How Invading Iraq Helped al Qaeda


At the Abu Muqawama blog, counter-terrorism analyst Andrew Exum interviews Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies about his new book, "Bin Laden's Legacy: Why We're Still Losing the War on Terror." The central topic of the book is how and why the U.S. has failed to understand al Qaeda, and the ramifications of that ignorance. Gartenstein-Ross says a better understanding of terrorism would have kept us out of Iraq and prevented the creation of our "bloated, expensive, and inefficient system of defending the homeland against attack"; and that a grand military strategy "better suited to the age of austerity" would have kept us out of Libya. 

I found the below sections particularly interesting:

I think understanding the mistakes involved in our decision to go to war in Iraq is important because it was a major strategic blunder (and let's be frank: the enormous human costs of the war make it so much more than that). A lot of our shortcomings in fighting jihadi militancy over the past decade have been strategic, and a failure to appreciate the consequences of the Iraq war means we haven't grasped an absolutely vital strategic lesson.

Now, it's well known that the justifications for the Iraq war haven't held up: Saddam Hussein's regime didn't have an active WMD program, nor did it have significant connections to al-Qaeda (though some connections did in fact exist). And we can see many of the costs of that conflict clearly. In addition to the aforementioned human costs, our invasion of Iraq damaged the war effort in Afghanistan (which quickly became an economy-of-force mission as resources were diverted to the Iraq theater), allowed the regeneration of al-Qaeda's core leadership as pressure was removed from it, angered our allies while empowering the Iranian regime, and served as a potent tool for jihadi recruitment.

These costs, though not totally unforeseeable, have become clearer after the fact. But one point I make in the book is that a better appreciation of al-Qaeda's strategy would have made the dangers of invading Iraq quite apparent in advance. As I said, al-Qaeda had two overarching strategic ideas about defeating America: bleeding its superpower adversary's economy, and making the battlefield on which the fight against the United States occurred as broad as possible. The Iraq war plainly advanced both of our adversary's goals. Despite the best-case scenarios concerning the war's costs trumpeted by the Bush administration, it was extremely expensive—something that people like army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki foresaw. And the Iraq invasion helped the other major element of al Qaeda's strategy, broadening the battlefield and feeding the group's narrative that Islam itself was under attack by the United States.

On the topic of reforms: 

[W]e need a strategy that is better suited to the age of austerity that we're entering. Our military intervention in Libya, where the United States had essentially no strategic interests, is in my view the opposite of the kind of grand strategy we need in a world of constrained resources.

In terms of efficiency, we should be looking for ways to do more with less. One way is analytic reform in the intelligence community: creating professional incentives for analysts to specialize, and reducing unnecessarily duplicative efforts. As one analyst said to me while I was researching for the book: "How many of these 800,000 people within the intelligence community are actively advancing U.S. interests? If they aren't doing so, there's a legitimate question to be asked: Why are you here?" A second efficiency measure is civil service reform. One core reason for our overreliance on costly contractors for national security needs has been how difficult it is to hire and fire federal employees. 

You can buy Gartenstein-Ross's book at Amazon.  

NEXT: Solyndra Roundup: Race-to-Future Cheat, Moral Equivalence[y]

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Fire chief: LaGrange man blown up trying to burn ex-girlfriend’s body…..e=rss_news

  2. But Al Quada got involved in the Iraq once the US invaded. And in doing so, totally discredited itself in the Arab world. Al Quada was pretty popular when it was killing Americans. But when it started killing Muslims in Iraq and that killing was on Al Jezera every day,its popularity in the Arab world went South.

    Al Quada is no longer much of a threat, nor really is its ideology. The new and bigger threats are internally and from places like Somalia and Yemen, which are not Al Quada.

    You can argue that Iraq was a mistake. But to say that it strengthened Al Quada, given the pretty pathetic current state of Al Quada, is just patently untrue.

    1. ahh john, yemen is AQAP and somalia is an aQ affilate

      1. At this point Al Quada is a brand name and nothing more. Any clown that wants to start a terrorist group can call themselves an off shoot of Al Quada. The actual organization that attacked us in 9-11 is pretty much shattered at this point.

    2. The author was arguing that it strengthed al qaeda because it removed our bootheel from its neck in afghanistan, not that it built its legitimatcy

      1. But the whole thing is built on legitimacy. If they are not popular and legitimate to the Arab street, they don’t have anything. And whatever strength they were able to build from the respite in Afghanistan, they pissed away helping the Zarkman in Iraq.

