Five Years Later

The Pentagon sponsored a conference call Monday with a Air Force colonel named Donald Bacon in Baghdad, who presented what he characterized as the findings of a major effort to understand al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the United State's most implacable enemy in the war. These are the irreconcilables, the extremists, the bloodthirsty, the relentless; the ones who the president has promised will follow us home if they aren't defeated. The U.S. military command and the Bush administration have explained away AQI's tiny percentage within the Sunni insurgency by saying it is disproportionately dangerous, accounting for most of the suicide bombings and high-profile catastrophic attacks. And it's explained away the tiny proportion of foreigners within the mostly-Iraqi AQI by saying that the foreigners are both the organization's leadership and its suicide-bomber cadre.

So now the U.S. military command in Iraq has put together a new profile of the foreign cohort within AQI. It's based on debriefings of 48 foreign members of AQI currently in U.S. custody. In other words, Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I), the proper name for the U.S. military leadership, wanted to spread the word about what its most-implacable foe really is. Here is what that enemy looks like. I'll call him Mr. AQI.

Mr. AQI is a man in his early-to-mid 20s. Chances are he came to Iraq from either north Africa or Saudi Arabia. He's single. He's lower-middle class and has some high school experience, but probably not a diploma. To earn his wages he worked in construction or maybe drove a taxi. Mr. AQI probably didn't have any significant military experience prior to joining AQI. His relationship with his dad isn't so great. And while he's been religious for as long as he can remember, he wasn't, you know, a nut about it.

So what brought Mr. AQI to Iraq? At the mosque, he met a man who could tell Mr. AQI just wanted to belong to something. That man told Mr. AQI he had something Mr. AQI needed to see. Very often, according to Colonel Bacon, it was an image from Abu Ghraib. Or it was a spliced-together propaganda film of Americans killing or abusing Iraqis. The narrative that weighed heavily on Mr. AQI, Colonel Bacon said, was that it was his "religious duty go to Iraq," where he would serve as "an avenger of abused Iraqs."

But Iraq wasn't what he thought it would be. Mr. AQI wasn't an infantryman, where he'd bravely stand and fight Americans, he was pressured into being a suicide bomber. Nor were his targets the Americans he wanted to hit -- they were the Iraqis he came to avenge. According to Colonel Bacon, in some cases, Mr. AQI was happy to be in American custody, where he would no longer cause Iraq any more pain.

Let that sink in for a moment. For Mr. AQI has a lesson for us. Counterfactual conditionals are always problematic, but in all likelihood, according to MNF-I's own profile, if the United States. were not in Iraq, Mr. AQI would be back in his taxi in Algiers or Jedda. Were it not for Abu Ghraib -- which, of course, never would have happened had we not invaded -- Mr. AQI would never have felt that it was his religious duty to kill Americans. And were it not for the war, thousands of Americans and possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would be alive, right now, and all without a propaganda windfall that spikes terrorist recruitment for the extremist lurking around the mosque trying to generate new Mr. AQIs. And what is true of our foreign-born Mr. AQI is all the more true of the perhaps 95 percent of AQI that's Iraqi Sunni. Not one of them would have any reason to be a member of AQI if George Bush did not give him one.

I asked Colonel Bacon if Mr. AQI was an evildoer or if he was brainwashed; and then whether Mr. AQI would be blowing up Bangor if he wasn't blowing up Baghdad. Both were unfair questions, as they put a military officer into the crosshairs of an acrimonious debate that is properly debated by civilians. "No doubt some are more ideological than others," he told me, but his impression from the debriefings that they were primarily "looking for friendship, a place to be respected and counted. [That's] more of the driving force than anything else. And they're the most ideological [cohort] of AQI, more than the Iraqis." He added that "some could" come to the U.S. and "clearly al-Qaeda writ large would like to do that."

So I am sorry, Colonel Bacon. It wasn't right of me to ask those questions. But the evidence that you provided more than demonstrates that AQI is a nightmare of our own miscalculated creation. Imagine if we had not invaded Iraq but instead had devoted ourselves, five years ago to the promotion of dignity, justice and liberty to the millions of potential (and actual) Mr. AQIs around the greater Middle East. Mr. AQI desires to belong to something. He would have belonged -- not necessarily but quite possibly -- to the United States.

There are many horrors of the war, primarily the destroyed lives of Americans and Iraqis. But this is the strategic horror of the war. The good news is that there is a way to stop the generation of Mr. AQIs, both Iraqi and foreign. It is the most important counterterrorism operation of all. Stop this illegal, immoral, unjust, disastrous war.