies after we bombed the village/camp which would have meant that we wouldn’t have gotten to even get inspectors into Iraq, much less do anything else.

Also, we never had any firm intelligence about when Zarqawi was there.

4

james 10.25.04 at 8:20 pm

Its possible that with Saddam in power, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was seen as potentially useful. Thus continuing the long US tradition of actively supporting the lesser of two evils.

5

dsquared 10.25.04 at 8:22 pm

So both of you guys are basically saying “because Zarqawi, who was a threat to us, was less of a priority than Saddam, who wasn’t”.

Sebastian; we never had any decent intelligence about Saddam either, but it didn’t seem to stop us.

6

Detached Observer 10.25.04 at 8:43 pm

Sebastian wrote “Because we would have been subjected to pictures of women crying and holding dead babies after we bombed…”

That is just plain ridiculous…

…after bombing Iraq over and over again in the late 90s, after daily attacks on Iraqi installations as part of the policing of the no fly zone, the U.S. suddenly decided that collateral casualties fatally undermine the case for action. Right.

7

Ted Barlow 10.25.04 at 8:46 pm

Sebastian,

This is the last paragraph of the WSJ report:

Questions about whether the U.S. missed an opportunity to take out Mr. Zarqawi have been enhanced recently by a CIA report on Mr. Zarqawi, commissioned by Vice President Dick Cheney. Individuals who have been briefed on the report’s contents say it specifically cites evidence that Mr. Zarqawi was in the camp during those prewar months. They said the CIA’s conclusion was based in part on a review of electronic intercepts, which show that Mr. Zarqawi was using a satellite telephone to discuss matters relating to the camp, and that the intercepts indicated the probability that the calls were being made from inside the camp.

So we sometimes knew when he was there.

Re: women crying: Bush defenders occasionally seem to make the argument that, because an action could be criticized, it was impossible. That’s not a good argument. We occasionally have been known to run raids on terrorists. There are civillian casualties, and some of them end up on the news. This doesn’t stop us; it (rightfully) never has.

8

Sven 10.25.04 at 8:56 pm

Man, you guys are terrible at the spin game. Just complete the circle or irrationality: The reason they didn’t take out Zarqawi is because they didn’t want to divert intelligence resources from Afghanistan.

9

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.25.04 at 8:58 pm

So is your argument now that we never needed to force Saddam even to allow inspectors in? Or do you deny that bombing in Iraq was likely to make that enormously more complicated?

Also, in early 2002 it wasn’t at all clear which was the greater threat. As I recall there were still people denying that Zarqawi was really a member of Al Qaeda at the time.

Furthermore, in early 2002, it seemed obvious that we could deal with both threats (by invading Iraq through Turkey) if we waited a short time.

We all remember that the UN hadn’t bothered to force Iraq to accept inspectors until late 2003, right?

We all remember that if Bush hadn’t unilaterally threatened war we wouldn’t even have gotten that, right?

So we should have just blown that all off for an invasion of northern Iraq? I don’t think so.

Of course part of the problem with this scenario is the impotence of the UN during the 1998-2002 period. If the precious international community had bothered to keep track of Saddam then, there wouldn’t have been any confusing questions.

10

besieged by bush 10.25.04 at 9:07 pm

“So why aren’t you telling us that B-2s dropped 50 bombs on it?” I remember almost screaming at the television during Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN when he asserted that there was a terrorist camp in (Kurdish-controlled) Iraq where they were working on chemical weapons. Turns out that the military was prepared (pushing) to do just that. So “why not”? Because it did not fit the political agenda of the day.

Between errors in warfighting approaches(Zarqawi, the missing explosives, etc — forget whether we should have gone into Iraq), failures to enforce basic clean air act provisions (leading to greatly increased asthma & other health problem rates) and the incompentence of the flue vaccine, George Bush & his team bear responsibility for the deaths of far more Americans than bin Laden has killed …

Four more years? Come off it …

11

Henry 10.25.04 at 9:07 pm

According to Sebastian

bq. Because we would have been subjected to pictures of women crying and holding dead babies after we bombed the village/camp which would have meant that we wouldn’t have gotten to even get inspectors into Iraq, much less do anything else. Also, we never had any firm intelligence about when Zarqawi was there.

According to that notorious source of anti-administration propaganda, the _Wall Street Journal_.

bq. In addition, retired Gen. John M. Keane, the U.S. Army’s vice chief of staff when the strike was considered, said that because the camp was isolated in the thinly populated, mountainous borderlands of northeastern Iraq, the risk of collateral damage was minimal. Former military officials said that adding to the target’s allure was intelligence indicating that Mr. Zarqawi himself was in the camp at the time. A strike at the camp, they believed, meant at least a chance of killing or incapacitating him

12

seth 10.25.04 at 9:13 pm

“Or do you deny that bombing in Iraq was likely to make that enormously more complicated?”

