Reading The Enemy
By David Ignatius
Friday, February 20, 2004; Page A25
In wartime it's useful for one nation to see itself through the eyes of its adversary. Sometimes the other side is more disoriented and demoralized than the daily body count would suggest.
Unable to read the enemy's mind in Vietnam, Americans didn't realize that even as they were despairing of victory after the Tet Offensive in 1968, the North Vietnamese felt themselves on the edge of defeat. The extent of Hanoi's weakness became clear only after the war, when Vietnamese commanders began to explain what the war had looked like from their side.
The Iraq war has just yielded a remarkable document that, if authentic, allows us to see the battle there through the eyes of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian with ties to al Qaeda who claims to be organizing much of the terrorist insurgency against U.S. forces.
I add the caveat "if authentic" because the Zarqawi document is almost too good to be true. Even top Pentagon officials say they were initially skeptical that someone linked to al Qaeda would reveal so much about strategy in a letter to colleagues. But after checking, they have concluded that the letter -- found on a compact disc carried by an al Qaeda courier who was captured in a Baghdad raid in January -- is real.
Fragments of the Zarqawi letter surfaced in news stories this month. But the full text, released by the Pentagon last week, is worth a closer look. Assuming, again, that it is legitimate, the document provides a unique window on the thinking of an adversary that has otherwise been opaque.
Two striking conclusions emerge from the letter. The first is that the insurgents feel they are losing. Despite the daily mayhem caused by their attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, they feel isolated and vulnerable. Zarqawi complains: "Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases. By God, this is suffocation!"
Zarqawi sees the United States as a resilient, determined adversary. America, he warns his colleagues, "has no intention of leaving [Iraq], no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes."
What seems to worry Zarqawi most is the growth of Iraqi security forces. "With the spread of the army and police, our future is becoming frightening," he writes. The biggest danger, he explains, is that the U.S.-led coalition is beginning to pacify the area known as the Sunni Triangle. By putting local Sunnis in charge of the army and the police there, he says, the Americans "have succeeded" in splitting the insurgents from the locals.
"[T]he problem is you end up having an army and police connected by lineage, blood and appearance to the people of the region. How can we kill their cousins and sons and under what pretext, after the Americans start withdrawing?" Zarqawi observes. "This is the democracy, we will have no pretext."
No wonder several senior Pentagon officials joked last week that they had actually written the letter -- given its endorsement of a U.S. strategy that is elsewhere seen as faltering.
The second stunner in the Zarqawi letter is that it makes clear how much the Sunni insurgents despise Iraq's Shiite majority. These Sunni jihadists may dislike the American occupiers, but they positively hate the Shiites who will dominate a democratic Iraq. "The Shia are a greater danger and their harm more destructive to the nation than that of the Americans."
"[T]hey are the most cowardly people God has created," Zarqawi writes of the Shiites, echoing the insult he applies to the Americans. At another point, he describes them as "the coward and deceitful Shia, who only attack the weak."
This visceral dislike of the Shiites is, alas, fairly common among Sunni Muslims in the Arab world. Even top officials of pro-American, Sunni-led governments privately make comments about the Shiites that are so bigoted they make your hair curl.
The Sunni insurgency is playing on this ancient animosity, and U.S. officials should be careful not to underestimate how deep the suspicions run. The Sunni-Shiite mistrust has been building for 1,300 years, and Americans should not sentimentalize either side.
Zarqawi concludes by arguing that the insurgents' best hope is to foment a civil war between Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis. "[T]he only solution," he says bluntly, "is to strike the religious, military, and other cadres of the Shia so that they revolt against the Sunnis" -- and then draw the Americans "into a second battle with the Shia."
The Zarqawi letter reveals the face of America's enemy in Iraq. The insurgents are pursuing a cruel strategy, but by Zarqawi's account, it is a strategy born of weakness.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company