Paul Pillar

The Damage That Keeps On Damaging

A report by Timothy Williams in the New York Times provides a coda to all those balance sheets about the Iraq War that people were drawing up when U.S. combat operations “ended” a month ago. The terrorist group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which did not exist prior to the U.S. invasion and which a few months ago the U.S. military command was telling us was almost washed up, is not only alive but kicking as hard as ever. Its bombings this summer have helped to make the last two months some of the bloodiest in Iraq in more than two years. The group has been expanding its operations not only in frequency and intensity but also geographically, conducting attacks in Shia areas that previously had been relatively quiet.

We can take three principal lessons from this report.

First, the Bush administration's selling of the idea that Saddam Hussein's regime was—contrary to the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community and to available evidence about the nature of the organizations involved—an “ally” of Al Qaeda not only was a blatant fabrication but also, in one of the war's tragic ironies, made possible an expedition that stimulated and expanded the very type of terrorism that it supposedly was intended to counter.

Second, that stimulation has been a direct consequence of U.S. military operations. The Times story cites a member of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia who says the group feeds off public anger over the collateral damage from those operations. In one such recent incident, the death of several villagers near Falluja in a joint U.S.-Iraqi military raid generated protests from hundreds of residents and led the local government to condemn the raid as a “terrorist operation”.

Third, the damage from this war, including the Islamist terrorism it has stimulated--and like many of the wounds it has caused to thousands of U.S. service members--will last far beyond any supposed, or even real, “end” to U.S. combat operations.  Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has joined the ranks of Islamist terrorist groups capable of conducting operations not only in its country of origin but also elsewhere.