Perhaps the most consistent and widely accepted argument against withdrawal from Iraq has been the risk that al-Qaeda would take advantage of the vacuum to establish a durable base for exporting global jihad. But al-Qaeda has already declared an Islamic State of Iraq -- they did so in October, in spite of the United States's presence. A closer look at the results of that declaration might help reframe the debate about the implications of an American withdrawal. Iraqi Sunni politics have been turned upside down over the last few weeks -- and al-Qaeda's declaration of an Islamic State of Iraq, rather than America's "surge" strategy, is the main reason. Indeed, events in recent weeks offer good reason to believe that al-Qaeda would fare more poorly in a post-American Iraq than surge supporters pretend.
Americans, eager for good news from Iraq and seizing upon rising public Sunni opposition to al-Qaeda, risk missing its real significance. Recent coverage of Anbar province has focused upon the growing willingness of tribal leaders to cooperate with American forces against al-Qaeda. It is true that, from Ramadi to Kirkuk, local Sunni leaders have indeed called for an "awakening," even an "intifada against al-Qaeda," in response to resentment over its behavior. That's not so new -- reports of tribes turning against al-Qaeda have been a staple of reporting from Iraq for years.
Far more importantly, last week the Islamic Army of Iraq, one of the most influential of the insurgency factions, issued a scathing public denunciation of the Islamic State of Iraq, calling on Osama bin Laden to intervene with his misguided Iraqi representatives. Al-Qaeda has taken this challenge seriously enough that its emir, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, released a lengthy and somewhat conciliatory audiotape responding to their concerns. His statement suggests that al-Qaeda is far more worried about this challenge by the insurgency than it is about the much-heralded tribal "awakening."*
War supporters have been spinning these developments as benefits of the surge; they can do so only by deliberately conflating al-Qaeda with the wider insurgency. But these recent events highlight the dangers of encouraging such a blind spot. The real story in Iraqi Sunni politics right now is the growing power struggle between al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq and a tentative alliance of insurgency factions opposed to its methods and goals. This doesn't mean that these insurgents are "good guys" -- they are the most effective forces fighting the American presence in Iraq, with much American blood on their hands, and their goal is to keep the insurgency's focus on fighting the American occupation. But their goals are not the same as al-Qaeda's.
While Sunni disenchantment with al-Qaeda is all to the good, it has little to do with American strategy and, crucially, even less to do with giving up on the anti-American insurgency. The real driving force has been the increasingly aggressive, unilateralist behavior of al-Qaeda. Since declaring an Islamic State of Iraq last October, it has overplayed its hand, alienating local Iraqi tribal leaders and major insurgent groups alike. They level a litany of complaints about their al-Qaeda counterparts: killing members of their factions, intimidating Sunnis, ransacking their homes, and stealing their money. Many insurgency factions are also put off by the absolutist rhetoric of the Islamic State of Iraq's leader Abu Omaral-Baghdadi, who in best Bush fashion declares that all who are not with the Islamic State are against it. Many Sunnis have been particularly offended by the Islamic State's cavalier use of the doctrine of takfir, declaring those who have not declared fealty to al-Qaeda to be non-Muslims and legitimate targets.
If this were only a power struggle between otherwise similar factions, or an accumulation of local grievances, then these developments might be of limited interest. But there are fundamental strategic differences between al-Qaeda and the larger insurgency's respective goals for Iraq. Their current clash mirrors a vocal debate which has broken out on the jihadi internet forums recently over whether Iraq should be seen as part of a "global" jihad or as only a national one.
Al-Qaeda presents a global vision of Iraq's role and future. In a document published by the London-based Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, al-Qaeda laid out a strategic agenda that placed Iraq at the center of a global jihad. The Islamic State of Iraq would become a central base for exporting jihad against kafir Arab regimes, the West, and Iran (with a high priority placed on the last). What that means is that al-Qaeda is in no hurry to see the Americans leave, since this would deprive it of its main source of propaganda and direct access to Americans targets. Thus, al-Qaeda rejects any negotiations with the United States. Indeed, at least some of its global rhetoric is likely tailored to feed American fears of withdrawal.
The Islamic Army of Iraq and other locally rooted insurgency factions explicitly reject this vision of global jihad, insisting instead on a strict focus on liberating Iraq from American occupation. These factions have certainly been radicalized by the spiraling civil war in Iraq, but they lack al-Qaeda's monomaniacal fixation on the Shia and have on occasion entertained proposals for a cross-sectarian alliance. In recent weeks, some of these factions have gone out of their way to reassure neighboring Arab states that they consider the jihad exclusively Iraqi, and would not tolerate Iraq becoming an exporter of jihad. These insurgent factions have said that they would talk to the United States on the condition that it commit to withdrawing. (In fact, they probably already did talk to U.S. officials earlier this year, and according to recent reports are currently talking with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.) And unlike al-Qaeda, these factions actually badly want an American withdrawal from Iraq.
While the number of foreign fighters in Iraq has long been exaggerated, it would be wrong to immediately assume that al-Qaeda has miscalculated in pursuing their alienating strategy. In violent times, radical groups have an advantage over their more pragmatic competitors. There are some recent signs of the Islamic State gaining influence, and of the insurgency factions feeling pressure. For instance, the 1920 Revolution Brigade recently split, and there are also rumors of a split within the Ansar al-Sunna group (though the group itself denies them). Military successes, such as the shocking bombing of the Iraqi Parliament cafeteria (for which the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility) gave substance to al-Qaeda's heralded offensive. While the real balance of power is difficult to gauge, it is clear that al-Qaeda's power grab has worried the other insurgency factions and triggered their response.
What does all this mean for U.S. policy? The most important implication of the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda is not that the "surge" is working, or that the insurgency is losing steam. Rather, the insurgency's turn against al-Qaeda -- if it comes to fruition -- actually strengthens the case for an American withdrawal, by putting to rest fears of Iraq becoming a new base for global jihad. The escalating confrontation we've witnessed between the insurgents and al-Qaeda suggests that they would not afterwards tolerate the kind of al-Qaeda presence that Americans fear. Meanwhile, the currently dominant trends in the insurgency have made it ever more clear that they are willing to talk to the Maliki government and the United States, if only they get a strong commitment to withdrawal.
The absence of such a commitment helped doom earlier American efforts led by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to reach out to elements of the insurgency, while -- as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged yesterday -- the congressional debate about a deadline for withdrawal may now be enticing them into renewed contacts. The Sunni turn against al-Qaeda opens up some real prospects for a desperately needed Iraqi political reconciliation ... if the United States can learn the right lessons.
Marc Lynch is associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Williams College, and author of the popular Middle East politics blog Abu Aardvark. His most recent book is Voices of the New Arab Public: Al-Jazeera, Iraq, and Middle East Politics Today.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.
Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.