This morning I attended the first half of Al Qaeda 3.0, a symposium on the state of Al Qaeda today. (Video available on The Washington Note.) While opinions differed on Al Qaeda’s current strength and the appeal of its vision of global jihad, there was a solid consensus among the panelists — which reflects the consensus of other observers and analysts as I’ve been able to ascertain it — that the Iraq war has, in numerous ways, been a disaster for the war against Al Qaeda.
Much has been written about the cost in lives, limbs, and treasure of the Iraq war, and more will be. A soon to be published National Intelligence Estimate will also confirm the Iraq war’s consequences for the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan. Because of the redirection of focus and resources to Iraq, Al Qaeda’s top leadership was allowed to escape to Pakistan, from where they continue to support insurgency in Afghanistan, and continue to plan attacks on the West. Also reiterated at today’s event was the extent to which the invasion and occupation of an Arab Muslim country has served to confirm bin Laden’s propaganda, which appeals to a sense of grievance among many young Muslims.
Another consequence of the Iraq war — one which has yet to be widely reported but which I think is going to become extremely important in the next few years as its effects become more apparent– is the phenomenon of fighters leaving Iraq, bringing their ideology and experience and establishing new fronts in other countries.
One of the panelists this afternoon, Nir Rosen, wrote an article in the National last month about the rise of extremism in the Lebanese town of Majd al-Anjar, which “occupies a strategic location on the road to Syria, but it is also a crossroads for the sectarian fervour unleashed across the region by the American invasion of Iraq.”
The town has dispatched numerous suicide bombers and fighters to Iraq, where they have targeted American troops and Shiite civilians alike. The war –- and the rise of a US-backed Shiite government in Iraq — has stoked fury here that borders on racism, fired by irrational fears of a “Shiite crescent” encircling vulnerable Sunnis.
Analysts talked of the “Lebanonization” of Iraq as the country spiralled into civil war after the fall of Saddam, and now Lebanon – a weak state awash in oceans of arms – faces the spectre of Iraqification. In Majd al Anjar, angry young men are not waiting for leaders to emerge; they are prepared to take matters into their own hands.
Lebanon is one of a number of troubled Middle Eastern states that stand to be further destabilized by the Iraq war, as thousands of fighters stream back from Iraq to radicalize and train the next generation of recruits. It’s important to understand that this destabilization was not unforeseen by the neoconservatives who helped sell the war to America. Regional destabilization was proffered as a benefit of the invasion of Iraq, and many of those most responsible for getting this war off serve as top advisers to John McCain.