The air strikes that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on June 7 should cause rejoicing in both Iraq and the United States. An especially evil, brutal, bloodthirsty terrorist is gone, and Al Qaeda has suffered a significant blow.
That being said, Americans should not assume his death will make a major difference in Iraq’s overall security environment. The episode is simply the latest milestone that is not really a milestone in that unhappy country.
We should be especially skeptical of those who proclaim every favorable development as a crucial turning point in the Iraq conflict. We’ve heard it all before.
The killing of Saddam Hussein’s sons, who were deemed the logistical brains of the insurgency, was supposed to be a major achievement. The capture of Saddam himself would certainly cripple the insurgency, because most insurgents were nothing but “dead-ender Baathists.”
The transfer of nominal sovereignty to an interim government in June 2004, the election of a constitutional assembly in January 2005, the approval of a new constitution in the autumn of 2005, and the election of a new Iraqi government in December of that year were all hailed at the time by supporters of the Iraq mission as decisive turning points. They proved to be nothing of the sort.
An optimistic military commander boasted that the insurgency’s back was broken following the assault on Fallujah in November 2004. A few months later, Vice President Dick Cheney famously stated that the insurgency was in its “last throes.”
The reality is that the level of violence in Iraq has increased rather than declined since those premature claims of victory.
The significance of Zarqawi’s death must be viewed in light of that history. His elimination may well weaken the capabilities of the foreign fighters in Iraq, but the significance of that faction has been in decline for months.
Indeed, the primary component of the violence in Iraq is no longer an insurgency directed against U.S. occupation forces and security personnel of the embryonic Iraqi government. Instead, the dominant factor is now tit-for-tat sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. The elimination of Zarqawi will have little impact on that problem.
Both the Bush administration and the American people need to recognize just how bad the sectarian violence in Iraq has become. In May there were some 1,400 confirmed deaths in Baghdad alone. While Baghdad is perhaps the most turbulent portion of Iraq, it is hardly the only scene of sectarian killings. One media report indicates that there have been more than 6,000 civilian deaths in the first five months of 2006. That comes out to an average of approximately 40 per day.
Moreover, there are indications that a significant number of deaths are never reported to authorities.
The death toll must be put in context. Iraq’s population is a mere 25 million. If that same pace of political violence was taking place in the United States, it would mean nearly 500 killings per day, or more than 180,000 a year. If that degree of carnage was going on, no one would be debating whether America was experiencing a civil war. The reality is that Iraq has already slipped into, at the very least, a low-intensity Sunni-Shiite civil war.
Americans need to ask why they should want their military personnel to try to play the role of referee in such an environment. Zarqawi’s death should remove the last excuse for “staying the course” in Iraq. We’ve overthrown Saddam Hussein, enabled the Iraqi people to create a new constitution, presided over the election of a new government, and now killed the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Enough is enough. At some point, the Iraqi people need to stand on their own feet and decide whether they will cooperate in governing the country or whether they will wage an increasingly bloody sectarian war. If they choose the latter, America does not have a dog in that fight.
Let’s celebrate the elimination of Zarqawi. And then let’s use the occasion to announce a firm schedule for the withdrawal of all American troops.
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of seven books on international affairs. He is also a co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against Al Qaeda (2004).