Why not Zarqawi ?

by John Quiggin on October 26, 2004

The Bush Administration has finally conceded, on the record, that it decided, for political reasons, not to go after leading terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the leadup to the Iraq war. The question remains, which political reasons were decisive?

We can, I think, dismiss the idea that an attack on Zarqawi would have led the UN not to pass resolution 1441 demanding that Saddam admit weapons inspectors. As Ted points out here the US was bombing Iraq throughout the leadup to the war and had conducted many similar attacks on terrorists (notably including Clinton’s failed attempt on bin Laden). In any case, the final proposal for an attack on Zarqawi was rejected when the inspections were already under way. There was no way that the UN Secretariat could have withdrawn the inspectors without authorization from the UNSC where the US and UK could have vetoed it, in the unlikely event it was proposed.

I think two considerations were decisive. First, an effective attack would probably have required co-operation with Kurdish ground forces. But, right up to March 2003, the Administration was trying to get Turkish participation, or at least basing rights to allow an attack on Iraq from north as well as south. Strong hints were given that if the Turks came on board, the US would keep Kurdish demands for autonomy in check. Obviously, a joint operation with the Kurds would have wrecked the negotiations. As it turned out, the Turkish Parliament rejected the deal, but not until the war machine was already rolling.

The second point relates to intelligence. Defenders of the Administration’s position have made much of the fact that they didn’t know for sure whether Zarqawi was there[1], but this hasn’t stopped previous attacks on terrorist leaders, some of which have been successful and others not. A more difficult point for the Administration was that they had made propaganda points out of the claim that Zarqawi’s Al-Ansar group was manufacturing ricin, a poison used in assassinations. By a rhetorical sleight of hand, this could be equated to “WMDs in Iraq”. But, by late 2002, and certainly by early 2003, it must have been pretty obvious to the hardheads in the Administration that all their intelligence on WMDs was worthless – the failure to secure al-Tuwaitha after the war was indicative of this. Regardless of whether Zarqawi was caught, an attack on the Kirma camp would have come up blank on WMDs, and this would have undermined the broader case being mounted by Bush and Powell[3].

So, an attack on Zarqawi would have weakened the case for war, if only modestly. Going after Saddam was much more important to Bush than going after Zarqawi. It’s that simple.

Update After posting this, I got around to reading Hitchens’ latest piece in Slate. His column, following Orwell, is named “In Front of Your Nose”, but apparently the WSJ hasn’t passed in front of Hitchens’ nose. He has a long and confused analysis of Zarqawi, vaguely mentioning the point that his operations were “directed at the Kurdish leadership in that part of northern Iraq that was outside Saddam Hussein’s immediate control” but not the fact that this part of northern Iraq was under the immediate control of his new hero George Bush. I gave up expecting anything worthwhile from Hitchens some time ago, but this marks a new low for him, I think. It’s Orwellian all right, but not in a good way.

fn1. As an aside, despite not being able to find Zarqawi’s operatives when they are preparing attacks in downtown Baghdad, the Administration is still claiming to have incredibly precise intelligence about what is going on inside Fallujah to the extent, that it can locate the Zarqawi group in particular houses and restaurants for bombing raids on an almost nightly basis. If you don’t accept this claim, the obvious alternative is that the attacks are designed to terrify the inhabitants of Fallujah and thereby reduce their support for the insurgents. There is only one reasonable description for people who set off bombs in civilian areas to terrify their enemies.

fn2. I’m sure the Administration expected that something would turn up, once they had a free run in Iraq, access to the records and officials and so on. But (with the possible exception of Powell) I’m sure they also knew the intelligence they were peddling was worthless.

{ 8 comments }

1

Sebastian Holsclaw 10.26.04 at 6:05 am

“But (with the possible exception of Powell) I’m sure they also knew the intelligence they were peddling was worthless.”

Huh? Why in the world would you exempt Powell? Just because you like him? It isn’t as if he were a low-level flunky.

2

d mason 10.26.04 at 7:09 am

“The second point relates to intelligence. Defenders of the Administration’s position have made much of the fact that they didn’t know for sure whether Zarqawi was there1, but this hasn’t stopped previous attacks on terrorist leaders, some of which have been successful and others not. “

The Administration’s hesitance to act on questionable intell in this case seems positively Clintonesque, in the perjorative sense so favored by GOPers these days as they deride the “Sept. 10th” mentality of the “Liberals.”

Geez.

3

bad Jim 10.26.04 at 8:40 am

Powell has been treated shamefully by this administration, trotted out as the organ-grinder’s monkey at the United Nations to beat his drum in the cause of war.

His State Department generated a plan for the occupation of Iraq which was tossed aside by the impatient Pentagon invasion team which admitted no impediments to its impetuous pipe dream of easy victory.

In this mix, al-Zarqawi simply did not figure. At the time that this lunatic adventure was launched, the only devil was “Sodom” Hussein. Now we worry about who’ll be “Gomorrah” tomorrow.

4

jet 10.26.04 at 12:55 pm

Neither one of the administration’s arguements make any sense.

The Kurds had made clear that they would assult the fortress if the walls were bombed. A Kurdish general interviewed made it clear that their were only a small number garrisoned in the base and the Kurds had more than enough men to take it, if they could gain entrance. But if you ever saw footage of that base, you’d understand why they would not attack while the walls stood.

The second point is even weaker. They are argueing that they didn’t strike a nest of terrorists because it might not kill the leader. What, were we running short on bombs? Didn’t have enough jet fuel? Low level Al-Queda so numerous they’re just not worth killing anymore?

There must be some crazy CIA-Iranian-Turkish-Space Alien connection with that place, or Bush and CO screwed up big-big.

5

Uncle Kvetch 10.26.04 at 2:28 pm

Powell has been treated shamefully by this administration, trotted out as the organ-grinder’s monkey at the United Nations to beat his drum in the cause of war.

Yep…and if he had the tiniest shred of personal integrity, he would have walked out several years ago. The fact that he hasn’t leads me to the inescapable conclusion that organ-grinder’s monkey is a role he’s quite comfortable with, if it suits his long-term political ambitions.

6

Giles 10.26.04 at 4:41 pm

“Going after Saddam was much more important to Bush than going after Zarqawi. It’s that simple. “

Exactly – if the war had taken place with Turkish cooperation and had taken place months earlier, then, I suspect that the Baathists and Jihadiis would have had less time and ability to organize and smuggle explosives in and out of the country. So given that it was always more likely that any strike against Zaqawi would be successful once they had forces on the ground in Kurdistan, on balance the decision to wait looks to have been the right one.

NB when did “Clinton’s failed attempt on bin Laden” take place – didn’t he hold back – for similar sorts of reasons – namely that a probably unsuccessful attack was not worth it?

7

legion 10.26.04 at 8:08 pm

“The Administration’s hesitance to act on questionable intell in this case seems positively Clintonesque, in the perjorative sense so favored by GOPers these days as they deride the “Sept. 10th” mentality of the “Liberals.” “

Mason,
It holds even less water than that… As I understand the reporting, they _knew_ it was a terrorist training camp, they _knew_ it was active… the only intel that was “questionable” was whether or not Zarqawi was actually _on the premises_ that day. Which means the lie behind not attacking the camp is even more (or is that less) half-assed than usual.

8

blar 10.26.04 at 8:30 pm

John, your first footnote seems to merit more than an “aside”. Would you care to elaborate in the comments or in another post?

Comments on this entry are closed.