Circling the Lion's Den

CDI Terrorism Expert Michael Donovan: One war is enough in the Middle East

Michael Donovan is a research analyst at the†Center for Defense Information†with responsibility for Persian Gulf and Middle Eastern Affairs. He came to CDI in 2001 as a key contributor to the Center’s Terrorism Project. Dr. Donovanís areas of expertise include security issues in the Middle East, Iran, Iraq, terrorism, Islam, nonproliferation issues, and U.S. foreign policy. Currently, Dr. Donovan is Project Leader for CDIís Eye on Iraq. He received a BA in Political Science from the University of CaliforniaSanta Barbara.  In 2000, he was awarded a Ph.D. in History from the University of EdinburghUnited Kingdom.  His doctoral dissertation examined U.S.-Iranian relations and political stability in Iran. This interview was prepared for Agentura.Ru Studies and Research Centre / ASRC /

- Was there any connection between al-Qaida and Saddamís regime?

- I think independent analysts in Washington disagree when the [Bush] administration insinuated that a link existed between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite: Most professional analysts believe that there were concurring reasons why those two entities wouldnít get along together. Saddam was an ardent secularist, and Saddam and Osama bin Laden were known to dislike each other; they had strictly different world views. The irony, of course, is that in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, al-Qaida has apparently established some kind of presence in Iraq, or at least established common cause with some of the insurgent entities fighting in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi being the most prominent example. [Zarqawi] and al-Qaida have declared a common cause in fighting the American presence in Iraq. To a certain extent, that was to be expected because throughout the Islamic world the American presence in Iraq is going to be seen as an occupation army…

- What about pre-occupation Iraq; was there any contact among groups not linked to the Baathist regime?

- There was a small group in northern Iraq called Ansar al-Islam that apparently had some kind of vague and tenuous connection with al-Qaida. They were an Islamic fundamentalist groupÖ

- Were they associated with Saddam?

- Well, the neo-conservatives in Washington pointed out that Saddam had occasionally kept pretty close tabs on them. And so, the neo-conservatives use that as an explanation for a link. I think that link was really tenuous; if Saddam had any kind of liaison with them, or was keeping tabs on them, it was probably just to make sure they didnít get him in troubleÖBut they were supposed to have had a link with al-Qaida, although Iíve never seen any hard and fast evidenceÖ

- Why has al-Qaida shifted its fighting front from Afghanistan to Iraq?

- think the answer to that is pretty obvious. The United States is in Iraq. According to al-Qaida, thatís were the enemy is. The Taliban is essentially a forgotten entity in Afghanistan; itís no moreÖRecently, youíve begun to see signs where some old Taliban figures have come back in and taken advantage of amnesty offers, and that sort of thing. Thatís not to say that Afghanistan is a paradise of stability right now, because itís not. Western troops donít operate beyond Kabul, but to a certain extent - while warlordism is a real problem in other parts of the country - to a certain extent, Afghanistan is working right now. Itís not perfect and there are still some major problems, but itís working. So I would suspect that thereís less of a base for al-Qaida to go in and hit Western targets.

There are plenty of Western targets in IraqÖItís a target-rich environment, and whatís more, itís good PR, because you are going to fight the occupation of an Islamic land. So, itís much more effective PR; itís a much more effective recruiting tool; itís where the fight is. That being said, itís still a real open question as to how many foreign fighters are now fighting in Iraq. I donít think anybody knows; but I donít think itís a very big proportion of those doing the fighting.

Iraq is largely a national insurgency, being fought be Iraqis who donít like their country being occupied.

- Along ethnic lines, who is doing the fighting?

- I think most of the people doing the fighting are Sunnis. Because they are the ones that stand to lose the most. I think that right now the Kurds and the Shiites are quietly and ambivalently acquiescent in American occupation because they have something to gain from it. Once they feel their position has been solidified, especially the Shiites, they may call for the American withdrawal from Iraq.

- Are there any chances of the conflict sliding into a civil war?