    3. I guess this is a sequel to Gartenstein-Ross’s first book How Invading Normandy Strengthened the Nazis.

      1. ^morz spoofs^

  3. Exum must be a Paulista!

  4. So then invading Al Qaeda should help Iraq. What are we waiting for?

    1. Steve Smith

      1. excellent

  5. “…the war’s costs trumpeted by the Bush administration, it was extremely expensive?something that people like army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki foresaw.”

    worse – shinseki warned about insufficient force for occupation…which the surge validated. for his professionalism, gen shinseki was forced by team bush to retire. but obama rehired him as the VA chief thank goodness.

    1. we were correct, iraq had no nukes.

      1. we were correct, iran had no nukes….wait, what?

        1. we have concerns about iran & recommended sanctions which were adopted

          1. we just make up any idiotic lies and print them

    2. No, this is another myth that needs to be debunked. Shinseki served his full term; Rumsfeld named his successor earlier than is traditional. And Rumsfeld did do that as punishment – but not with regards to Iraq. Rumsfeld had cancelled a huge artillery system, Crusader, which Shinseki favored. Shinseki then went with White, then Army secretary, to lobby Congress to restart the program, behind Rumfeld’s back.
      And ask anyone connected with the VA how Shinseki is doing – you’ll get an earful.

  6. and the oil did NOT pay for the war

    1. Should have invaded Saudi.

    2. Should have invaded Saudi.

    3. Should have invaded Saudi.

      1. stoopid lag based work systems, I’d complain to the boss but…

  7. We initiated kinectic military action against Libya because of al-Qaeda?

    1. that was mike’s (mistaken) comment, not the author’s.

      1. Whoa! A little capitalization and you’re ready to graduate from junior high!

        1. I didn’t mean to suggest that the Libyan adventure was a response to al Qaeda, because it clearly was and is not. Will clean up that sentence.

  8. In Bush’s defense, the invasion of Iraq did acheive one very important strategic goal: allowing the U.S. to withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia while still providing the defense services that the monarch demands.

    Given that Al Queda was citing the presence of troops in the kingdom as a raison d’etre for the attacks on the U.S., and the need to have OPEC only accept dollars for oil to prop up the value of the dollar, the Clinton/Bush invasion of Iraq does have a legitimate strategic vision.

    And the Saudi monarch loved it, since he had clerics proselytize potential troublemakers that might participate in an Arab spring style rebellion against his rule into fighting the Americans up north, where the U.S. army helpfully slaughtered them wholesale.

    That’s not to say it was a good idea. Bush could ahve chosen to blow the dust off Ron Paul’s gold commission report from back in the early 80’s, implement those policies and then withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia and left the monarch to fend for himself. That and stopping military aid to the Egyptian dictator. It would have been cheaper and Al Queda would have lost interest in the U.S. quite rapidly as it was no longer bankrolling its enemies.

    1. “…the invasion of Iraq did acheive one very important strategic goal: allowing the U.S. to withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia…”
      no, the iraq invasion necessarily increased our force levels in the kingdom, & in theater.

    2. then withdraw troops from Saudi Arabia and left the monarch to fend for himself

      A good idea before Desert Storm, but alas the dye was cast. The only thing worse than getting involved then was leaving Sadaam in power. That set us up for a war that only ended thanks to the liberation of Iraq in 2003, which was necessary and unavoidable. It was the nation-building muckery that was the mistake.

      1. “The only thing worse than getting involved then was leaving Sadaam in power.”
        4,000 dead & 30,000 wounded beg to differ

        1. I think we would have gone to war with Iraq sooner or later.

      2. No, my little collectivist, the die was not cast after Desert Storm. The U.S. could have walked away any time it wanted to. It can still walk away.

        How was Saddam worse the Bashar? or Turkmenbashi? or Musharraf? or Putin? The world survived the U.S. leaving Stalin alone. It survived the U.S> allying with Mao for christ-sake.

        It’s obscene how you lap up the propaganda the Wesley Mouches ladle to you and regurgitate it as if you had an original thought.

        1. Uhhh…HW kind of pissed off a psychodictator and left him in power. Didn`t do that to Turkmenbashi or Putin or any of your poor examples. Except Stalin…which did lead to decades of suffering and Cold War (should`ve carried out Operation Unthinkable).

