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The Iraq War and Terrorism - 2004-04-05

Former US Counter-intelligence chief Richard Clarke gained headlines and controversy by asserting that the war in Iraq is harmful to the wider global war on terrorism. The Bush Administration and its supporters took strong exception to this, citing Iraq as a center of terrorism. Mr. Clarke's defenders say more terrorists than ever are now operating in Iraq and the war is winning recruits for Islamic extremism around the world. VOA's Ed Warner reports the ongoing debate.

While testifying before the commission investigating the Nine-Eleven attacks, former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke said bluntly the war in Iraq is undermining the war on terrorism.

A stunned silence seemed to greet those few words, followed in turn by a rancorous debate that goes to the heart of current US policy. Has it fought terrorism as it should, or has it been dangerously diverted by striking the wrong enemy? There are passionate opinions on both sides.

“The war in Iraq is not going as badly as the media suggest,” says Ralph Peters, an intelligence officer and author of several books on military strategy. Beyond that, he adds, look at how the US intervention has set back terrorism in the region: “We already see fruitful results of getting rid of Saddam. Syria is more guarded in its behavior. Iran is more guarded. Colonel Gaddafi, formerly a sponsor of terror, now wants to be friends with the West. We hear Arab intellectuals for the first time in decades coming out asking for more freedom, arguing what is wrong with the Arab world. How can we change?”

We always hear about the rage of the Arab Street, says Mr. Peters, and yet it never seems to materialize. Recall all the dire warnings of mass retaliation against American troops entering Iraq.

“The Arab Street would erupt,” says Mr. Peters, “and America's credibility and power would be destroyed forever in the Middle East. On the contrary, America in the Middle East is sometimes resented but certainly its power is respected, as it has not been in decades. People worry that if you act decisively, you will create more terrorists. On the contrary, weakness encourages terrorists.”

The American will to prevail is evident, says Mr. Peters, but he concedes US troops are stretched thin.

“Much too thin,” says Patrick Lang, former Director of Middle East Intelligence at the US Defense Intelligence Agency. It is hard to fight two wars at the same time with limited resources: “Their diversion to Iraq must have had some effect on the search for the Jihadi leaders in various places as well as the fact that there is only so much attention the government has as well. If you are focused on one place, then some place else gets put on the back burner for a while,” says Mr. Lang. “You can see that we really have small forces in Afghanistan.”

We are paying for the sharp reduction in US military forces since the end of the Cold War, says Mr. Lang.

How many wars can America fight? asks Carl Conetta, Director of the Project on Defense Alternatives: “There has always been a concern about one operation drawing away energy from another and the limits of our capacity. A lot of that focuses on assets that we have that are small in number but high in demand: special operations forces, reconnaissance platforms. The types of things that are especially useful in tracking down al-Qaeda elements in Afghanistan are also in high demand for any type of war we conduct anywhere. So inherently there is an issue of trade-offs.”

There is the fundamental question, notes Mr. Conetta: What is more important to us, our key security concern? Getting Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein? The wrong choice was made, says Mr. Conetta.

Surveys indicate the two wars with their inevitable casualties and destruction have turned Muslim opinion against the United States. The lingering Israeli-Palestinian conflict is another factor since Washington is seen as supporting the hard-lining Sharon government.

The result is the spread of terrorism, says Patrick Lang, even in Iraq where the United States intended to eliminate it. The recent Shiite attacks in various cities illustrate the problem: “When you create a situation in which the population is very unhappy with you and I think that is true of a lot of people in Iraq now, you run the risk that outside forces and some inside forces that are deeply committed to Islamic revolution in the world may be able to find safe harbor among these folks.”

So-called terrorism covers a wide range of people and motives, says Carl Conetta. It is not just a matter of al-Qaeda and Sunni Baathists still loyal to Saddam Hussein.

“We see an upsurge of terrorism coming from entirely new sources, new individuals being drawn into this with a slightly different ax to grind,” says Mr. Conetta. “They are angry about the occupation and about the war itself. How over the next 10 years this will play out in the world is unclear. Nine-Eleven grew out of the war in Afghanistan. We don't know ten years from now who might be challenging us whose roots are back in the recent Iraq War.”

The counter-terrorism office of the US State Department says al-Qaeda has been nearly eliminated. But don't take comfort from that. It is being replaced by groups of new untested terrorists fired by anti-Americanism. The State Department says Iraq is now serving as a focal point for foreign jihadist fighters, a training ground to build their extremist credentials and hone their terrorist skills.

Let's not get carried away, cautions Neil Livingstone, chief of Global Options and author of nine books on terrorism. Can the new terrorists be any worse than the ones who attacked the United States on Nine-Eleven? If there is a rage beyond that, he does not know what it would be.

Don't underestimate what we have done to date, he adds. Analysts note how terrorist efforts to destroy aircraft have been regularly thwarted worldwide since Nine-Eleven. Somebody must be doing something right.

The extremists are on the defensive, says Mr. Livingstone, both those that are state sponsored and those that are not: “And quite frankly, it may be quite instructive for the United States to be occupying an Arab capital right now with an army that can turn either right or left, depending on whether the Syrian or Iranian government, both state sponsors of terrorism, give us proper assistance or not.”

Mr. Livingstone says we are dealing with a part of the world in need of serious improvement. The United States can set an example in Iraq:

“It can hopefully create a regime in Iraq that is going to serve as a model for what can be done in terms of pluralism, tolerance, reform, that can be a beacon for the rest of the world there,” says Mr. Livingstone. “Secondly, it can be a clear demonstration that we can eliminate regimes which are engaged in efforts to intimidate their neighbors and have had weapons of mass destruction programs and may be indeed butchering their own people.”

By going into Iraq, says Mr. Livingstone, the United States has started a process of change that can in time work to the benefit of both Arab and western nations. Change is certain, say critics, the benefits less so.