Does al-Qaeda really want the United States to withdraw from Iraq, as current administration arguments would have it? Not according to the letter captured during the raid which killed Abu Musab Zarqawi, allegedly from a member of al-Qaeda's inner circle identified only as 'Atiyah, recently translated and released by Counterterrorism Center at West Point. 'Atiyah writes:
The most important thing is that you continue in your jihad in Iraq, and that you be patient and forbearing, even in weakness, and even with fewer operations... Do not be hasty. The most important thing is that the jihad continues with steadfastness and firm rooting, and that it grows in terms of supporters, strength, clarity of justification, and visible proof each day. Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest, with God's permission.
I'm not sure why this statement doesn't seem to have made it into any of the press coverage of the letter which I've seen. It seems to be fairly unambiguous. What's more, it was an internal communication, not a public proclamation aimed at influencing American policy. It also makes sense. Al-Qaeda wants American troops in Iraq, not an American withdrawal. It wants a protracted war which allows it to drain American blood and treasure while producing an endless stream of the images of jihadi heroism and American brutality on which its narrative thrives. Al-Qaeda knows it would have no chance of actually seizing power after an American withdrawal (the latest public opinion surveys show 94% of Iraqis opposed to them, and the Shia would fight them even more than they already are) and bloodshed without Americans would do nothing for their global strategy.
Overall, how is the jihad going in Iraq from 'Atiyah's point of view? Not badly:
"you are the ones who have spited America, the greatest unbelieving crusader power in history; and you are the ones who have spited it, and you have broken its prestige and thrown it to the ground.... The only thing that you have to fear is yourselves and your own mistakes, not your enemy. By God, your enemy will never defeat you as long as you are patient and steadfast, not having caused damage that is great or frequent."
But reading the letter makes clear that 'Atiyah did see one problem with the Iraqi jihad: Zarqawi.
'Atiyah repeatedly upbraids Zarqawi for gratuitously alienating potential allies, for being rude and arrogant, for being impatient and neglecting al-Qaeda's long term strategy, and for refusing to listen to the advice or concerns of not only al-Qaeda Central but of anyone. The catalog of mistakes which were alienating Muslims and Arabs is familiar: the attacks on the Shia, "expanding the arena of war into neighboring countries", and so forth. The brusque "advice" that "you abstain from making any decision on a comprehensive issue.. and on substantial matters until you have turned to your leadership" does not suggest that Zarqawi had in fact been the habit of making such consultations.
I don't get the sense that 'Atiyah is mourning Zarqawi's passing. His replacement Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, by all accounts, is much more open to consultations with al-Qaeda Central and more on board with its long-term strategy. With the Zarqawi problem off the board, and the war seeming quite protracted indeed, 'Atiyah must be feeling pretty good about the course of events.