          It`s annoying that you stitch together Bad Words and think you`ve made an argument.

          1. You really are an ignorant moron.

            Do you have any idea of the massacres that took place in the past few years in Turkmenistan? They’re as bad, in kind, as any of the shit Saddam Hussein pulled. But of course, they’re U.S. allies and not on the official enemies list, so you laugh them off as being relatively un-depraved.

            And your support for operation Unthinkable which would have doomed millions more to death either at the hands of their fellow men or through starvation is yet more evidence of how utterly depraved you are. What makes it particularly disgusting is that everyone with a lick of sense knew that the plan was unrealistic and would result in the Russians anihiating the British army in much the same way they dispatched the Germans.

            I take back what I said yesterday about you being a Leninist. You’re a fucking Trotskyite, ready to recklessly murder and destroy your way to a better world.

  9. There are a lot of reasons to criticize the Iraq warm but I find it somewhat of a stretch claiming that invading Iraq helped Al-Qaida. Though I get the point about bleeding the US financially, and in that regard they have been very succesful. Al-Qaida utterly bleed themselves, losing many high trained operatives, and like John pointed out, lost broad Arab support because of their brutality. Different franchises exist, but as so far they are fragmented, which lessens the danger they pose to us.

    1. And yet another myth that needs debunking! The idea that bin Laden wanted to bleed the US dry financially came from an American ‘intellectual.’ Bin Laden considered us ‘the weak horse’ or after our withdrawals from Lebanon and Somalia ‘a paper tiger’ and didn’t actually think the US would respond beyond a few cruise missiles.

      1. So he gambled that we “wouldn’t do anything” except lob some cruise missles his way? what would that have gained him.

        1. I think Bin Laden wanted to lure the U.S. into a quagmire in Afghanistan. I suspect that he thought they would behave like the Russians did and be easy to bog down. Furthermore, I suspect that since the U.S. had bypassed him as far as the logistical support it was giving to favored groups of mujaheddin, he underestimated the logistical support needed to bog the U.S. down.

          In the end, the U.S. defeated Al Queda militarily by intelligent use of special forces coupled with use of bribes to get allies to turn against the Taliban.

          He also really underestimated how popular Al Queda’s political vision was. As John pointed out upthread, whenever Al Queda became ascendant in some bit of territory, eventually the brutalized locals would throw them out (consider how bad Al Queda is that guys who tolerated Saddam hussein would rebel against them).

          I think this whole affair followed a path that Hans Herman Hoppe identifies as being a perrenial problem for popularly elected states. The voters react emotionally and are loath to tolerate subtelety or measured responses. They bay for blood. And the popularly elected governments supply it. A measured response would probably have led to Al Queda becoming highly unpopular and eventually a discredited shell of its former glory, like the Ku Klux Klan. But politicians taking that path would face uncomfortable questions that someone who preaches total war in Churchillian tones does not. And thus the politicians who join the mob are more likely to be re-elected than the ones shouting “stop!”.

          And thus, out of the jaws of defeat, Al Queda was able to snatch its strategic objective: the U.S. government engaged in wars it could not afford and mortally wounded its financial system.

          Al Queda hoped that a weakened U.S. would stop propping up the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the dictators of North Africa. They were right. They hoped that with the weakening support would come popular uprisings against the despots. They were right. They hoped that the popular uprisings would install them in power. They were wrong. Only in Libya did they get a real toe hold, and it appears to me to be doomed to be an ephemeral victory. Arabs just don’t like them.

        2. Prestige – the ability to attract new followers with the power to hit ‘the Great Satan.’ Movement to destabilize the ME was supposed to follow, reestablish a caliphate, yadda, yadda, yadda. Look, ideologies don’t have to be rational, or even workable, to attract followers. Look how long communism went on. Doesn’t mean people won’t follow along.

      2. Bin Laden wants, sorry wanted: War and chaos between

        1. How did that prematurely transmit?

          Bin Laden wants, sorry wanted: War and chaos between the “West” and Islam.

          Bin Laden was a power hungry shithead. In this scenario the radical Muslims (jihadist “hawks”) gain legitimacy and are actually looked to as leaders. At the same time Islam is knocked back about 12 centuries, also a Bin Laden goal.

          His big mistake is attacking too many diverse nations. He should have stuck with the main “enemies”, ie., USA and friends. It has become more clear, even to his “sympathizers”, that his objective is destruction and tyranny.