We never stopped bombing in Iraq after 1991. What makes you think that bombing Zarqawi’s camp would have crossed the threshold?

13

Ted Barlow 10.25.04 at 9:45 pm

Sebastian,

Your argument seems to rest on the theory that, if we had destroyed Zarqawi’s base in 2002, the UN would have been so horrified that they wouldn’t have supported the return of inspectors to Iraq.

But… why is that a valid assumption? Do you remember the worldwide outcry when we destroyed the Abu Sayyaf cell in the Phillipines? Neither do I. We had the support of the world to remove the Taliban. Even now, we continue to have widespread support in eliminating non-state terrorists, as opposed to regimes.

Like Seth said, we never stopped bombing Iraq. In the run-up to the war, we engaged in an active campaign to degrade Saddam’s ability to make war. It was hardly an issue.

So why should we assume that an attack on a known terrorist would horrify the world so much that it would stop all cooperation against Saddam?

14

mona 10.25.04 at 10:01 pm

How can the UN be simultaneously ‘impotent’ _and_ be able to literally prevent the US from taking unilateral action without UN approval?

These arguments should come with free aspirin.

(Actually, who ever literally stopped the US from taking any action whatsoever? Please? Just one instance?)

15

kevin donoghue 10.25.04 at 10:06 pm

This post ends with a question: “what possible advantage could have been gained by waiting?”

But the obvious answer is in the first paragraph: “Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN leaned heavily on Zarqawi to make the case for war.”

So what possible purpose does this post serve? Obvious answer: it tests the ingenuity of the apologists for Bush.

Yes, they are looking a little tired, aren’t they?

16

abb1 10.25.04 at 10:14 pm

The Bushies screwed up and made worse pretty much everything they tried, that’s obvious.

But what’s with this cult of personality? I remember the time when Saddam was supposedly coordinating the resistance and his capture was supposed to bring the end to it.

Zarqawi (if he even exists) is not prophet Mohamed or sultan Saladin. When he is gone, someone from his circle will become the leader, that’s all there is to it. Gotta see the phenomenon rather than individual players; forest, not the trees.

17

spencer 10.25.04 at 10:27 pm

But what’s with this cult of personality?

Is this in reference to Zarqawi or Bush?

18

Lee Scoresby 10.25.04 at 10:36 pm

“So we should have just blown that all off for an invasion of northern Iraq? I don’t think so.”

Sebastian: just give up! Admit already that the Bush administration cared more about getting a justification for war then dealing with a threat in an efficient and expeditious manner. Then you won’t be stuck equating a bombing operation with a US invasion of northern Iraq.

In fact, I seem to recall that Zarqawi’s group was creating trouble for the Kurds before the war — bombings and stuff — but that they were too difficult for the Kurds to take out on their own. Hmmm. Doesnt’ smell like a “massive invasion” either.

19

John Bragg 10.25.04 at 10:39 pm

Because Jesus didn’t want Bush to bomb the Zarqawi camp. If Jesus wanted it done, He would have told Bush to do it.

20

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.25.04 at 10:42 pm

The problem here is that those here who claim to love diplomacy fail to like the choices real diplomacy involves.

In early 2002, France, Germany, and Russia were bringing pressure to drop all sanctions–without bringing inspectors back since 1998.

In the middle of 2002, Iraq announced it would never allow inspections to resume.

In the middle of 2002, there was allegedly a chance to hit Zarqawi.

In the middle of 2002, Democrats were complaining about being rushed into a war in Iraq.

If at the time, we had bombed in order to target a person (which as we have learned from the ‘decapitation’ attempts is not effective) we would have had more trouble getting inspections. If we had invaded, there would have been worse complaints about rushing things in Iraq.

Bush made a choice to defer a small attack so that it could become part of a larger attack. That is normally called, ‘efficiency’. Bush chose to defer a small attack so that he could try to gain diplomatic support.

That is exactly what you do in diplomacy.

Those who pretend that the UN was interested in pushing through inspections on their own are frankly lying to themselves.

21

Detached Observer 10.25.04 at 11:14 pm

Sebastian wrote “Bush made a choice to defer a small attack so that it could become part of a larger attack…”

Except by the time we got to the training camp after invading Iraq Zarqawi was long gone.

It sounds like you’ve basically conceded the point: Bush deferred a “small” attack on an actual terrorist in favor of a “larger” attack on Saddam Hussein – who was not connected to anti-American terrorism. Which is why many of us on the left say that Bush has not fought the war on terror very effectively.

22

Henry 10.25.04 at 11:21 pm

Shorter Sebastian – even though I’m wrong on collateral damage, and wrong on whether the administration knew that Zarqawi was around, my fuzzy counterfactuals and unique insights into administration thinking have allowed me to determine that the Democrats were still to blame.

