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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Even before the U.S. military announced last week that it had killed the alleged No. 2 leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group had been widely seen as on the ropes. Where did al-Qaeda in Iraq go wrong? In a paper prepared for the recent annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, the Australian political scienist Andrew Phillips argues persuasively that, by their nature, al-Qaeda affiliates tend to alienate their hosts. So in the "long war" against jihadism, time may ultimately be on our side -- if we show patience, tolerance and a willingness to listen to local grievances.

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. . . [W]hen considered within the context of the broader history of the global jihadist movement, Al Qaeda's defeat in Iraq appears far from exceptional. . . . In successive conflicts ranging from Bosnia to Chechnya to Kashmir, the jihad jet-set has rapidly worn out its welcome among local host populations as a result of its idelogical inflexibility and high-handedness, as well as its readiness to resort to indiscriminate violence against locals at the first signs of challenge. Throughout their history, Al Qaeda's operatives have consistently sought to graft the global jihadist agenda onto localized conflicts involving Muslims. However, with the notable exceptions of Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban and to a certain extent the lawless tribal belt straddling the contemporary Afghanistan-Pakistan border, they have been generally unsuccessful in converting locals to the jihadist cause, much less securing a territorial base for the Caliphate. That this pattern has so frequently been repeated suggests that the underlying causes of Al Qaeda's defeat in Iraq may transcend the specific circumstances of that conflict . . . . Baldly stated, the causes of Al Qaeda's defeat in Iraq can be located in its ideological DNA.

[ But, Phillips adds, the U.S. decision to support armed Sunni tribesmen in Iraq may be undercutting the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad:] Al Qaeda may have lost Iraq, but this in no way implies that America and its allies have won.

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Tom Ricks is The Post's military correspondent. This feature aims to give readers a snapshot of the conversations about Iraq, Afghanistan and other matters that play out in Ricks's e-mail inbox. Have an interesting document? Send it to TheInbox@washpost.com.

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