During his multiple withdrawals from Iraq, Obama claimed that the mission had been successfully concluded and that the war there never had anything to do with Al Qaeda. Unfortunately Al Qaeda in Iraq begged to differ.
This May, over a thousand Iraqis have been killed, nearly equaling the death toll from the worst days of the Iraq War. Car bombings in Baghdad no longer make the evening news, but they are commonplace and despite the withdrawal, Americans haven’t been immune from the violence.
Among the Benghazi attackers were about a dozen members of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The four Americans who died in the attack could be considered four additional Al Qaeda in Iraq kills.
But Al Qaeda in Iraq’s real mission lay in Syria. The Al-Nusra Front has dominated the Sunni side of the Syrian Civil War. Robert Ford, the United States ambassador to Syria, has said that the Al-Nusra Front is just Al Qaeda in Iraq operating under another name.
While Obama has been taking an extended victory lap, his unfinished business in Baghdad is on the way to accomplishing in Syria what it failed to accomplish in Iraq; take over an entire country. The Al-Nusra Front started life as a Syrian arm of Al Qaeda in Iraq which fed foreign fighters into the Iraq War and made the fighting so bloody. It has now become Al Qaeda in Iraq’s biggest success story.
In April, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq announced the creation of an Islamic state encompassing Iraq and Syria. The Al-Nusra Front responded by pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda while avoiding acknowledging that they are not a Syrian independence movement, but a transnational Salafist front operating in Syria.
All this might seem academic. After years of trying to police Iraq, most Americans could be forgiven for not giving a damn who is blowing up who in Syria or Iraq. Unfortunately as we found out in Benghazi, what happens in Iraq, doesn’t stay in Iraq. It doesn’t stay in Benghazi either.
Iraqi authorities have arrested five members of Al Qaeda in Iraq and seized a production facility for manufacturing Sarin nerve gas along with remote controlled planes that they planned to use as drones to deploy their chemical weapons. Their immediate targets were Shiite Muslims, but the Iraqi defense ministry stated that there were plans to smuggle the weapons to the United States and Europe.
Meanwhile Turkey arrested members of an Al-Nusra Front cell with their own stockpiles of Sarin nerve gas. Syria claims to have done the same thing.
While there are good reasons to be skeptical of any claims from the Syrian government, Carla del Ponte, a member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry, had stated earlier that evidence pointed to the use of Sarin nerve gas by the Sunni rebels.
The seizure of multiple WMDs from Al Qaeda in Iraq’s operations across three countries shows just how big the problem has become.
In his recent national defense speech, Obama repeated the familiar theme that Bush had diverted focus from the fight against Al Qaeda by going into Iraq and that he had restored the proper focus by moving back to Afghanistan.
In fact, Al Qaeda was far stronger in Iraq than in Afghanistan when he took office and remained so during his failed attempts at defeating and then appeasing the Taliban. While Obama threw away lives fighting the Taliban, Al Qaeda in Iraq was laying plans for capturing an entire country and its WMD stockpiles.
There is a certain irony to Al Qaeda in Iraq threatening the United States with Sarin, classified officially as a weapon of mass destruction, long after the Democrats had discredited the Iraq War with taunts of “Where are the WMDs?”
Chemical weapons are notoriously tricky and it’s likely that Al Qaeda in Iraq still has some work to do before it can successfully deploy a WMD. In the nineties, a Japanese doomsday cult’s Sarin nerve gas attacks only killed twenty people and sickened thousands. But 0.5 milligrams of Sarin is a lethal dose for an adult and the Al-Nusra Front cells had kilograms of it.
Syria as a whole may have a thousand tons of Sarin. The Tokyo doomsday cult planned to kill millions with its 70 tons. And as Syrian bases and facilities fall into the hands of the Al-Nusra Front, it will no longer have to rely on crude attempts to manufacture weapons that it can just pick up wholesale.
In his speech at the National Defense University, Obama declared that the war must end. And no doubt it will. One way or another. Nothing lasts forever. But his implication that America can end the war by becoming more passive is wrong.
The war did not begin because the United States was too active, but because it was too passive and took refuge in the cult of root causes instead of dealing directly and immediately with threats. September 11 was shocking, but it was also inevitable. It is equally inevitable that a terrorist attack will one day occur that will be bigger and more devastating than it.
Washington, D.C. often lives in its own bubble. Having forgotten about Iraq once it stopped being a political football, Democratic politicians imagine that Iraq and its Al Qaeda legions have forgotten about them. The Sarin raids in Iraq, Turkey and Syria are a reminder that Al Qaeda in Iraq may now be a bigger threat than it ever was before.
The Clinton Administration chose not to take down Bin Laden when it had the chance, instead taking refuge in outreach and “smart” targeted strikes that were the predecessors of today’s drone warfare. It believed that showing Muslims that we would engage in humanitarian intervention to empower their national aims in Yugoslavia would count for more than hunting down Osama bin Laden. It was wrong.
September 11 was the outcome of its neglect. Now the Obama Administration is allowing history to repeat itself with more humanitarian interventions and smart strikes that overlook the real threat growing on the horizon.
The Sarin raids should be a wake up call. But this is not an administration that takes 3 AM calls.
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