- The chances are there. Itís hard to put a number on them. But I think that the chances are there. I think that right now the Shia communityÖ their patience is being exhausted by these daily car bombs and high casualties. And thatís one of the real problems with the American military strategy on the ground. They have yet to be successful in situating security forces between the insurgency and the larger population; they focus too much on search-and-destroy missions, instead of just establishing safe areasÖ

- Has there been any finger-pointing on the part of the United States, any insinuation perhaps: “hey, donít blame us; itís the Sunnis that are doing this to you?”

- I think that there is an appreciation that the sooner [Americans] can train up genuine and capable Iraqi security forces to deal with the Iraqi insurgency, the better things will be, because the Iraqis are the best equipped to do it. Americans arenít cosmopolitan enough to know who is an insurgent and whoís not in Iraq.

The problem is that so far American officials have really exaggerated the number of Iraqis theyíve trained up and also I think underestimated the difficulty that theyíre having in doing this.

†Itís going to be a while, but I think thatís part of the major problem of the militaryís strategy. They need to stop these search-and-destroy efforts and allow the Iraqis to do that; what [Americans] need to do is help the population feel safe. 

- Does the fact that hostage-taking is more prevalent in Iraq than in Afghanistan have to do with the fact that there are more people now in Iraq?

- I think so. Thereís a greater presence of Americans; itís more of a war-zone; itís more unstable; in Afghanistan, thereís probably a potential to take hostages, but I think that a lot of the NGOs arenít out there operating in areas where there is simply no control. The security force only operates in Kabul. The rest of the country is under some tenuous control by the Afghan army or, more likely, itís under the local warlordís jurisdiction. So, I just donít think you see a lot of NGOs or people going out there in harmís way.

Iraq is a big, dangerous place with lots of people, lots of insurgents, lots of Americans, lots of NGOs, so there are more targets, more potential for that.

- Who are the Iraqi guerillas exactly?

- Nobody knows for sure. What is fair to say, itís sort of a broad amalgam of different people who normally in the light of day wouldnít agree with each other on anything, but because they are there fighting the Americans they have common cause for a common front. I think that the majority of fighters are just disgruntled Iraqis, predominantly Sunni; there might be ex-Baathists, there might not be ex-Baathists. The Sunnis have the most to lose. Iraq has been turned upside down in terms of social and political structures. Then I suspect there is a healthy dose of ex-Baathists who are simply fighting because their system has been destroyed, they donít know what else to do; some of them may still be loyal to Saddam Hussein. Then, I think there is probably a small minority of foreign fightersÖThese are the guys who, much like in Afghanistan in the 80s during the Soviet occupation, have been recruited from all around the Middle East and are going to Iraq to fight the infidel occupation of Muslim land. These are the guys who are going to identify strongly with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. These are probably the guys who are most willing to undertake suicide missions, because they have the religious fervor that you are not going to see among the secular Iraqi insurgentsÖ

- Whatís the reason for the US mediaís silence on AfghanistanÖ

- I donít think there is any conspiracy to keep Afghanistan out of the news. I just think there is less news to report. I think that things are pretty quietÖ

If [Osama bin Laden] is indeed still in the mountainous [border] region of Pakistan, then maybe al-Qaida doesnít want to ferment a lot of problems in Afghanistan right now. If he is hiding right across the border in the mountains, the last thing they probably would want to do is give the United States a lot of reasons to turn their attention back to that area.

Like I said, Afghanistan to a certain extent - itís not perfect, itís far from stable - but progress is being made. The elections, I think, were a success. And that really undercuts the support that al-Qaida and the Taliban are probably going to be able to muster. 

- What are the chances that the United States will take aggressive action against other countries in the region?

- Very slim to none. The United States is already fighting a war in the Middle East, and one war is enough. I donít think there will be any public support whatsoever and certainly no international support for the United States to invade Syria or Iran. Also, the simple practical truth is that the American military is being stretched very thin and is showing signs of stress. There simply arenít the physical resources to invade another country. That doesnít mean they might not consider some kind of tactical air-strike operation surrounding nuclear facilities or something like thatÖ Iím talking about some time down the road, if there is not some kind of give on negotiations with Iran with respect to the nuclear issueÖ

The military options in Iran are all exceedingly badÖFinally, you have to consider the fact that American fortunes in Iraq are very much dependent on the good-will of the Iranians, who have a lot of influence in IraqÖ