  10. We lost the War on Terror the moment we surrendered our liberty, dignity, and peace of mind to the government in order to protect us from the terrorists. Our debt is greater than our GDP. We have warrantless wiretaps on Americans. We use the Patriot Act on non-terror suspects. We fondle people and take pictures of their naked bodies in order for them to board a plane. We’re involved in three wars, and about to enter another. Our economic system is on the verge of collapse.

    They said the terrorists “hate our freedom.” Well, our government did a fine job of killing it while we sat back and took it. So the war is already lost.

  11. I support reducing our international expenses by reducing the number of laws we impose on other nations. I oppose reducing our international expenses by looking at the cost benefit ratio of each battle. Fighting only the easy fights creates an incentives for other nations to build up their armed forces and oppose us.

  12. The strategic mistake in Afghanistan was engaging in nation-building in a nation of committed and determined primitivist barbarians. A straightforward punitive expedition, with allowances for hot pursuit into Pakistan, would have done the trick as a response to 9/11.

    I think the strategic mistake in Iraq was trying to engage in nation-building either without, or instead of, sealing the border with Iran. The hubris of thinking that we could turn Iraq into a functioning liberal democracy was irredeemable. The real question should have been whether we could insulate Iraq from Iranian influence and infiltration enough to prevent Iranian influence from predominating. If the answer to that was no, we can’t, then we shouldn’t have invaded.

  13. Let me guess Riggs – you want Saddam back, right? I am really tired of this stupid argument concerning ‘taking our eye off the ball in Afghanistan’ because of Iraq. It was a liberal talking point to oppose the war in Iraq but just wasn’t true. We didn’t put large numbers of troops in Afghanistan because it was a logistical nightmare. It is landlocked and mountainous.
    The difficulty and cost of putting large amounts of troops in Afghanistan and sustaining them is why Obama announced (stupidly) that the surge would last two years – yo, Taliban, just wait us out, m’kay?
    When Osama declared war on the US he has a list of three grievances. In order of importance, the US ‘occupation’ of Saudi Arabia; the suffering of Iraqis under sanctions and finally, our support for Israel. The Iraqis were suffering under the sanctions, but we got the blame as various UN flunkies got the kickbacks. The estimated dead under the sanctions, btw, were 500,000.
    Even if Bush had ordered a huge presence in Afghanistan and nation building there back in 2001, what good would it have done? The various networks just flee into Pakistan.

    1. Re: Question?,

      Let me guess Riggs – you want Saddam back, right?

      Sure, and drown kittens, and kick dogs and take the lollipops from children’s hands…

      Gee, the hawks are getting more and more irrational by the minute, aren’t they?

      1. Actually, tired of left, right and libertarians distorting what actually happened during the last decade. It’s ignoring myths that leads to the general public believing crazy things, like, oh, that Herbert Hoover was a believer in Laissez Faire government, or that FDR saved the US from the Great Depression.
        What would you have done OM? Keep the sanctions in place and allow Saddam to stay in power? Wait for him to die and have the two psychotic sons duke it out? Should we lift the sanctions then?

        1. Lift the sanctions immediately and unilaterally (sanctions prop up dictators, not undermine them).

          Go to the gold standard, and break the deal where they create an ersatz petroleum standard by insisting on dollars for payment in exchange for American blood defending the monarchy.

          And, allow anyone fleeing those vicious regimes to settle in the U.S. and build a decent life, like the U.S. used to do with the commies.

          The U.S. would be wealthier, its citizenry happier, its economy stronger, and the inflow of motivated people would have made us all the more richer. Numerous orphans would still have their parents.

          1. I said at the time: one of our options could’ve been smoking a peace pipe with Saddam and let bygones be bygones. This would’ve provided a bulwark against AQ (enemies of Saddam and the Ba’athists) and Iran.

            Of course, this would’ve meant that Saddam would still be in power and would’ve pissed-off the Israelis but I’m sure Saddam would’ve been privately grateful that he survived the 90s and became our ‘friend’ again.

            In Iraq, I also think the Arab Spring would’ve sprung.

            1. In Iraq, I also think the Arab Spring would’ve sprung.

              Perhaps, though I suspect Saddam and Bashar would be exchanging suppression tactics.

