Speculating on the impact of Zarqawi’s death

Wild Ass
I spent some time yesterday thinking about how Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death might influence events in Iraq and elsewhere and thought I’d share some of those thoughts with you.First, I think it’s unlikely that Zarqawi’s death means the end of the insurgency. That’s what Gen. William Caldwell said in his announcement yesterday:

Although Zarqawi’s capture is reason to rejoice, we must be — caution not to be overly optimistic, as one man’s life does not signify an end to an insurgency.

BTW the press briefing linked above is a great resource on what actually happened. President Bush has said much the same thing:

Zarqawi is dead, but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues. We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue. Yet the ideology of terror has lost one of its most visible and aggressive leaders.

The insurgency is very diverse, ranging from foreign jihadis to Sunni Arab Iraqis who are fighting to expel the American invaders and restore their way of life to what it was under Saddam to common criminals. Individuals insurgents may belong to one or more of these groups and their affiliation may vary by the day. Some groups of insurgents are undoubtedly well-organized. Some are solo operations.

I honestly don’t believe that either we or the new Iraqi government will ever end the insurgency until some formula is found to change the incentives that are in place. It seems to me that’s the missing piece in what’s going on.

Zarqawi’s death will no doubt have the most impact on the foreign jihadis in Iraq. His successor, presumably Egyptian-born, is already in place:

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Egyptian-born Abu al-Masri would likely take the reins of al-Qaida in Iraq. He said al-Masri trained in Afghanistan and arrived in Iraq in 2002 to establish an al-Qaida cell.

Al-Masri, whose name is an obvious alias meaning “father of the Egyptian,” is believed to be an expert at constructing roadside bombs, the leading cause of U.S. military casualties in Iraq.

I haven’t seen any additional info on this individual (and, for some reason, Counterterrorism Blog is down so I can’t check there). However, Zarqawi’s death will mean a certain loss of institutional wisdom and connections and I don’t think we should discount the value of those connections. Zarqawi has been a significant part of the terrorist scene for quite some time.

Some, for example Spencer Ackerman in New Republic (hat tip: Marc Schulman), have suggested that Zarqawi’s demise will accrue to al-Qaeda’s benefit:

Painful as it may be to admit, the biggest beneficiary of Zarqawi’s death may very well be Al Qaeda. Last year, Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman Al Zawahiri—a figure whose profile in jihadi circles far eclipses Zarqawi’s—wrote Zarqawi a letter gingerly instructing him to stop his seemingly indiscriminate murder of Muslims, since it was costing Al Qaeda valuable Islamic hearts and minds. (When the letter surfaced, Zarqawi defensively insisted it was a fraud.) Zarqawi’s practice of declaring fellow Muslims infidels led him and Al Qaeda into strategic miscalculation, as with his November bombing of Jordanian hotels that led to widespread anti-Al Qaeda demonstrations in the streets of Amman. He even declared in his last propaganda message that Hezbollah was an agent of Israel. Whereas once Zarqawi allowed Iraqi Sunnis a face-saving way to distance themselves from murderous jihadis, in death he may allow Al Qaeda to mend fences with Muslims and perhaps even other terrorist groups that his “excesses” have alienated. Zawahiri’s extraordinary letter suggests that Al Qaeda—following an obligatory statement praising Zarqawi as a martyr—will do exactly that.

In Iraq, such a jihadist opportunity may come fairly quickly. Today Maliki announced the long-delayed appointment of the interior and security ministers. Most importantly from the perspective of Iraqi sectarianism, the interior ministry will remain in the hands of the ruling Shia faction, which Sunnis will most likely see as a sign that Shia death squads will continue operating under the ministry’s auspices. With perceived besiegement by the Shia continuing, the next Al Qaeda “prince”—the group has already announced a replacement for Zarqawi—can turn to Sunni insurgents and offer to turn over a new leaf, discarding the baggage of Zarqawi in the face of a shared sectarian threat. With any luck, that overture could be rejected, owing to tensions between Al Qaeda and the Sunnis outliving Zarqawi—but that may take luck, as opposed to a sense of divergent interests.

