The folks at The Weekly Standard don’t know when to quit. Not cowed by the established public record that the Iraqi government under Hussein had no substantive relationship with al-Qaeda, and not embarrassed by the manifest falsehood of claims to the contrary, the Standard has rehashed much old news (why, did you know that Hussein encouraged attacks against our facilities during the Gulf War?) with a few tidbits of new information in a story called, “The Mother of All Connections,” referring obviously to the alleged connection between the Iraqi regime and bin Laden. Upon reading this article it one is left wondering why they bothered to write it. Obviously, the neocons at the Standard are desperate to find something to vindicate the rightness of the invasion, but this article simply reeks of desperation. A host of nebulous “contacts” and the occasional meeting between Iraqi agents and al-Qaeda operatives are offered up along with the truly meaningless new information that there is apparently a former Iraqi soldier who subsequently joined up with the Taliban and al-Qaeda and apparently plotted (with no success) with an Iraqi intelligence officer to attack targets in Pakistan in 1998. This soldier is now being held at Guantanamo after his arrest in Pakistan. Wow! That proves…nothing about the Iraqi government’s relationship with al-Qaeda in 2002. One must want to believe that there was a substantial, working relationship between the two if one is going to see it in this mess of “evidence.”
Even when accepting all the “proof” offered in the article, 1998 seems to have been the zenith of any practical Iraqi cooperation with al-Qaeda. To the extent that any limited material cooperation can be shown from this tissue of nonsense (supposed acquisition of poisons from Iraqi officials by an operative named al-Libi, who has since recanted his testimony), it clearly predates September 11. Evidently, meetings did take place between Iraqi intelligence and members of al-Qaeda in 1998, and these all came to nothing in terms of actual cooperation. That there may have been, in 1998, an interest in such cooperation is really rather irrelevant to the question of whether we should have invaded Iraq in 2003 when all that Hussein had to show for his interest was failed negotiations.
The Kurdish fictions that Ansar al-Islam was a front for Iraqi intelligence are just the sort of propaganda that the Kurds would use to convince Washington to take renewed interest in their region. The associated assumption that Ansar al-Islam=al-Qaeda is a baseless one. Prior to the invasion and insurgency, Zarqawi and his associates in Ansar al-Islam formed a separate group of Islamists distinct from al-Qaeda, with which they could have had contacts without being directly affiliated or allied. If meetings prove the existence of an alliance, it would be interesting to list all the various radical groups around the world with which the U.S. agents have met in the past and with which, apparently, we must still be allied today.
Senior American officials have met with Chechen terrorist leaders and some prominent Americans with personal and professional connections to the administration have openly sympathised with the Chechen cause–should Russia assume that our government is supporting terrorism and actively colluding in the murder of Russians, or simply that our government is full of pathological Russophobes and fools? It would be premature at best to say that the obvious Russophobia of the Washington elite and meetings with Chechen terrorists proves material assistance to anti-Russian terrorists. Yet we are expected to believe something very similar in the case of Iraq. Who are Messrs. Hayes and Joscelyn kidding?
Thus, many in the intelligence community implausibly assume that Zarqawi could have planned terrorist attacks from neo-Stalinist Baghdad and had one of his operatives travel in and out of Iraqi regime-controlled territory without Saddam’s approval. The next question is obvious: If it is so easy for regime foes to maintain a long-term presence in Baghdad and to transit in and out of Iraq, why was it so difficult for the CIA to operate there? This assumption flies in the face of everything we know about Saddam and his control over Iraq.
As anyone might notice from our own limited successes, Iraq is not an easily or readily controlled country. It has an extensive border, much of it in difficult terrain that is not easily or frequently patrolled. If our forces find it difficult to prevent smuggling and movement in and out of Iraq, as the “bomb Syria” crowd continually tell us they do, why do we believe that Hussein had any better luck in controlling the movements of people in his country? As usual, the Standard confuses despotism with strength (perhaps because they have a sneaky regard for authoritarian leadership?), when despots act despotically precisely because their regime is narrow, weak and ineffective. Full-on totalitarian states with real control over the lives of the entire population are rare and require an administrative and police apparatus far more extensive and sophisticated than Iraq ever possessed. Tin-pot dictators may aspire to be Stalin, but this does not make them as powerful as Stalin, and we should not assume that they control their society very much at all, much less that they control it to the extent that they would like to believe. Perhaps the CIA was unsuccessful in cultivating human intelligence resources in Iraq for the same reason it has difficulty cultivating them anywhere. Perhaps the CIA is not very competent in this area. More likely, Hussein would have been very keen to find American agents inside his country, while he would have less interest and incentive in keeping track of random Islamists who, in turn, had relatively little reason to cause him any trouble at present.
At the time when the claims of a connection were being made in 2002-03, those claims were wrong at best and dishonest at worst. In the same way we might bring together quite a lot more reliable evidence of direct, extensive support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda coming from Pakistan’s ISI agency in the past, as well as perhaps in the present (for that matter, we could show extensive support for the Taliban coming from our government in years past), but that would not necessarily prove that this support had to continue after September 11. That it probably has continued in Pakistan’s case is a prime example of a real threat that has been deliberately and studiously ignored to build up the nonexistent threat of the Iraqi “relationship” with al-Qaeda.
Certainly, by the pathetic standards of evidence being applied in this article, Pakistan has a lot more to answer for than Iraq ever has, and yet we are all apparently quite willing to pretend that Pakistan is a reliable ally. Were we of a mind we might also indict the governments of Sudan and Yemen for playing host to or tolerating al-Qaeda members in their country, except for the all-important fact that these governments changed their tunes after September 11.
We know that in the context of a decade-long confrontation with the United States, Saddam reached out to al Qaeda on numerous occasions. We know that the leadership of al Qaeda reciprocated, requesting assistance in its endeavors. We know that reports of meetings, offers of safe haven, and collaboration persisted.
What we do not know is the full extent of the relationship. But we know enough to know that there was one. And we know enough to know it was a threat.
What we do know is that this relationship was never consummated in any meaningful way. Hussein reached out at times, and bin Laden reached out at times, but it seems to have never produced anything. For all the reports of meetings and collaboration, what was the fruit of this relationship? How can connections this vague and tenuous represent a threat? Who now believes that the Iraqi government after 1991 ever really posed a serious threat to anyone outside Iraq?
The reality is that, contrary to the lies of the administration, Iraq’s government never sponsored anti-American terrorist groups. It did not train them, it did not fund them, and it did not harbour them. If Iraqi intelligence itself conceived of engaging in terrorist attacks against Western interests, that is something clearly separate. If the Hussein regime sponsored any terrorists at all (and here we must rely on the word of very biased Kurdish witnesses), they were also not members of al-Qaeda, nor did Iraq provide al-Qaeda with any facilities in which to train its members. By any reasonable standard of showing material or substantive cooperation between the two, the Standard‘s case fails yet again.