              1. Yep — I agree.

            2. I highly doubt Sadaam would let bygones be bygones. That`s not how he rolled.

              1. He would’ve wept for fuckin’ joy had we offered him peace.

              2. Saddam wanted all through the late 90’s to ally himself with the US like he had in the 80’s. He couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t, when in his opinion it would be in America’s best interest. Saddam didn’t understand that you can’t in a democracy convince the people to go to war. Then suddenly change your mind & be friends again. The people will realize the whole war was bullshit. Clinton & Bush weren’t going to take a politcal hit for no reason.

    2. “Even if Bush had ordered a huge presence in Afghanistan and nation building there back in 2001, what good would it have done?”

      Well for one, we wouldn’t have needed to put Afghanis between OBL and Pakistan. We probably could have caught OBL when he left Tora Bora. The various networks may have been caught by US troops instead of being allowed to pass by their homeboys.

      1. Do you have a clue? How long to do think it takes to build up and deploy even a brigade? 82nd and 101st are rapid reaction but that’s nowhere near enough for ‘nation building’. You, and the authors, are conflating two points – hunting al Qaeda, and nation building.

        1. Our efficient military ladies and gentlemen.

          Question?, I’m glad your “facts” allow you to sleep at night, but the bankruptcy caused by our militaristic profligacy concerns the rest of us.

          1. To be fair, isn’t our bankruptcy a greater function of profligate entitlement spending?

          2. The entirety of the GWOT has cost $1.2 trillion over a decade. Are you innumerate? Efficient? The projected surpluses under Clinton came about while cutting DoD 30% and increasing op-tempo 40%. Even under Mr. ‘military-industrial-complex’ himself DoD spending was almost ten percent of GDP. Who else in the federal government was cut in the 90s?

            1. Sorry, left out that highest DoD spending during GWOT was 4.7% of GDP. My bad – second glass of wine and I’m tired.

        2. I wasn’t referring to the nation building.

          Having served in the Marine Corps, yes I have a clue.

        3. It takes along time to deploy troops, so fucking what. We should have taken as long as we needed too. We should have deployed as many as possible with still having enough to defend the homeland. Make a huge show of force, annhilate any who oppose then leave. Tell the Afghani people if you don’t want us to come back. Make sure no terrorists are in your country or we will be back. That would have scared the shit of Pakistan, Iran and the rest of the world. If that allowed Bin Laden and his cronies to temporarily escape it wouldn’t have mattered.

          1. They are called Afghans – not Afghanis. That would be the currency. And if you want the military to be able to deploy massive forces anywhere in the world on a moments notice then expect the DoD budget to be half of the federal budget. Economics 101 – it’s the study of scarce resources, remember?

            1. Nice strawman argument there. I DIDN’T say moments notice. I said deploy as many troops as possible & take as long as necessary to do so. It would cost a fortune to do so, but be a lot cheaper in the long run than never ending occupation & nation building.

  14. How Invading Iraq Helped al Qaeda

    Already and cogently argued by Ron Paul like, oh I don’t know… a zillion times already?

  15. But one point I make in the book is that a better appreciation of al-Qaeda’s strategy would have made the dangers of invading Iraq quite apparent in advance.

    This assumes that the policymakers were/are interested in good policy. I doubt that’s a point worth conceding, considering the bad faith behind the run-up to Iraq War II.

  16. “How many of these 800,000 people within the intelligence community 2,000,000 people within the federal government are actively advancing U.S. interests? If they aren’t doing so, there’s a legitimate question to be asked: Why are you here?”


  17. Holy Shit! – An analyst from the paranoid Foundation for Defense of Democracies criticising the Iraq invasion?! What — did someone there accidently let in some fresh air by opening a window??

  18. A prominent libertarian academic, Jacques Delacroix (of Liberty magazine), takes issue with Libertarian foreign policy in general. His arguments are sophisticated and deserve our merit, I think. He earned his PhD from Stanford, so he’s not a lightweight (

  19. I don’t see how one can argue that attacking Iraq -which was harboring members of al-qaeda in Iraq who had fled from our forces in Afghanistan after we arrived- and the killing thousands of al-qaeda in Iraq somehow “helped” them.

    Al-qaeda decided to make a stand against us in Iraq, and they chose poorly. Not only did we kill a bunch of them, but we also exposed to many Iraqi’s and others in the Arab world that they were much better off with the US as their allies as opposed to al-qaeda.

    Al-qaeda’s final stand in Iraq was possibly the worst thing that could’ve happened to their organization. None of this summary holds up to logic.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.