I doubt it. What’s their alternative? If they act more directly against U. S. forces, they will lose their own men. If they stop acting at all, it’s the end of the foreign jihadis as a significant component of the insurgency in Iraq.

Some have suggested that Zarqawi’s death will be a great recruiting opportunity for terrorists. I doubt that, too. Zarqawi doesn’t make a great poster boy for recruiting. He wasn’t rich or aristocratic or well-educated. He was no Osama Bin Laden. He was basically an ordinary thug of Bedouin background, elevated to prestige through terrorism.

And then there are the failures noted by Ackerman above. Do you recall Osama Bin Laden’s “strong horse” statement back in 2001?

…when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse. This is only one goal; those who want people to worship the lord of the people, without following that doctrine, will be following the doctrine of Muhammad, peace be upon him.

I’ll take Bin Laden’s word for how people in his culture will respond: he knows (or knew) more about it than I do. If success breeds success, then failure? That’s why al-Qaeda is trying to make lemonade but that doesn’t alter the fact that Zarqawi was a lemon.

Some, for example James Joyner, have suggested that there will be an upturn in violence as a result of Zarqawi’s death:

In the short term, though, I suspect we’ll see an increase in violence, as al Qaeda tries to demonstrate that it’s unbowed.

I have my doubts about this as well except, perhaps, in the very short term. For there to be an upturn you must believe that the insurgency has excess capacity i.e. there are attacks that they could be making but aren’t. Why? I believe that they’re making the attacks they can. No excess capacity.

Additionally, as I’ve suggested above, an upturn would require more coordination (or, at least, consensus) than I believe that the insurgency in Iraq has demonstrated to date.

So I think that very little will actually change as a result of Zarqawi’s death. Probably the most important component is the improvement in morale among some Americans (certainly not all as the complaints about timing from some in the blogosphere documents) and among Iraqis which is pretty strongly indicated by the reactions of Iraqi bloggers.

The Iraqis could certainly use a morale boost and, with Zarqawi’s death and the naming of the last remaining major ministers in the new Iraqi government, perhaps that will put a little wind in the new government’s sails.

UPDATE: Significantly better-informed speculation on the implications from Abu Aardvark.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Austin Bay sees the implications much as I do.  Hat tip:  Glenn Reynolds

4 comments… add one
  • kreiz Link

    I honestly don’t believe that either we or the new Iraqi government will ever end the insurgency until some formula is found to change the incentives that are in place.This is the smartest thing I’ve read recently. Iraq’s Shi’ite-Sunni divide is, at best, remote and mysterious to me. What incentives do you have in mind, Dave?

  • It’s a toughie and I don’t know that I have a clear idea. I suspect that Sunni Arabs in Iraq need to be able to get something that they couldn’t get based on their electoral numbers.

  • J Thomas Link

    When the USA was getting started we had the problem that small states were concerned they’d be outvoted by large states. We set up a bicameral government where small states got represented out of proportion to their populations in one house, so they came close to getting a veto. This worked very well.

    But the attempt to give slave states representation out of proportion to their numbers didn’t work nearly as well and ultimately failed.

    Lebanon had a system that was designed to balance the needs of christians and muslims. It worked well for awhile, but the muslim population grew faster and their response was to put off taking a census. Eventually it collapsed.

    A government structure that gave sunnis and kurds (and shias) an effective veto would have made a big difference. They’d have trouble getting aything done, but that’s OK. However, I think it’s too late now. These guys are unlikely to trust each other enough to rely on agreements about form of government.

  • kreiz Link

    I don’t pretend to understand the Shi’ite-Sunnia-Kurd division but expect it will defeat the good faith necessary to create a viable government. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a transcedent figure like Washington or Tutu who can unite these divergent groups. That’s why I’m intrigued by Dave’s notion of restructing incentives; perhaps it’s a way to cut through this seemingly insurmountable knot.

    I have to believe that this was the main reason that Bush the Elder, Scowcroft, Baker and Powell decided not to oust Saddam after the first Gulf War. It certainly wasn’t because of a group fondness for Saddam.

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