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‚ÄĒsomething 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.