23

mona 10.25.04 at 11:26 pm

If we had invaded, there would have been worse complaints about rushing things in Iraq.

Sebastian, do you remember all those ‘complaints’ when the US did indeed invade Iraq?

UN splitting up? Countries threatening vetoes? Diplomats and ministers calling Bush and Blair idiots? The Pope? And just to give it all a bit of colour, those millions of people protesting in demonstrations?

Did it ever stop anything? No.

(Repeat same scenario with different key elements/figures/degrees of anti-war dissent for first Gulf War, Kosovo, etc.)

Yet, you’re arguing that if the US did *not* do something else, not even a war but a limited military/intelligence anti-terrorist operation, it’s because those relentless Forces of Complaint would have suddenly been that powerful to stop them?

Didn’t it cross your mind that perhaps if the US didn’t do something it’s because they really really didn’t want to? The fact you or I or anyone cannot know for sure *why* they didn’t want to is no reason to come up with patently contradictory rationalisations after the fact.

24

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.26.04 at 12:12 am

Well mona, now that you have perfectly described why the US should never bother with diplomacy, I admit you are correct on everything.

Bush was wrong to to engage the international community. He should never have taken diplomatic concerns into consideration because diplomacy is useless.

Whew, now I get it.

25

roger 10.26.04 at 1:30 am

Alas, my reflexes — which are usually 100 percent against anything Sebastian writes — are misfiring tonight. He is right to say:

“Also, we never had any firm intelligence about when Zarqawi was there.”

In fact, looking back, our intelligence was almost 100 percent wrong. No WMD. No mass surrenders of orderly Iraqi troops, who then proceed to shyly shower their victors with flowers and baklava. And very probably, no certainty about the tracking of Zarqawi.

It does seem to me that relying on “intelligence” that tells us exactly where Zarqawi is — the same intelligence that can neither confirm nor disconfirm that he even has two sound legs — the intelligence that still cannot disentangle either the scale of Zarqawi’s power, nor his relation to Al Qaeda — seems like leaning on a very rotten column.

Of course, Sebastian’s other idea – that the U.S. would hesitate to smash the limbs of civilians and stain themselves with the brains of babies — in the quest for Middle Eastern loot and lebensraum for that most patriotic of objects, the SUV –doesn’t seem to hold water. After all, the U.S. has very calmly committed terrorist acts in Fallujah for the last two to six months, topping it off with a recent bombing of a popular restaurant there, modeling our strategy on the terrorist car baombing of civilians, except that we have better technology and of course better propaganda mechanisms, aka American Mainstream Media.

26

Luc 10.26.04 at 4:13 am

In fact, looking back, our intelligence was almost 100 percent wrong. No WMD. …

No WMD? A dangerous subject! Some funny rhetoric from Blair in a recent debate in parliament, – If my honourable opponent accepts the ISG report’s conclusion about the presence of WMD, he should be honest and accept the rest of the conclusions as well, which clearly states that we were right in starting this war –, or something to that refrain.

Just to show that you should never accept any intelligence or report produced by the “coalition” about the Iraq war.

But for this minor nuisance about facts, I couldn’t agree more with the explanation of Kevin Donoghue above.

A previous post on Crooked Timber on the same subject: Why?

27

mona 10.26.04 at 11:03 am

Yes, Sebastian, that was *exactly* what I meant, of course…

You know, I don’t recall a “should” or “shouldn’t” in my post – it was “did” or “didn’t”. I’m not giving an opinion on what should have been done. I’m asking you to explain how your theory on why something did not happen squares with real events that did happen. Whatever “engaging the international community” means to you, the mere fact of going at the UN did not stop the US from starting a war with Iraq even without UN approval. Fact. So, why do you think the “international community” who couldn’t stop the US from bombing all of Iraq would have been able to stop them from bombing one single terrorist camp, in an area where the US already had some control, and had already been carrying out military operations since the first Gulf War?

Snark away all you like, but it’s you putting forth an argument that escapes the most obvious logic.

28

abb1 10.26.04 at 6:01 pm

The Bushies screwed up and made worse pretty much everything they tried, that’s obvious.

But what’s with this cult of personality? I remember the time when Saddam was supposedly coordinating the resistance and his capture was supposed to bring the end to it.

Zarqawi (if he even exists) is not prophet Mohamed or sultan Saladin. When he is gone, someone from his circle will become the leader, that’s all there is to it. Gotta see the phenomenon rather than individual players; forest, not the trees.

29

Locutor 10.26.04 at 10:09 pm

Silly Timberites,

Sebastian doesn’t live in your reality-based world, so his explanations don’t have to make sense.

Now go call some lesbian a “lesbian” so we can all be outraged again.

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