Instead of wasting any more time on co-author pleasantries, I thought it would be better to pick a fight. Actually, I only want to quibble a bit with a section of an article discussed by Cernig below. The article - which explains how the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq is exaggerated by various parties for their own respective benefits - shines a light on an area that is all too often neglected in the present discourse. The underlying lesson is invaluable, and I don't mean to challenge that thesis. However, I believe that the author overstates the case a bit in this paragraph:
AQI's presence is tolerated by the country's Sunni Arabs, historically among the most secular in the Middle East, because they have a common enemy in the United States. Absent this shared cause, it's not clear that native insurgents would still welcome AQI forces working to impose strict sharia. In Baghdad, any near-term functioning government will likely be an alliance of Shiites and Kurds, two groups unlikely to accept organized radical Sunni Arab militants within their borders.While Cernig's conclusion is generally correct ("In other words, the idea that Iraq would become an AQI safe haven is ludicrous"), it is possible that the indigenous Sunni insurgents in Iraq would welcome some level of AQI presence for a period after the withdrawal of US troops. For Iraq's Sunni insurgents, there is more than one common enemy that would make AQI a potentially useful partner. These insurgents are not only fighting against US occupation, they are also fighting Iraq's Kurds (at least around northern cities like Kirkuk), Iraq's Shiite population and, by extension from the latter, Iran (and its local Shiite proxies like SCIRI and Dawa).
The Sunni Iraqi goals are not limited to expelling the US from their country. In addition, there is a desire to reclaim the leadership role in Iraq, and reverse the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from cities like Baghdad (at the very least). In this sense, armed conflict between Iraq's Sunnis Iraq's Shiite and, to a lesser extent, Iraq's Kurdish factions is all but inevitable upon our departure. In those fights, again, AQI could be enlisted to provide foot-soldiers to combat common enemies. That being said, after AQI has outlived its usefulness in these conflicts, Iraq's Sunnis would likely expel their erstwhile allies. As the article cited by Cernig points out, Iraq's Sunnis are generally a secular group, and have little desire to live under Sharia rule - nor do local tribal leaders wish to cede their fiefdoms to some foreign (or domestic), theocratic presence.
The risk, though, is that through the prolonged conflict, large enough chunks of Iraq's Sunni population become radicalized and enamored of the al-Qaeda cause. Still, given the history, cultural leanings and tribal power structure, there is little likelihood that this radicalization would become a mass phenomenon such that AQI would actually be able to take over and retain significant portions of Iraqi - even Sunni Iraqi - territory.
Two follow up thoughts: First, the recent tilt toward arming and empowering Sunni insurgent groups should be interpreted as a hedging of bets - and a possible precursor to war with Iran. According to one line of strategic thought, these insurgents groups would be useful to have on our side to combat Iran's proxies in Iraq should we launch yet another war in the region (and to provide us with an Iraqi safe haven should Baghdad, and southern supply routes, become untenable after an attack on Iran). In a bitter twist of irony, we could find ourselves on the same side as al-Qaeda, fighting against this unlikely triumvirate's common enemy: Iran, and its Shiite allies in Iraq (the same ones that we spent the past four years empowering, training, arming and protecting).
Second, the fact that AQI is, and will continue to be, a contributor to the fight against Iran and its local proxies should provide a clue of the mendacity of pundits like Michael Ledeen who continually make outlandish claims such as these summarized by Glenn Greenwald:
So, to recap: Shiite Iran and Sunni Al Qaeda work in tandem and have since 1994 (at least). "Bin Laden and his crew" work for Iran, and have done so "for quite a while." Iran is apparently arming everyone in Iraq, Shiite and Sunni alike. And although we cannot prove that Iran was behind the 9/11 attacks, it is certainly possible, and there is "tantalizing" evidence suggesting this is so.Right. Over the past four years Iran has, and will continue to, instruct its al-Qaeda employees to attack...Iran and its local proxies. Because that helps...Iran? Wow. Anything for another war, heh Mike?