Hitchens on Al Qaeda in Iraq

Fighting the “Real” Fight
Foolish myths about al-Qaida in Mesopotamia

lighting hammer m109a6 M109A6 Paladin firing in support of Operation Lightning Hammer

I don’t always agree with Christopher Hitchens, but this article is one not to be missed.

The founder of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who we can now gratefully describe as “the late.” The first thing to notice about him is that he was in Iraq before we were. The second thing to notice is that he fled to Iraq only because he, and many others like him, had been driven out of Afghanistan. Thus, by the logic of those who say that Afghanistan is the “real” war, he would have been better left as he was. Without the overthrow of the Taliban, he and his collaborators would not have moved to take advantage of the next failed/rogue state. I hope you can spot the simple error of reasoning that is involved in this belief. It also involves the defeatist suggestion–which was very salient in the opposition to the intervention in Afghanistan–that it’s pointless to try to crush such people because “others will spring up in their place.” Those who take this view should have the courage to stand by it and not invent a straw-man argument.

We’re seeing this aspect of counterinsurgency warfare right now in Iraq. We kill or capture who we can, drive the rest out, and try to secure as much territory as possible. If we’re persistent, this pays off over time by leaving fewer enemy fighters and disrupted support networks to fight and giving them fewer places to hide and organize.

When we announced the “surge” early this year and began sending additional troops into Baghdad, the bad guys fled the capital for Diyala province. See The surge: Already succeeding? from January:

Yes, many of these fighters and terrorists will just melt away into the towns, villages, and wilderness of the Diyala region, northeast of Baghdad. But they won’t be able to make quite so much trouble from there, and as difficult as it will be to root them out, it will be easier (and more media-friendly) than having to do so within Baghdad.

A couple of months later I noted that a battalion of Stryker soldiers was moving into Baqubah and that prepatory operations were pretty significant. Also noted in that second post:

Also, the fact that they’ve headed northeast into Diyala rather than west toward Anbar could mean that maybe Anbar isn’t quite so friendly to murdering terrorist foreigners and Baathist insurgents as previously.

Anbar had long been shaky at best, and was declared “lost” on several different occasions. Though still not Disneyland, it’s not nearly as jihadist-friendly as it once was. Headway has been made, in large part because the locals decided that the terrorists and foreign fighters were worse than the Americans. If we had left Anbar when the politicians said it was unwinnable, it would now be Al Qaeda Central, wouldn’t it?

Now we’ve driven them out of Baqubah and are chasing them down in the rest of Diyala province:

U.S. launches new Iraq offensive
Aug 14, 2007

BAGHDAD – U.S. forces launched a big offensive in Iraq’s Diyala province on Tuesday as part of a major new countrywide push against Sunni and Shiite militants announced this week…

The military said 16,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops were involved in Operation Lightning Hammer against Sunni Arab al-Qaida militants in Diyala province, the fertile crescent of the Diyala River, which flows from the north into the Tigris near Baghdad.

U.S. and Iraqi soldiers initiated the operation with a late-night air assault, they said. The operation’s focus is to target militants who fled an earlier crackdown in the provincial capital Baqouba into the river valley north of the city.

“Al-Qaida cells were disrupted and forced into hiding … in June and July,” Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of U.S. troops north of Baghdad, said in a statement. “Our main goal with Lightning Hammer is to eliminate the terrorist organizations … and show them that they truly have no safe haven — especially in Diyala.”

If we stick with this, the summer of 2007 might be looked back on as the turning point.


We can not only deny the clones of Bin Ladenism a military victory in Iraq, we can also discredit them in the process and in the eyes (and with the help) of a Muslim people who have seen them up close.

This is the key. A lot of folks keep arguing that terrorism has no connection to poverty, but is it the rich folks in Anbar and Diyala that have made the difference? No, it’s the locals, a many of them poor and more of them dirt-poor, that have had enough. They’ve seen what happens when the terrorists and their allies run the place.

As safe havens in Iraq disappear and (hopefully) more headway is made in Afghanistan, watch for increased terrorist presence in other lands. Places like Somalia and the mostly lawless western wilds of Pakistan are already natural collecting points.


  1. In regards to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi being in Iraq, he is reported to have gone into northern Iraq in 2002 to join ansar al-islam. I don’t know the exact location, but if it was northern Iraq, then that means it probably was the Kurd area protected by the northern no-fly zone. In effect this was not an area where Saddam exercised much control. We don’t even have control of our borders and no one is enforcing a no-fly zone over the US. The reason I point this out is because Hitchens is trying to make it look like Saddam laid out the welcome mat for al-qaeda to come to Iraq. If you want to link Saddam to terrorism, stick with the fact he supplied $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers in Israel.

  2. If the point was to link AQ to Iraq based upon al-Zarqawi, then could you not link AQ to the US based upon the 19 9-11 operatives who were living in the US?

  3. Absolutely. In fact, I just tried an exercise. If you replace the word ‘Iraq’ with ‘America’ everywhere in Hitchens’ piece, it still makes complete sense. In fact, it makes MORE sense that way. That convinces me. Troops out of Iraq now, get them back HERE, the most logical place to engage them!

  4. In regards to Anbar province. One of my Marine buddies did several tours in Ramadi; now on his last tour his unit has deployed tp an undisclosed location as they were no longer needed in Ramadi. Very encouraging; but the last I had heard Ramadi was the ‘capital of the insurgency’. Funny how the medial failed to report that. (funny in the un-patriotic stab the troops in the back kind of way)

  5. I do not live in denial, the surge is failing. Read TODAY’s news- ‘Surge derailed by multiple suicide bombings.’ Where did this consensus of denial get started?

  6. Yep, the surge is failing even while it is succeeeding! Or.. wait.. I’m confused. Which narrative am I supposed to believe? Someone, tell me what to think, quickly…

  7. Getting back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the US did have the opportunity in June 2002 and again in early 2003 to take him out in northern Iraq. Given that we regularly patrolled the northern no-fly zone and had attacked Iraqi military targets inside this zone, attacking Zarqawi would have been inline with securing the Kurd region. If Al-Qaeda was the big threat, why did we pass on the opportunity to hit them? Answer, it appears the administration in the summer of 2002 had already decided to invade Iraq and topple Saddam. They did not want any attack on Zarqawi to interfere with their invasion plans. ‘Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam. The United States did attack the camp at Kirma at the beginning of the war, but it was too late -Zarqawi and many of his followers were gone. ‘Here’s a case where they waited, they waited too long and now we’re suffering as a result inside Iraq,’ Cressey added.’ Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4431601/

  8. Here is one more quote from the above article I forgot to include. ‘People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president’s policy of pre-emption against terrorists.’ -Roger Cressey Terrorism expert Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4431601/