Iraq and Al-Qaida


Iraq and Al-Qaida

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 21 2002 3:30 PM

Iraq and Al-Qaida


Dear Jeff:


Couldn't have just written a nice fluffy "Talk of the Town," could you?

Looking forward to this, too. It's not every day I get to talk to a genuine WWF wrestler. (And if you're not that Goldberg, then, man, what are you doing hanging out with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine?)

And yes, I need to take heat about working for the Man from that bastion of counterculture subversiveness at The New Yorker.

Sure, let's get to the total train-wreck in the Israeli-Palestinian theater in a later round. But unlike Dick Cheney, let's at least try to get to the intifada via Iraq rather than Iraq via the intifada.

First and foremost, it's a knockout piece: intrepid, tough, vivid, and historically grounded. And hell no, you're not naive; sometimes, what passes for foreign-policy sophistication is actually callowness or callousness. Moral reproach doth not a policy make, of course, but there are worse places to start.

I'm intrigued by your end point because that's sort of where I'd start. In some ways, the reasons to worry about Iraq don't have much to do with 9/11. Whatever you've found about Ansar al-Islam (more on those charmers in a bit) probably doesn't amount to a smoking gun—except perhaps to some of the harder-line folks cheering on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who've long since been sold on the need to get Saddam anyway. Even if everything said by the Kurdish prisoners with whom you spoke was true, there still would be very little to tie Saddam to the World Trade Center attacks. If someone's looking for casus belli with Iraq, for now at least, 9/11 isn't it.

I thought the most useful part of your piece had little to do with al-Qaida and everything to do with the Kurds. Granted, Americans haven't ever been the world's most history-obsessed people, but even amid the current Iraq debate, startlingly little attention is ever paid to the Anfal—the cold-blooded Iraqi campaign of mass slaughter against its own Kurdish minority in the late 1980s, complete with the repeated use of nerve and mustard gas. Human Rights Watch, whose judgments are all the more scalding because their reporting is so relentlessly sober, called the Anfal a case of genocide. Saddam isn't just some run-of-the-mill strongman; he's an all-out war criminal.

But is Saddam a major state sponsor of terrorism? Well, worse than some, better than others. He harbors Abu Nidal, but that's at least partially about keeping him on a tight leash—for now, more of a wild card to be held than an ace to be played, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor. He also provides more than a dozen bases to Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a weird group of quasi-Marxist Iranian dissidents who started as militant Islamists out to topple the shah. But Saddam's ties to MEK are more about him semi-casually poking a finger in the eye of Iran's government than about really trying to export global terror à la Osama Bin Laden.

And I wonder whether that's not what's going on with Ansar al-Islam, the group you profile in your piece. As my colleague Ken Pollack (who handled Iraq on the Clinton administration's National Security Council) points out, if Saddam and al-Qaida want to talk, hey, they can talk. Why go through this band of disreputable, penetrable, and unreliable Kurds? On the notion of Ansar al-Islam as a major nexus of Iraqi-al-Qaida cooperation, I guess I'm convincible but skeptical. The Kurds are only too eager to find something to trigger a U.S. invasion of Iraq; as you point out in the piece, there's no way to know what the PUK had done to its prisoners before you showed up with a tape recorder; and the vehicle feels implausible.

What I find easier to buy is that Saddam is using Ansar al-Islam against his Kurdish foes the same way he uses MEK against Iran—not as a major strategic partner, but as a modestly useful way to put some tactical sand in his enemies' gears. Could both Saddam's Mukhabarat spy service and al-Qaida be casually using or supporting Ansar al-Islam? Sure. Does that mean that Saddam and al-Qaida are cooperating in a major way over this one small-beer group of Kurds and Afghan Arabs? Well, maybe, and it's certainly worth checking out, but I'm not sure we hang a QED sign on this one just yet.

But what is demonstrated—and reiterated in harrowing terms in the piece –is the current Iraqi regime's overpowering drive to obtain weapons of mass destruction and its appalling willingness to use them. So, I might give more points to background over buzz, as it were. Even after reading your piece (and yes, I did read the whole damn thing), I'm still not convinced that Saddam's ties to global terrorism are so unendurably close that he simply has to go, without fail or hesitation. But I am reinforced in my longstanding assessment that this regime simply cannot be permitted to get nukes. Period.

Or am I being cynical?