Saturday, June 10, 2006

Where will the next Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appear?

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a killing machine. He made no distinction between soldiers and civilians, between Americans and Iraqis, between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunnis and Shiites, between men, women and children. His personal involvement in the killing is now permanently over. Good.

(Just by coincidence, the lead article in this month’s Atlantic was about al-Zarqawi. Read it here.)

The U.S. armed forces are to be congratulated on staying after this monster until his career has ended. There is a certain amount of justice also in the fact that the last thing he saw just before he died was American soldiers.

How this will impact the current situation in Iraq is still to be seen. President Bush’s reaction was much more reserved than when he pronounced “mission accomplished” following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government and he dared terrorists from around the world to “bring it on.” The death of al-Zarqawi and the crack down on his network is certainly a positive development for the short run.

Whether or not it will turn out to be a positive development for the long run or simply have minimal impact depends on two big ifs: IF this can create a lull in the sectarian violence to buy time for the authorities and IF those in charge are capable to quickly take advantage of that lull. Neither of these is guaranteed. We can hope but I am not particularly optimistic. The momentum for this low level civil war may be too far gone to stop now and the U.S. may have overemphasized Zarqawi’s influence anyway. And it is a mistake to assume the talent and will power is present to do the necessary political work even if such a lull does take place. After all, look at how the Coalition Provisional Authority (the official U.S. occupation force for the first year following the fall of Saddam Hussein) squandered the window of opportunity it had with much less violence and far greater resources.

Beyond the immediate situation there is a lesson to be learned and it is nothing new. When the Coalition Provisional Authority abolished the Iraqi police and armed forces and did not have the manpower to control the borders or to bring order to the streets Iraqi cities or towns south of the Kurdish areas in the north it created a void. (The Kurds already had a quasi government from the autonomy they enjoyed as a result of the no-fly zones established after the Gulf War in 1991.) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was able to take advantage of this void.

Voids in states are dangerous and an invitation to the worse elements to move in and take over. It is at our peril when nations are allowed to collapse. Following the expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989 the West abandoned that country to the Taliban who took power in 1992 and became hosts to al-Qaeda. There is Lebanon which the West abandoned following the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in 1983 proving the effectiveness of suicide bombing and giving rise to Hezbollah. The West abandoned Somalia in 1995 after casualties became unacceptable to U.N. forces. Just last week militant Islamic militias seized Mogadishu and effectively the country after the CIA failed to marginalize them indirectly by funding opposition warlords.

There can be no quick fixes such as was expected in East Timor. Zimbabwe is on the verge of imploding. The disintegration of Congo goes on with little notice or care around the world. When order disappears either preceded or followed by the collapse of the government a void is created. And that void is filled criminals and extremists.

There are other Abu Musab al-Zarqawis out there waiting for their opportunity. We have to accept some responsibility whether they get it or not.

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