Via Kevin Drum comes a must-read article by former Stars & Stripes Iraq correspondent Andrew Tilghman. His argument, and it is a compelling one, is that the military's estimation of the threat posed by Al Qaeda In Iraq (AQI) is "alarmingly wrong".
Tilghman presents strong evidence that the military, Bush administration and Iraqi government consistently over-estimate the size (less than 8% of the insurgency, rather than the 15% claimed) and impact of AQI and it's actions. He points out that major attacks like the March truck-bomb attacks in Tal Afar and even the Samara mosque bombings are originally ascribed to AQI...but when people who have no connection to AQI are arrested for attacks such as these, no-one bothers to correct the narrative. He notes that for all the hype about the Anbar Awakening of Sunni tribes turning on AQI, actual accounts of Sunni tribes in the area fighting AQI are mysteriously thin on the ground. And he explains how the intelligence becomes fixed around the policy:
The problem begins at the top. When the White House singles out al-Qaeda in Iraq for special attention, the bureaucracy responds by creating procedures that hunt down more evidence of the organization. The more manpower assigned to focus on the group, the more evidence is uncovered that points to it lurking in every shadow. "When you have something that is really hot, the leaders start tasking everyone to look into that," explains W. Patrick Lang, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former head of Middle East intelligence analysis for the Department of Defense. "Whoever is at the top of the pyramid says, 'Make me a briefing showing what al-Qaeda in Iraq is doing,' and then the decision maker says, 'Aha, I knew I was right.'"(I have to say, as I read that I think that something very similiar is going on with the official narrative of Iran's supposed meddling in Iraq too.)
With disproportionate resources dedicated to tracking AQI, the search has become a self-reinforcing loop. The Army has a Special Operations task force solely dedicated to tracking al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Defense Intelligence Agency tracks AQI through its Iraq office and its counterterrorism office. The result is more information culled, more PowerPoint slides created, and, ultimately, more attention drawn to AQI, which amplifies its significance in the minds of military and intelligence officers. "Once people look at everything through that lens, al-Qaeda is all they see," said Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer who also worked at the U.S. State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. "It sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Ground-level analysts in the field, facing pressures from superiors to document AQI's handiwork, might be able to question such assumptions if they had strong intelligence networks on the ground. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case. The intelligence community's efforts are hobbled by too few Arabic speakers in their ranks and too many unreliable informants in Iraqi communities, rendering a hazy picture that is open to interpretations.
Because uncertainty exists, the bar for labeling an attack the work of al-Qaeda can be very low. The fact that a detainee possesses al-Qaeda pamphlets or a laptop computer with cached jihadist Web sites, for example, is at times enough for analysts to link a detainee to al-Qaeda. "Sometimes it's as simple as an anonymous tip that al-Qaeda is active in a certain village, so they will go out on an operation and whoever they roll up, we call them al-Qaeda," says Alex Rossmiller. "People can get labeled al-Qaeda anywhere along in the chain of events, and it's really hard to unlabel them." Even when the military backs off explicit statements that AQI is responsible, as with the Tal Afar truck bombings, the perception that an attack is the work of al-Qaeda is rarely corrected.
And this inflation of AQI's threat is now one of the main reasons given by supporters of the US occupation of Iraq for staying in that country longer. Yet as Tighman writes:
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.In other words, the idea that Iraq would become an AQI safe haven is ludicrous.