A lot of bloggers have been complaining about the recent American tendency to describe every insurgent attack in Iraq as "al-Qaeda". They are right to complain, simply on the facts. Al-Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq coalition continues to represent only a minority of attacks against American forces or Iraqi government targets. Consider this chart from the fascinating recent RFE/RL report on Sunni insurgency media, tracking claims of insurgency operations in March 2007:
The authors of the report tracked claims of responsibility for various operations on the insurgency internet sites during March 2007. The Islamic State of Iraq (al-Qaeda) claimed 13 attacks on US forces and 40 on Iraqi government targets. The Islamic Army of Iraq - the ISI's chief Sunni adversary - claimed 80 operations against US forces and 103 against Iraqi government targets. And the Mujahidin Army, another faction outside the ISI coalition, claimed 132 operations against US government forces (and another 4 against Iraqi government). Even Ansar al-Sunnah, whose position has been unclear with regard to the ISI, claimed 44 against US forces and 90 against the Iraqi government. (The 1920 Revolution Brigade is the one major faction which rarely posts claims on the internet.) This is only one of various ways that such operations could be tracked, but all of them produce similar results: the Islamic State of Iraq (al-Qaeda) does indeed carry out horrific, often spectacular, violent operations against the Iraqi government and US forces, but its number of operations are dwarfed by those claimed by the other, more nationalist, factions.
The architects of American counter-insurgency strategy know this: this team isn't stupid, and is doing its best to deal with the impossible situation bequeathed it by years of failure. So why the exaggeration of al-Qaeda's role? Most commentators have focused on its role in bamboozling American public opinion; I'll leave it to other to hash that out. There's another side to it, which fits the Petraeus method rather well: the 'al-Qaeda gambit' is part of an information operations strategy aimed at turning Iraqi opinion against the insurgency. By playing up the atrocities committed by the Islamist State of Iraq coalition and attempting to equate anti-US and anti-government violence with the unpopular al-Qaeda, the US (I'd wager) hopes do delegitimize violence which currently enjoys considerable support as "resistance".
This also gives cover to more nationalist insurgency factions to join the political process (by defining themselves as 'not al-Qaeda'). Hence a media blitz - in both English and Arabic - pushing the alleged Sunni turn against this redefined al-Qaeda, and the sudden deluge of stories about various insurgency factions cooperating with American forces in operations against al-Qaeda, or the US arming these groups. Those splits are real, as I wrote about at length a few months ago before all this got started, but this latest media blitz is as exaggerated as is the 'al-Qaeda gambit'. As I warned, it tends to downplay the extent to which these anti-AQ insurgents remain intensely dedicated to driving the Americans out, even if they are temporarily happy to use the US against its current rivals. At any rate, this media blitz seems more an attempt to confuse and divide the insurgency factions, and to offer a legitimate path into the political system for members of those groups. The media campaign has been successful enough that the 1920 Revolution Brigades, mentioned in dozens of news stories as taking part in US-led operations, recently released one of its very infrequent internet commiques forcefully denying the reports. Let's hope that the strategists don't believe their own propaganda - I don't think that they do, even if American media eats it up, but these things do have a way of taking on their own life.
Even granted the logic outlined above, the 'everybody's al-Qaeda' gambit is remarkably short-sighted and self-defeating. Within Iraq, people are less likely to be fooled. Most significantly, the labeling of all violence as al-Qaeda has the effect of shutting down discussion of the political goals of the insurgency factions - at precisely the time when comprehensive political dialogue in Iraq is most urgently needed. At a time when everyone claims to recognize that the military efforts
will only matter to the extent that they produce political
reconciliation, this would seem to matter. Shrinking the field of Sunni positions to 'cooperating with the US' and 'al-Qaeda' simply defines away the overwhelmingly dominant political stance within the Sunni community - the nationalist, anti-US and anti-Maliki line represented by the major insurgency factions, the AMS, and so forth. This risks someday becoming a textbook example of tactics defeating strategy.
But the real harm comes in the wider Arab and Muslim world, where the exaggeration of al-Qaeda's role works directly and devastatingly against American goals. It magnifies al-Qaeda's perceived power, strengthening its own media campaign and feeding its most powerful propaganda instrument. Attributing all these attacks to al-Qaeda certainly doesn't hurt al-Qaeda's image: Iraq is the one place where al-Qaeda's violence is actually widely supported in the Muslim world (a recent PIPA survey found that over 90% of Egyptians thought that attacks on American civilians were against Islam and illegitimate, but over 90% of Egyptians thought that attacks on American troops in Iraq were legitimate). The administration in effect claims more power and military success for al-Qaeda in Iraq than al-Qaeda claims for itself - for which the al-Qaeda leadership can only be bemusedly grateful. Forget al-Hurra - if you're looking for a real public diplomacy fiasco, you'll be hard pressed to do worse than the US acting as al-Qaeda's agent in promoting its Iraqi success.